So you’re looking to head to Japan but you may have heard that Japan’s train system is one crazy network. Or you may have just come from my JR pass Japan Trains blog post and want to find out more. Either way, you’re looking for more information about Japan’s train system, how their ticketing works and what to keep in mind with etiquette right? Well good. You’re at the right place.
If you haven’t got a JR pass or equivalent, then you’d need to be buying tickets every time you decided to take a train around Japan. For intercity travel, it’s super convenient and easy to have an IC card. It’s essentially a smart card similar to the Oyster in London, Octopus in Hong Kong and Opal in Sydney. it allows you to just tap-on and tap-off at train stations and not have to worry about buying tickets and fare costs every time you travel.
If you’re thinking of getting an IC card, head over to my first post on Japan trains, where I explain all about it.
BUYING A TRAIN TICKET
If you’re not keen on the IC card since you’re staying a short time, then you need to know the following regarding tickets.
For regular trains, you will need to purchase your tickets according to fare amount. If you’re using the ticket machines, you’ll find a map of the train network above you indicating different train stops and how much it’ll cost you to get to a particular station. You will need to look for where you’re going, find out how much it costs for the fare, then select that fare on the ticket machine.
This way, you’re paying for a specific fare amount rather than indicating which station you’ll be alighting at.
Otherwise, you can just head over to the Ticket Office. Usually there are long lines at the Ticket Office though. So I suggest the ticket machines in this case.
LIMITED EXPRESS TRAINS
Limited Express trains are great for going longer distances within prefectures or just to the next region. They stop at only a few selected stations along the train route, so arriving at your destination is much faster than an all stops local train. Due to this though, fares are more expensive and require an additional ticket.
Staff at the Ticket Offices will be able to help you with purchasing tickets. You will have the option of also reserving a seat, but again that’s an additional cost on top of the regular fare and limited express surcharge. A hefty option!
As for physical tickets, the Ticket Office will provide you with two paper tickets:
- The first ticket is for the regular fare. This is used at the ticket gate to get into the station and is the base fare for travelling from your origin to destination.
- The second ticket is the additional surcharge for selecting a limited express train. This is not used at the ticket gate. You just need to carry this ticket with you in case your carriage is inspected by a ticket officer whilst on the train.
- This second ticket will also show whether or not you have reserved a seat. If so, the carriage number and seat number will be listed on the front. So make sure you’re seated in a non-reserved seat if you haven’t paid the extra to secure a spot! Otherwise the ticket officer will escort you out of that premium carriage…
SHINKANSEN (Bullet Train)
If you’re looking to travel across the country, a shinkansen (bullet train) is a great way to do it. It only takes 2.5 hours to get from Osaka to Tokyo for example, which is only an hour more than a flight. If you think about it, with check-in and waiting time, it’s a lot easier to travel by train for such distances.
the shinkansen travel up to 300km/hr! I believe they’re tested to travel up to 500km/hr but don’t run at these speeds during actual service. How fast is that?!
Now for tickets. Shinkansen tickets will be significantly more expensive than your regular fare and limited express tickets. You have the option of reserving a seat and will also need to purchase these tickets at the Ticket Office at the station.
For physical tickets, the Ticket Office will provide you with two paper tickets:
- The first ticket is again your regular fare that is used at the initial ticket gate to get into the station. It is the base fare for travelling from your origin to destination.
- The second ticket is your shinkansen ticket. Once you pass through the initial station gates, you will need to head to the shinkansen sector of the station. You’ll find that you’ll need to cross through a second set of gates to reach your shinkansen platform. At these second set of gates, you will need to use both your regular fare and shinkansen paper tickets to get through the gate.
Just pop both into the slot (it doesn’t matter which way and which is on top), and it’ll come out of the receiving slot with a hole punched in your shinkansen ticket. Isn’t that crazy? When exiting the shinkansen sector of the train station, you’ll need to put both tickets into the ticket gate again to be let through.
- If you’ve reserved a seat, this will be indicated again on your shinkansen ticket. So make sure you have that handy!
For those travellers with a JR Pass, all of these additional tickets are FREE! Hence the advantage of purchasing these passes before you head to Japan. You will still need to reserve your tickets the Ticket Office, if you’re catching a limited express train or shinkansen. But if you’d rather just try your luck with a non-reserved seat, head train to the ticket gates and you’ll be let through without a problem.
ETIQUETTE FYI: THINGS YOU NEED TO KEEP IN MIND
There are a few things that need to be kept in mind when travelling by train in Japan. Etiquette and order is very prominent in Japan and the train network is no exception.
TRAIN CARRIAGE SIGNS
When waiting for a train, you will notice that there are signs either on the edge of the station platform or above head height, indicating the carriage number of the train. These signs will show you where the doors will be positioned when the train stops.
Different trains may stop at different positions of the platform. So if you see a whole bunch of different coloured signs, either match them up to the characters of your particular train or just ask station staff. They’ll be able to help you.
LETTING PASSENGERS ALIGHT FIRST
This is key. You will find that all other passengers waiting to get on the train will always wait for those alighting before they attempt to board. This allows passage to be smoother and quicker and being a foreigner doesn’t provide an excuse to act otherwise. It’ll make everyone’s life easier if you conform to the local etiquette.
WOMEN-ONLY CARRIAGES DURING PEAK HOUR
Sometimes there are “women only” signs on carriages or marked beside the car indicators on the floor. Some trains designate women-only carriages that are effective during peak hour to ensure that women feel safe during their travels. Unfortunately if you’re male and you find yourself on one of these when there’s no other male in sight, you will need to head to another carriage.
BUYING TICKETS AT THE TICKET OFFICE
Make sure you head to the Ticket Office early and give yourself sufficient time to purchase the tickets you need. There is always a line and that might cause you to miss your designated train. Most Ticket Offices allow you to purchase tickets days in advance, so take advantage of that if you know where you’ll be heading down the track.
QUEUING FOR NON-RESERVED SEATS
If you’re travelling a lot distance and haven’t reserved a seat, you might want to head to the station early to line up for the non-reserved carriages. Queues for popular train lines start forming a fair bit before the train arrives – I’ve seen people start forming queues 30 minutes in advance! If you don’t want to risk standing for hours on end on a train, you’d best arrive sooner rather than later.
THE CORRECT CARRIAGE
Once in a while, a train in Japan will connect or disconnect whilst at a station. For example, the first 2 carriages of the train with disconnect from the last 2 carriages and each set will travel separate ways from that point onward. It’s pretty crazy! Make sure you keep an eye out for these situations so you’re not on the wrong carriage.
If you’re looking for more information on JR passes and IC cards, head to my first blog post about Japan trains. I’ve got a whole bunch of information there for first time travellers.
Mrs Chu x