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Ever heard of a train company apologising because one of their trains departed 20 seconds early? Well, that’s trains in Japan for you! Known around the world for being some of the fastest, most stylish and efficient examples of rail travel, with super-fast bullet trains (officially known as ‘Shinkansen’) speeding passengers to every corner of the country, travelling by train in Japan is undoubtedly the way to go.
Whether you’re a first-timer in Japan or you’re looking to pick up a Japan Rail Pass, we’ve got you covered. On this page, you can find all the info you’ll need about Japanese rail, from navigating stations to making seat reservations and riding bullet trains with a JR Pass. We’ll even throw in some handy phrases for you to learn, so you’re prepared for the trip of a lifetime!
Before we talk about those all-important Japanese bullet trains, it’s good to know who’s running things. For the most part, that’s going to be Japan Railways (often shortened to JR). JR splits its services across six regions, and these are JR-Hokkaido, JR-East, JR-Central, JR-West, JR-Shikoku and JR Kyushu.
You may have heard about the Japan Rail Pass (or JR Pass), which we’ll go into detail about below, but it’s worth mentioning that ‘JR’ is a company that covers more than just trains. They also run local bus services within cities and ferries, so look out for the logo wherever you go! It may be that buses work out cheaper for you within cities (they’re also covered by the JR Pass).
There are several Rail Passes available for travel in Japan, namely the National Japan Rail Pass from Japan Railways (JR), as well as JR’s Regional Passes, which cover specific areas. These Rail Passes are the best way to go for high value when visiting for Japan for one, two or three weeks. They’re also only available to those who don’t reside in Japan, so they’re the best way to get a train pass in Japan for tourists.
Visit our dedicated Japan Rail Pass page to learn more and to see current prices. You can also order yours through Trainline.
JR also has a series of Regional Passes that cover specific areas in Japan. These are perfect if your trip only involves travel throughout a single region, as you’ll stand to save a tonne of money potentially!
Check out our dedicated Regional Rail Passes page for more info.
Ah, the almighty Shinkansen. The Japanese version of the bullet train is the original and best, so make sure to take a ride on one at least once in your lifetime! Fast (obviously), clean and super safe, there’s no better way to travel around Japan.
Engineered to be aerodynamically superior, the Shinkansen is unmistakable in its looks and can reach a staggering top speed of 200 mph (up to 275 mph on test runs). Don’t be surprised to see the train tilting sideways as it hits corners, the tracks are designed to allow for the fastest possible travel!
If you’re buying tickets while in Japan, you can ride on any of these, just bear in mind that the fastest trains in Japan with fewer stops are quite expensive. The cheaper alternative to this is to buy a Japan Rail Pass, which grants you access to all Shinkansen except the Nozomi and Mizuho services (these tend to be faster, non-stopping trains).
The Shinkansen you see may have different names to represent slight differences in looks, speed and services. The types of Shinkansen are as follows:
|Top speed (mph)||178||178||185||160||186||185||200||150||170||160||160|
|JR lines||Tokaido, San'yo||Tokaido, San'yo||Kyushu, San'yo||Kyushu||Tokaido, San'yo||Kyushu, San'yo||Tohoku, Hokkaido||Tohoku||Tohoku, Hokkaido||Hokuriku||Hokuriku|
Shinkansen routes consist of several lines covering the majority of Japan, with bridges and tunnels connecting the islands of Kyushu and Hokkaido for super-fast travel with no limits! See the table below for names of all routes.
