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5 Steps to Using Japanese Trains

Updated: Sep 18, 2020

The first time you look at a Japanese train map, it is nothing short of overwhelming. Here is an easy, step-by-step guide to help you get to where you need to be :) Warning: This post is a BEAST.

people on platform at Japan train station

1) Purchase your ticket/IC card/Japan Rail Pass

A) Tickets

Just inside any train station, there are ticket machines for short distance travel. To find your destination, look to the map located just above those machines on the wall. A price will be listed next to your destination station.

Many machines have an English button in the upper right hand corner of the screen. If yours doesn't, chances are others nearby will. Once you push that, choose the ticket price that was next to your destination on the map. (You can download and print this train map for the Tokyo metro area).

If you couldn't find your destination, you can actually just purchase a ticket for the lowest price possible and still get off at your intended station. You can pay the difference as you are leaving at a fare adjustment machine or at the manned window. (They always know what you want if you just show them your ticket. They'll probably just write down the price difference and show you).

Once you select the fare amount on the machine, enter cash into the slot. The machine will take coins or bills up to at least 1000 yen. (Sorry guys, no credit cards!) Often they will take even bigger bills if that's all you have. Hit enter, and your ticket and change will come out :) Easy peasy lemon squeezy right?!

train ticket in hand at Japan train station

B) IC cards

This has been my go to method of payment for #traintravel while in #Japan. You can purchase these at many ticket machines. it is essentially a prepaid train card. The most popular cards for the #Tokyo area are the Suica card for the JR line and the Pasmo card for the Keikyu Line. Both cost about $25 to get (which you can use as train fare too), and are interchangeable/compatible with one another. So you're not just limited to whichever line you purchase the card from as long as you're just traveling around #Tokyo and the surrounding area.

Bonus, you can even use them at some vending machines, in some restaurants, to pay for some cabs, buses, etc!

When you do purchase one of these, you can enter your contact information on the machine, as well as your name. Select the amount of money you'd like to put on the card and then put the cash into the machine. The card will come out with your name on it (it's a pretty cool keepsake for after your trip too!).

suica card, IC card for Japanese trains

Sidenote: You can experience the craziest thing if you need help figuring out how to purchase your tickets or IC card at the ticket machines. If you look on the wall near the machines at many stations, there is often a square in the wall. If you knock on that, a person literally pops out of it. It opens and they lean out the window and help you purchase your ticket!

C) The Japan Rail Pass

You can purchase a Japan Rail Pass for $273 for 7 days. Depending on how much you're going to be traveling, this could end up being the most economical option. This can be used for long distances or short ones. You can also sit in reserved seats without paying an additional fee on some trains (more on that in a minute).

You can purchase your Japan Rail pass here or at major train stations. You even have the option to purchase it from the USA and have it shipped to you via FedEx in as little as 2 days! (See my post on other things you should do before you even leave for your trip here!)

Japan Rail Pass

2) Find Your Train Line and Enter the Gates

Once you see your train line (the colors on the sign will correspond to whatever was on the map above the machines), you'll have to enter through the gates to be able to access its platforms. To do so, put your ticket in the slot (You'll see tons of people doing this ahead of you), and as you walk through the gate, grab your ticket as it comes out a slot on the other side.

If you're using an IC card, just place it near the scanner on the gate, it will turn green and you can pass through. Then put your card away. If it turns red, you can't go through because you do not have enough money on your card. You can load money onto your card at any ticket machine.

gates at japanese train station

If you're using a Japan Rail Pass, you'll just walk by the manned gate and show him your pass. They will wave you through. Once you're through you can

3) Find Your Platform

All you have to do to get to the right platform is look at the different signs hanging from the ceiling. Look at the direction the train is going. It should have an arrow and a destination on the sign. It might not be your exact destination, but as long as your destination is between where you currently are and the destination on the sign, that is the right platform for you.

There will be more maps on the walls once you're through the gates so don't sweat it if you need to look again.

For example, say I need to go to Yokosuka-Chuo. I am in Yokohama, already through the gates for the Keikyu line and see a platform that says Uraga. I know that Yokosuka-Chuo is between Yokohama and Uraga, so that is the platform I need to be on.

woman and man on japanese train platform

4) Choose your Train

There are 5 categories of Japanese trains:

Local - stops at every station

Rapid - stops at less stations

Express - stops at even fewer stations

Limited Express - only stops at major stations (often you'd pay more for this ticket)

Super Express or Shinkansen - These are extremely fast trains usually used for longer distances. You'd have to pay extra for this and buy a different type of ticket.

For the sake of simplicity, we will focus on the first three types in this post. The regular tickets at the ticket machines should cover all three of these.

There is usually an electronic reader board showing the final destination of the train, time it will arrive, and the train type for the next few trains that are due to arrive at the platform.

If you're going to a station more than ten stops away, I would avoid the local trains. Often you'll see a small black window on the front and side of the train with white lettering in it. This usually indicates a local train.

The final destination of the train will show on the front and sides of the train as well. Back to our other example, if you're going to Yokosuka-Chuo from Yokohama, and are already on the Uraga platform, a train will arrive that says Misakiguchi. This is the final stop of that train, but it will indeed stop in Yokosuka-Chuo and Uraga.

5) Ride the Train

You will see areas where people are lined up to get on the train.

Some trains have women-only cars during certain hours, you'll see this painted on the platform if this is the case. This is because some women have, unfortunately, been groped by male passengers. So be mindful of that when lining up. (Sometimes these are a good choice if you're a woman with a baby and baby gear too).

people waiting on Japan train platform

Get in line, and once the train stops, allow current passengers to disembark before proceeding to get on. When you ride the train, please remember these key things:

A) Be mindful of your belongings

If you are wearing a backpack, put it in front of you. You can wear it on your front, set it on the floor in front of you (between your feet), or put it in the designated baggage areas. You just want to be mindful of where your stuff is and be sure not to hit anyone with it.

B) Don't be loud

It's best to just not talk, but if you absolutely need to, do it in a quiet voice. Please do not talk on your phone on the train. You can use it otherwise, but make sure that it is silenced.

C) Don't eat

Unfortunately I had no idea this wasn't allowed for THE LONGEST TIME. I was just oblivious to it and would eat and drink if I needed to. You're not really supposed to do this (see more on that here).

D) Be prepared to stand

It is highly likely that if you are on one of those first three train categories with no reserved seat, you could end up standing. There are special seats that are supposed to give priority to disabled people, the elderly, pregnant women, etc. But honestly they are often taken by youth that don't bother giving them up for those people.

people on japanese train

Other tips:

1) Use Google Maps or Hyperdia to plan your trips, whether small or big. See my post on that here.

2) Don't travel during rush hour!!! Rush hours are weekdays from 7-9 am and 5-7 pm. If you can avoid this, you really should because THE STRUGGLE IS REAL:

Like this isn't just something that happens every once in a while...this is an extreme situation that happens daily in and around #Tokyo!!!

This is a video I took last year of Shibuya station around 7 pm on a weeknight (yikes):

Something that is really important to remember when using #traintravel in #Japan for the first time is just not to panic! The Japanese train attendants are really helpful and will even walk you to the correct platform if you're completely lost.

train attendant on japanese train platform

#GaijinNinja #TravelBlog #traintravel #japan #tokyo

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