Navigating the Japanese Train System [Go! Girl Guides Article]

Crossposted from Go! Girl Guides, where I’m a contributing blogger. Check out the site for more great articles from other freewheelin’ travellin’ girls that go!

I’ve just returned from an amazing trip to Osaka, Japan and wanted to share some tips I picked up about my experience getting around there. My main transport there was via train and subway – Japan has a really extensive railway system in place, and their trains there are well known for being really punctual.

I was a little worried that getting around would be difficult because I don’t know any Japanese, but it was surprisingly easier than I thought. Here are some tips for anyone headed to Japan on their own:

The Interesting Stuff

  • Some train cabins are warmer than others. Look out for the sign that says ??, that means “less cold” when translated literally.
  • Japan is pretty well known for having to pack people into trains during rush hours – to protect women from the perverts, there are ‘women only’ carriages so if you have to be packed like a sardine into one of those things, at least you won’t be uncomfortably squished up against a random dude.
  • Food and drink are allowed in the train and I’m glad to note that their trains have always been impeccably clean and litter free.


Distance Counts

The Japan train system works via a distance system – you pay for the distance that you travel. When you look at the boards usually found above the ticket machines, the price you need to pay is indicated in the various bubbles. The ticket machines usually have an English translation option, but don’t worry if they don’t, you just need to buy the ticket with the right price on it, regardless of destination. If you start putting money into the machine, the various options should light up for you to pick, which is easier than trying to find that right destination option before you put the money in.

If you’re unsure, there are ticket windows and info counters you can purchase your tickets at, or head to the gates which have officers nearby who can assist in case you can’t figure it out. At the bigger stations there’s also usually an official hanging around there who’s ready to help the confused tourists, like I was when I first tried to figure out how to get my ticket.

If you’re really sure of your traveling in the time that you are there, consider looking into getting a day pass or a 2/3 day pass instead. Train tickets in Japan are not the cheapest and were one of my major expenditures on this last trip. It might actually be cheaper to get a day pass, so do your homework if you can and you could save a little bit!


How to Tell Where Your Train is Headed

Even if you don’t read a lick of Japanese, all the stations, lines and exits in the subway are numbered so it’s quite easy to identify your stop or exit. Quite often you’ll get English translations along with the Japanese name which helps things. If you have some ability to read mandarin characters like I do, that helps immensely as well in identifying places.

Japan’s rail system has lots of private lines that will get you to the same place as the national Japan Railway (JR) lines; some in Osaka that I came across include the Nankai line, Kintetsu line, the Hankyu line, the Hanshin line… phew! In the big cities like Kyoto and Osaka, the different lines are quite often linked up in one huge train station, but in the smaller cities, the stations may be some distance apart, and which line you take depends on where in the city you might want to go. For example in Nara, the Nara Kintetsu line is nearer to Todaiji Temple than the JR line.

Also, remember to factor in extra traveling time to get from station to station – my journeys just always ended up being longer than expected because there was a lot of walking involved.


Be on Time!

The trains in Japan are notoriously efficient, so be at your platform on time! On that note, there are usually lots of trains leaving from the same platform at various timings, so don’t take the wrong train.

Depending on where you are going, there are different types of trains headed along the same route – what differs usually is the number of stops they stop at, which then affects how long it might take you to get to your final destination. If you’re traveling between big cities, like from Osaka to Kyoto, always opt for the fastest train Express train if you can – it costs the same and gets you there the quickest. For example, Osaka to Kyoto takes just 28 mins by Special Rapid Service by stopping at only 2 stops, while the Local Service takes 47 mins and stops at 14 stops. If you’re headed to a small city though, do check if the express train stops at your stop as they usually bypass the small stops!

Note that sometimes there are Limited-Express trains – Limited here refers to the number of seats available on the train as you are assigned fix seating, so this also costs a bit more than your free-seating Express trains.

Have you ever braved the Japanese Train System?

Here’s a bunch of pictures I took on my train travels that I hope will help! It’ll further illustrate the points above…



On the subway - the first bit tells you which station you boarded at (Hommachi), while the numbers tell you how much you paid for the ticket (230 yen)
Waiting at the Subway tracks
Look out for these boards when you get off the subway - they tell you which exit exactly to head towards and are numbered so its easier to locate



These stickers demarcate the 'women only' train carriages during peak hours
Three types of trains are headed from Osaka to Kyoto. The numbers in the bubbles indicate the time it takes to reach each station. As you can see, the Local (light blue) goes to every stop and takes 47 mins to get to Kyoto, while the Special Rapid (dark blue) only stops at 3 stops and takes 28 mins!
Many trains use the same track - the screen on the right of the clock tells you which trains are coming up. the red/blue box tells you which service it is (rapid express, local, etc.) while the words give you the destination (eng translation below). The shapes and numbers on the right tell you how many carriages there are and which symbol to queue at!
Big train stations may have cafes inside the gates, but your best bet is to buy something in and snack on longer train rides!
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