Rail travel in Japan is perhaps the most efficient way to travel across the country with an extensive network of over 27,000 kilometers of train tracks covering all the 4 main islands of Japan, served primarily by Japan Railways (JR) in addition to other smaller private and municipal operators. As stations are usually placed at the city center and trains are punctual up to the second, traveling by train can be significantly faster than taking an airplane. It’s no wonder that more than 7 billion passengers traveled by train in 2013 and 2014, signifying the paramount importance of rail travel to the Japanese.
Japan‘s railways are fast, highly efficient and cover the majority of the country, making this the transport mode of choice for most visitors. The first and most confusing aspect of Japan’s railway system (especially within large cities like Tokyo) that you will encounter is the overlap of several private railway networks with the JR network. A given station can host several companies (JR and/or private), or the stations of distinct companies can be located next to the others. Tokyo also has two separate metro systems to add to the confusion. Being aware of this one fact will substantially reduce the confusion you experience trying to understand railway maps and find your way around.
Visitors are usually astounded to find that Japanese trains, like other forms of mass transit, nearly always leave and arrive promptly on time, following the published schedule to the second. If you are late, you will surely miss the train! Delays are uncommon but can still happen especially if there’s a suicide attempt on the train track.
Note that most trains do not operate 24 hours, for example in Tokyo they do not run in the early morning 01:00-05:00, and the Shinkansen system never runs overnight. If you are planning to be out late and are relying on the train to get home, be sure to find out when the last train is leaving. Many bars and clubs are open until the first train runs again in the morning so keep this in mind as another option or tuck in at Internet cafes that are open 24 hours.
Route search engines are a fantastic tool, whether you’re just starting to plan a trip or are already in the country. For sorting through transport schedules and fares, HyperDia is an invaluable companion; it computes to-the-minute directions including connecting trains, as well as buses and planes. Jorudan is a similar service, but with fewer options for exploring alternate routes. Google Maps is fine for getting around subways and city trains, but for long distance trips its search options and the routes it presents are much less useful. The paper version of these is the Daijikokuhyō (大時刻表), a phonebook-sized tome available for browsing in every train station and most hotels, but it’s a little challenging to use as the content is entirely in microscopic Japanese. A lighter version that just includes limited express, sleeper and bullet trains (shinkansen) is available from the Japan National Tourist Organization’s overseas offices. English timetables are available on the websites of JR Hokkaido, JR East, JR Central and JR Kyushu. Timetables for the Tokaido, San’yo and Kyushu Shinkansen can also be viewed in English at Tabi-o-ji.
HyperDia and Tabi-o-ji offer schedule searches to find routes you can use with the Japan Rail Pass (see below), as does Jorudan with a paid subscription. Simply uncheck or choose the option to exclude Nozomi, Mizuho, and Hayabusa trains. HyperDia is also the only one that can search fares compatible with the Seishun 18 Ticket (see below).