Transport & Navigation In Japan: Japan Rail Pass & Shinkansen

When Russell and I were researching our month long trip to Japan back in March 2017, figuring out the train and transport system was our main priority. We knew this would be our primary way of getting around the country, so we didn’t want to arrive in Japan, absolutely clueless as to how public transport worked. We were due to land at Haneda Airport in Tokyo at around 6am, and would need to catch public transport from the airport to our hotel in Yokohama, 40 minutes south of Tokyo.

After doing plenty of Googling, we found a bus that we could catch from Haneda Airport to Yokohama Station and figured this was the best option for us. This would give us a chance to rest and relax for 30 minutes, enjoy our first glimpse of Japan, and prepare for what would be our very first attempt at catching a train in the busiest city in the world!

The number one piece of advice I can give when it comes to traveling by train in Japan, is to be patient. We arrived at Yokohama Station, highly jet-lagged, on over 24 hours of no sleep, and were thrown into the deep end. I remember vividly, us standing out of the way in Yokohama Station, watching hundreds of men and women in business suits rushing past us. I wish I had filmed this moment, but we were so exhausted, it was the last thing on my mind. Given that we arrived during peak hour, the situation was much more overwhelming than it needed to be. All of the research we did went out of the window, because we were amazed at what we were seeing!

Transport & Navigation In Japan: Japan Rail Pass & Shinkansen

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, that’s why I’ve decided to share as many useful tips as I can, to make your experience less painful!

Here are 10 tips for transport and navigation within Japan! Click To Tweet

10 Tips For Transport & Navigation in Japan

1. Purchase 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 Japan Rail Pass to travel between cities using the Shinkansen Bullet Train, but you can also use it for any JR train lines in the country. 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!

Transport & Navigation In Japan: Japan Rail Pass & ShinkansenSimply show your Japan Rail Pass to the people standing in windows/areas like these, and you’ll be able to walk straight through! Transport & Navigation In Japan: Japan Rail Pass & ShinkansenThese are machines for people who do not have a JR Pass, to scan their Shinkansen ticket. If your ticket is invalid, the gates will shut quickly in front of you!
Transport & Navigation In Japan: Japan Rail Pass & ShinkansenThere are signs like these everywhere, allowing you to find the entrance you need super easily! Transport & Navigation In Japan: Japan Rail Pass & Shinkansen This is what your Japan Rail Pass looks like on the outside. The inside has your name, type of ticket you purchased, and the expiry date.

Tips & Information About the Japan Rail Pass:

  • You’ll need to purchase your Japan Rail Pass before arriving in Japan. You can do that here
  • Choose between a 7 day (29,110 yen), 14 day (46,390 yen) or 21 day (59,350 yen) ticket. We each purchased a 21 day pass, since we were staying in Japan for a month.
  • The website above has rates in most currencies. Simply click the drop down box at the top of the screen to select your currency. I’ve used yen, to help you get to know the conversions and price differences.
  • We were able to use the Shinkansen Bullet Train to travel between 6 different cities within Japan.
  • We also used to Japan Rail Pass to travel on regular trains, throughout our stay. If you have the option, choose JR Train lines over regular lines. You’ll definitely get your money’s worth doing this.

2. Use the Shinkansen Bullet Train

If you have purchased a Japan Rail Pass, you’ll be able to travel around the country on the extremely fast Shinkansen Bullet Train. The Shinkansen reaches speeds of up to 320km/hr, which will certainly get you to your intended destination in record time! Not only do you get to sit in comfortable seats with a ton of leg room (triple the amount you get on a plane!), but there are also catering services on board serving food and beverages. If that’s not your style, there are tons of vending machines in the Shinkansen terminals to stock up on snacks before your journey.

Traveling from Tokyo to Osaka? How about Hiroshima to Tokyo? Get yourself a Japan Rail Pass! Click To Tweet

Each Shinkansen Bullet Train has western style toilets and smoking rooms. Plus, the seats can even 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!

