9 Tips for Train Travel in Japan

Oct 8, 2017

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The future of train travel has already arrived in Japan. Accountable, on-time arrivals; exceptionally smooth, high-speed rides; gracious attendants who serve ice-cold Asahi — these are just a few of the reasons why train travel is the best way to see this amazing country. Here are nine tips to make your journey even easier.

1. Purchase Your JR Pass Ahead of Time

Save yourself time and purchase the Japan Rail Pass ahead of your trip. This special pass is only available to foreign tourists and Japanese citizens who are living abroad and meet special requirements, so if you fall under one of these categories, you can order it online, choosing from a 7-, 14- or 21-day pass. You’ll receive an exchange order in the mail that you must validate at ​the ​airport or at a designated JR station before gaining access to the JR train lines.

Ordering your JR pass ahead of your arrival in Japan means you'll be on your way to adventure sooner. Image by Marco Wong/Getty Images.
Ordering your JR pass ahead of time means you’ll be on your way to adventure sooner. Image by Marco Wong/Getty Images.

2. There’s an App for That

Download the HyperDia app, which lets you research train and subway times, plan your day’s journey, know your exchanges and even find your platforms. Many of Japan’s rail stations also accommodate a large number of privately run subway lines (more on that later), so it can take some time to traipse your way through them. Platform knowledge is power and will make your travels easier.

The HYPERDIA app will help you to know your platform ahead of your exchanges. Image courtesy of Taro Hama @ e-kamakura/Getty Images.
The HyperDia app will help you to know your platform ahead of your exchanges. Image by Taro Hama e-kamakura/Getty Images.

3. Make Reservations, When Necessary

With the JR Pass, you have freedom to move about the country, but that doesn’t mean you have free reign of the passenger cars. Pay attention to reserved, non-reserved and ​female-only​ cars — you’ll see that last one on some subways. Certain trains require reservations — these restrictions are indicated on the overhead platform boards — and you’ll need to visit the ticket office at the station to get on them. Even if you’re not traveling on a reservation-only train, you can still reserve and guarantee your seat on a regular train by stopping in at a ticket office prior to departure. Bonus: There’s no fee for making reservations.

A young boy looking back over the seat of a bullet train in Japan
Reserve your seats for free ahead of your journey, especially if you’re traveling in a group. Image by Peter Lourenco/Getty Images.

4. Line Up Early

Generally, reserving a seat isn’t necessary on non-reservation trains, but queuing early and in the designated lanes certainly is. When you access the train platform, boards will indicate which cars are for non-reservation passengers. By lining up early, you’ll not only guarantee you get a seat, you’ll also ensure you’ve left enough time to board the train. Japanese trains run on time every time so don’t dawdle at the takeaway sushi bar lest you find yourself waiting for the next one.

Trains arrive and depart exactly on time, so queue early to make sure you leave with it! Image by Suphat Bhandharangsri Photography/Getty Images.
Trains arrive and depart exactly on time, so give make sure you give yourself enough time to board. Image by Suphat Bhandharangsri Photography/Getty Images.

5. Snacking and Sipping Are Encouraged

On most trains, an attendant will periodically pass through the aisles selling meals, snacks, soft drinks and adult beverages — you can also bring your own food on the train — so while your bullet train streaks across the countryside, you can kick back and relax with a plate of sushi and a can of locally brewed beer. Major stations will have takeaway food options featuring everything from snacks at 7-Eleven to specialty kiosks selling sushi and bento boxes.

You can buy bento boxes, sushi, and beer on board or at any train station. Image by Suphat Bhandharangsri Photography/Getty Images.
You can buy bento boxes, sushi and beer at any train station. Image by Suphat Bhandharangsri Photography/Getty Images.

6. Store Your Bags Where You’re Supposed To

Unless a guardian suitcase angel appears to help you lift your 50-pound bag overhead, tuck your suitcase behind the last row of the car — that’s what the space is​ intended​ for. And whatever you do, don’t use an open seat for your luggage. Conductors will ask you to move your stuff, as trains fill up fast and seat space is at a premium.

Overhead space full? Especially if you have a heavy bag, tuck your suitcase behind the last row of seats. Image courtesy of Quynh Anh Nguyen/Getty Images.
Overhead space full? Tuck your suitcase behind the last row of seats. Image by Quynh Anh Nguyen/Getty Images.

7. Day Trips Made Easy

Not every city on your itinerary calls for an overnight stay, but doesn’t the thought of lugging your suitcase around with you sound like, well, a drag? Fear not — train stations have lockers available for hourly rental, letting you make a pop into a town for a day trip without toting your bag the whole time. Lockers are big enough to fit a 50-pound bag and come with easy-to-use instructions in English, to boot.

Stash your suitcase in a train station locker while you explore the city for the day. Image courtesy of Jongjet303/Getty Images.
Stash your suitcase in a train station locker while you explore the city for the day. Image by Jongjet303/Getty Images.

8. Avoid Extra Fees

The JR Pass, while expansive, doesn’t allow you access to every rail line so pay attention so you avoid boarding a train that may incur an additional fee. Your rail pass will list the exact train lines you have access to, but generally only applies to JR bullet trains, JR express trains, JR local trains, JR buses, the Tokyo Monorail and the Miyajima ferry.

Your JR pass also allows you access to the ferry in Miyajima. Image courtesy of PK6289/Getty Images.
Your JR pass also gives you access to the ferry in Miyajima. Image by PK6289/Getty Images.

9. Plan to Ride Private Subways

Unlike the metro systems of New York City or London, Japan’s subway lines are privately owned, meaning you​’ll​ potentially need to buy individual one-way tickets for every journey you take. However, a better option is to buy a Suica pass or a PASMO card. Both are electronic prepaid cards which can be used on subways, buses and the JR East (and even at vending machines and some convenience stores as well) in many major cities.

One-way tickets rule the subway lines. Image courtesy of Tom Bonaventure/Getty Images.
One-way tickets rule the subway lines. Image by Tom Bonaventure/Getty Images.

What are some of your favorite things to do in Japan? Sound off, below.

Featured image by Marco Wong / Getty Images.

This story has been updated to include Suica passes and PASMO cards as better options for paying for travel on the subway system.

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