Japan train travel & JR rail pass
Japans transit system is second to none! But to a foreigner can be a bit intimidating especially if it is your first time visiting.
The following will be our guide for you on how to purchase tickets and use the train travel system in Japan, including the very popular JR rail pass which we used during our trip. It was a very great purchase for us! With the JR rail pass, you can travel freely virtually anywhere in Japan without having to purchase tickets! Rather then try to write a better guide for the jr rail pass here is a link from Japan guide .com that we used often to track the cherry blossoms before we picked our travel dates. Japan rail pass link here If traveling to more then one destination in Japan, this will most likely be your most economical way to travel. We used the train system over 40 times! Yes, 40 times during our 17 days in Japan. Around Tokyo, the Yamanote line travels in a big circle to all the important stations which border many places you will most likely want to go.
The following will be a brief breakdown of how the different types of trains work buying tickets, etc. Keep in mind that all of the machines do have an "English" button on them, and we found, for the most part, it was good enough when we had to use them.
All types of Japanese trains, from local to Shinkansen (bullet trains), are typically classified into the following categories: Local - Local trains stop at every station. Rapid - Rapid trains skip some stations. There is no difference in the ticket price between local and rapid trains. Express trains stop at even fewer stations than rapid trains. There is generally no difference in the ticket price between local and express trains. Limited Express - Limited express trains stop only at major stations. A limited express fee usually has to be paid in addition to the base fare. Super Express - Shinkansen, use separate tracks and platforms. A limited express fee has to be paid in addition to the base fare. This will become quite clear once you use a few different trains at a few different stations.
On long-distance trains, JR offers the choice between two classes: ordinary and green (first class) seats. Most local trains carry only ordinary cars. Green cars are less crowded and offer more spacious seats, but are typically 30% to 50% more expensive than ordinary cars. We purchased two green car JR tickets, mainly because we were there for golden week which is a very busy time of year in Japan! We did find it quite useful as the normal cars were hard to find seats on. If it is economically feasible for you we surely recommend it!
Most express and limited express trains carry non-reserved and reserved seats, while a few carry reserved seats only. Seats in green cars are often all reserved. On most local, rapid and express trains all seats are non-reserved. Seat reservations cost roughly 300 to 700 yen but are free with the Japan Rail Pass. Smoking cars or well-ventilated smoking rooms are provided on only a small number of long-distance trains. On all other trains, smoking is not permitted. Signs on the trains and platforms indicate seat categories.
Buying a ticket
Purchase a ticket at a ticket machine (for short-distance travel,) find your destination and the corresponding fare on the map above the vending machine. The map shows the train lines and stations in the region. Ticket prices are shown beside each station. Insert the money into the vending machine. Most machines accept coins of 10, 50, 100 and 500 yen and bills of 1000 yen. Many machines also accept larger bills. Select the number of tickets that you wish to buy. The default is one, so if you are traveling alone, you can skip this step. Press the button that shows the amount for your ticket. Collect the ticket(s) and change. It may look more complicated then it really is!
Sometimes the station names on the maps are written only in Japanese. If you are unable to find your destination and the corresponding fare, you can purchase a ticket for the lowest possible price, and pay the difference at a fare adjustment machine at the destination station. Purchase a ticket at a ticket counter In order to purchase a ticket, you need to provide the following information: Number of travelers, date of travel, departure station, destination station, ordinary car or green car. If you do not speak Japanese and there is a line, it is recommended that you write the data on a piece of paper and present it to the salesperson in order to make the purchasing process smoother. Special forms for that purpose (some in English) are actually provided at some stations but are rarely used by customers. We found that in most cases they did speak enough English to easily handle the transaction.
This ticket above clearly shows what station you're are traveling to and from. Along with the date and time. Platform number, car number, and seat number. The first time you see one it may look a bit difficult to read, but you will quickly get the hang of it!
Entering the paid fare zone
After buying the ticket, you can proceed through the ticket gates. At automatic ticket gates, insert the ticket into the slot, walk through the gate and pick up the ticket on the other side. If you insert an invalid ticket, the gate will close and an alarm will sound. No worries ... this happens quite a lot.
If you have a Japan Rail Pass, you cannot use automatic gates but must pass through a manned gate, showing your pass to the station staff. The same is true for many regional passes. This was really nice with the JR pass!
In order to access shinkansen platforms, you need to pass through a second or separate set of ticket gates. They are usually well marked.
Find your platform by looking for your train line and direction. Most important signs are written in Japanese and English, and increasingly also in Chinese and Korean. On many platforms, marks on the floor indicate where the doors of the arriving train will be located. Waiting passengers will line up behind those marks. Train drivers are trained to stop within centimeters! In case of long-distance trains, additional marks will indicate car numbers and whether the car is an ordinary or green car, and whether it carries reserved or non-reserved, and smoking or non-smoking seats.
Note that some platforms are served by trains of different train categories (e.g. local and rapid trains). Displays indicate the next arriving train's category and, at some stations, the set of upcoming stations served by it. Marks on the platforms indicate the position of doors for people to line up behind.
Riding the train
Wait for passengers to exit before entering the train. Be careful not to block the door at stations, especially if the train is crowded. Put backpacks on the floor or onto the baggage shelves. Most passengers on Japanese trains are either reading, sleeping or using their mobile phones. Talking on mobile phones inside trains, however, is forbidden, except in the entrance sections of shinkansen (bullet trains) and limited express trains.
Upcoming stations and connecting lines are announced in Japanese. On shinkansen and some other lines frequently used by foreign visitors, the announcements are also made in English. Shinkansen and other newer trains have electronic signs in each car that display the upcoming stations in English as well.
Inside a train
The station names on platforms are written in Japanese and English. The previous and upcoming station names are also written. At your destination, leave the paid fare zone through the ticket gates in the same way as you entered. When paying with a single ticket, the ticket is retained in the machine upon exiting. If you did not pay the correct fare for your destination station, you have to pay the difference at a "Fare Adjustment" machine before leaving through the gates. If there are no such machines, you can pay the difference at the manned gate.
There is no substitute naturally for seeing all this in person. You will soon enough! After just your first few times using their incredible train system you will begin to feel more comfortable we promise!