You’ve probably heard that trains are a staple of life in Japan. Chances are good that you’ve seen pictures of bullet trains (shinkansen), maybe even the new Hello Kitty themed one. But, unless you’ve been to Japan, you’ve likely never actually ridden a Japanese train. Read on to demystify Japan’s definitive form of public transportation, and open up a world of travel opportunities!
Let’s start close to home, in little Hikone. Hikone, while small, is pretty well connected, and its station is actually a transfer point for two different train lines. The larger one is the JR Biwako line, which goes to Maibara and Nagahama in one direction, and Kyoto and Osaka in the other. The smaller line, whose trains are generally older and slower, is called the Ohmi line. It costs more, but is the only connection to some of the small towns in the Shiga countryside. To encourage people to ride it, several cars are decorated with images of mascots or anime girls named after the various stations.
Maibara Station is actually the same distance away from JCMU as Hikone station, and it’s a meeting point for trains going in a few different directions, as well as shinkansen. It’s a larger station, and good place to begin a long journey. However, trains occasionally get pulled out of service there for maintenance, so sometimes you have to get off and wait for the next one.
If you get on at Hikone Station, you can ride all the way to Osaka without getting off. Usually. Sometimes the trains stop, like at Maibara, and sometimes they branch off in other directions. However, the signage is very clear, and often in English as well, so it’s not too hard to determine before you even get on. There’s almost always a light-up board displaying the next trains due at the station, with their end destination and the track number. They’re often grouped by the direction they’re headed. So if you want to go north, remember that Maibara is north of Hikone, and look for the group of arrivals that are going towards Maibara.
The trains are also described by their speed, or rather, by how often they stop. The cheapest ticket on a JR train lets you ride a local (all stops), rapid (fewer stops), or super-rapid (even fewer stops). The rapid and super rapid are often pretty similar, but you might see both of those names at the station. With an extra seat fee, you can ride the express and limited express, which stop even less often and at only the most important stations. The super express is another name for the shinkansen, and those are extremely fast and much more expensive. All the trains are clearly labeled, and in fact, only the local and rapid trains come through Hikone. So with a basic ticket, you can walk onto any train you want and go for a ride.
Also, if you get on the wrong train, you can easily just hop off at the next station and get on one going in the opposite direction. It won’t cost you anything extra. Ticket prices are determined by where you start and where you get off. How long you spend at any given station, or how many times you get on and off, doesn’t matter, as long as you don’t cross the ticket gate. That means you can ride JR trains all along the length of Japan on just one ticket, if you stay in the JR part of each station. Other companies have their own ticket gates, so if you’re transferring to the Ohmi line or a subway, for example, you’ll have to buy another ticket.
You can purchase tickets ahead of time for a small discount, but for non-reserved trains they don’t sell out, and you can buy them easily at the station. Simply check the huge map above the ticket machines and find the place you’re going to. The number next to it is the number of yen it costs. Select “ticket” on the machine’s screen, and tap the number that matches the one on the board. Then insert that amount of money, and your ticket will pop into your hand.
To cross a gate, just insert the ticket into the slot facing you, and grab it as it pops up on the other side. When you insert it into the gate on the way out, it’ll disappear inside the machine. Alternatively, you can go through the manned gate and the station attendant will punch or stamp it for you. If you find yourself leaving an earlier or later station than you planned on, you can’t use that ticket in a gate. Instead, you need to go to a fare adjustment kiosk and feed it your ticket. It’ll either refund you for a shorter journey, or ask you to pay more for a longer one. The attendants can also do this for you.
The station attendants can be very helpful. It’s their job, after all! They may not speak English, or on the other hand, they may assume you can’t speak Japanese; but they’ll do their best to answer your questions. They can tell you what exact platform and at what time the train you want is arriving to, and they know where you’d have to transfer for any given destination. They can also direct you to toilets, lockers, and stores.
There are other payment options, such as a prepaid card you can regularly load yen on to, and these days, even some options for phone payment. There are also a few passes you can purchase, such at the Japan Rail Pass for short-term tourists, or the seasonal Seishun 18 tickets. The former lets you ride any JR-owned train, including non-reserved shikansen, and the latter gives you standard JR access for 24 hours at a time.
There are so many places you can go by train—malls, temples, cities, the ocean, and more! The railways are your ticket to exploring the whole of Japan, and it all starts at your local train station.