Using the Trains in Japan
Japan is known for it’s train system and it is by far the best way to get around Japan period. The trains are never late, are amazing, clean, and awesome. Did I mention I like the trains in Japan?
Like most of Japan, pay attention in the train stations to the perfection that is the Japanese train system. It’s remarkable. You will wish you could have a Japanese train system when you return home.
If you can walk a few miles (and frankly it’s the best way to see Japan) and are able to navigate you can use the trains for everything. Start understanding the train system before you get to Japan as it will help you out. Most destinations now have some information about what trains to use to get to the destination starting from a major train station. Know where you are going to be staying and know the train station that is nearest the hotel. Know the train station you are starting from and where you need to end up in to make your trip that day work.
Do yourself a favor and since you are on vacation get the JR RAIL GREEN PASS. This will allow you to travel in the green car on certain trains. The GREEN CAR is reserved seating. This will be handing with making long trips. The JR RAIL PASS will also get you on any JR RAIL local line so it make travel very easy. You just pass through the manned gates at each station and get on your train. You don’t have to pay since it’s an all day all inclusive pass. This also included the Shinkansen as well…. All of them!
Note: While the Japanese are very technology driven the JR RAIL pass does have one really crappy downside. You have to show the pass each and every time you pass into and out of a station where others would normally pay. One would think with all that technology in Japan they would have figured out how to make that system automated so that it’s less of an issue. While I type this I think to myself that there is probably some very good Japanese reason but it’s not been exposed to me yet. I would love to be able to pass in and out of train stations without having to show my pass like using my Suica card.
You will want this if you are moving between cities using the Shinkansen. The JR rail pass will pay for itself the first time you make a round trip on the Shinkansen. This pass will allow you to ride an JR train in Japan and in the Green Cars. The Green Cars are the reserved cars. So before you travel that day (on the Shinkansen Only) you will need to book your trip in the train station with the JR Rail staff. This is very easy and they all seem to have a working knowledge of English as well.
With the JR Rail Pass you will not go through the normal entry points like everyone else. You will have to pass through the JR Staffed glass windows and show them your pass. You would think that they would just put a chip in the pass and let you use it to go everywhere but it’s not the case. There are some things in Japan that make sense and others that are confusing. This is one of the confusing things. The upside is you get to use your Japanese greetings while showing your pass to the JR Rail Staff….bonus!
Caution : Take something with you to keep your rail pass in. I would suggest a zip lock bag or a holder of some type. If it gets wet or destroyed (like mine did in the wash) you have to go back to the office that issued the pass to get a new one. I was in Hiroshima at the time and the ticket back to Narita would have costed over $300-400 and would have taken an entire day. Take care of your pass!
There are local trains/rails in some cities so a Suica card will help with that. Get one early and start getting used to loading it and using it. There are Suica machines in every train station and they are in English. Most local train companies will accept the Suica card and if not YEN will always work. Places like Hiroshima’s city street cars just take YEN and it’s cheap to get around. I think 100 – 200 YEN tops. The Suica Card is almost like a bank card that you load over and over again. It can also be used for food and such in the train station and other places in Japan. It’s really pretty handy and I think it deserves more attention.
iPhone App – Using HyperDia while in Japan on your mobile phone is a huge help. The app is by Hitachi and is 100% awesome! You can put in where you are and where you want to go and it will lay out the entire trip for you with the times and all kinds of info. Do not download it until a few days before you go. You only get 1 free month, after that you have to pay for the service.Download the app and play with it as if you were in Japan.
Manners on the train :: The train is a public place and unlike American where people spit, urinate, barf and talk loudly on their phones in Japan you get on the train and you ride the train and that is it. You can read a book, you can play with your phone (in silent mode) and you can talk softly but that is it. Do not talk on your mobile phone. Do not talk loudly, Do not be a big rude jerk. Give your seat to women and children and be as polite as you can.
Everything you need to know about a Suica card is on the site. It’s a simple little card that can be recharged at any train station. It’s easy to use. I kept mine in the outer pocket of my day bag that I carried everywhere so I didn’t have to pull it out.
The site shows other cards but they are all one big system and share the same back end. So if you have any of those cards you can use them all in the same place. When you arrive in Japan and head to the train station just get a card first thing and load it up with about 3000 to 5000 YEN and be done with it.