Traveling by rail in Japan?

If you are nodding your head, then you can feel a sense of pride and relief that you will be making use of one of Japan’s most effective modes of transportation. Not only is traveling by rail in Japan a clean, comfortable and punctual experience but it also grants you access to most of the country!

And so, if you are planning on traveling by rail in Japan, feel free to bookmark this blog right now as this is the ultimate guide to figuring out this popular mode of transportation.

Here are some of the facts to know beforehand, ensuring your travels in Japan as a tourist are the very best, incredibly safe and totally memorable.

Book the Japan Rail Pass online

Traveling by rail in Japan
Traveling by rail in Japan –

Traveling by Rail in Japan: What are the Options?

It is absolutely normal to feel overwhelmed by Japan’s robust rail network. With so much on offer, it can feel daunting figuring out which rail system is best for you. Thankfully, this system is surprisingly easy to understand and doesn’t require you to understand it in excessive detail.

Below is a brief summary of the various trains you will encounter when you are traveling by rail in Japan:

  • Local (普通)
  • Rapid (快速)
  • Express (急行)
  • Limited Express (特急) / Special Express (特急)
  • Shinkansen (Bullet Train) (新幹線)

To help make this easier for you, I will be sharing my own personal experience and detail the best train system available: the Japan Rail Pass!

Japan Rail Pass

If you are planning on exploring Japan at length and traveling long distances, then you should definitely consider making use of the Japan Rail Pass (also commonly called JR Pass). Traveling by rail in Japan is all about efficiency, affordability and accessibility – benefits that the JR Pass definitely has.

The pass is exclusively available for foreign tourists and surprisingly offers unlimited rides at a competitive price. This means that you are able to explore as much of Japan as possible without breaking the bank. In fact, already a return trip from Tokyo to Kyoto costs as much as a two weeks JR-Pass. With the JR-Pass you can travel not only with the Shinkansen but all the other Japan Rail trains, ferries and buses.

You also have the option of choosing between an ordinary ticket and a green car. The difference between these two is that the latter is a first-class option. It includes more luxurious, spacious seating arrangements within the train.

Where to Purchase your Japan Rail Pass Ticket

Before you can even begin traveling by rail in Japan, you need to purchase your ticket (or pass). The local stations typically sell these, or easiest is to buy it online before arriving. In most of the larger cities, you will, without a doubt, notice the large ticket offices (at JR stations, they’re called Midori no Madoguchi). Once you arrive, you will be able to speak to an agent that will help you. You might encounter a slight language barrier, however most of the agents are used to interacting with non-Japanese speakers so you should be okay!

If you would like to sort out your tickets beforehand, you also have the option of purchasing your pass online! It is quick and efficient and will alleviate any stress once you arrive in Japan!


Data Sim-Card

You must purchase a data sim card that allows you to make use of your mobile phone for a full flat rate. I should, however, note that during my travels, I was never tempted to make any phone calls (as only a few people were able to communicate in English).

That being said, I did find it helpful to have access to important mobile apps like: Hyperdia (aid for traveling by rail in Japan – it gives you exact information about the timetable, platform etc.) and Google Maps: for finding the places of accommodations.  

When it comes to sourcing these sim-cards you can get them at a number of shops in Japan. They are cheap but you should also know that they don’t cover all the areas you want to travel (because most people’s English is so limited – it is wise to get the information before traveling.

You will need Wi-Fi to start the sim card. Check out the various 4G SIM cards and Wi-Fi devices in Japan from Klook. You can purchase them online, get all the necessary information, and organize to pick it up at the airport when you arrive.

Related: Navigating Internet Access in Japan: A Traveler’s Guide

Reserving Seats on the Trains in Japan

When you are traveling by rail in Japan, you never need to reserve seats. We were always able to find seats on the trains. On very busy routes, it might be useful if you know what time you want to travel. Non-reserved seats are always clearly demarcated along with signed carriages.

Hyperdia provides you with all you need to know in regard to the information boards on the platforms or the marks on the platform floors that tell you about the carriages that are non-reserved carriages (always the carriages 1 to 3 or 1 to 5 at the Shinkansen trains). That means that you do not have to search for free seats on the train, and you are secure knowing that the seats cannot be reserved while traveling.

Safe Traveling by Rail in Japan

Though most helpers at the stations cannot speak English, there are always people there who are eager to support you. Better yet, you will immediately notice that safety and convenience are a major priority in Japan, so you will never feel lost or unsafe. But if you ask for support, you should allow for the fact that it could take some time given language barriers, but they will do whatever they can to provide you with the help you need.

Traveling by rail in Japan is an incredibly memorable experience. While many people see the final destination as the start of their adventure, their sleek railway system is just as much a part of the fun as the destination. It is something that every traveler should experience at least once in their lives because you will definitely not regret it!


  • Travel Dudes

    I'm sure you've had similar experiences I had whilst traveling. You're in a certain place and a fellow traveler, or a local, tip you off on a little-known beach, bar or accommodation. Great travel tips from other travelers or locals always add something special to our travels. That was the inspiration for Travel Dudes.