Japan is known for it’s epic train systems. They have one of the best underground systems in the world, are famous of their bullet trains, and have one of the most efficient public transport systems in the whole world.
However, there are actually heaps of different types of trains, from the Tokyo Metro subway system, to JR trains and of course the Shinkansen bullet trains. If you’re not sure where to start it can be easy to jump onto the wrong kind of train by accident.
Here’s a quick guide to help you understand the different types of trains you’re going to find in Japan and some tips to help you get around this busy city.
The Tokyo Metro
The Tokyo Metro has to be the most efficient way to get around Tokyo, with stops next to every major attraction, as well as all over the city. The metro trains run every few minutes, which means there is always a train coming when you get to the station and connections are super easy if you need to swap lines. Trains on the metro are fast, clean and efficient.
Japan Rail cards can not be used in the subways, as they are not operated by JR.
The easiest way to use the Tokyo Metro is to purchase a Pasmo card. These are pre-paid rechargeable cards that can be used on any of Tokyo’s railways, subways and bus operators other than JR train line. Pasmos are a very efficient travel card, where you can load money onto your card and then just tap to get in and out of the stations.
Money can be loaded onto them from terminals inside the stations, and you can get a refund on the card if you return it when you’re leaving Japan! Many vending machines, shops and restaurants are starting to accept pasmo cards as payment due to their convenience.
Some tips to help make your ride on the subway easier:
- When you’re entering a station take note of the number entrance that you are using – this is especially important if this is the train station closest to your hotel and you will be returning here at the end of the day. Stations can often be kilometres long and if you come out of the wrong exit you could end up miles away from where you want to be. By following exit numbers you can guarantee that you will exit from the right place and get to where you need to be.
- When you’re at the station follow the colour lines to find the platform you need to be on. Every train line has it’s own colour and if you follow the signs around the station it will take you to the right platform.
- On the platform check the numbers to see what way the train is going. On the walls across from the platforms there are numbers and arrows which let you know which direction the train will be going.
Shinkansen (Bullet Trains)
Japan’s main islands of Honshu, Kyushu and Hokkaido are served by a network of high speed train lines that connect Tokyo with most of the country’s major cities. Japan’s bullet trains are operated by Japan Railways and travel at speeds of up to 320 km/h.
The shinkansen is known for punctuality, comfort, safety and efficiency and are a great cost-effective way to travel around the country. The main line on the shinkansen network is the Tokaido Shinkansen line, which runs from Tokyo to Nagoya, Kyoto and then Osaka.
Japan Railways (JR)
Most of the train lines in Japan are owned by Japan Railways. JR trains include the shinkansen, limited express, express, raid and local trains. The easiest way to use the JR trains is to purchase a Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass). The JR Pass is a cost effective rail pass for long distance train travel in Japan.
It is only for foreign tourists to Japan and offers unlimited use of JR trains for one, two or three weeks at a fraction of the cost the locals get it! The pass is valid for all types of JR trains. The JR Pass can only be purchased outside of Japan, so make sure you organise this before you get on your plane!
When you purchase the pass you will receive a voucher, which you can then exchange for the actual pass when you arrive in Japan, within three months of purchase. The Japan Rail Pass can be used on all shinkansen trains except Nozomi and Mizuho trains and covers all the fees involved. Seat reservations can be made for free at ticket counters.
The Nozomi is the fastest train in the Shinkansen family. The Nozomi is the easiest way to get to and from Narita airport. It only stops at major stations, making it almost direct and is so much faster and easier than JR trains or transfers from the airport. From Tokyo it only takes a little over two hours to get to Kyoto via Nozomi train.
The Nozomi train requires its own ticket and is not included in the JR Pass, and just like a regular shinkansen you can also reserve your seat for the journey.