While the train networks are reliable, you need to work out which lines to take, know where to transfer to a different line, and understand where to get off to reach your destination.
Knowing Where to Go and How to Get There
Using the right tools can help you get around. First, you need a smartphone app that will help you find routes to your destination, such as Japan Travel by NAVITIME. It will tell you exactly what lines to take, when, where to switch trains, how much time it will take, and how much the trip will cost you.
It's important to remember that while trains in the cities come often, in the countryside, you can wait significantly longer. In some remote areas, a train only comes once every hour or so as most everyone in the area uses cars to get around.
We recommend getting an e-money IC card during your stay. It can be used to ride trains and make purchases. These articles will explain in detail what you can do with the IC cards.READ MORE
- Easy Travel with E-money IC Cards
- Japan Railway Prepaid IC card - Welcome Suica
- A guide to using the foreigner-only PASMO PASSPORT in Japan
- Suica and Pasmo: Transportation IC cards and How to Use them in Japan
Local vs Express
There are usually two kinds of trains: local and express. However, some longer lines going out into the suburbs have more variations, such as a "super express" or "commuter express" trains that go faster and stop at even less stations. It's important to know if your destination is a local or express stop, because taking the wrong train can mean either going too slowly or blowing past your destination. You can check this on the line map at the station.
Delays or Accidents
Sometimes there's an issue with the train, or the specific train you're on is ending its run (often after rush hour) and you need to switch to another train on the same line. The reason for these sudden switches is usually announced in Japanese only, so in case of a surprise your best bet is to follow the crowd, but also quickly inquire to someone (ideally station staff on the platform) for what you need to do next. By using our app, you can find alternative routes or avoid riding terminating trains. However, a sudden delay or emergency stop is impossible to predict.
Using Tourist Passes
Many visitors purchase the Japan Rail Passes or tourist passes for a certain train network. Be sure to know where you want to go, because the areas that are covered by each tourist pass differes, and you do not want to end up purchasing a pass for where you won't be going often.
For examply, if you are traveling inter-city by JR, the Japan Rail Pass will be useful. However, if you are staing in Tokyo, you may want to consider passes issued by Tokyo Metro.READ MORE
- How to Use the Japan Rail Pass
Getting on and off
While rush hour trains are a cramped sight to behold, most of the time you'll be able to line up patiently and get on and off without a fuss. If you need to get off and there are a lot of people in front of the door, just say "excuse me" and gently poke through. They will usually make room for you once they know you're getting off.
Sometimes it's difficult to know which way to go when you're on the platform, and sometimes limited signage. You'll see in the app that for each train there's a "direction" the train is going, so look for the signs on the platform identifying that direction. If you don't have internet access and are totally lost, it never hurts to ask someone. People are quite friendly and happy to help!
If you are pregnant, elderly, disabled, or with small children it's best to board at either end of a train car where there are often priority seats.
Trains are very rarely late, so you can usually depend on the schedule. However, it's best to keep an eye on which stations are coming up next by either looking at a printed or digital guide in the train, or looking at the signage outside of the train at each stop so you know when to get off. It can be easy to miss a stop, especially out in the countryside.
When you need to switch between lines, look for signs that point you in the direction of the next line you need to take. Sometimes these are hard to find, but if you walk a bit down the platform you'll find something eventually.
Which exit to take?
This is always the classic conundrum. Even small stations can have many exits to choose from and it's hard to know which is the closest to where you want to go. Perfecting this is an art.
If you're going to a major attraction you'll often be able to find the right exit by using these large yellow signs. However, these can often be hard to read and more often than not the place you want to go isn't on there. Once you're outside of the gates you'll find a map of the local area that can further help you decide. It's best to at least try using these, especially at big stations because taking the wrong exit can often mean adding 20 minutes of walking!