The Joys and Pitfalls of the Japanese Train System

Tokyo Travel Blog

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There is no denying that the train system in Japan is truely amazing.  You can get anywhere you need to in the country by taking the trains, and local subways systems interconnect with mid and long range trains.  The mass transit system is a model that every other developed country in the world should aspire too.  It puts my own home town of Washington DC to complete shame.

There are some hazards to the train system for Gaijin (foreigners).   The biggest issue I encountered is that signs and maps inside of the stations are frequently only written in Japanese.   You can find a map in your own language to follow, but it sure would be nice to be able to tell what station you are at some times!   Also, the ticket machines can frequently be very hard to understand without extensive cross references of maps and directions.

Fortunately, a traveler who plans well in advance can largely alleviate this problem.  To begin with, it is critical that you find and bring a map of all local and regional train systems in your own language.  Unfortunately, this only gets you 3/4 of the way there.   A second problem with the train system is the baffling mix of local, rapid, express, and bullet speed trains.  Frequently, travelers will find themselves on a track with three trains headed in the same direction.   The local train visits every stop, while the rapid train will skip several stops at a time.  The express train may skip dozens of stops in between towns and only stop at major stations in a city.   Bullet trains can be available for extremely rapid transit between cities.    The hazards are several - first, getting on a local train for any significant distance can easily take you hours longer than an express or rapid - but, and express train may not stop at your desired stop and you could find yourself far off course.    Also, to add to the confusion, some trains may not go all of the way to end of the line, but may stop and kick you off at an intermediary stop, where you will have to transfer to a new train to continue.  This is especially true of the regional JR line trains.

All of this can lead to wildly different experiences for new arrivals to Japan.  One person traveling to Kamakura could find themselves in a comfortable reclining seat on a short hour long trip.  Another could be on a subway car with standing room only for the two hour trip, stopping at every stop along the way and changing trains three times.  Unfortunately, the guards and tickets sellers are frequently unable to help much unless you speak Japanese.

The last pitfall of the Japanese train system is the cost.  Individual tickets around the country can be in the hundreds of dollars US.  There is a tourist only month long pass that is an incredible value.  Your passport is required to prove that you are a tourist, and it only pays off if you are going to do a decent amount of train travel.  

So here are the steps for successfull use of the Japanese trains and subways
1.  Get a complete set of maps in your language and take them with you everywhere.
2.  Use this website    to figure our your route.  Be warned though, that this site is based on the exact time you specify and may not reveal express trains that are ten minutes later than your listed time.
3.  Relax and take your time to find the right tracks.
4.  Pay attention to how many stops you are going and whether the train is an express, rapid, or local.

Some other quick tips
- some trains have special cars that have assigned seats.  On the JR line, these are called Green Cars, and you won't be allowed to stay without a more expensive ticket.
- There are reportedly some cars that are reserved for women only.  I haven't seen one yet, but you may encounter one.
-  Many stations are under some construction or have tight spaces to walk through.  You may have to look carefully to find a walkway farther down the siding or to a different track.
-  Escalators and elevators are not always available.  Be prepared to haul your stuff up stairs.   Some of the JR lines have luggage compartments in each car, but not all do.

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photo by: maka77