Up until pretty recently, riding Japan’s rails was easy for foreign tourists. They simply bought (and redeemed) a Japan Rail Pass presented it whenever they needed to board a train.
For reasons I’ll explain in just a few paragraphs, this is often no longer the case. Instead, most non-Japanese travelers now do the same as the Japanese: They buy train tickets outright.
If you’re curious about how to buy train tickets in Japan—or, perhaps more specifically, the best way to buy train tickets in Japan—you’re in the right place. By the time you navigate away from this article, you’ll be ready to board the Shinkansen, JR Pass or not.
The Japan Rail Pass is (Often) No Longer Worth It
The topic of how to buy train tickets in Japan has become popular primarily because the Japan Rail Pass has increased so dramatically in price. As of October 2023, the top-selling 14-day Japan Rail Pass costs a whopping ¥50,000, which is more than most travelers would spend buying train tickets outright when traveling around Japan for two weeks.
Now, I sometimes do recommend that my clients buy the JR Pass, but not to save money. Rather, the Japan Rail Pass now allows holders to make seat reservations online, saving travelers from ever having to visit a ticket office (apart from when they’re picking up the pass). If money is more important to you than time, however, you’ll want to continue reading.
Ways to Buy Train Tickets in Japan
JR East’s Ekinet website is the official portal for buying Shinkansen and Limited Express train tickets in eastern Japan, including Hokkaido and the Tohoku region. While the registration process is somewhat convoluted, it’s pretty easy to use once you’re set up; it’s the exact same interface as the JR Pass seat reservation tool.
(Or similar sites for JR West or JR Kyushu)
Curious about how to buy train tickets in Japan, but aren’t traveling on a train in eastern Japan? You’ll instead want to consult the ticket purchase site for the region where you’re traveling. For most travelers, this is JR West (which serves trains to and from Kyoto and Osaka), but it may also be via JR Kyushu. Note that buying tickets online is only necessary for Shinkansen and Limited Express services.
Passengers traveling exclusively via the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen, meanwhile, can avail an app called SmartEX (although I recommend registering first on the web). In addition to offering an easy interface that allows you to book your ticket literally in seconds, you can also designate your PASMO or Suica card so that you can go through the Shinkansen gates simply by tapping it.
Online travel agencies
If you only need to buy Shinkansen tickets (and not Limited Express ones), another option is to book via an online travel agency, such as Klook. In addition to the fact that this offers a modest discount, you enjoy the convenience of being able to pick your tickets up at any JR Reserved Ticket vending machine.
JR ticket offices
When all else fails, you can always queue up at any JR ticket office in Japan to purchase your tickets. Staff are very helpful and can always speak at least some English; even if there is a long line, it tends to move pretty quickly. Whether the day of travel or the night before, this is usually a perfectly fine option except for during the most busy times of year (so, sakura season and autumn color season).
NOTE: While automated train ticket machines are technically open to foreigners and do have English-language interfaces, they often don’t accept credit cards issued outside Japan. As a result, it’s typically impractical to purchase expensive, long-distance trains at such machines.
What About PASMO and Suica?
Keep in mind that in many cases, you don’t need a physical ticket to board trains in Japan. In fact, with some exceptions, you can use PASMO, Suica or other “IC” cards to board virtually all trains Japan not designed as “Limited Express” or “Shinkansen.” Where IC card turnstiles are not available, you can usually buy tickets from an automated machine.
To put it another way, if you don’t plan to buy a JR Pass, your IC card will be an important tool in your arsenal. It won’t be the only one, however, so it’s still important to be aware of all the other strategies for how to buy train tickets in Japan. At some point during your trip, all of this will become second nature and you’ll be riding the rails of Japan like a pro.
Other FAQ About Buying Train Tickets in Japan
What is the best site to book train tickets in Japan?
As long as you can deal with the somewhat clunky interface, JR East’s Ekinet website (or corresponding websites for JR West, JR Kyushu and JR Hokkaido) is the best site for booking train tickets in Japan. If you only plan to use the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen, on the other hand, the SmartEX app is extremely convenient.
Do you need to book Japan train tickets in advance?
It might sound surprising, but outside of peak travel times (such as cherry blossom and autumn color seasons), you don’t need to book Japan train tickets far in advance. In fact, it’s often possible to get reserved seats just minutes before a given train departs!
Can you book Japanese trains online?
You can book Japanese trains online, whether or not you have a Japan Rail Pass. While the most common way is to book directly through JR (or using a JR-adjacent application such as SmartEX), online travel agencies like Klook do sell Shinkansen tickets as well.
The Bottom Line
If you’ve read this far, you’ve got a pretty good idea about how to buy train tickets in Japan. For some travelers, the Japan Rail Pass still makes sense, even at its new, much higher price point. For other traveler, digital solutions such as Ekinet or the SmartEX app are best option. For still others, old school is the way to go: Queuing up at a station ticket office might take some time, but it is simple and fool proof. Want personalized help stringing together your next journey around Japan, no matter how you end up buying train tickets? Consider hiring me to plan it for you!