A guide to the Japanese public transport system

The Japanese public transport system is world-renowned for being fast, efficient and convenient. However, navigating this system can be a daunting prospect, even for those who regularly use trains and buses in their own country. There are a number of reasons for this, and a number of tips which can help you understand this system.
One of the first things to understand about Japanese railways is that the railways are privately owned in Japan. Due to this, there are a number of rail companies, with their own lines, all operating in the same city or area. Just within the Kansai area there is JR West, Hankyu, Hanshin, Keihan, Kintetsu, Osaka Metro and more…

Japan Railways (JR)

The most widespread company is JR (Japan Railways) and it can be found in most areas of the country. Other companies tend to be more localised. While this can seem overwhelming, and the thought of having to change between rail companies just to transfer lines seems confusing, often the companies will use the same train station or stations next to each other. It is simply a matter of changing from one area of the station to another. This helps to cut down on transfer time.
Many people have heard about the difficulty of navigating the huge Japanese train stations, but this has been reduced greatly in recent years. Most stations have a lot of signage indicating different rail companies, different exits and other significant points. In recent years, a lot of Japanese cities have made an effort to upgrade this signage to include English, and in some cases Korean or Chinese. As long as you know the name of the line or exit you need, it is simply a matter of following the signs. The platform numbers are also clearly indicated and the departure board shows the upcoming departures for each platform in both English and Japanese.
So now you have navigated the station, how do you pay to take the train? Well, there are three methods.
The first method,the JR Pass, is only accessible to international tourists and can’t be used by local residents. This pass is essentially a prepaid ticket for an extended length of time, usually 1 – 2 weeks. For this time period, the holder of the JR Pass can use any JR train and most shinkansen (bullet trains) by just showing the pass at the platform gates. The JR Pass can be expensive, but is often worth it for tourists who are wishing to travel between a number of cities (potentially by bullet train) and travel within these cities to various sightseeing spots.

Shinkansen – The bullet train in Japan

IC card in Japan Railways

The next method is the IC card. These vary in name depending on area, from ICOCA in Osaka to SUICA in Tokyo, but are all interchangeable and able to be used in any part of the country. An IC card is able to be purchased and charged with money at the electronic ticket booths at any station (most have an English option) and can then be used to easily tap on and tap off when entering or exiting the station. They can be used with any rail company and are also applicable for buses.

Buying individual tickets in Japan Railways

The final method is the most difficult, and in the modern age, the most uncommon. This involves buying individual tickets for each train journey. Using this method requires you to know the station you are going to, where it is on the map in order to check the price, and then buy the correctly priced ticket in advance of the journey. As the maps showing the prices are often in Japanese alone, this can be quite a difficult task. For most tourists, a JR Pass proves very valuable, with an IC card for those journeys where it is necessary to use another rail company.
A JR Pass proves very valuable

Japan Railways train etiquette

After getting to the platform, “train etiquette” becomes important. This is more a case of navigating potential cultural differences, rather than language or practicality. The platforms are usually labelled with numbers to show where the doors of the train will be. It is important to line up at the numbers, usually two lines for each number. When the train arrives, the two lines will move apart and wait for the people leaving the train before entering. Each train has ‘priority seating’ which should be left clear for elderly people, pregnant women, and people with disabilities. While on the train, whether seated or standing, it is good manners to not talk loudly or on the phone. It is ok to talk quietly with a friend or family you are travelling with, but it shouldn’t be loud enough for others to clearly hear the conversation.
It is good manners to not talk loudly or on the phone on JR trains
Another important etiquette point is not eating or drinking on the train. It can be tempting to use this time to have something quick to eat, but it is generally frowned upon. It is, of course, ok to drink quickly from a water bottle or something similar, but opening food on the train is not encouraged. As an anomaly, food on the shinkansen, or bullet train, is completely acceptable.
So, we have gone over a quick summary of the railway companies in Japan, navigating the station, paying for your journey and some of the cultural rules of Japanese transport. It is still quite common to have a few mishaps along the way, but by staying calm, looking at the signage and being polite, it is easy to move on from these. The station staff are always available to be asked questions if necessary, and will do their best to help travellers. In summary, enjoy the efficiency and convenience of the Japanese rail system and try not to worry about making mistakes or getting lost – everyone does it, even Japanese people who have grown up with this system!

JR train in Japan

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