Even if you’ve never been to Japan, you’ve probably heard about their amazing train system. If you’re planning a trip, you might be trying to make sense of everything you’re reading online. Many official websites in Japan are wonderful, but when you hit the “translate” button, it can get a little confusing. That’s why I’ve put together this post as a guide to trains in Japan.
What is the Japan Rail Pass?
We can’t make a guide to trains in Japan without first discussing the Japan Rail Pass, also known as the JR Pass. What is it, exactly? It’s a multi-use all-you-can-ride discounted rail ticket. For as long as it’s valid, you’ll have unlimited access to all of the Japan Railways National trains, the crazy fast Shinkansen “bullet” trains, local trains and metro in Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo as well as JR Buses, JR Ferry, Monorails and even airport transfers such as the Haruka Express and the Narita Express.
A lot of people wonder if they should buy a Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass), and my resounding answer is YES! Really, it saved us a lot of trouble and it was worth every penny. It’s a big financial investment upfront, but you’ll have peace of mind knowing you can go anywhere you want to go without having to budget for it.
We used the standard JR Pass, but there are other options. If you’d like the first-class experience, you could purchase a Green Pass and if you’re interested in a sleeping car, look into the Gran Class accommodations.
How Does the JR Pass Work?
The JR Passes are valid for 7, 14, and 21-day trips so you’ll need to choose the one that aligns best with how long you’ll need it. You need to purchase your JR Pass before you leave home (a maximum of 90 days before your departure) because a voucher will be sent to you. Usually, they will include a helpful guide for how to use the pass.
When you arrive in Japan, you will need to bring the voucher to a JR Exchange Office, where they will issue your rail pass. DO NOT leave it at home! Be sure you have your passport and identification with you, because they will need to record all of this information. If you don’t have your passport, you won’t get your JR Pass.
Next, you will choose a starting date for when the pass will be activated. It does not have to be the day when you exchange your voucher. Once you’ve chosen a date, it can’t be changed so please choose carefully! Due to some flight issues, we arrived later than expected, so instead of having them activate our JR Passes on our arrival date, we chose the next day.
Most of the time, we didn’t even bother reserving a seat (even on the HK train – see below!), but it’s essential if you’re traveling between Osaka and Tokyo. Consider that one of the most important tips in this guide to trains in Japan! Usually, we’d just walk to the farthest end of the platform, and we’d easily find two seats together.
Using your JR Pass, you can go to any JR ticket office, however, and make a seat reservation free of charge. You’ll need to tell them your destination and preferred departure time, and they will do the rest. When reserving seats on a train to Tokyo (on our way to Fuji-Q Highland!), the agent even suggested we take a slightly later departure to have better seats. So thoughtful!
If you need help finding your seat, ask a monitor on the train platform to help you. Otherwise, you can probably figure it out yourself. We don’t speak much Japanese and it was fine. Just look for the car number on your ticket, locate the right car point on the platform and stand behind the white line until it’s time to board. Also, please don’t sit in reserved seats if they aren’t yours. They will come and check your tickets and you don’t want to be embarrassed!
A Few Tips for Using the JR Pass
While it’s one thing to learn about the JR Pass, there are certain things that you’ll only understand after using it. The last thing you want is to be aimlessly walking around trying to figure out how something works in a country that so highly values efficiency. Trust me, the Japanese are polite but they’re patience has a limit 🙂
Knowing a few things before you go can make a real difference. Here are a few quick tips for our guide to trains in Japan to keep you from feeling like a lost soul:
- It’s not waterproof. We were there during Japan’s rainy season and our JR Passes were slightly damaged.
- You must show your JR Pass every time you enter and exit the train station.
- Look carefully for buses that accept the JR Pass. If in doubt, just ask. We got on a great tour bus in Hiroshima with ours!
- Some train cars are for “women only.” Look for the signs on the floor.
- Look for vending machines and convenience stores such as 7-Eleven on train platforms. Train rides are so much more enjoyable with a good snack!
Okay, now that we know more about the JR Pass, let’s talk about the Shinkansen. Best known internationally as Japan’s super speedy bullet train, the Shinkansen is my favorite way to travel ever.