|Route||Shinkansen type/s||Quickest journey time|
|Hokkaido||Hayabusa, Hayate||1h 40m (Aomori to Hakodate)|
|Tohoku||Hayabusa, Yamabiko, Hayate||3h 23m (Tokyo to Aomori)|
|Joetsu||Toki||2h 31m (Tokyo to Niigata)|
|Hokuriku||Kagayaki, Asama, Hakutaka, Tsurugi||2h 30m (Tokyo to Kanazawa)|
|Tokaido||Hikari, Kodama||2h 45m (Tokyo to Osaka)|
|San'yo||Hikari, Kodama, Sakura||2h 49m (Osaka to Fukuoka)|
|Kyushu||Tsubame, Sakura||1h 36m (Fukuoka to Kagoshima)|
The majority of Shinkansen in Japan offer two seating classes on board. These are Ordinary class (equivalent to Standard Class) and Green Car class (equivalent to Business Class). Find out more about what’s on board below:
Although WiFi is being rolled out to all Shinkansen trains, it’s not currently available on all services. Look out for the blue WiFi sticker within carriages and follow the instructions to connect if it's available.
If you’re going to travel shorter distances rather than take the Shinkansen across the country, it makes much more sense to book tickets or reserve seats on regular JR trains, as it will be much more cost-effective. The types of trains running in Japan are as follows:
These types of trains are generally metro-style services found within cities.
If you’re not sure whether a train is going to your stop, it’s best to hop on the local trains just in case. You don’t want to be stuck on a Rapid or Express service and miss your stop! That being said, the digital signage at most stations should include English (you may have to wait a few seconds for it to pop up). To check online in advance where your train is stopping, visit Hyperdia for up-to-date train times.
If you’ve ever travelled around London, you’ve probably come across an Oyster Card, a type of top-up card for city travel that covers various modes of transport. In Japanese cities, there’s usually a similar system in place, and the most common cards used are Suica Cards and Pasmo Cards (both cover the same services). Simply pick up one of these cards and add money to it and you’ll be able to travel easily on the metro systems within Japanese cities. On top of that, you can also even use your Suica Card at certain shops and restaurants, as well as station locker systems, just in case you’re short on cash!
There are also travel cards you can buy at all metro stations that allow you to take an unlimited number of metro trains within a day, perfect if you’ll be doing a bunch of back-and-forth journeys.
Japan train tickets are made up of the following main types:
Train tickets in Japan are straightforward and easy to understand, with distance being the deciding factor in terms of price. The ‘Base Fare’ is the lowest price you’ll be able to pay for any kind of ticket. Base Fare starts at around 20 yen per kilometre for short distances (for long distances an extra 10 yen per kilometre is added on).
The Limited Express Fee is for generally faster services covering longer distances, such as Shinkansen trains and other Express trains. They tend to be more expensive as a result, especially if bought from a station.
The Green Car Fee is Japan Railways’ version of a First Class ticket, so this will be one of the most expensive ticket types you can buy. Of course, you’ll enjoy fancier seating on board with lots more legroom and that all-important peace and quiet.
The Station ticket (Nyūjōken) simply allows you to enter a train station or pass through it to the other side. This is useful if you need to pick something up from a locker, meet someone at a platform or to get from one side of the station to the other. (Yep, this is really a thing, certain Japanese stations are sometimes large enough that this ticket becomes a necessity!)
It’s easy to buy train tickets in Japan, but be warned, they’re expensive if purchased in this way. Head to our Rail Passes section for a cheaper alternative.
Otherwise, you can simply use ticket machines at Japanese train stations. These machines have multiple language options, including English, so you shouldn’t have any problems finding the tickets you’ll need! First, make sure to locate your destination on the map above the ticket machine, and make a note of the ticket price shown next to it. You select the fare on screen rather than the destination, then decide how many tickets you want.
Alternatively, you can find a staffed ticket counter if you’d rather not deal with any screens. Don’t worry about speaking too much Japanese in this case. It’s ok to say something like ‘two for Osaka please’ as station staff often know some English.
One of the most densely populated cities in the world, Tokyo truly has something for everyone. As a business hub, as an entertainment capital, as a cyber metropolis and significant history and culture destination, this is a city of contrasts and something that really must be seen to be believed.
