Navigating Trains in Japan

Planning Your Trip

You need to identify the name of the train station you will be departing from and arriving at before looking up train schedules. Once you’ve determined where you are going, use Google maps to search for the nearest train station. It helps to have the kanji and romanji names written down.

You can look up train times at

Simply type in your start and ending station name, time, and date. The website will display all of your train options for that time frame. You can change the input parameters at the bottom of the search page. The results will display costs, transfers, time, and line name.

It is very important to know which train line you need to be on.


At the Station

Buying your ticket at the Vending Machines (for local travel)

Ticket vending machine

1. To check how much your ticket costs, look at the map above the vending machines and find your destination. The price should be displayed along with the station name. Most maps are in Japanese so you should write down the kanji of your destination and return station if making a round trip.

2. Insert the money into the vending machine. Most machines accept coins of 10, 50, 100, and 500 yen and 1000 yen bills. Many machines also accept larger bills.

3. Select the number of tickets you wish to buy. The default is one so if you only need one, don’t worry about it.

4. Press the button that shows the amount of your ticket.

5. Take your ticket(s) and change.


Prepaid Train Cards

Avoid the hassle of determining your train fare altogether by purchasing a Suica or Pasmo Card.  These cards allow you to bypass the ticket vending machine and head straight for the fare gates.  No more trying to decipher the fare maps!  Just swipe your card across the reader at the fair gates upon entry and exit and the correct fare will be deducted from the balance on the card.

You can purchase or add funds to your Suica or Pasmo Card at ticket vending machines bearing the correct logo.  Most of these machines provide guidance in English.  The minimum value that you can purchase is Y1,000 ($10 USD).  Both cards require a deposit of Y500 of which all but Y210 is returned to you when you turn the card back in.

The Suica and Pasmo cards can also be used on busses that display the cards logo and can even be used to purchase merchandise at participating vendors.  The advantage to the Suica card is that it can also be used on JR train lines and is not limited to central Tokyo and the subway.   However there are different Suica for different regions of Japan so a Suica card purchased in Tokyo may not work in Osaka and vice versa.


Ticket Counter

Buying a ticket at a ticket counter

In order to purchase a ticket, you need to provide the following information:

  • Number of travelers
  • Date of travel
  • Departure Station
  • Destination Station
  • Ordinary or green car
  • Preference of reserved or non-reserved seat

If you wish to reserve a seat, you need to provide the following additional information:

  • Train name and number OR departure time
  • Preference of smoking or non-smoking seat

If you do not speak Japanese and there is a lineup, it is recommended that you write the data on a piece of paper and present it to the salesperson in order to make the purchasing process smoother. Special forms for that purpose (some in English) are actually provided at some stations, but are rarely used by customers.


Automatic Ticket Gates

Entering the Paid Fare Zone

After buying the ticket, you can proceed through the ticket gate. At automatic ticket gates insert the ticket into the slot, walk through the gate and pick up the ticket on the other side. If there is no automatic ticket gate, there is usually an attendant there to stamp your ticket.

In order to access shinkansen platforms, you need to pass through a second or separate set of ticket gates. They are usually well marked.


_MG_9283Train Platforms

In order to determine which platform you need to be on look for the overhead signs after you pass through the fare gate.  These signs will indicate where the train on each platform is headed  and may also list a other significant stops along the way as well as the end point of the line in both English & kanji.  If the sign  is electronic and you only see kanji wait a moment – it will switch to English at most stations.  If it does not, stop at the stationmasters office for the track number for your destination.

If you don’t know any of the significant stops on the same train that you need to be riding, ask one of the train station staff which platform your train will arrive on.

24177_418628916162_4306371_nRiding the Train

If you are riding with a reserved seat, make sure you board the correct train car and sit in your assigned seat. If you do not need a reserved seat, seating is available at a first come, first serve basis. Some seating is designated for people with handicaps, pregnant women, and people with children. Typically you should not sit in these places.

If you have to stand, there are always plenty of places to hold on.


Reaching Your Destination

While riding the train you should keep in mind how long you’ll be riding. Listen carefully for your stop to be called over the speakers. Most stations have signs on their platforms showing what station you currently are at and the name of the next stop.

Once you disembark from the train, make sure you don’t block other people from getting on or off the train. If you have a transfer, make sure you find the right platform at the correct line.

If you are going to exit the station, leave the paid fare zone through the ticket gates in the same way as you entered. When paying with a single ticket, the ticket is retained in the machine upon exiting.

Some train stations are huge with exits far apart. Typically exits are divided into East and West or North and South. Make sure you know which exit you need to take to reach your destination.


Useful Kanji

  Local (Kakueki-teisha or futsu-densha) This kind of train stops at every station.

    Rapid (kaisoku) Rapid trains skip some stations. There is no difference in ticket price between local and rapid trains.

Express (Kyuko) Express trains stop at fewer stops than rapid trains. Japan Railways (JR) charges an additional fee.

Limited Express (tokkyu) These trains only stop at major stations. There is usually a fee in addition to the base fee for riding limited express.

Super Express (Shinkansen) Shinkansen are only operated by Japan Railways (JR). Shinkansen run on separate tracks and platforms. It is the fastest but most expensive mode of train transportation in Japan.

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