Japan's railway system has a reputation for being one of the best in the world, with great punctuality and safety records.

Its four main islands are covered by an extensive and reliable network of railways which make travelling the length and breadth of the country not only extremely convenient and easy, but even a downright pleasure at times.

The most convenient way for foreign visitors to travel by train is by using the JR Pass. This provides excellent convenience and value for money for any foreign travellers intending to make at least one long-distance journey by bullet train (for example, from Tokyo to Kyoto).

Bullet train passing Mt. Fuji - credit Akira Okada and JNTO

Train Companies

Japan's leading railway company, Japan Railways (JR), cover most of the country, while the remainder of the country is served by several dozen smaller private railway companies. JR’s operations are further split into six regional rail companies (JR East, JR West, JR Hokkaido, JR Central, JR Shikoku, and JR Kyushu) who operate regional and national trains, including the bullet train.

Private railway companies range from tiny, one-line operations covering niche rural areas where JR does not reach, to heavily travelled suburban commuter routes, to extensive regional networks that contend with JR for passenger footfall in some urban or regional areas. They sometimes offer speedier, more economical or more convenient routes than JR to certain popular sightseeing spots such as Nikko, Hakone, and Nara, but the JR Pass cannot be used on them.

Types of Train

There are several common types of service:

Local - trains which stop at every station

Rapid - faster than Local trains, Rapid trains skip some stations, but the ticket price is the same.

Express - trains which skip more stations and are even faster than the Rapid; JR charges an extra fee to use them.

Limited Express - trains which only stop at major stations; JR charges an extra fee to use them, as do some other train companies (typically around 500 Yen, but sometimes more).

Faster than all the other trains are Japan’s famous bullet trains, which are only operated by JR.

Kyushu shinkansen

Types of Seating

Most Local, Rapid and Express trains carry only one type of carriages, but there are two main different types of carriages on longer distance trains:

Ordinary Car - Equivalent of Standard Class carriages, there are no reservations, and anyone can sit anywhere. Assuming you’ve already bought a ticket to travel, just line up, jump on and find a seat.

Green Car - Equivalent of First Class carriages, these require payment of an extra fee before boarding. With more spacious legroom and luxurious seats and accoutrements than ordinary cars (and sometimes trolley service), they can be found mainly on faster trains such as Limited Express and bullet trains. They are easily identifiable by the green, four-leaf clover symbol at the doorways, so you won’t board by accident.

Gran Class - Found on some bullet trains, these are like Green Car, but even more spacious.

While Local, Rapid and Express trains only have non-reserved seating (jiyu-seki, or “free seating”), most Limited Express and bullet trains have a mixture of non-reserved and reserved seating (shitei-seki, or “indicated seating”). Seats in the Green car are basically always reserved seats. Seat reservations for reserved seating carriages usually cost around 200-700 Yen, but are free with the JR Pass.

The position of the Green Car and  reserved seating carriages will be indicated on the electronic screens on the platform before the train arrives. In Japan, there are usually markings on the platform floor to indicate exactly where each carriage will stop, enabling you to queue for the correct kind of carriage for your ticket. If you're travelling in unreserved seating carriages during busy periods, such as national holidays, New Year or during cherry blossom season, it is a good idea to arrive at the station early to queue.

Tokyo Metro ticket machine

Taking the Train - How to Buy Tickets

The train fare varies naturally depending on the distance you travel as well as the type of train you wish to catch.

Tickets for short trips can be purchased from automatic ticket machines at the train station just before you board, whereas tickets for long distances and reservations can be arranged in person at ticket offices at major stations.

Short Trips

To find out how much to buy a ticket for, either look at the large map above the ticket machines, which shows the single, one-way fare from that station you are at to stations in the nearby region, or else look it up using an online service - Hyperdia is one of the best English-language ones.

Then follow the instructions on the screen to purchase the ticket - nearly all vending machines now have English as standard. The majority of machines only accept cash (no card payments), but do accept larger bills such as the 10,000 Yen note.

If you are confronted with a fare chart with no English, don’t panic! You can buy a ticket for the minimum fare and pay the difference at a “fare adjustment” machine at your destination station. This method ensures that you won't pay more than the actual cost of your ticket.

Long Trips

Book tickets for long-distance trains and make seat reservations in person at the ticket office in major stations, such as Tokyo, Shinjuku or Shibuya station. Make sure you have key information handy, such as number of passengers, names of departure and arrival stations, and date of travel.

Seat reservations can only be made for a specific train, so you need to know roughly what time of day you want to travel. If you want to travel on a specific train you will need to know its train number or departure time.

Most station staff are trained in the English vocabulary used for ticket purchases and seat reservations, but it is a still good idea to write down the key information on a piece of paper to show them to help the transaction go smoothly and avoid any confusion.

Holders of the JR Pass can book specific trains or make seat reservations with their JR pass. This website gives specific instructions on how to reserve a seat on a JR train.

On most trains reserved seats are unlikely to sell out, however they may do at peak periods. On most normal days they rarely get fully booked until a few hours prior to departure, if at all. However, if you are travelling in a group or strongly wish to sit together, then they are a good idea.

Electronic Cards

In recent years, rechargeable, contactless smartcards very similar to London’s Oyster have been introduced in many regions in Japan. Just like the Oyster in London, they can be topped up with credit in advance and used to tap in and out of ticket gates.

Presently, there are no common cards which can be used nationwide in Japan, but there are several different types of card which can be used in different regions. The major ones are the Suica or Pasmo for the Tokyo area, and the Icoca for the Kansai area. Unlike London’s Oyster, they usually do not provide more than a few Yen discount compared with normal paper tickets, but they can be more convenient for travellers who plan to spend more than a few days in a particular area, e.g. Tokyo.

Akita Nairiku Railway

Boarding the Train

When passing through the ticket gate, touch your IC card on the reader (usually a blue circle) or insert the paper ticket in the “mouth” (often yellow). For some gates, such as the bullet train at Tokyo station, where you have to pass through a second set of gates, insertion of two tickets may be required, but the station staff will help you if you get it wrong the first time!

If you are using a JR Pass, you cannot use the automatic ticket gates. Instead, look for the manned gate at the side, where you can show your JR Pass to the station staff to pass through.

Once you’ve located the correct platform for your train, line up at the marks on the floor, which indicate exactly where the door will stop - train drivers are trained to stop within centimetres on these marks, and will even backup a few centimetres if they slightly overshoot the marks!

Additional marks on the floor may indicate the carriage number, type of carriage (ordinary/Green Car, reserved/non-reserved), location of priority seats or buggy space, and even whether it has strong or normal air conditioning.

In the runup to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, more and more train lines are introducing English-language announcements, but if not you’ll need to keep an ear out for your station name or else keep an eye on the electronic signs inside the carriage and the multilingual signboards on the station platforms, which also show the direction of travel, and the previous and next station names.

Most, if not all, trains stop operating around midnight.