Looking to head to Japan and you are not sure what to do when it comes to public transport? If you haven’t heard already, the train system in Japan is pretty insane. Actually no, it’s definitely insane.
The web of train lines that intertwine all over major cities like Tokyo is pretty impressive, but highly intimidating to the first time traveller.
You can get something called a JR pass that’s exclusive for foreigners travelling in Japan, or IC cards that can be used on the local train system. You can also buy regular paper tickets, but there’s really too much information to fit into one post.
I’ll create a separate post on buying paper train tickets and things to be aware of when utilising the Japanese train system. So keep an eye out for that!
But first, JR passes and IC cards in Japan. Let’s break it down:
TRAIN NETWORK IN JAPAN: JR PASS & IC CARDS
Japan’s railway system is made up of a fair few companies running both regular trains and subways. The main railway company that runs throughout the country is Japan Railway Group, also known as JR. Within certain cities though, you may find that private subways or regular rail lines will be more convenient.
HOW TO GET AROUND: GOOGLE MAPS
Really, there’s no easier way then using Google Maps. There are so many train lines involved within the railway network across the country, that the easiest way to know what train to catch is via Google Maps. The app will be able to tell you which line to catch and what direction your train is heading for. In some instances, they’ll be able to tell you which platform the train will arrive at as well!
Another really good feature to Google Maps is telling you when to ‘remain on board’. Trains in Japan frequently change to different train lines and only indicate via audio announcement. But of course, without being able to speak the language, the announcement will just fall on deaf ears. So Google Maps will be able to let you know which train is most convenient to get to your destination and whether you need to change trains or remain on board. (I really love Google Maps…)
JR PASSES: WHAT TO KNOW
So you may have heard of ‘JR Passes’ that can be pre-purchased for use on trains in Japan. These passes are only available for foreigners to purchase outside of Japan. So if you’re interested in getting one, make sure you do your research and order a pass before you leave your country!
Prices of public transport in Japan can add up, especially when you’re travelling across prefectures and regions. Fares can easily climb past the ¥10,000 mark, so a JR Pass will be cheaper with its unlimited travel.
TYPES OF JR PASSES:
- Ordinary JR Pass: Ordinary JR Passes come in either a consecutive 7 day, 14 day or 21 day form. These passes allow travel across any JR line within Japan inclusive of shinkansen (bullet trains). There are exceptions like the Nozomi shinkansen and any JR trains travelling on private railway tracks. If you’re unsure, check the conditions on your ticket (in case they have changed since) and with the station master. It might be as simple as paying a supplementary fee.
- Green JR Pass: The ‘business-class’ of JR trains, Green cars are more luxurious then the rest and hence attract a higher fare than a regular train car. The Green JR Pass works the same as an Ordinary Pass, except you can ride in the Green cars when available.
To be completely honest, regular Japanese trains (especially shinkansens) are very comfortable already. So unless you’re living the high-life and have the extra cash for a Green JR Pass, an Ordinary JR Pass will most probably be sufficient.
Green JR Passes also come in 7 day, 14 day or 21 day forms.
- Reserved seating: Both JR Passes allow users to book reserved seating where permitted. Normally reserved seating is an additional charge on top of the base train fare, but with the JR Pass it’s all included! I suggest you take advantage of this, especially on longer train rides within peak season. Why put yourself through the trouble of heading to the station early and trying to snag a seat?
REGION SPECIFIC JR PASS:
Other than the main JR Pass that covers the whole country’s JR network, you can also get region specific JR Passes that are significantly more affordable. These will be great for anyone staying in the same region for a longer period of time.
There are a bunch of different passes that you can get and some of these can be purchased with Japan for a slightly higher price. Some may also include travel on other forms of transport that is prominent in the area.
If you’re thinking of exploring a specific region for some time, check out these passes to see whether it’ll make travel more affordable.
APPS THAT CAN HELP: HYPERDIA & JAPAN TRAINS APP
If you’re looking up a route on Google Maps and don’t know which trains are included with your JR pass or not, Hyperdia can help! This site was made to be the Google Maps for Japan and will be able to filter out JR trains from other private lines.
To get a handy app for your phone, Japan Trains is the Hyperdia equivalent.
