How to Ride Trains in Japan (or How to Get Out Alive)

The Japanese train system is more complicated than the New York subway.

If you’ve been to the Big Apple and felt overwhelmed by the subway, the Japanese train network is a bigger beast. Yes, the trains are a symbol of Japanese efficiency.  Their extensive railway network is safe, fast, and extremely reliable.  But not if you don’t know what you’re doing!

The difficulty lies in the number of companies operating train lines.

Most trains are operated by Japan Railways (JR or “Jay-Aru” if you’re a local).  But there are many other private railway companies that take you to places that JR doesn’t.  Some of these operate just one line while others have extensive networks of their own.  To make things more complicated, they don’t always share train stations.  In some places, you need to exit the station and walk a long distance just to switch lines.

You need to become familiar with the train lines even before you land in Japan.  So when you plan your itinerary, look up which lines you need to take to get to your destination.  Eventually you will get to know them.  Just like old Japanese friends.

Beware, the Japanese ticket vending machine.

One look and it scared me into buying a Kansai Thru Pass (a regional prepaid card you can use for trains and buses for 2 or 3 days).  The ticket machine is in Japanese with numerous black buttons that didn’t make any sense.

But as I learned later on, it is nothing to be afraid of.  Some machines have an English button and some don’t.  It doesn’t matter.  Just look at the huge train map above the machines and look for your final destination and the corresponding price.  Insert enough money into the machine and the black buttons light up.  Ah, now it makes sense.  The buttons represent the different ticket prices.  Choose your ticket price, get your change, and you’re off!

If the map is in Japanese and you cannot find your destination, just pay for the lowest priced ticket.  When you get to your destination station, pay the price difference at a fare adjustment machine.  I never experienced this, but I just thought you might want to know.

Next stop:  M19 Shinsaibashi Station

Waiting for your train at the platform doesn’t mean you’re home free.  Trains come in different flavors:  local, rapid, express, limited express, and super express (shinkansen or bullet train).  You don’t really need to identify the train types.  Just look at the small monitors that announce the stops to make sure the coming train will stop at your destination.  Don’t worry–they show the English names of the stations.

After that, all you need to do is make sure you get off at the right station.  Don’t laugh, but I’ve missed a few.  It’s not difficult; I just wasn’t paying enough attention.  Or maybe I was paying too much attention to the girls.

One last thing.  

Hopefully, with this guide, you won’t need to buy one of the prepaid cards aimed at tourists.  Unless you are travelling extensively (and I mean like every hour) or you make too many mistakes (wrong train or going down at the wrong station), you will save more money by buying your own tickets.  Sure, it’s slower and less convenient, but there’s nothing like learning to do it the way the locals do.

Here’s another disadvantage of the tourist prepaid cards.  The Kansai Thru Pass card that I purchased forced me to avoid JR trains because they aren’t covered by the card.  So even if a JR line would have been more convenient (like being closer to my destination), I had to avoid it because I would have to buy tickets and shell out more money.  On the other hand, if you bought a JR Rail Pass, it would only be good for longer distances.  Not the best for travel within the city.  There are certain situations where you can save more by using these cards but I won’t get into that.

If you still want speed and convenience, the perfect setup would be a prepaid card you can top up with any value. At least it won’t expire and won’t affect how you plan your trip.  I never learned if there was such a card so you’re on your own on this one.

Or two. 

Some of you might be imagining bullet trains as you read this post.  Shinkansen are only operated by JR and the stops are farther apart. It’s a train you would ride from city to city, not something to get you from this block to that block.  They are pricey.

Or three.

You might get lost inside a big station (happened in Kyoto Station).  And you might find yourself in an elevator with Japanese characters and no numbers (happened somewhere in Osaka).  Again, you’re on your own.  Just persevere.  You will find your way out.  I did.

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