How to use a train in Japan – a simple and helpful guide

Shinto Shrine in Japan
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Using a train in Japan was like an explosion of senses for us. The speed, the cleanliness, the punctuality, the behavior of the other people – all of these things were just the tip of the iceberg for this experience. I know it sounds stupid, but transportation is a major interest factor for a geek like me.

I know many people that feel overwhelmed when they look into this. They feel they may not know how to use the train in Japan, they won’t be able to cope with the language barrier, they will look stupid while not knowing what to do.

I know this because I’ve been there. But after the trip, I spend a few days gathering all the information anyone might need about using the train in Japan. After reading this guide, you’ll have all the confidence in the world you will manage to enjoy this.

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Is the JR pass worth it?

Trains in Japan are an experience that you must try as a tourist. It’s like nothing you have done before. My husband even used a Maglev once in China, and he was still impressed by these trains. No matter if you buy a JR pass or not, you should try a Shinkansen anyway, just so you can see what all the fuss is about.

When should you buy the JR pass, you ask? Well, it depends. Using a train fare calculator, you can easily estimate the costs for your bigger trips. Don’t focus on the details, just add the bigger ones.

This estimation is made with a basic Narita > Tokyo > Kyoto > Tokyo > Narita trip, and it shows you the 7-day pass is worth it, while the 14 day is not worth it yet.

Let’s see now how our estimation looked like, and you can use it as a reference too following this link.

Itinerary for our 2 week trip to Japan

As you can see, for our itinerary the 14-day pass was already a good deal. Even the 21 would have been good, but we managed to squeeze everything on that list in just 14 days.

We also thought about splitting our trip, and to stay in Tokyo in the beginning, then activate a 7-day pass and do the trips, and then finishing with Tokyo again. This felt like too much of a hassle, and too many days wasted by moving around, so we decided not to. But keep this option in mind, in case it can suit you.

A good rule of thumb is that if you take a round trip on the Tokyo > Kyoto route, the 7 day is already worth it. If you add more to that, it can even balance out a 14 day one. But if you arrive in Tokyo and leave from Osaka, it may not be worth it, since you’re only having one long trip included.

We were surprised to use the JR pass also for urban trains in Tokyo and there are even some buses operated by JR; hell, you can even take a ferry to reach the Miyajima island using this pass. Not a lot of buses though, but only the ones in the JR alliance, but it was a welcoming perk we enjoyed using. Still, the big trips are the killers, in my opinion. So don’t rely on these small wins you may have, but calculate the big ones and see if it works for you.

Is the JR Pass worth it for your trip? If so, you can buy it right here!

Buying and activating the JR pass

Decided to buy the JR pass? Great! You’ll love the freedom it gives you. And the money you can invest in sushi.

If you want to buy it outside Japan, like us mortals do, you are a very wise traveler. We have bought ours from here, but our research showed us that the “base” vendor is this. You should compare the 2 and see what suits you best.

After you buy it, you wait patiently for the exchange order to come to your mail. Not e-mail, MAIL. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you’ll have a physical voucher you’ll need to bring in with you. And, before you ask:

JR Pass exchange orders
This is what you should receive in the mail

No, it cannot be reissued in the country if you have forgotten it at home before you left.
No, you cannot give it to your friend if you forgot yours, bought another one, and want to take your money back from a friend that’s traveling to Japan soon.

When you land in Japan, you get to the border control and take your visa on the passport. With the entry visa and the exchange order, you go to the JR offices located in all major airports and train stations across Japan. Here’s a list with all the places you can exchange it in. You’re welcome.

No one advises you to buy the JR pass in Japan. It was not even possible until recently. And it IS more expensive to buy it there instead of before your trip. The on-line bought one is not linked to a hard date either: from the moment you receive the exchange order, you have 3 months to change it into a physical pass, and from this moment you have 30 days to activate it. So the flexibility is good as well.

No one sees any reason why someone would buy it in Japan. But if you need to do it like this, read this awesome short article that will help you find the exact places where you could buy it. And have Google translate prepared to help you in case you have to speak Japanese while you’re there.

After you have the pass in your hand, the clerk from the exchange office will stamp the activation date on it. From this moment, you have 7, 14 or 21 days to use your pass. Congratulations! Your trip is officially started!

If you landed in the Narita airport, keep in mind that even the Narita express train is included in your JR pass, so your first usage of the pass can be here. If you’re planning to use a 7-day pass in the middle of your trip though, do not activate it here, and pay this ticket separately.