Transport & Navigation In Japan: Japan Rail Pass & Shinkansen

Transport & Navigation In Japan: Japan Rail Pass & Shinkansen

Tips For Using the Shinkansen Bullet Train:

  • You can reserve seats on any Shinkansen Bullet Train throughout Japan. Head to the train station early enough, and most of the time it’s pretty easy to reserve a seat on the train.
  • If the reserved seats are sold out, you can reserve a seat on the next available train. If you’re willing to hang around for another hour or so, it’s easy to reserve a seat on the next train. Grab some food and people watch until your train arrives!
  • If you would prefer not to wait for the next train, opt for a non-reserved seat. Head straight to the platform that your train will be leaving from. You’ll then have a couple of options: 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 will find a seat quite easily in one of the non-reserved cars!
Here are some great tips for using the Shinkansen Bullet Train! Click To Tweet

3. Bullet Trains have 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. Because of this, 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 Shinkansen, 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 bad overpacking problem, and shop WAY too much.

Transport & Navigation In Japan: Japan Rail Pass & Shinkansen

4. Purchase a Suica or Pasmo Card

When you arrive in Japan, you’ll need to purchase a Suica or Pasma card. This will be your main way of getting around Japan 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.

If you're traveling using Japan's train system, you'll need a Suica or Pasmo card. Here's why! Click To Tweet

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. Click here for more about the Suica card.

Note: We decided to keep our Suica card as a souvenir, so we didn’t get our 500 yen deposit back. If you are wanting to get this deposit back, ask at one of the windows in any train station (preferably at the very end of your trip, when you’re 100% sure you won’t need the card again) and ask about getting the 500 yen back!

5. Ask Conductors at Train Stations for Help

Whether or not they speak English (or your preferred language), 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!

6. Don’t be Intimidated When Traveling by Trains

It can seem confusing and a bit scary when catching a train for the first time. Like I mentioned earlier, on the very first day that we arrived in Japan, we had to catch a train 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 one of the best things about Japan, are their extremely friendly and helpful locals. If you’re stuck, ask for help.

But you don’t need to worry too much. Almost every single train station throughout Japan, will have the English translation of all the important information you need. Use Google Maps to get you around each city, and simple head to the platform that Google tells you!

7. 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.

Japan's vending machines are perfect for long train trips using the Shinkansen! Click To Tweet

8. 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!

Note: This tip is based on the fact that Australia has public rubbish bins everywhere. So the fact that bins are scarce, might not be such an odd thing about Japan. However, it was definitely something that we had to get used to!

9. Make sure to leave via the Correct Exit

As I mentioned earlier, Google Maps will be a lifesaver when travelling on trains throughout Japan. It’s very informative, and will give you step by step directions on getting from one destination to another. Another great thing about Google Maps, is it also tells you which exit you need to take once you get off the train. So pay attention to the yellow signs (photo below). They’re very clearly marked (west exit, north exit etc), so it will be easy once you know which exit you need to take.

Note: If you’re in one of Japan’s bigger train stations (such as Tokyo or Shinjuku), leaving through the wrong exit could cause you a hefty detour. So when you’re inputting your destination into Google Maps, be specific. If you want to visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings in Shinjuku for an epic free view of Tokyo, don’t just write ‘Shinjuku’ in Google Maps. Write ‘Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building’. You’ll get accurate directions, and won’t get lost!

Transport & Navigation In Japan: Japan Rail Pass & Shinkansen

Transport & Navigation In Japan: Japan Rail Pass & Shinkansen Transport & Navigation In Japan: Japan Rail Pass & Shinkansen

10. Take Your Time When Catching Trains

Trains (and everything else in Japan) runs precisely on time. However, 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 Shinkansen Bullet Train. You’ll usually need to get a ticket for these anyway – especially if you prefer a reserved seat. Your ticket will have the departure time and the exact train that you need written on it.

Transport & Navigation In Japan: Japan Rail Pass & Shinkansen

In Conclusion

Purchasing a Japan Rail Pass and making use of the Shinkansen Bullet Train will be your best best in getting around Japan. It turned out to be such an easy process, and with friendly and helpful people everywhere you turn, you’ll have no reason to stress!

