When Russell and I were researching our trip to Japan, trying to figure out the train and transport aspect was our main priority. Considering we would land in Japan at around 6am, then have to catch public transport from Haneda airport to our hotel in Yokohama (around 40 minutes south of Tokyo), we wanted to be fairly sure about what to expect.
We did plenty of Googling, found the bus we needed to catch to Yokohama Station and knew we needed to then catch a train to our hotel. But we still weren’t prepared for how insanely busy the station was going to be! Nothing could have prepared us for that. Especially arriving during peak hour! There are people everywhere, men and women in suits shuffling super fast from one corner of the station to the other. They all seem to know exactly what they’re doing. Meanwhile, we were hovering in a corner, amazed at the sight in front of us.
If only we knew at the time just how simple the Japanese train system is. Sure, it looks horribly intense and terrifying at first. But once you get the hang of things, and aren’t dragging heavy suitcases and 20+ hours of travel exhaustion – it is actually quite simple.
So, here are the things I think everyone who is planning on visiting Japan, should know when it comes to transport and navigating your way around the country!
Buy a Japan Rail Pass
This will be your best friend when travelling between cities around Japan. The Japan Rail Pass is made for tourists, and can only be purchased by people who do not live in Japan. Not only can you use the Rail Pass to travel between cities via the Shinkansen (Bullet Train), but you can also use it for any JR train lines within the city you are staying in! Just look out for signs directing you to JR trains, show your JR Pass at the window, and you won’t have to pay any extra to board those trains!
You can choose between a 7 day (AUD $325), 14 day (AUD $518) or 21 day (AUD $664) ticket. We opted for the 21 day pass, as we were staying in Japan for a month. It certainly paid off! Not only for the use of the Bullet Train, but also being able to travel via local JR trains was super helpful. Whenever there was the option to travel via the JR line as opposed to the local train line, we took it!
Click here to purchase yours or find out more information!
Make use of the Bullet Train
If you have purchased a Japan Rail Pass, you’ll be able to travel around the country on the extremely fast and super fun Bullet Train (known throughout Japan as the Skinkansen). You’ll reach speeds of up to 320km/hr, which will get you to your intended destination in record time! Not only do you get to sit in comfy seats with a TON of leg room (triple the amount you get on a plane!), but there are also catering services on board with food and beverage carts, plus plenty of vending machines!
Each Bullet Train has western style toilets, smoking rooms, and the seats can be turned around if you’re in a group. There are also announcements made in multiple languages, so you won’t have any trouble knowing which stop to get off at!
RESERVED SEAT TIPS: You can reserve seats on any Bullet Train throughout Japan. If you head to the train station early enough, most of the time it’s pretty easy to reserve a seat on the train. However, if the reserved seats are sold out, there are a couple of options:
- Reserve a seat on the next available train – if you’re willing to hang around the station for an extra hour or so, it’s quite easy to reserve your seat on one of the next available trains to your destination. Grab some food and people watch until your train arrives!
- Opt for a non-reserved seat – This is a very doable option if you aren’t able to get a reserved seat, but don’t want to wait around for the next train. Just head straight up to the platform where your train is leaving from. Then you have a couple choices: you can either put your suitcase or a personal item on one of the lines outside where each car stops, or stand in line and wait. This will guarantee that you board the train first, and therefore find a seat easily! Japan is a very structured country. Everyone is very polite and standing in lines are the norm when it comes to trains, restaurants, theme parks and almost everything else.
Bullet Trains have suitcase/luggage compartments
This is something we weren’t sure of the first time we boarded a Shinkansen. Russell and I used the Bullet Train to travel between cities, so we had all of our luggage (one suitcase each, one backpack each, and towards the middle of our trip, one duffle bag each. Oops). So we were hoping that there would be plenty of room to store all of our luggage on the train, without having to keep it in front of our feet for the duration of our trip.
When we boarded our first Bullet Train, we were pleasantly surprised to see that there was ample space above our heads (similar to the overhead bins on a plane) for suitcases, handbags and backpacks. However, if your suitcase is too large to fit in the overhead storage, don’t worry. At the back of each car throughout the train, there is an extra area where you can store your suitcases! Pretty handy for people like me who have a pretty bad overpacking problem, and shop WAY too much.
