A first time traveller to Japan will soon learn the trouble involved in getting around on the trains. The track maps can be daunting at first and you’ll be using it often, especially since it’s the most convenient way to travel. The trains cover the whole country and have impeccable, efficient timetables and reliability.
Japanese railways are among the most punctual in the world. It’s actually worrisome if a train is even two minutes late, because this generally means something horrible has happened on the track. When trains have been delayed for five minutes, the conductor makes an announcement apologizing for the delay and the railway company may provide a “delay certificate”, as no one would expect a train to be this late.
Rail transport services in Japan are provided by more than 100 private companies, including;
- Six Japan Railways Group (JR) regional companies
- The nation-wide JR freight company
- 16 major regional companies which provide railway services as part of their corporate operations
The Japan Railways Group, more commonly known as JR Group, is a group of successors of the government-owned Japanese National Railways (JNR). The JR Group lies at the heart of Japan’s railway network. Before entering Japan as a tourist, you can purchase a JR Pass (about $600 for 21 days validity). To purchase the pass, go here.
A JR Pass acts as a pre-paid ticket for most major train services. It’s best suited for travellers who intend to travel across the country, and will be using the trains multiple times daily. Otherwise it’s possible to purchase your tickets as you go (because it may work out cheaper, especially if you aren’t planning on using the trains often), or get a Pasmo card. A Pasmo card is similar to an Australian Go Card that you top up as you go. For more information on the Pasmo card, go here.
The Japan railway network is sprawling, spider web of a mess to foreign travellers. It can take some getting used to. It’s best to plan ahead and work out what lines, stations and stops you’ll need for your trip. In this regard, it’s best to use the internet and not guide books for assistance – the books may have outdated information whereas online you’ll always find the most recent sources.
The major cities across Japan have several maps like the following;
Click on images to enlarge
So, how to ride the train in Japan:
Know your destination. Be sure to know exactly where you want to go or at least the general area. There are plenty of English maps of the railway system available out there so be sure to pick up one ahead of time.
Buy a ticket. When you buy your ticket from the machines there is an English language option to help guide you along. Be sure to make full use of it, especially if it is your first time buying a ticket. You also need to know the amount it will cost to get to your destination which is listed above you on a map of the railway if you are unsure. Just to be safe, don’t be afraid to spend 20 yen more if you are unsure of the cost of your trip. If you have a topped up Pasmo card or Rail Pass, this won’t be an issue.
Find your platform. Once you know your destination and you have bought your ticket it is time to find the platform where your train is located. There are signs and arrows that will guide you to your destination and most times they are also colour coded.
Board the train. When you arrive at the platform and are waiting for the train be sure to stand along the line provided on the ground and stand behind the cautionary yellow line. Once the train arrives make sure to stand aside to let the passengers file off and then make your way onto the train. Rush Hour: While it is appropriate to be polite and wait to the side you may have to shove your way through to make it on in time. Don’t be alarmed if you are slightly shoved yourself or if one of the station officers comes along to give you a nice push into the train. When it is crowded it is crowded; you will feel like a sardine no matter what you do.
Ride the train. When riding the train be sure to observe etiquette. If you are not tired then do not take a seat, save it for those who are or the elderly or handicapped. The same applies for if you do happen to take a seat; be polite and give it to those who need it. It is also proper not to talk on the phone in the train whether it is crowded or not.
Get off the train. Pay attention to your stops and know when your destination is coming. It will be announced every station so you don’t have to struggle to understand the signs if you are confused. Just watch your step as you get off the train and enjoy yourself at your destination. Rush Hour: When you’re packed in with too many people and your stop has arrived be prepared for some pushing and shoving again. There are two key phrases you can call out that people will immediately understand and proceed to help you in your effort to get off the train. The first is “sumimasen” which means excuse me and is customary for many other situations as well. The other is “owarimasu” which is “I’m getting off/departing.” The two can be used together like “Sumimasen, owarimasu!”