If you’re traveling to Japan the first time, you might be worried about how you will cope with the train system. If you are coming to a big city like Tokyo, train stations will be crowded and the last thing you want to do is to wander around the station wondering how you can buy tickets and what train you should board. In order for you not to end up in a situation like this, I’ll tell you the basics about Japanese trains today.

How to know which train line to use

Train map at Shimoimaichi station platform

When you look at a the train maps, you might feel like you’ll never be able to fully understand it. However, it’s okay since you don’t need to understand these maps – I would dare to say you don’t even need to look at them! Just type the nearest station and your destination into one of the route search systems, look at the results and hop on the train. I would recommend especially Hyperdia or Jorudan. Hyperdia is working better in my opinion but Jorudan is nice if you also want to look for possible bus routes. Both of these allow you to choose the order in which the route options are displayed: they can displayed based on the time used, the number of transfers or the ticket fares.

If you know Japanese, I would also recommend Yahoo Japan’s route search that I always use myself. It does not only show you the route and transit information, it also tells you whenever there’s a delay or some other problem with the line you’re going to use and suggests you alternative routes. You can also set up your walking speed in case your route includes walking – pretty nice when you are in a hurry!

Station gates at Sakuragicho Station
The gates of Sakuragicho station in Yokohama. If you have a Japan rail pass, you should pass through the manned gates on the right.

When you arrive to station, look for the signs of the line you’re going to use. Don’t pass the gates if you’re not sure they’re not the gates of the line you want to use! If you pass the wrong gates, you can’t just come back by passing the gates again at the same station. If you ask the station staff, they will often help you get out of the station but it’s a time-taking process so I would recommend being careful to not end up in a situation like this.

You should also be careful at some subway stations, as the gates are sometimes separated by direction and you can’t just walk from one platform to another platform. Always double-check the signs above and beside the gates before entering.

How to buy tickets

Ticket machines at Sakuragicho Station
You can see different types of ticket machines in this picture. Many of them let you purchase normal tickets for riding the train but some of them might be reserved for charging IC cards which are becoming more and more common.

You have two choices here: you can either buy a ticket every time you ride a train or you can buy a pre-paid IC card which you can charge using the specific machines in the train station. By using cards like this, you’ll save time and get rid of the hassle of buying ticket every time you ride a train. Besides, you don’t even have to know how much your trip will cost so there’s no need to look at the often complicated price charts.

IC pre-paid cards
You can see some examples of IC Cards here. Different regions of Japan have cards of their own: Suica card in Kanto and Icoca in Kansai for example. That doesn’t mean you have to buy a new one everytime you travel though: especially Suica and Icoca work fine in pretty much the whole Japan.

Also, did you know that you save money by using IC cards like Suica? The price doesn’t differ much but sometimes it’s apparently a few yens cheaper to travel by IC card instead of an ordinary ticket.

You can buy IC cards at most stations by using the same vending machines used for buying tickets and charging the cards. Cards like Suica can only be purchased JR stations but they can be charged at any station. Suica costs 500yen and you also have to charge it with 1500yen when buying it the first time but you will get that 5 bucks back if you return the card when you leave the country.

 

However, even if you had Suica, if you want to travel to other cities by trains like shinkansen you will have to buy individual tickets. Some special trains like Narita Express also demand you to buy a separate ticket. You can purchase these tickets either with the machines found in the stations or from the staff in Midori no madoguchi (みどりの窓口), Green offices.

Midori no madoguchi at Sakuragicho Station

When buying a separate train ticket you can refer to the information at route search sites for the price. If you don’t have an internet access and you’re already in the stations, you should look at the price charts often printed above the ticket machines. If you are not sure about the price, pay the minimum amount and then pay for the change before leaving the station at your destination. There are fare adjustment machines (精算機) before the gates and if you insert your ticket in one, it will automatically show you what price you have to pay to get out of the station.

If you have Japan Rail Pass, you will be saved from the hassle of buying tickets but going through the manned gates can sometimes be considerably slower than going through the automated gates. Sometimes the officer who could look into your pass is busy – and in rare cases, he might want to check the stamp in your rail pass a bit more closely.

How to board the train

Simply: line up at one of the designated spots. If there’s many train lines leaving from the same platform, there might be multiple places for lines and you must check what’s written on the ground. Be careful to never cross the yellow lines as it’s possible you might fall on to the tracks. There have been incidents where a person has been pushed away from the platform, either by accident or on purpose, and while these kind of incidents are rare you really have no reason to risk your life by walking too near to the tracks.

A platform at Shimoimaichi station
You should always stand behind the yellow lines when waiting a train to come.

When the train comes make sure it’s the train you wanted to use, wait until everyone who wants to get off has gotten off and after that, you can get on the train. If the train is very crowded, you should turn around at the entrance and push yourself into the train facing the platform. If you have a backpack, you might want to take it off and carry it in front of you – not because of possible pickpockets but because it’s polite as your backpack will take less space like this.

What if I get lost?

Ask around if you are not sure. Many Japanese people might be shy in speaking English but if your question is simple enough, even those who don’t feel confident in their English will do their best to help you. If you feel intimidated asking ordinary Japanese people or they all seem busy, try asking the station staff.

If you notice you’re riding a train going to the wrong direction, search for a new route before hopping off the train. Just getting off and riding a train going to the opposite direction is not always the best choice and sometimes it might be better to get off at a larger station where you might have a chance to catch a faster train. If you have no access to the internet, you should either ask someone or just get off the train and look at the map or ask the station officer there.

By the way, when you accidentally ride a train too far, you should be careful not to just hop off the train and jump to one going to the opposite direction without leaving the station gates. Although many do this, it’s actually illegal. This being said, riding circular train lines like Yamanote around and around many times could also be considered illegal and if a station officer catches you doing this, you will be in a trouble. Even if you accidentally miss your station, make sure to always leave the gates (= pay for your trip) before boarding a train going to the station you originally wanted to go.

Japan Railways (JR) train at Yokohama, Japan

That ends today’s brief explanation on how to use trains at Japan. I will write a guide on using the ticket machines and more specific information on train lines later on but even if you come to Japan before that, you should be okay with this guide already!

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