Train Travel in Japan: Usage & Conventions

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Wherever you find yourself in the world, the sub-culture of public transportation sheds a new light on how a society functions.  Japan has a reputation for having the most organised and polite train riders – an estimation that is well-earned.  Just the other day, a 15 year-old kid stabbed a guy at a bus stop here in Vancouver.  So, for us, the bar is set pretty low when it comes to acceptable behaviour on public transit.

Still, the trains in Japan are so orderly, it almost makes you want to take transit.  It’s like the population of Japan telepathically said to each other, “Look, none of us wants to be here.  So let’s just agree to be respectful of this space we are forced to share for a little while and then we can all carry on with our lives”.  Even tired passengers sleeping on the train magically wake up at the correct stop.  Both the trains and the people who ride them are exemplary models of how to move mass amounts of people from one place to another.

 

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At the Airport

The first problem for every traveler to solve is how to get from the airport to their accommodation.  In most international airports, signage directing new arrivals to public transportation is decent.  Still, even in a well-organised airport, there’s the question of whether to take a bus, train, or taxi.  Once that’s decided, you still then have to figure out which bus or train will get you to where you need to be.

Haneda is a relatively small airport and there is no shortage of signs pointing travelers in the right direction.  In addition, they have a help desk with about half a dozen staff.  These very friendly people can answer your questions and help you figure out the most efficient trains.  However, I am glad we Google Mapped directions beforehand in order to make the process smoother.

Here in Vancouver, we have three train lines.  Three.  I have lived here for almost 20 years and I still get on the wrong train sometimes.  The train map for Tokyo alone looks like this:

 

Train, Japan, bullet train, train map, train station
Photo credit: Damon Taylor

 

If you have the Japan Rail Pass (affiliate link), you can take the monorail from Haneda airport into Tokyo at no extra charge.  Similarly, if you arrive at Narita airport, the JR Pass will get you on the Narita Express.  You would think that because Haneda is an international airport with flights arriving in the evening, the JR Pass office would have hours that likewise reflected this.  But they don’t.  The office at the Haneda airport closes at 6:30 PM for some reason.  So if you are arriving in the evening, you may have to shell out a few bucks to get into the city.

The train ride from Haneda airport into Tokyo may have been one of the most pleasant of my life.  It was uncrowded, quiet, and exactly on time.  With green hair, I expected a few strange glances from people.  But, to my surprise, not a single other rider noticed my existence.  In fact, no one noticed any one else.  For the most part, everyone kept their eyes on their mobile devices – which had all been switched to silent mode out of consideration for the other passengers.  There were even a couple of people reading good, old-fashioned books made of paper.  But no one was looking around.  Except me.  Clearly the custom was to look at anything except the other people on the train so, with nowhere else to turn my eyes, I got very acquainted with the floor at my feet.

Japan Rail Pass link

In the City

Laura and I each have our roles when we travel together:  I drive and she navigates.  I take us down sketchy trails with poisonous snakes to beautiful beaches and she figures out how to buy train tickets.

Seriously, I would definitely get on the wrong train without her guidance.  We had this game we played in Japan where I tried to figure out which platform and which train we should be taking before she did.  We took about a million trains in Japan.  I won twice.  It only took Laura two minutes to look at the chart below and figure out where we were, where we were going, and how much we needed to pay.

 

Train, Japan, bullet train, train map, train station
Photo credit: Stuart Rankin

 

However, you don’t need to worry about paying the correct fare for your train.  Japan has a great system where, if you decide to change trains or destinations, you can use a fare adjustment machine to pay the difference at your destination.  If you can’t be bothered to figure out your correct fare, you can simply buy the cheapest ticket available and then settle the difference at the other end.

Several trains share a single track at most stations.  There are always staff around who can help when you get confused.  Even the conductors will lend a hand to a lost tourist.  However, the friendly nature of people in Japan means you will never have to look far if you have a question.  Several times, simply because we had a confused look on our faces, we were approached by locals wanting to help.  The advice they gave was wrong, but if we had truly been in a jam, I am more than confident a lovely member of the public would have steered us in the right direction.