Purchase a Suica or Pasma Card
When you arrive in Japan, you’ll need to purchase a Suica or Pasma card. These will be your main source for getting around town easily and efficiently (on train lines other than JR). There’s a 500 yen deposit fee when purchasing the card (you can get this back if you return your card at the end of your stay in Japan), then you simply load the amount of money that you would like onto the card! Train ride prices vary depending on how far you travel, so I suggest loading at least 2,000 yen on your card to begin with, so you’re set for a few days and don’t have to worry about re-loading your card at an inconvenient time.
We used a Suica card for the entire duration of our trip, and we didn’t have any issues (in regards to choosing between Suica and Pasma card). I’m fairly sure they’re the same concept, just provided by two different companies.
You can find out more about the Suica card here!
Ask conductors for help at train stations
Whether they speak English (or your preferred language) or not, most train conductors will be extremely helpful in directing you to the correct train or platform. We relied heavily on Google Maps to direct us around Japan, but if you’re unsure, simply point to the station or location in which you’re heading to, and they will do their best to give you directions to the train that you need to take!
Don’t be intimidated when travelling by trains
It can seem confusing and a bit scary when catching a train for the first time. When we arrived in Japan, we had to catch one to Yokohama Station. It was around 7am, we were running on very little sleep, and were thrust into peak hour in the busiest city in the world. At first, it was pretty intimidating. But as I mentioned earlier, staff at all train stations are very helpful – especially when it comes to tourists.
Plus, there are signs EVERYWHERE. If you know the direction you need to head, follow the signs and you’ll have very little struggle in finding your way!
There are vending machines everywhere
Been hanging out for a bottle of water? Craving an icy cold soft drink, or even a hot coffee? Suss out the vending machines. They are literally everywhere. Especially in train stations. Whether you’re stepping off the train, or heading out of the station, you’re guaranteed to come across at least five of these bad boys on your journey into the streets of Japan.
You’ll struggle to find a bin
Russell and I were pretty surprised at this. All over Japan – not just throughout the train stations – rubbish bins are rare. You’ll maybe find them outside of the occasional vending machine, but apart from that, you’ll have to put on your hiking shoes to come across one. Depending on the station itself, you may find one on the platform when you’re boarding or leaving a train, but not every time. So keep that in mind!
P.s. This tip is based on the fact that Australia has bins everywhere. So the fact that bins are scarce, might not be such an odd thing about Japan. However, for us, it was definitely something we had to get used to!
Make sure you leave via the correct exit
As I mentioned earlier, Google Maps will be a lifesaver when travelling via trains throughout Japan. It’s pretty informative and will give you step by step directions on getting from one destination to another. A great thing about this app, is it will also tell you which exit you need to take once you get off the train. So pay attention to the yellow signs! They’re very clearly marked (West Exit, North Exit etc), so it will be pretty easy once you know which exit you need.
Just remember, if you’re in a main/large train station, leaving via the wrong exit could cause you a hefty detour!
Take your time when catching trains
Trains (and everything else in Japan) runs precisely on time. BUT, they also run very frequently. So don’t rush for your train. Always make sure you know which train you need, be sure you’re on the correct side of the platform, and that the train is headed in the right direction before boarding. If you miss a train, don’t worry, there’ll be another one a few minutes later. Same goes with the Bullet Trains. You’ll usually need to get a ticket for these anyway – especially if you are after a reserved seat. Your ticket will have the departure time and the exact train that you need written on it.
Purchasing a Japan Rail Pass and making use of the Shinkansen Bullet Train will be your best way of getting around Japan. It’s turned out to be such an easy process, and with friendly and helpful people everywhere you turn, you’ll have no reason to stress! Utilise Google Maps and make sure you leave via the correct exit, determined by your destination once you leave the train station!
Have you visited Japan before? Do you have any further tips for people who are intending on using public transport to make their way around the country? Leave them below! I am also more than happy to answer any questions you may have regarding anything I’ve written in this post, or anything I may have missed!