Recap of Important Tips:

  • Utilise Google Maps, and make sure you leave via the correct exit
  • The JR Pass can be used on regular trains throughout Japan, not just Shinkansen Bullet Trains
  • Take your time when catching trains – they run very frequently!
  • Keep in mind that public rubbish bins are scarce in Japan. If you’re about to depart a Shinkansen, put your rubbish in the bins on the train, because you may struggle to find one when you arrive at the station.
  • Hit up the epic Japanese vending machines for some Shinkansen snacks!
  • Purchase a Suica or Pasmo card, to get around Japan on regular trains

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!

Related: Read our Japan Archives
Japan's train and transport system isn't as confusing as it looks! Here are some great tips. Click To Tweet

Did you like this post? Pin it for later or share with friends!

Transport & Navigation In Japan: Japan Rail Pass & Shinkansen Transport & Navigation In Japan: Japan Rail Pass & Shinkansen

Post first published in March 2017. Updated in October 2017.

  • This is a really informative post. The train system in Tokyo can be so intimidating, but once you get the hang of it it’s easy – as long as you don’t take an express train if your stop is a local one – I did that a few times before I got the hang of it!

    • rhiannontravels

      The first day we arrived in Japan, it was intense! But it doesn’t take long to get the hang of 🙂
      Oh no! That would have been frustrating.
      We never did that, but we caught the train going in the wrong direction the day we visited Universal Studios! Oops!

  • Great detail. I have had Japan on my list for far too long now. Definitely pinning for when I finally visit. Its always good to know the ins and outs of transportation from someone’s first hand experience. Hopefully early next year as I am finally getting to tick off Russia this year so Japan will have to wait until next year.

    • rhiannontravels

      Yay! Oh wow Russia, that’s so exciting! 😀
      I hope you get to visit Japan next year, and I hope my post helps a bit in your travel around the country! 🙂

  • Bookmarking this for when we finally go to Japan ourselves! Thanks for the thorough roundup!

    • rhiannontravels

      No worries at all! I hope you get to visit Japan soon! It’s an amazing country 🙂

  • I always find traveling by train in any country a little intimidating! I traveled around Europe via train and some stations were much easier to understand than others. It’s definitely not fun being rushed for time in a foreign train station with very little signage! I’m glad your experience in Japan was a good one…it seems like they have a wonderful transport system.

    • rhiannontravels

      I can imagine Europe would be pretty intimidating to get around via trains! Japan definitely does have a wonderful transport system, everything is very easy to find, and using Google Maps has been a life saver! 🙂

  • I was surprised to arrive in Japan and find out just how hard it was to get around, especially as efficient as the culture is. I guess had I spoken the language, that wouldn’t be the case, but it was definitely one of the more challenging spots to visit as a foreigner! That said, we had an awesome time =)

    • rhiannontravels

      Sorry to hear you found it difficult! 🙁 What did you use to help you get around the country? Did you use trains?

  • This is such a very detailed and informative guide. I think we need more transportation guides like this especially if we are about to go to a new place/ city/ country. I, myself, find transportation systems on other countries/ cities (for that matter) a little overwhelming especially on the first visit. LOL. I remember getting lost on subways, taking wrong turns and riding the wrong train on my first visit to SG. haha.

  • Great guide, super comprehensive! So awesome, you went 6 different cities in Japan! I actually always used cash to buy single-trip tickets when I’m in Tokyo for a few days – too lazy to figure out the Suica/Pasmo cards, haha. Maybe I’ll try for my next trip!

  • This is such a comprehensive guide! I can’t wait to visit Japan so will add this to my pinterest inspiration board so I can find it later. Thanks!

  • Wow this is super thorough and helpful! I loved the vending machines in Japan as well 🙂

  • I experience horrible travel anxiety when it comes to public transportation, especially in foreign countries. So, I love these types of posts! Thank you for sharing so many helpful details and photos. I’ll remember this post when I finally make it to Japan!

  • Lana

    I love to travel by train! Thanks for this interesting article, one day when I go to Japan, I will make a train tour 🙂