Not every train ride was as easy and comfortable as that first one from the airport.  As you research things to do in Japan, you will find many people who recommend taking the train during rush hour.  I don’t know, I guess if you come from a small town, being crammed onto a train with hardly the space to breathe could be an adventure.

 

Train, Japan, bullet train
A tiny train station in the middle of nowhere.

While there is some novelty in watching people literally be pushed onto the train by the attendants at the station – all done in the politest manner of course – I can’t say it’s an experience I would seek out.  Nor will you have to.  The trains in Tokyo are always busy.  We even saw one guy who had to back himself onto the train car because it was so crowded.  Sooner or later, you will find yourself packed onto a train with a horde of other people as you desperately try to hold in a fart.

No matter how busy the trains get though, one thing remains the same – people are considerate of that shared space.  Phones are put on silent, conversation is kept to a minimum and always at a respectful volume, and people make room for others wanting to board.

Riders line up on the platform in two neat lines and then scramble for a seat once on board.  Most trains have courtesy seats for those with physical limitations.  However, we did see a woman on crutches and, even though this train didn’t have official courtesy seats, still no one offered her their seat.  Some trains even have women only cars during rush hour for those who don’t want to have to deal with serial gropers.

 

Train, Japan, bullet train, train map, train station

 

The one drastic contrast to this otherwise orderly mode of transportation was the train to Nikko.  The passengers on this train were almost entirely tourists and the difference in attitude was dramatic.  People were talking loudly – often yelling across other people.  Bags were sprawled on the floor or placed on seats while other people were left standing.  Public displays of affection – and in one case disaffection – were well on display.  People slid down in their seats so others that tried to get by had to trip over their feet.

It wasn’t until we got on this train that we realised how much we had taken for granted the experience so far.  True, we encountered one or two drunk salarymen with the stench of alcohol on their breaths, but even they still followed the conventions of polite space-sharing.

 

Train, Japan, bullet train, train map, train station

 

The hardest part about taking the trains in Japan is finding your exit.  The stations are never as small as they look on Google Maps.  Go out the wrong door and you could be lost forever – or like, 20 minutes anyway.  Keep in mind as well, especially at Tokyo Station, you may have to walk half a kilometre to get from one train to your connection.  Some of our days ended with tired feet yet the only walking we had done was to and from trains.

If you find yourself in Japan, you will find yourself on a train.  Overall, the experience is a good one.  Trains are always on time and the rail network is surprisingly easy to navigate.  But best of all, you will not have to concern yourself with the vomiting, urinating, and yelling that is often associated with public transit.

Want to know more about the Japan Rail Pass?  Check out my post Japan Rail Pass: How it Works and Will it Save You Money? for more info.

 

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30 Comment

  1. Wow, I found this article fascinating. Thanks Jen. There is so much to appreciate when it comes to cultural differences.

  2. Japanese trains are famous all over world. But I liked your Nikko station experience. To find an exit door on train is funny

  3. Good article. I was just on the metro in Washington DC and learned how to navigate it myself. That one also seems to be a breeze compared to the Japanese map! Good to know people are overall kind and courteous though. Who knows, maybe I’ll find myself there one day 🙂

  4. There are SO many lines! Where I live we do not even have a train haha. I still want to use this when we come to Japan though! It looks like fun and a great way to get around.

  5. I have heard the same thing about the mass transit in Japan. I can honestly say this is the first time I have heard anyone say that taking a commuter train was a pleasant experience. The warning sign with the stuffed rabbit looks so Japanese.

  6. You are such a genius writer, just 2 paragraphs into your article and I was like “OMG I can relate to it so very well”! Well Japan’s transportation scenario sounds like a complete opposite of that in India. In India public commute means quarreling with strangers every single time.

    1. Thanks so much for the compliment! I honestly don’t know how I managed on the trains in India. I mean, we did miss a train that we didn’t know had changed tracks. But I had to constantly ask people which station we were at because there was no other way to know! Very different experience, for sure:)

  7. I laughed when I read this: “Look, none of us wants to be here. So let’s just agree to be respectful of this space we are forced to share for a little while and then we can all carry on with our lives”.
    I understand this situation. The train stations in Manila are super crowded too. I like that Japanese respect each inside the train. However, I am not too eager to take this train if I were to visit Japan someday.