JR Passes in a Shinkansen train in japan
Our JR Passes allowed us to use this amazing Shinkansen in Japan

Reserving a seat in a JR train

Seat reservation is cost-free if you have the JR pass (except for sleeping cars or other deluxe perks), but is not automatically done for you. So, before you get on a train, you have two options:

  1. Reserve a seat in a car (there are reserved seats in cars 4-8 or 6-16, depending on how many cars the train has).
  2. Proceed directly to the platform and look for a seat in cars 1-3 or 1-5, depending on how many cars the train has.

We’ll be focusing on the reserved seat cars in this section, returning to the non-reserved ones down below. The information about the reserved / non-reserved cars will be displayed on the screens on the platform, and also on the platform itself where there’s a queuing area.

To reserve the seat, you have to go to an office marked by this sign:

There, you ask the clerk to give you a seat reservation for the trip you have in mind. They will give you the first best option and will print a ticket or two for you. The number of tickets can depend on the situation, and I’ll explain this further. For now, just keep in mind you’ll have a piece of paper in your hand, but this is just a seat reservation, not an actual ticket.

With the JR pass in your hand like it’s some sort of a prize, you proceed to the platform. You have to specifically look for the Shinkansen signs in train stations because the platforms for these trains are not like the ones for local trains, so there’s a separate area where they are located.

Where you have turnstiles, you have to proceed near the office, that’s usually on the side of the line, and show your pass to the clerk. To enter, you will use the area dedicated to people in wheelchairs and/or with prams. Don’t show the tickets with the seats to the clerk, s/he doesn’t care where you sit, s/he just needs to know you are allowed in the area.

Seat reservation tickets
Seat reservation tickets

Reading a seat reservation ticket

I know maybe it sounds stupid, but I heard one thing in college that stuck to my memory: there’s no such thing as a stupid question; whenever you ask a question that sounds stupid, half of your colleagues are thinking “Thank God someone asked this, I was wondering as well!”.

The important thing is that the tickets look the same for all types of trains, so you’ll need this skill to survive. Depending on the trip you’re going to take, you may use one train or more. The seat reservation will be done for your whole trip, so you have these cases:

  1. One train – one seat reservation ticket
  2. Two trains – two tickets, one for each leg
  3. Two trains – one ticket, with different sections for each leg
  4. One ticket in Japanese 🙂

Let’s take them one by one and analyze them.

If you only have one train ticket for one seat reservation, this is how it looks like:
Seat reservation ticket for one train

Legend:

  1. Starting point for your trip
  2. Destination point
  3. Departure date
  4. Departure time
  5. Arrival time
  6. Train name
  7. Car number
  8. Seat number
  9. Smoking / Non-smoking seat

Probably you will mostly need the car and seat number. You usually know your destination, so you can find the platform easily using this information alone.

If you have two tickets for a two-leg trip to a place, the tickets will look the same as above.

The legend for each ticket is the same. But, in this case, you need to know the train you have to look for since you’ll go to an intermediate station first. You also need to know the arrival time of your first train and the departure time of the next one, so you know if you have time to wander around or you have to run fast to get to your connection.

If you have one ticket for both legs of your trip, the combined ticket looks like this:
Seat reservation ticket for two trains.

Legend:

  1. Starting point of your trip
  2. Destination point
  3. Departure and arrival date and time for the first leg
  4. Connecting station
  5. departure and arrival date and time for the second leg
  6. First train name
  7. Second train name
  8. Car and seat number for the first leg
  9. Car and seat number for the second leg

As you can see, all the information you have on separate tickets are combined into this tiny piece of paper. It’s nice to have it in one place though.

Seat reservation ticket in Japanese
If your ticket was printed in Japanese

This has happened to us one time, so don’t panic! You can either ask the clerk to reprint it, or you can try to understand what you need from it. It looks like this:

Legend:

  1. Departure date and time
  2. Arrival time
  3. Car and seat number

You can also ask the clerk nicely to circle the important information for you, and/or to write it down on the margins, so you don’t waste any more paper for this action. In the end, as long as you can make it work, there’s no point in complaining about it. And you have a cool souvenir too!

Seat reservation ticket in Japanese with explanations

Finding your seat on a train in Japan

If you have a reserved seat, your trip will be as relaxing as possible. Just get to the car, find your assigned seat, lay back, and relax.

If you don’t have a reserved seat for whatever reason, you have two options:

  1. Get into a non-reserved seat car. These are the first ones of the train, usually 1-3 or 1-5 in bullet trains. If you find a seat here, great. Use it and continue your trip as if you had a reservation there.
  2. Get into a reserved seat car. See if there are empty seats available. Sit somewhere if you can. If someone comes and they tell you they have that seat reserved, free up space and either move somewhere else or stand. If you will stand, move to a non-reserved seat car, to not bother people that have taken the time to reserve their seat.
Two trains in a train station in Japan
Just look at these awesome trains!

