How to use trains in Japan

Flickr shinkansen picture from kamoda's stream

Japan has an extremely expansive train network. You can get trains from or two pretty much anywhere. They are comfortable, clean and spacious. Unless your catching an extremely busy train or are unfortunate enough to get on the train and rush hour – then it’s an entirely different story.

You don’t need to know Japanese at all to use the train system. At each station there will be a map. Often this map will have the station names in English as well being in one of two of the Japanese alphabets. The station you are at will be clearly labelled on the station platform as well as highlighted on the station map.

Each station will have a number next to it that increases with the distance from the station you’re at. This is the price in yen. Simply put the amount of yen into the ticket machine – which will take both notes and coins. And push the button that is the same amount as your journey will cost. Tickets usually start around 120yen and this will get you to the next station.

Now you can buy a ticket – but two problems remain.

1. How do I know when the trains going to leave?
2. What platform will the train leave from?

In larger train station there’ll be a big electronic board usually the line names and departure times. So you need to know if which line you station is on. If you go to the ticket collector and ask:

Nan ban desu ka? (What platform is it?)
While giving him or her your ticket then they’ll tell you. Probably in Japanese ichi-ban (1), ni-ban (2), san-ban(3) … if that sounds like too much to remember they’ll also hold up fingers. If at this point you look more confused someone will be called over and everything in the stations power will be done to ensure you arrive at your destination. For some wonderful reason Japanese people are incredibly accommodating to foreigners.

In a small station there will not be a fancy electronic board but there will also not be a confusing amount of platforms. There will be two maybe three. There will be a timetable board, often with English, that will say where the two lines go to. Both names will be big cities, one of which will probably be you destination. Next to the time you want, a platform number will be written. Easy that. Once again if you’re a little nervous – look confused and go talk to one of the staff who will probably be so unbelievably helpful that you’ll feel a little guilty afterwards and want to buy him a present.

You can also check before hand using this very handy English website ( You only need to know the station name you’ll leave from and where you wish to go.

Longer Distance Travel

There will be special machines for express tickets or shinkansen tickets. These trains go very fast and don’t stop very often. The easiest way to get tickets is at one of the bigger stations – there’ll be a ticket shop usually with green desks. Queue up here and give your destination. The member of staff will often speak English or be willing to find some who does. Otherwise you’ll be asked to point at a calendar and then write down the approximate time you’d like to leave and the same for your return journey.

You may have to change trains – even if you don’t you will be given a worrying amount of tickets. Don’t worry just give the whole set to any one who asks and state your destination – they will do their best to get you there. If you do have a change the ticket seller will tell you the name of the station. You might want to get them to write this down. Be sure to remember it anyway. Then get off at that station. At this point you’ll need to make your connection.

There are two good ways to do this. One is to follow everyone else who’s just got off your train – the largest group will probably be going the same place as you. If not the ticket machine or man will stop you and you’ll be told the correct way. The other is to go to the nearest member of staff (preferably near a ticket machine – give him your wodge of tickets are state you destination. He’ll tell you the platform.)


Travelling by train can be quite expensive. You may want to consider the Seishun Juhachi Kippu (Youth 18 ticket) which allows you to travel nearly anywhere in Japan for around 2300 yen per day. They are sold in sets of 5 and can be used on 5 consecutive or non-consecutive days.

Train Catchin’ Links

- Train Timetables on the web
Post a Comment