Traveling Japan by train
The train is a great choice for traveling around Japan. The Rail network connects pretty much every place you would wish to visit, the trains are fast, spotlessly clean and always on time.
Japan is famous for its Shinkansen high speed rail network with the fastest trains traveling in excess of 300km/h and when the next generation MagLev trains arrive in a few years time that speed will increase to 600km/h.
Japan does have some of the busiest train stations in the world, almost 3.6 million people a day pass through Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station alone, however don’t let this put you off! The stations are pretty easy to navigate and all signs / departure boards are presented in both English and Japanese
There are a couple of different ways to buy local train/metro tickets in Japan. You can queue at a ticket office and speak to someone or you can use a ticket machine. We found the ticket machines to be a little confusing, however for some of the local/private rail lines and metros they may be all there is so you need to understand how they work. Thankfully it is possible to chose English language on the ticket machines.
In general this is how it works. Look at the map above/next to the ticket machines. Locate where you want to go on the map, the number next to your destination will be the required fare.
Use the Machine, Put it in english mode. On the left you can specify how many people are traveling, then choose the fare you found when looking at the map, the machine will tell you the total amount. Insert cash/coins and pick up your tickets.
Note in some busy stations where more than one line operates use the machine closest to the gate you need to go through. We made this mistake once where we bought a ticket for a different/slower line just because we picked the wrong machine.
Most Shinkansen trains have a mix of reserved and un-reserved cars, if you are planning on traveling a long distance or at a busy time of day you may wish to make a reservation. We only made reservations for a couple of the trains we travelled on as we were in Japan at the end of Golden Week when the trains are busier than usual. Just lookout for this sign in the stations, show your ticket/RailPass and tell the counter staff which train you would like a reservation for.
The Japan RailPass
If you are planning to use the train to get around Japan, The Japan RailPass may well be the most cost effective ticket for you to buy as individual train tickets can be quite expensive. The RailPass gives you unlimited travel on JR trains for 7, 14 or 21 days depending on the ticket. Japan Rail, JR, trains cover the vast majority of the rail network and the pass even include travel on all but the fastest Shinkansen trains, this is not really too much of an issue as you can still travel these routes on slightly slower services.
For our 3 week trip to japan we purchased the 21 day pass and it worked out really well for our itinerary. The one thing you need to remember is that the Japan RailPass is only available for visitors/tourists and must be purchased before you arrive in Japan. When you purchase your RailPass you will be given a voucher to exchange at any JR ticket office for your actual RailPass which will be valid from the day of exchange. We exchanged our voucher at the airport train station and used it to travel into Tokyo for our first journey.
Using the RailPass is pretty straightforward, at every train station by the barrier/gate for JR trains there will be a little counter with a guard, you need to go here and show you pass to be allowed through, you cannot use the automated gates directly.
Some Trains require a seat reservation. Just lookout for this sign in the station, show your RailPass and tell the counter staff which train you would like a reservation for. Most Shinkansen trains have a mix of reserved and un-reserved cars, if you are planning on traveling a long distance or at a busy time of day you may wish to make a reservation. We only made reservations for a couple of the trains we travelled on as we were in Japan at the end of Golden Week when the trains are busier than usual.
Where to buy the Japan RailPass
There are lots of options for buying the Japan RailPass but we chose to do so online with https://www.jrailpass.com/. Their website was easy to use and they had some good deals on portable Wifi while in Japan which were easy to add to the order.
Once we purchased we were received in the post vouchers issued by the Nippon Travel Agency which you use to exchange for the actual Japan RailPass when in Japan. We also received a voucher and instructions on how to pick up our portable wifi at the airport on arrivals. All in all a great experience.
Exchanging voucher for RailPass at Haneda airport
Once you arrive at Haneda, have picked up you luggage and cleared customs head to the JR East Travel Service Centre to exchange your voucher for your Japan RailPass. Below is a picture of what the counter looks like and you will find it on level 2 of the International terminal. Just follow the signs for the monorail and they should lead you straight to the office which is next to the monorail gates.
Timetables & planning your train journeys
Timetables & Planning
We found Hyperdia to be the best website to use for planning train journeys, the UK equivalent would be trainline. They even have a mobile app which contains the super useful extra option of being able to specify only show results covered by the Japan RailPass.
The Man in Seat 61, has a great in-depth guide to traveling by Train in Japan