From the vast and sprawling Tokyo Station, often a starting base for new visitors, you can make your way to popular attractions such as the Imperial Palace, the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, and the Science Museum, all by foot! Of course, if you’d like to delve into the surrounding areas a bit more, perhaps the Roppongi Hills for some nightlife or over to the Tokyo Skytree for some fantastic views, then the subway from Tokyo Station is quick and easy!
Don’t be fooled into assuming any other Japanese city is just Tokyo lite - Osaka is one of many with its own culture and heart. It has a real sense of uniqueness that you just won’t find anywhere else. Once again there is something for everyone in this city, whether it’s shopping for the latest fashion, taking in the sites or eating some of the most exquisite cuisines in the east, it’s all here.
From Osaka Station, it’s easy to board a metro train for dozens of famous attractions. Make sure your first stop is Osaka Castle, a majestic piece of history that’s not to be missed. If you’re feeling like something a little more modern, the eclectic Dotonori area and its iconic Glico Running Man sign are waiting for you. This area features food, fashion and fun. While you’re in town, make sure to try out Osaka’s signature dish, Takoyaki – deep-fried octopus balls. Don’t worry, they’re much tastier than they sound…
Brimming with history, culture and great food, Kyoto is a must-see for any Japan itinerary. A short hop away from Osaka on a bullet train (or even a regular train), Kyoto is the place to go if you like shrines, geishas, temples and castles – all the great things that we’ve come to know Japan for. Oh, and before we forget, there’s also a train museum there… we’re always fans of those!
From Kyoto Station, make your way to Arashiyama, an area of natural beauty which is also home to wild macaque monkeys! Or, for those who are more inclined to head straight to the world-famous food sites, head up to Nishiki Market – a thin alleyway that seemingly goes on for miles with endless amounts of street food to gorge on. The Fushimi Inari Shrine in the south of Kyoto is a top pick for history buffs, see if you can guess which movie the traditional gates were featured in!
Hiroshima may be associated with a dark past, but this is a tranquil city with a clear devotion to peace and harmony. A calm stop between Kyoto and Osaka, this may be a city of over 1.1m people, but you wouldn’t know it.
Hop off your Shinkansen at Hiroshima Station and enjoy the calming open spaces of Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, indulge in delicious local okonomiyaki, made in a style unique to the city, or head out across the bay to Miyajima Island, a location that lets you step back in time, and meet a few adorable resident deer too. All sites are easy to reach by bus from the train station, where JR services can be used if you’re carrying a JR Pass.
Search our FAQ section for commonly asked questions around taking the train in Japan.
Trains in Japan are still running despite the Covid-19 outbreak. You can check live train times in Japan by visiting Hyperdia. This site is also useful if you’re planning an itinerary out and need to know exact timings for trains you’re planning to catch.
The majority of trains in Japan are not 24-hour services, so don’t expect to rock up for a Shinkansen train close to midnight, or for any other train service to be running through the night. Always plan and make sure you can get back to your hotel or residence on time as the taxi fee could be quite hefty!
Commercial Shinkansen services can reach dizzying speeds of up to 320 km/h (200 mph), but can be even faster on test runs and when not carrying any passengers!
Yes, most if not all Japanese cities have train services. If not, you’ll often find metro/subway-type trains running underneath the cities, making it easy to get around.
For one, two or three weeks, a National Japan Rail Pass can cover you for a vast number of JR services, from bullet trains to buses across the entire country. Visit our Japan Rail Pass page to learn more.
This depends on whether you’ll be using a Japan Rail Pass or not. If not, you’ll be able to purchase a ticket for any type of Shinkansen (bullet train) in Japan, but it may end up being pricy. With a Japan Rail Pass, you’ll save money but only be able to board the slower Shinkansen services that stop at stations along the way. That said, they’re still pretty damn fast!
Yes, you can take JR services from airports into main cities, and from Narita Airport you can take the Narita Express to get into Tokyo.