  8. That’s so convenient that you can pay the difference at the other end if you bought the wrong ticket. I’m always so scared when I travel that I bought a train or subway ticket that was incorrect and will have to pay a fine

  9. I LOVE Japan’s transit system! It runs so efficiently, unlike the one in DC that I’m used to (ugh). It’s funny that you took pictures of their signs, I did the same thing when I visited. Definitely agree that finding the exit is the hardest part, some of their stations are huge! Very informative post 🙂

    1. We ended up using our JR passes to get back into the train station in Kyoto because we couldn’t figure out how to walk around it!

  10. We absolutely loved taking the train in Tokyo. A little preparation and we knew how to wend our way from Narita to our destination in Ikebukuro. We loved how orderly everything was, and even though it was crowded sometimes, it added to the fun. Only once did we decide to wait the extra 4 minutes for the next train. Love this helpful post.

  11. I have seen videos of people being stuffed in trains in Japan. I would never want to be on one such train. I also do me research on getting from the airport to the accommodation. I usually take taxis if I reach at night.

  12. I work in the railway industry in London, UK and looking at those maps and information boards is very confusing. Can’t wait to get out there and get lost in that urban jungle 😀 (oh, and take a train ride of course) 😀

  13. It did take us a while to figure out how to expertly use the train ticket booths, but by the end of our trip we were definitely experts. We knew which buttons to push without even looking. It’s a great way to get around in Japan.

  14. Japan is known for its strict rules and regulation of the train rides. how wonderful place it is, I am sure you guys had the best times there. Wonderfully you have shared the experience of how there is a difference between people of Japan and tourists. Nicely Written! 🙂

  15. I would love for the smooth Japanese train system to be implemented here in China haha, the trains are great but people almost get cut in half every day trying to squeeze on and off!! I like the idea of being able to make up the difference in ticket price too!

  16. Love Japan, one of my favorite countries on earth, it’s so different than any other place in the world…. Trains are quite expensive in Japan (especially if you use the Shinkansen train), but overall I found it was worth the experience. Thanks for sharing!

  17. Wow. Are there enough signs in English or does the staff speak at least some basic English to help you? This sounds very organized, but at the same time a very confusing system.

    1. There is a lot of English in the major centres, so it’s relatively easy to comprehend. If you’re in a little town in the country, there might not be English announcements on the train, but there are still usually English signs.

  18. Everyday experiences like these give you the real pulse of a city. Can imagine the ruckus and chaos created by those tourist groups that you mention. Reminds me that of the responsibilities we carry as travelers.

  19. This seems like an awesome idea! I love trains and this would be my kind of travel!

  20. Taking the train is always a good idea. But I’d prefer it if Laura could travel with me and tell me which platform to stand on and when to get on and off the train! She sounds like the perfect traveling companion.

  21. We are heading to Japan next year and this guide will come in handy. I have heard a lot about how good they are and how efficiently they run so it sounds like that is completely true. Interesting to hear about the cultural differences between locals and tourists riding the train.

  22. Oh my god, cracked up laughing at the fart comment!
    We loooove taking public transport in Japan – everything from the sleek bullet trains to the local ones, modern subways, buses, antiquated trams, all of it. We love using the ticket machines, working out navigation, the little jingles that are played as the train comes in to each stop, unique to that stop. And of course, the wonderful polite and considerate behaviour of travellers.
    Great post!

  23. a great detailed post – thanks so much! There were quite a few similarities with the london tube – and on the exits with the metro in seoul!

  24. Great tutorial on the Tokyo subway system — that map was crazier than NYC’s subway system! So nice to know they’ve found a way to make mass public transportation civil and orderly.

  25. I’ve never been to Japan, but I can tell from this article that their public transportation system is drastically different than every other one I’ve experienced! I wish all trains and subways had such polite passengers! That map, however, looks SERIOUSLY intimidating–how did you ever figure out where you were going?!

  26. Nice tips. Judging by that map, one sure could use them! 😀 Love how you’ve pointed out to the transport details, but to the behavior of passengers as well, thanks. 🙂

  27. It was must have been an overwhelming experience, looking for trains, navigating and so on. I miss the trains too! And got to know so many facts about the trains in Japan from your post. lovely read 🙂

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