Bullet trains vs. local trains

While bullet trains are state of the art, local trains are not bad either. I mean, you have plenty of legroom (more than we had on our transcontinental flight, I might add), they are super clean and comfortable, the seats can change direction so you can face each other if you have a bigger party, and you usually have power outlets you can use.

The bullet train also has wi-fi inside you can use, it also has smoking cars, restaurant cars, nice screens to see everything on and it’s as fast as me when I see ice cream. It also uses another type of tracks compared to the other trains, so you are located on a large bridge all the time, while you cross the whole country.

The bullet train doesn’t go everywhere though, mostly in high elevation areas, since they need a pretty straight line at all times. When you need to move a bit off the beaten path, you’ll end up in a local train. Hell, even in Kyoto, if you want to visit the Fushimi Inari shrine, you’ll use a local train.

So local trains are of good use for you. They have everything they need for you to have a comfortable trip and, most importantly, they will take you places! They look and treat you better than any other train in the world anyway.

Waiting in line for a train

Some time ago, a short video about Japanese people waiting in line went viral. The whole world was going crazy. How can they be SO organized? I mean, the education does a great deal in this regard, but come on, no-one’s that organized only by education alone.

While the power of education goes a long way, I have to tell you the platform signs help as well. Not only there are 3D signs for visually impaired people all over Japan, not only in train stations, but there are also signs about women-only cars, arrows towards different areas, and signs that explain how should you stay in line.

A very good resource for this is this. What you need to focus on first is the circle vs triangle thing, which may seem confusing at first. But that’s why they use signs and not letters, so anyone can understand them easily without needing to know the language.

The first step is to look at the screen. Here, you can see your train, when does it arrive, and the number of cars it has. Since this number may vary from train to train, but the platform is common, they needed to implement another system.

Psst! Psst! You can buy your JR Pass right here!

So, if the train you are waiting for has a triangle marked next to it on the screen, and it’s the first in line to arrive, you just have to go to the car where you have your seat (see above), and line up where the triangle is.

If your train has a circle next to it and is the first to arrive proceed as above but go to the circle marked queue.

If your train is not the first to arrive, there are two options:

  1. It has a different sign compared to the one before it. In this case, you should go to the designated car and wait on the free sign, and that matches your sign anyway.
  2. If the sign is the same as the train before, you will have to wait in line on the other sign, and just move when your train is the next to arrive.
People queue waiting for a train in japan
This is how people wait for a train in Japan

How to enter/exit a train in Japan

You’re just thinking I’m going crazy right now, aren’t you? But there’s a reason trains in Japan are rarely late: people are also very punctual and they do this process efficiently so that the train doesn’t have to stay in the station more than estimated.

If you have queued up correctly, you might have noticed there is another set of lines on the platform. These signs are for the people exiting the train. As you can see, there are usually two lines of people waiting to enter the train, on the sideways of the opening doors. The lines for the people exiting the train are pointing them between the lines to enter the train.

This works like a people sandwich. If you’re entering a train, you’re the bun. If you’re exiting the train, you’re the burger/cheese/insert here delicious ingredient.

After everyone has left the train, the people waiting can get inside as well. This takes less than one minute usually, which is not bad at all for such a crowded place. If you were also pretty smart and have taken your backpack in your hand already, you can put it in a baggage holder right from the beginning, so you can enjoy your trip right away.

Planning your trip to Japan? I know you will need to research the entry fees for the most important things to see, so I have prepared this awesome printable PDF with this information, so you don’t have to do all this research. Download it now!

How to enter/exit a train station in Japan

This part would be funny if we wouldn’t have spent too much time looking for the exit we needed, with our large luggage nonetheless. Train stations in Japan can get to have as much as 200 exits, so it’s not as easy as it sounds to get around in these hangars they call stations.

First tip: don’t always look at the ground floor when looking for a station. Like many other things (restaurants, malls, supermarkets) even train stations can be above or below ground level. So keep your eyes open if you want to easily find your place.

Also, keep in mind that the GPS won’t see you accurately if you’re underground or above ground level, but in a huge building with concrete walls. And, considering their earthquake history, they tend to build things very resistant.

So, if Google maps tells you to get out through exit D14, you need to look for it by yourself. First, while getting out, look for signs for exits. When you see the D exits marked somewhere, take that route. Then, the signs will start to vary even more, something like D1-12 being to the left, and D13-19 going to the right.

