Japan Rail

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Japan Rail

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This page covers information about Japan Railways, types of trains in Japan, JR East Passes (for Honshu ski resorts), is it worth buying a JR East Pass, and general tips about Japan rail travel.  

Japan Railways

Japan trains are a superb way of getting around the land of the rising sun. You can travel to most parts of Japan via train and you can even travel between the islands of Hokkaido and Honshu via a tunnel. The Japanese rail network runs like clockwork and the modern trains are kept immaculately clean.

Train travel in Japan is not just a means of "getting from A to B"; it is part of the Japanese culture that must be experienced. Many of the stations are the hub and lifeline for towns and cities, large and small. Many of the larger stations are abuzz with activity and are surrounded by indoor shopping malls, markets and food halls.

Your first train trip in Japan may be a bit of an eye opener, but travelling by train in Japan is easy because the major stations have signs and departure boards in English as well as Japanese.

Types of Japan Trains

Bullet Train Japan
Shinkansen bullet trains whizz along at super fast speeds of 200 to 300 kilometres per hour, so getting around Japan takes no time at all. The ride is smooth and noise free, the windows are large, and the views during the daytime are spectacular.

Shinkansen have reserved seats and most also have non-reserved seats, so don’t make the mistake of sitting in the reserved section if you haven’t paid your dues. Seat reservations cost about 500 to 700 yen, but if you have a JR Rail Pass these are free. The bullet trains have standard class seats which are more than adequate, but if you really want to travel in style there are green cars (1st class).

The train stations will have signs on the platform indicating where each carriage will stop, and you’ll see other travellers queuing up in front of these signs.

Part of the fun of travelling on a Shinkansen is buying the curious snacks from the hostess with the food and drink trolley. Watching the hostesses, conductors and cleaning staff bowing is also rather fascinating!

Announcements regarding the next stop are commonly in English as well as Japanese. Many of the Shinkansen will also have electronic signs in English at the end of each carriage to indicate the next stop.

Limited Express Trains
These trains only stop at the major train stations. Many of these trains have reserved and non-reserved seating.

Local Trains
Local trains stop at every station and generally all seats are non-reserved.

Rapid Trains
Rapid trains are the same as the local trains except that they skip some stations.

Sleeper Trains
Japan also has some sleeper trains such as the one that runs between Tokyo and Sapporo, although these are being phased out.

Japan Rail Pass

Japan Rail passes can be used on an array of trains across Japan but it can be unwieldy trying to figure out which ones! A Japan rail pass can be an economical way to travel on trains but it can also have an associated hassle which needs to be weighed up against any economical benefits.

Those with a non-Japanese passport with a visa to stay in Japan for no longer than 90 days are eligible to purchase a Japan rail pass.

JR East Passes
The JR East Pass can be an economical and flexible rail pass to travel around Tokyo and Eastern Japan (ie northern Honshu) where there is a large concentration of Japanese ski resorts. The JR East Pass is for 5 days of rail travel that can be used within a 14 day period. This pass is only valid on the standard cars and not on the green cars (1st class).

JR East Pass (Nagano Niigata area)
In addition to being valid for the Narita Express (between Narita airport and Tokyo), the JR East Pass (Nagano Niigata) can be used to travel to the Nagano ski resorts and the Yuzawa ski resorts (in Niigata).

Examples of lines it is not valid for include: the train from Nagano to Myoko Kogen; the train from Nagano to Yudanaka (for the snow monkeys or Shiga Kogen); and the Skyliner from Narita Airport (which can provide a quicker route than the NEX).

JR East Pass (Tohoku area)
The JR East Pass (Tohoku area) is valid for the Narita Express between Narita Airport and Tokyo (but not the Skyliner between Narita Airport and Ueno) and then to travel onto the Tohoku ski resorts e.g. those in Fukushima, Yamagata, Iwate and Aomori. The pass can also be used to travel to Echigo Yuzawa.

Buying a JR East Pass
You can buy the pass on-line and an email will be sent to you with a voucher. This voucher can then be exchanged for the rail pass at a designated location (which includes Haneda Airport, Narita Airport and Tokyo Station). This voucher has to be presented at major train stations along with your passport. Not all train stations have an office where this can be done, and the offices may not be open beyond "office hours". If you want to exchange a voucher at an office other than Narita Airport (Narita Airport is open 06:30 to 21:45), check the opening hours before you purchase a Japan Rail Pass.