NON-JR PASSES: PRIVATE COMPANIES & CITY SPECIFIC
PRIVATE RAIL PASSES & CITY PASSES
There are a range of private rail passes and city specific passes that can be purchased. Some even include discounts to local attractions. If you haven’t got a JR pass on hand, it’s handy to see whether or not the cities you’re visiting have these discount options.
Majority of the time, you’ll be able to find information about these passes at tourist information centres.
TRANSPORT SPECIFIC PASSES
There are also passes specifically for certain forms of transport, other than trains. For example, the main form of transport around Hiroshima city is via streetcar (tram). There are JR trains that run across the city and a few other private lines, but the most convenient way of getting around the city itself is by streetcar.
Tourists can get a 1 Day Streetcar Pass for ¥600 or a 1 day Streetcar + Ferry Pass for ¥840, which includes ferry transfers between the mainland and Miyajima Island.
Again, super convenient if you don’t have a JR Pass already, but make sure you add up the costs. If you’re not planning to utilise the Hiroshima streetcars a lot that day, it might not be worth getting the 1 Day Pass.
IC CARDS: SUICA VS PASMO
IC cards are rechargeable smart cards that are used throughout the transport system of Japan. Like the Oyster Card in London, the Octopus Card in Hong Kong or the Opal in Sydney, Australia; it’s basically a pre-loaded card that allows you to just ‘tap on’ and ‘tap off’ at train stations to make travelling super simple. There’s no need to buy tickets and figure out how much you need to pay for the fare.
IC cards can be purchased at train station ticket offices or ticket machines for ¥500. When you’re done with them, you can exchange them back for the deposit – so really, no loss!
SUICA VS. PASMO
If you’ve looked into IC cards before, you may have realised that there isn’t just the one IC card. In the Tokyo metro area, there are 2 main IC cards used: Suica and Pasmo. Both have the same functions and can be used on the same train lines. Suica is the IC card produced by JR whilst Pasmo is the IC card produced by the subway system.
Outside of Tokyo, you may find that the Suica card is more commonly used and may have slightly less restrictions on regional train lines, but if you’re staying within Tokyo you most probably won’t have any issues with either.
There are a few things to take note of when using IC cards:
- Different regions in Japan have different IC cards: Other than Suica and Pasmo, there are actually a whole lot of different IC cards you can get in Japan. Suica and Pasmo are used within the Tokyo region and can be used in other cities like Osaka. But different cities have produced their own forms of the IC card and sometimes don’t accept IC cards from other cities. If you’re uncertain, it’s best to ask the station master before you tap on. Just in case.
- IC cards don’t allow travel across regions: If you haven’t got a JR pass and want to travel from one region to the next, you most probably will have problems travelling with an IC card. With specific cards only being accepted in specific areas, IC cards don’t allow travel across regions. You might be able to ‘tap on’ from your departure station, but when you attempt to ‘tap off’ at your destination, a giant red cross might appear and stop you from leaving the station.
If you’re heading to another region, you should check with the ticket office first to see whether you can use your card or whether you need to purchase a paper ticket instead.
- Don’t forget to ‘tap off’! This might sound obvious, but don’t forget to ‘tap off’! Otherwise your IC card might think you’re still travelling and will lock your card to that particular train line company. If this happens, you’ll need to head over to a station within the same train line and ask the staff there to help you out.
NOTE: Usually stations are separated by train lines. If you’re transferring from a JR line to a private line, there will generally be two different train stations with different names. So getting out of one and heading into another is very obvious. But some train stations are tricky and require commuters to ‘tap-to-transfer’. You aren’t faced with a physical barrier to tap-off the first line, then tap-on to the second; you are just required to tap once to transfer to another line. This can get super confusing and has been a problem for Mr Chu and I in the past…
CONVENIENCE STORES & SMALL TRANSACTIONS
On top using it for regular transport, IC cards can also be used for small transactions at vending machines and coin lockers. Places like convenience stores also accept it as a form of payment! How awesome is that? Just look out for the IC card machines when you go around town.
These are just some things to consider when looking at options for travelling on Japan trains. If you’d like more information on how to buy paper tickets, keep an eye out for my upcoming blog post. There’s just way too much to jam it all into one post…
Let me know if you have any questions about the topics that I’ve addressed, and I’ll happily help where I can!
For now though…
Mrs Chu x