Train Etiquette in Japan
It’s a good idea to read my post about all the things you should know before visiting Japan, but for now I’ll just focus on train etiquette. Yes, there is a right and wrong way to behave while using trains in Japan, and while we had to make a few adjustments, we really like how it all works.
Honestly, you’d have to work pretty hard to get me on public transportation in the United States. As people who travel with anxiety (especially because of my germaphobia) , we tend to drive, walk, or even call an Uber to get places. There’s no need for that in Japan — you just have to know how to do things. Let’s go over a few points:
- Don’t be late! Promptness is verrrrry important to the Japanese, so make sure you’re on time or you’ll miss the train.
- Sit in your reserved seat, if you have one (more on this in a bit!).
- Traveling with a companion? Keep your conversation quiet so you don’t disturb other passengers.
- Do not litter. There are garbage and recycling receptacles near the toilets.
- It’s okay to eat on the train, even though the Japanese frown upon eating on the go. This is an exception.
- Expect to see people napping. It’s popular to use commutes for resting which is why you need to be quiet.
- If you need to use the phone or have a cigarette break, move from your seat and look for the designated rooms on the train. They are usually near the toilets.
Will you be reprimanded if you break any of these codes of conduct? Yes, expect to be told that you’re doing it wflat, even if it’s just in the form of an icy glare. Then, gracefully listen to what you’re being told, remember that you are a guest in another country, and then respect the local customs. By the end of our trip, traveling on the train was one of our favorite things because it was so relaxing.
Tips for Using the Shinkansen (Bullet Train)
The fastest way to explore Japan is on the Shinkansen, also known as the “bullet train.” Reaching a maximum speed of 199mph, unlike in the United States, rail travel in Japan is much faster than going anywhere by car.
There are three main types of Shinkansen (in the order of fastest to slowest) — Nozomi, Hikari, and Kodama. Using the JR Pass, you can use *some* of the Nozomi trains, but often you’ll need to pay an additional fee if you want to use them because they are the fastest. The JR Pass will cover all rides on the Hikari and Kodama trains, though!
The Shinkansen lines across Japan are:
Don’t have a JR Pass? You can buy Shinkansen tickets individually. The prices will depend on where you are going, which train/class of ticket you’re buying and whether you’ve reserved a seat. The tickets can be purchased online or at train stations.
We’ve got to touch on a few more important things in this guide to trains in Japan. Here are a few other things to keep in mind if you’re carrying anything with you onboard:
- You can bring your luggage with you on the Shinkansen at no additional charge. There is a limit of no more than two pieces. For more information, click here.
- You can bring your bicycle with you, but it must be disassembled and packed or folded.
- You can bring small pets such as cats, dogs, and birds with you on the Shinkansen. They must weigh less than 10kg and be in a carrier.
- You may book special seating to accommodate a wheelchair, if needed. This must be done at least two days in advance.
- Strollers must be folded and safely stored in the designated areas.
Due to my obsessive compulsive disorder, I’ve never been fond of public transportation. Fortunately, the Shinkansen is pretty amazing and it’s remarkable how calm I feel riding it!
Hello Kitty and Harry Potter Trains
No guide to trains in Japan would be complete without mentioning the Hello Kitty and Harry Potter trains! If you haven’t read our post about traveling from Osaka to Hiroshima on the Hello Kitty bullet train, definitely check it out! The Harry Potter train is not fully themed like the Hello Kitty one (inside it’s a regular local train) but the exterior is pretty cool for Harry Potter fans!
You can only find it along the JR Sakurajima Line which is where Universal Studios Japan is located. Look for the direct trains from Osaka Station to the Universal City stop. We rode it several times and it was a lot of fun!
See Japan By Rail!
There’s really no better way to see all of Japan than by rail. Not only do you get to your destination very quickly, but you can see the sights from your comfortable, clean seat. Of course, you can always act like a local and take a nap, too! Just look at Hayley sleeping in public like a boss!
My favorite thing about taking the train in Japan is that it’s so peaceful. Everyone takes time to relax — there’s no pressure to keep up a conversation and everything is being run efficiently. It’s a wonderful time to read a book, enjoy a delicious snack and even meditate. Pretty perfect for travelers with anxiety! We hope you enjoyed this guide to trains in Japan and that you have a fabulous trip!