Train Travel in Japan

Everyone who's visited or lived in Japan knows that in Japan, trains are the best way to get around, at least in urban areas. Japan has one of the fastest, cleanest, most reliable and comprehensive light rail networks of any country in the world. Within major metropolitan areas, trains will take you almost anywhere you might need to go, and even in smaller cities with less extensive rail networks, trains are still extremely useful. Japan's state-of-the-art bullet trains are also one of the best ways of traveling between cities.

Japanese trains and train stations are extremely clean, safe, well-lit and comfortable. A small army of janitorial staff ensure that the station buildings and train cars are thoroughly cleaned every night - no grimy walls, cruddy escalators, or stinky bathrooms (well, there are a few stinky bathrooms, but it's nothing like what you Americans are used to...) The train seats are upholstered with plush cushions. On long-distance expresses and green cars, food and beverage services are available. Everyone, from all walks of life, takes the train all the time, so the train is also a great place to observe a cross-section of the country's population - if you love people watching, there's no better place than the train to observe the latest fashions and adorable kids alike. Hell, you might even run into a stunning cross-dresser who's a dead ringer for Darker Than Darkness era Mr. Sakurai, but with fake boobs (it happened to us once. You never know. It might happen to you, too). 

But how would you know all this stuff if you've never been to Japan? Lately, we've been getting a lot of questions about trains from our readers as they plan their trips to Japan. If you come from a country where the rail networks are less developed, it's understandable that you might be flummoxed by how to deal with Japanese trains. Where can you travel, and how fast? How much does it cost? How to make the most of the dizzying array of options? We've compiled this guide to help you out. It's not comprehensive, but it should contain enough info to get you started. If you're planning on coming to Japan to see concerts or tours, make sure to check out the section on metropolitan areas before deciding which concert dates to attend.

But before you do anything else, check out the train schedule web app Hyperdia, which will allow you to look up the timetables and fares for all the trains in Japan, in English. You will NEED this. Get proficient in using it before you go! Also, before we begin, another important note:

Q. Is it true that the trains stop running at midnight?

A. Yes. All trains stop running sometime between 11PM and 1AM (the specific time depends on the train), so be careful that you don’t get stranded out at night without a way to get home! Bullet trains stop even earlier. Don't say we didn't warn you! Train service resumes around 5AM for local trains, and around 6AM for bullet trains. Why does this happen? Mainly for maintenance and cleaning... how else would the trains stay so shiny, fast, and clean? Is it a pain in the ass for travelers? Yes. But there’s no use crying about it. Before you go out, look up your last train on Hyperdia, so you don't get stranded!

Now on to the guide.

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Long Distance Trains


(Should I get one? Are there any other train passes available?)

(If I don't have a JR Pass?)

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Local Trains

(Why do I need one, and how do I get one?)

(What are they, why are they awesome, and how do I ride in one?)

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Metro Areas: everything is closer than you think!

Tokyo, Yokohama, Kamakura, Yokosuka, Hakone, Saitama, Chiba, Mito, Takasaki, Utsunomiya - these cities are all within easy day-trip travel of each other! You don't even need bullet trains!

Osaka, Kobe, Himeji, Kyoto, Nara, Lake Biwa - these cities/places are all within easy day-trip travel of each other, too! You don't even need bullet trains here, either!