Riding the Rails in Japan – 10 Tips for Easy Travel
OK, so you’ve been reading about Japanese trains and looking at their pictures. Maybe you have acquired a few n-scale versions for your model railroad. What’s next? Go to Japan, of course, for a chance to get up close and personal with your favorites.
As mentioned in the Photo Essay – The Trains of Japan - Japan is a railfan’s heaven – especially if you like electrically propelled passenger trains. You name it, and (except for mile-long freights) you’ll probably find it there:
Shinkansen (bullet trains) in a variety of styles
Limited express intercity trainsets (electric and diesel powered multiple units)
Container freights and the occasional steam locomotives on excursion lines
Stylish airport-to-city express shuttles
Urban local commuter rakes – and subways in the major cities
Short local runs along the shoreline and through scenic mountain valleys and rural villages
Trams, LRVs, and monorails
Cable cars, funiculars and mountain railways
You don’t need to be a seasoned world traveler to enjoy Japan and its trains – just have toleration for being in a place where things are a little different from home. And – possibly unlike home – trains in Japan tend to be very clean and punctual.
Here are 10 tips to help your travel go smoothly.
Several US and two Japanese airlines fly non-stop from the US to Japan. It’s about a 14-hour ride – you’ll land the afternoon of the day after you leave home. But you’ll make up for the loss of a day when you fly back – you often arrive home (home time) before you left Japan (Japan time).
Japan is 14 hours ahead of east coast US time. Tomorrow gets there first. Be prepared to wake up at 3 or 4 AM the first couple of mornings (and feel ready to go to bed around 6PM) until your body clock gets adjusted. Early morning can be a good time for freight-train-watching if your hotel is near a mainline (passenger service dominates the rails during the daylight hours).
When to Go Anytime, really. Do you like your trains best in sun or snow? Flights, hotels and tourist attractions are generally less crowded in the non-summer months. Planes are cheaper in the winter.
Japan is a four-season country. Tokyo’s weather is a lot like Washington DC’s. The summer is hot and humid; the winter rainy with some snow in the city and lots in the nearby mountains.
The only times to really consider avoiding are Japan’s big three multi-day vacation periods - the days just before and after January 1st, Golden Week at the end of April/early May, and the Obon Festival Week in mid-August. Everybody in Japan seems to be traveling on these days. Trains are crowded and seat reservations can be difficult to obtain. Cherry blossom time brings out many tourist crowds, but it also makes for some great train photography.
Can you get by in English?
Absolutely. Signs in most railway and subway stations and platforms are in English as well as Japanese. Same with recorded announcements in the Shinkansen and some other trains. Tourist offices are staffed with English speakers in most major cities, and stations in large tourist-oriented cities usually have a few English-speaking ticket sellers. Get a bilingual map – most Japanese are gracious and helpful with foreign visitors.
Will all the food be strange It doesn’t have to be. Give a Japanese restaurant in the states a try before you go. Benihanna counts, too, as well as ramen noodles from your local supermarket. There is a wide range of Japanese cooking styles. – it’s not all raw fish, bean paste and tofu. Even if none of them appeal, you won’t starve. Japan’s second favorite cuisine is Italian. McDonalds and Starbucks also abound. Most train stations have carryout stands and snack bars with local favorites as well as fast foods you’ll recognize. Also, most department stores feature basement food halls with a wide variety of inexpensive carryout choices.
Plan Ahead Lots of good guidebooks are available. The Japanese National Tourist Office (JNTO) is a great resource. Check out their web site. Call or visit one of their North American offices (Los Angeles, New York and Toronto) – they have loads of free English language brochures and maps. Just tell them what cities you plan to visit. You can also request brochures from their website:
Buy a Rail Pass Before You Leave Train tickets are expensive in Japan. See if it makes sense to buy one of the rail passes the JR Group sells before you go. You’ll save money, and it’s much more convenient than lining up to buy individual tickets every time you want a ride. Pass holders also get free seat reservations – always a good idea on Japan’s trains. Flash your rail pass and you’ll get access to any JR platform for photography purposes, too. (Admission to most station platforms in Japan is controlled by gates and guards who keep non-ticket holders out.) The Japan Rail website has lots more information about the passes and riding trains in Japan.
The Japan Rail Pass is good nationwide and must be purchased before you leave the US. Four of the companies in the JR family (JE East, West, Hokkaido, and Kyushu) sell passes good on their trains within their individual regions of Japan. These can be purchased within Japan. Here are the specifics:
Keep in mind the Japan Rail Pass is only good for trains run by the six JR Group companies with three exceptions.
You cannot use the passes on the Nozomi Shinkansen trains running south from Tokyo. The Nozomi services are the fastest-timed bullet trains and are popular with Japanese business people.
The passes are not good for accommodations in sleeping trains. These must be paid for separately.
Along a few routes JR trains make use of segments of track belonging to some of Japan’s private railways. On these rides, a conductor will ask you for a cash payment (usually the equivalent of only a few dollars) to cover the cost of these (generally short) segments of your journey.
You will need to buy tickets in Japan for trains of the many private railways as well as subways, buses etc. In Tokyo and other major cities it is possible to buy one-day passes that allow unlimited rides in the urban area. These can be purchased at ticket booths and vending machines in each city.
Search the Web There are several other websites packed with useful information about riding the rails in Japan. Google can help you find many. One that is especially informative is Masataka Isashiki’s. He’s a Japanese railfan who lives in Kawasaki, near Tokyo. He provides detailed practical travel information (all in English) along with photos and maps:
Get a Feel for the Schedules When you buy your railpass you should be able to get a copy of the Japan Railway Timetable. It's a 38-page booklet with a route map and schedules for all the Shinkansen lines and 47 other major routes. JNTO may also be able to provide you with one. You can also download pdf files of these schedules grouped by region here:
You will find these very useful as you plan the major legs of your journey.
Some current schedules are also posted on the individual railroad company web sites. Hyperdia is a handy internet-based resource to help you plan point-to-point rail journeys throughout Japan when you know where and when you want to go. It covers local lines and private railways, and is a great resource for detailed trip planning.
Ask Lots of Questions and Get Specific Advice Before You Go Several JRM members have been to Japan and we’re glad to help first-time visitors. Send your questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Join jtrains on yahoo groups. Check its files and search its back messages. Then post your question to this worldwide group of several hundred English-speaking Japanese train fans. Someone is very likely to have just the advice you need.
Look Right Finally, when you get trackside in Japan and are deciding what direction to look toward to see your oncoming train, don’t forget Japanese trains run on what Americans tend to call the wrong side of the tracks. Japanese trains, like those in England and a number of European countries, run on the left track, not the right. Always look both ways before crossing tracks and streets. Don’t follow your American instincts. Same thing goes for Japanese roads and drivers – expect traffic to come from the right before crossing a street.
Now that your travel planning is out of the way, take a look at our suggestions for how to fill your time - trainwise - while in Japan.