If you happen to visit Japan, you will undoubtedly use the train at some point. Even if you plan to rent a car the entire time during your visit, you are likely to hop on a train between the airport and where you’re staying. Particularly in big cities such as Tokyo (東京), Osaka (大阪), or Nagoya (名古屋), trains are a large part of Japanese life and for many, it is the main method of getting around.
A few great things about both the above-ground trains and subways in Japan is that they are clean, safe, and (usually) punctual. Riding the train in Japan isn’t too difficult, but can seem a little daunting at first due to the vast number of railway lines, the crowds during rush hour, and the sometimes complicated ticket machines. This article aims to prepare you for riding the train in Japan and help you make the most out of your journey.
The first thing you have to do is, of course, purchase a valid ticket for your journey. There are several ways you can do this, but for now, let’s concentrate on the ticket machines that you will see before the ticket barriers. Some machines will offer English services; if this is the case, go ahead and tap “English.”
If you are purchasing a local ticket (not a ticket for an express or bullet train), take a look at the map above the ticket machines. Find the destination you’d like to go to and read the number below it. This is the price of your ticket. On the ticket machine, select the price and insert your cash. A small ticket will pop out as well as your change.
Insert this ticket into the barrier and the gate will open. Walk through and collect your ticket. Make sure you do this! You’ll need it again when you arrive at your destination.
- Make sure you know where you’re going and what ticket you need before you approach a ticket machine. People are waiting behind you.
- Make sure you buy a ticket from the correct machine! Some larger stations like Shinjuku (新宿) have several lines, and each line entrance has its own set of machines. Double-check before you buy.
- If you can’t find your destination on the map or there’s no English available, a trick is to buy the cheapest ticket available and then head to the fare adjustment machine at your destination station. If you bought the wrong ticket, you can just pay the difference there.
An easier route many people decide to take is to purchase a travel card (IC cards) such as Suica or PASMO. These can be used to quickly and easily travel between stations; this is easier because you don’t have to buy a new ticket each time – just scan your card and go.
A travel card can be bought at most stations, at the same place as where you buy tickets. The initial cost is 500 yen and you have to top up your card with at least another 500 yen. This will remain as credit on your card. You can check the amount you have left anytime at a ticket machine or a ticket barrier – when you pass through, your credit will briefly show on the small screen.
Travel cards are extremely useful and save you from having to buy new tickets every time you take the train.
- Another neat thing about these cards is that you can use them in station shops, some vending machines, and some convenience stores to buy food, drinks, and more.
- If you’re staying in Japan for a while, it is recommended that you top up several thousand yen on your card. This way, it will be a while before you have to top it up again, and you’ll have spare credit to buy a drink or a snack if needed.
Now that you’ve got your ticket or travel card, it’s time to take the train to your destination.
You can get a map from most stations and often, they will be available in English. If your destination is on the same line as your departure station, it isn’t too tricky – simply go on the correct platform and board. However, if you have to change trains at some point, it can get a little more difficult.
If you’re in a city and manage to get hold of the train map (or you can download a PDF from the different websites of the railway networks), check how to connect to the right line. Each station has a code: a letter (representing the line) and a number (representing which stop it is on the line).
For example, what do you do if you want to get from Naka-Meguro Station (中目黒駅) to Yoyogi Station (代々木駅)?
On a map, you can see that Naka-Meguro is on the Hibiya Line (日比谷線) and Yoyogi Station is on the Yamanote Line (山手線). First, find which station(s) connect Naka-Meguro and Yoyogi. In this case, it is Ebisu Station (恵比寿駅). Ebisu Station runs on both the Hibiya and Yamanote lines, so you can transit there. On this journey, you would get onto the train at Naka-Meguro and transit at Ebisu. Then you would find the Yamanote Line and board a train to Yoyogi.
Getting between lines isn’t too difficult because everything is well signposted. To travel with peace of mind, make sure you fully prepare your journey before you leave by checking the price and any transit stations.
If you have a phone with working Internet in Japan, you might find it easier to use an app or website rather than a paper map to travel on the train. Some useful apps and websites include NAVITIME, Ekispert, and the Google Maps app.
With this guide, riding the train in Japan is hopefully less daunting than before! If you have a travel card and know where you need to go, life gets much easier. With a little practice, you’ll be riding the train like a pro in no time.