Japanese Bullet Train

Japan by Train: Everything You Need to Know

You’ve ordered your Japan Rail Pass, now what? You should start planning out your Japan itinerary, of course, but you should also take time to learn exactly how Japan’s train system is organized, from the Shinkansen Japan bullet train, to local and limited express trains, to subways and other urban rail systems throughout the country.

Whether you’re a Japan train novice, or are coming back to the country for seconds or third, you’ll find value in the guide to Japan trains presented below.

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Making Sense of Japanese Trains

Understanding the Japan Railway system is the first step to learning to use it efficiently. The good news is that while there are some quirks depending on where and what time of day you ride trains in Japan, the underlying logic is basically the same.

For traveling long distances, at least in Honshu and Kyushu islands, you’ll use Japan high speed rail, aka the aforementioned Shinkansen. These super-fast trains offer transit times comparable to flying and are, with a couple exceptions (as of April 2018, the Hayabusa, Mizuho and Nozomi variants) covered by the JR Pass. They don’t go everywhere in Japan, however, so you shouldn’t count on having them universally.

To be sure, trains in Japan also encompass local, express and limited express types, which vary in convenience and luxuriousness and are operated both by the JR company and private companies (in which instance, they usually aren’t covered by the JR pass). Many major Japanese cities have subway systems (and secondary Japanese cities tend to have either street cars or buses), though none of these are covered by the JR pass.

Japan Rail Timetable

Depending on which cities you’re traveling between and the distance you’re covering, the Shinkansen schedule might be irrelevant—departures between Tokyo and Osaka, for example, occur every few minutes during the day. On the other hand, traveling in less populous parts of Japan is very much a science, and being off by even a few minutes can cost hours off your bottom line.

The de-facto Japan rail schedule is HyperDia, which is not only an invaluable website but an application (not a free one, admittedly) for Android and iOS. Accurate, comprehensive timetables notwithstanding, HyperDia can specify the Japan rail cost (if you choose to pay cash for your tickets, rather than using the JR Pass), and can even search only journeys applicable to JR Pass users, omitting the Nozomi and limited express services not covered by the pass.

Traveling Japan by Train: FAQs

Do I need a Japan Rail Pass?

Japan Rail tickets are extremely expensive (I’m talking ¥3,000-for-a-few-minutes-on-the-Shinkansen expensive!), so unless you literally only need to take one or two train trips, then yes, you need to buy a JR pass. It’ll pay for itself in just a few long-distance train journeys, and sometimes with just one, which is incredible considering that it affords unlimited use of covered trains for the entirety of its duration.

How fast is a bullet train?

The Japan bullet train speed varies, but averages somewhere in the 200-300 km/h range during most parts of your Shinkansen journey. Currently, the Hayabusa (which operates on the Tohoku Shinkansen line between Tokyo and Hakodate) is the fastest train in Japan, with a top speed of 320 km/h, though faster models are in development.

What are the most popular train routes in Japan?

Aside from the Tokyo to Osaka bullet train, routes between Tokyo (and Osaka) and Kyoto are popular, as well as high-speed train services to Hiroshima and Hakata, the main train station of Kyushu island. Increasingly, train is a popular way to travel to northern Japanese cities like Sendai and Aomori, not to mention Hakodate since the arrival of the first phase of the Hokkaido Shinkansen.

What about trains in Kyushu, Shikoku and Hokkaido?

The bad news? High-speed Shinkansen services are mostly confined to Honshu island, with the exception of between Hakata, Kumamoto and Kagoshima in Kyushu, and from Aomori to Hakodate on the southern tip of Hokkaido (Sapporo won’t be connected to the Shinkansen system until 2031). While Japan express train services are common in Kyushu and Shikoku, train travel in Hokkaido can be miserably slow—it’s often better to rent a car.

How can I make seat reservations for the JR pass?

One feature that makes the train system in Japan superior to that of Europe is simplicity. In order to reserve a seat on any train, simply go to the JR office in a given city with your pass in hand and tell the representative which seat you’d like—or don’t. You can choose to board a “non-reserved” car if you lack either the time or inclination to make a booking, though this might necessitate you standing for all or part of the journey.

I still feel stressed out. Can you help me plan my train trip in Japan?

The train system in Japan is easy to understand once you understand the gist of it—trust us! On the other hand, we understand it can be stressful for first-timers especially, which is why we do offer an itinerary planning service. No matter where in Japan you plan to go, when you plan to go there and how precisely you want to organize your movements, Japan Starts Here won’t disappoint!

The Bottom Line

Seeing Japan by train is enjoyable, efficient and relatively easy to understand—once you get the hang of it. Whether you’ve navigated here to take a crash course before your first to Japan, or just need a refresher before you go back for the second or third time, we’re sure you’ll find the information useful. Are you ready to ride the rails?