The D usually marks a broader direction, like to the North of the train station, but there can be many exits in the North, so they are numbered. By going deeper and deeper with the intervals, you’ll eventually find your exit.

Please note that some exits may be in a mall, or directly in an office building, or maybe in a park or a parking lot on the 5th floor of a building. This is just Japan and their efficient way of using their land.

Also, some stations don’t have elevators or escalators on every exit. So if you have a baby pram or big luggage with you, do your research before you go, so that you won’t carry everything on the stairs.

Inside of a bullet train
Inside of a bullet train (Shinkansen)

What is not included in the JR pass

Especially if you won’t reserve a seat for your next trip, you should be aware that not all Shinkansens are included in your JR pass. The most known ones that are not included are Nozomi and Mizuho, the fastest categories of trains.

Other trains are operating the routes that these two cover and they might come on the same platforms. You may be excited to see the first train gets you to where you want to arrive, but you have to also see the name of the train and if it is included in your pass.

We did this mistake once. I just saw the destination on a screen, we ran to catch the train in time, didn’t look too much into it, and we ended up in a Nozomi train. Luckily for us, they announced inside that the train is not included in the pass, and that if you made a mistake and got in, you should just get out at the first station. Which we did.

I have to tell you no one verifies the train tickets inside. The conductor just gets from one car to the other, bowing respectfully to people, even when they are sitting backward. But you should follow the rules nonetheless.

Other lines not included in your JR are:

  1. JR trains on non-JR tracks – more information here
  2. Special compartments, like sleep cars or green cars
  3. Highway buses

Planning your trip

If you would like to plan your trips in bigger detail, you will need two things: maps and schedules. And if you’re one of those people refusing to use Google maps or the internet in any way, you maybe want to have this saved as PDFs, or even *gasp* printed. If this is your way to go, who am I to judge?

Regarding the maps, this is a very good resource for trains and metro maps. This will provide as much information for you as possible, for the most visited places in Japan.

Regarding the timetable, if you want to schedule your train trips, you will probably use either an app or the help of a nice clerk at the train station. Some information is available here, but it is possibly not everything you need.

What’s even cooler is that there’s not only one JR company, but 5 of them. Each of them with their website, maps and everything else. I scraped everything so you don’t have to, but keep in mind this is just going to make your life harder.

Do you think you can make it work with only a JR Regional Pass? Perfect, you can buy it right here!

Or…you could put your place of departure and destination into Google maps and find out instantly the following:

  • exactly how to get from A to B, no matter how many transportation types you have to use
  • if some of the means of transportation are included in JR
  • the amount you will have to pay if they’re not included in JR
  • what times you can leave at
  • where do you have to change lines
  • what exits do you need to use to walk as little as possible

But, you know, you do your thing, I’ll do mine.

JR Pass helpful guides
This is what you receive when you activate the JR Pass

Etiquette while using a train in Japan

Japanese society is a very traditional one, and it cares a lot about etiquette. All of us should take this as an example, not as a judgment, so we could learn from it while we’re there.

One etiquette rule is to cancel a seat reservation if you cannot make it to the trip. As you know, if you have a seat reservation, no one can reserve that seat anymore. If you make a reservation and not cancel it, people might stand while there are perfectly good seats available. So, don’t do this!

While eating in public is said to be seen as rude, eating in trains was a common thing we saw. And I don’t mean the tourists, but the local people did this as well. We saw lots of people enjoying their bento boxes in trains, and you have a table you can use for every seat. Just, out of respect for other people, avoid pungent foods and do not litter.

If you reclined your seat or turned the seats around (so they face the other way compared to the whole car), please put them in the position you have found them in the beginning. It’s not a rule, but this is how you help the people cleaning the trains at the end of the line. It’s a nice gesture that takes you 10 seconds, but it helps them a great deal.

As it is being repeated in all means of transportation, not only in trains, you should avoid speaking on your phone. You can text, watch movies with your headphones on, do whatever you like. Just keep it silent for everyone.

Key takeaways

Buy your JR Pass here!

This is it, guys! Everything you need to know about using the trains in Japan. This simple and helpful guide is all you need to get ready for your trip. Have even more questions about how easy it is to get around Japan? Read the following resources:

News Flash! Starting with Spring 2020, a new website becomes available that will allow JR pass holders to reserve their seats by themselves. Also, there will be the option of using the automated gates also for JR pass holders, so your social interaction will become even less while traveling to Japan. More information here.

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