A Guide to Train Travel in Japan

Japan Train Types

On both JR and privately owned lines across the country, there are a plethora of different types of train services. On top of that, many subway lines connect to private rail networks, so don’t be surprised if you see trains starting on one company’s services and continuing on to another’s. It can be confusing at first, but here’s a basic guide on the different types:

Normal (futsu / 普通)/ Local (kakueki / 各駅) — Both these represent local trains that stop at all stations along the route, making them the slowest alternative.

Semi-Express (jun-kyu / 準急) — Stops at fewer stations than a local train, but more than an express train.

Express (kyuukou / 急行) — Stops at a select few major hubs along the route.

Super or Limited Express (tokkyu / 特急) — The fastest train that’s not a Shinkansen, often bearing special names (example: Odoriko, Azusa, Romancecar). Many of these have an obligatory seat reservation surcharge on top of the ticket price.

Shinkansen / Bullet train — This world-famous high-speeded train runs only on JR lines. Since 2016, Shinkansen services have extended all over the main islands of Japan — from Kyushu in the south to Hokkaido in the north.

Seat Classes: Ordinary Class | Green Class | GranClass

Some express trains and all Shinkansen trains have so-called Green Cars, which have more spacious seats and more comfortable than normal seats. GranClass Cars are even more spacious and luxurious.

Japan Airport Trains

There are many different trains offering services to and from airports in Japan — these are some of the major ones.

Tokyo — Narita and Haneda Airports

Narita Express — An express train with direct access between Narita Airport and major Tokyo train stations.

Keisei Skyliner — The Keisei Skyliner connects to both Narita and Haneda airports, making it convenient for transfers between the two.

Keikyu Line — Connects Haneda Airport to major transport hubs in Tokyo.

Tokyo Monorail — Officially known as the Tokyo Monorail Haneda Airport Line, it connects Hamamatsucho Station to Haneda Airport.

Osaka — Kansai International and Itami Airports

Limited Express Rapi:t — The fastest train to the airport. It takes 34-37 (depending on the number of stops on the route) to Kansai Airport Station.

Airport Express — A commuter train on the Nankai Airport Line that takes about 44 minutes from Namba Station.

Nagoya — Centrair Airport

Airport Rapid Limited Express μ-SKY — The journey on the μ-SKY (μ is from Greek and is pronounced “mu”) only takes 28 minutes from central Nagoya to Centrair Airport.

Train Timetables and Apps

While trains run frequently in major cities and you may not need to pay too much attention to timing train changes there, it’s a different story when you get out into the countryside, or you’re planning a longer trip.

The Hyperdia website and app gives detailed information in English on train journeys and several alternatives — different train lines, bus options, and more.

For those comfortable with Japanese, the Jorudan app is a reliable source that also keeps you updated on delays. Jorudan has an English language website for train journey searches as well.

Buying Tickets for Trains in Japan

With all the different train companies, services, and lines available, buying tickets can be a headache if traveling through multiple stations and regions.

Normal Tickets

Buy these via ticket machines across the country. Although the machines will be slightly different, it’s generally the same system: choose how many passengers, and the price for the ticket you want to buy. Fares are calculated by distance and there will be a large map over the ticket machine area indicating fares from your current station.

If you can’t find your end station on the map, it probably belongs to a different train line. In that case, buy a ticket for the station where you’ll be changing trains.

Using the Fare Adjustment Machines

If you bought an incorrect ticket that doesn’t cover your whole trip, or you change to a different train line without leaving the ticket gates midway through travel, fear not. Fare adjustment machines are placed near the exit gates and you can pay the difference you owe before exiting the station. (You can also do this for IC Cards — see below).

Using IC Cards

Instead of buying a ticket each time you take a train, get an IC Card to make your travel smoother. You can also get a small discount on certain fares depending on the card and company of the public transport you’re using.

IC Cards can be used to pay bus, train and subway fares, but that’s not all — you can use the cards as electronic cash to buy things from vending machines, convenience stores, and to pay for taxi fares, and you can even use them at some restaurants. These are a must-have if you don’t want to carry a lot of cash around.

You can buy IC Cards at most ticket machines in major stations. You’ll pay a ¥500 deposit fee on top of the amount you wish to charge the card with. The ¥500 will be returned to you if or when you decide to return the card. Major IC Cards include Pasmo and Suica (Greater Tokyo area and beyond), Icoca and Pitapa (Osaka/Kansai), Toica and Manaca (Greater Nagoya area), Kitaca (Greater Sapporo area), Nimoca and Hayakaken (Fukuoka). Most of these cards are valid in Japan’s major cities, but there are exceptions, so it’s best to check in advance.

Discount Tickets

There are discount tickets available through most rail and subway companies.

Seasonal Tickets

Seishun 18 Kippu  (Youth 18 Ticket) — This is one of Japan’s most famous discount JR tickets and is especially popular with young people because it’s only available during school vacations. Despite its name, it can be used by anyone — regardless of age or nationality (note: there are no child fares). The ticket costs ¥11,850 and allows for five consecutive days of unlimited travel on JR lines across the nation.

Ticket availability:

Spring: Buy Feb 20-Mar 31 for use Mar 1-Apr 10

Summer: Buy Jul 1-Aug 31 for use Jul 20-Sep 10

Winter: Buy Dec 1-31 for use Dec 10-Jan 10

For more information, see the Seishun 18 Kippu official page.

Time-Limited Tickets

Several private railways and subway companies offer time-limited travel in the form of 24-hour and 3-day passes. For more information, see individual railway company and subway company websites.

JR Rail Pass

For visitors to Japan, this is one of the best deals available. Japan Rail owns about 70% of Japan’s rail network, meaning most of the country is covered by this pass.

Passes can now be purchased upon arrival to the country (previously it could only be bought abroad) making last-minute extended trips a little bit easier. There are region-specific passes (JR East Pass, JR West PAss, JR Kyushu Pass, etc) as well as a nationwide JR Rail Pass and they are priced accordingly.

For more information on the various types of JR Pass and prices, see the official website.

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