Alternatively you can purchase a rail pass at Narita or Haneda airport for just a little more than the pre-purchase.

Is It Cheaper to Buy JR East Pass or Purchase Train Tickets as I Go?
Essentially you can look at the price of the JR East Pass (Nagano Niigata) and the JR East Pass (Tohoku) and compare this to the rates for your proposed train trips on Hyperdia.com (be sure to include the fare and the reserved seat fee). Also weigh up the hassle of using the pass (e.g. queuing up at the airport, not being able to ride the Skyliner from the airport if it provides a quicker schedule).

However here is a guide and some examples (information correct as at October 2016).

The Nagano Niigata pass costs 17,000 yen for adults (ages 12 and over). The return fare between Narita Airport and Nagano (via Tokyo on the NEX) is about 22,000 yen. So if you you’re travelling to one of the Nagano ski resorts (e.g. Hakuba, Myoko Kogen, Shiga Kogen) from the Narita Airport, you can make some small savings with the rail pass (if your trip is less than 2 weeks in duration). The savings are a little more if you’re travelling onto Iiyama (for Nozawa Onsen, Madarao).

If you’re travelling to one of the Yuzawa ski resorts from the Narita Airport, the tickets cost about 19,500 yen. Only small savings can be made using a Nagano Niigata rail pass and it may not be worth the hassle of purchasing a rail pass. The savings associated with a Tohoku pass are minute.

The Tohoku pass costs 19,000 yen per adult (age 12 and over). A return trip between Narita and Airport and Yamagata (for Zao Onsen) costs 28,200 yen, and to Morioka and Aomori it costs significantly more. So generally it makes financial sense to purchase a JR East Pass (Tohoku) if your trip is less than 2 weeks in duration.


Japan National Rail Pass
The Japan Rail Passes cover all of Japan. Exceptions are the super fast Nozomi expresses on the Tokyo-Osaka- Hakata Shinkansen, but this isn’t a problem as there are Hikari express trains on the same route. Passes are available for 7, 14 or 21 days consecutively and are available for Ordinary (2nd class) or Green/First Class.

Hokkaido Rail Pass
The Hokkaido Rail Pass is good for most train lines of the Hokkaido Railway Company as well as some JR Hokkaido Bus lines but not the Hokkaido Shinkansen (between islands). The Hokkaido rail pass has the following configurations: 3 day consecutive, 5 day consecutive, and a 4 day flexi pass over a 10 day period. So the latter pass is typically the only useful pass for skiers and snowboarders, and only those staying less than 10 days and doing a lot of travel. On our Hokkaido travels, we’ve never found it to be economically worthwhile.

Buying a Ticket

If you don’t have a Japan rail pass you can purchase a ticket via ticket machines or ticket offices (which is much easier). If you don’t speak Japanese it may be helpful if you write down the number of the train, the departure time, and arrival time (get the timetable information from Hyperdia). The non-English speaking staff will generally get the gist if you show them the numbers and state your destination.

Buying a ticket from a vending machine can be rather daunting if you can’t read Japanese (only some ticket machines have an English option), but if this is your only option you’ll survive! For local trains, push the button with the lowest price on it. This will get you on the train, and when you get off you can pay a fare adjustment.

If you do have a rail pass you’ll still need to get tickets from the ticket office (except for local trains) and a seat reservation.

Other Japan Train Travel Tips

Exchanging your Japan rail pass voucher for the actual rail pass may take a while, particularly if a plane load of tourists has just arrived at Narita airport. Be patient and observe the interesting Japanese culture and their seemingly painful systems and slow methodical processes (even if they’re superfluous!!).

Be aware that some Shinkansen and express trains will split apart during the trip and the two halves will head to different destinations. Reserve your seats and absolutely get on the right carriage. You don’t want to end up in a place that you had no intention of visiting!! The tickets will show you which carriage to get on. The platforms have overhead or ground signs that indicate where the carriage will stop for a particular type of train (and where to queue).

Except for the NEX (between Narita and Tokyo), luggage space for large items is limited. There may be a little bit of space behind the end row of seats in each carriage, but otherwise finding a spot for a ski or snowboard bag can be a challenge. It’s probably wise to pack some octopus straps to affix your bag somewhere.

The large train stations have signage in English. However some of the small train stations that rarely receive tourists have no or limited signage in English, so it can be worthwhile to check the train schedules on Hyperdia. Trains are amazingly punctual so if you know the time to get on a train and when to get off, it makes life a little easier!