The rumours are true. Japanese trains always run on time. But that’s not all there is to know…
What you need
There are 2 things that will make train travel in Japan so much easier, 3 if you want to count your smartphone.
Number 1 is a portable wifi box.
For info on how to get one and how they work see this article right here. With access to wifi you will be able to use the wonderful app that is Google Maps. Train travel becomes a lot less scary when you have a full breakdown of train times, train numbers and changes.
One thing I like to do on a route I’m unfamiliar with is to search for a journey but not start the navigation, because then you can follow yourself as you travel along the highlighted route.
Number 2 is a Pasmo or Suica card.
Similar to London’s Oyster card, they let you add credit on to them and you simply swipe in and out at the barriers in the train stations. The card will automatically work out the cost of your journey.
The big benefit of these cards is that you don’t need to worry about buying tickets, which can become complicated. Just keep it topped up and you’re always ready to go. If you forget to top up, you might find that you can’t get through the barrier on the other end, but don’t panic! Simply head to the nearest fare adjustment or ticket machine and top up your Suica or Pasmo card.
If you’re travelling to a budget you might want to check in with your card’s balance after each journey to make sure that you’re not over-spending. You can check your balance at ticket machines in every station.
Navigating the Stations
With Google maps in hand, the language barrier isn’t too much to worry about. In major cities, the station names are presented in Japanese and English (hiragana and romaji). This is mostly true for outside of the cities as well. (We never came across one without but if you have, let me know!)
You may come across departure boards all in Japanese but most will rotate between Japanese and English or show both at the same time.
It’s worth noting that because of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, the country and its capital in particular are keen to cater to foreigners and make it easier for them to get about.
When it comes to finding your platform, Google maps handily tells you which one to use. But in the event it doesn’t (it can happen), determine which direction your train will be going and go from there.
Be aware that Google maps might tell you that there is walking involved to get from one platform to another and at times make it seem like you’re going to a different station. Or it might do the opposite and say there is no walking involved when there is.
The problem with Google maps is that it picks a single spot as “the platform” so you might be on the platform already but Google doesn’t think you are because you’re stood several metres away from the magic pin. It’s not a big deal, it’s just something that might cause a bit of confusion from time to time, particularly at the bigger stations.
Another helpful tip is to know which company your train is operating under. For example, JR trains in Tokyo are usually well sign-posted. It’s also worth paying attention to this so you don’t cross a barrier you aren’t meant to.
Actually using the trains and train etiquette
If you want to avoid being the rude foreigner, there are a few guidelines you should follow. On Japanese train platforms there are lines that indicate where to queue. If there are no lines or if the platform is quiet, you should be fine waiting where you want to. But if you see a queue forming you better join it.
This is one of the best examples of Japanese etiquette that I wish was replicated in more countries. No pushing or shoving past people or blocking those trying to get off. Just an orderly queue and respect for the people around you. Of course during rush hour, the second you step on that train shoving WILL occur.
Once on the train look out for special seats reserved for disabled or elderly passengers. Don’t sit in these (unless you qualify of course) because there may be passengers who need them. If you sit in one without realising, don’t worry, we did a couple of times too. As long as you move when you notice or give up your seat for anyone who needs it, you’ll be fine.
Pretty much all Japanese trains operate on the “quiet carriage” policy. This means turn your phone to silent and don’t take phone calls, you’ll even see signs that say so. And if you’re chatting with someone who is travelling with you, try to keep your voices to a reasonable level.
Don’t eat or drink on the trains, unless you’re travelling by Shinkansen. If it’s hot, a bottle of water is fine. Like anything else, if you forget this rule only to remember it mid-sandwich, don’t worry. As a foreigner it’s understood that you might forget a thing or two or not know in the first place. Just wrap that sandwich back up and put it in your bag.
While I never ate on the trains, I cannot tell you how many times I started eating while I walked, only to remember that I wasn’t supposed to. So don’t be too hard yourself. As long as you’re respectful to the people around you and learn from your mistakes, that’s all that matters.
Tickets and fare adjustment machines.
If you’re trying to stick to a budget or only in Japan a few days, you might prefer to simply buy tickets rather than getting a top-up card. If this is the case then things will be a little more complicated.
Thankfully, the ticket machines can be set to English so as long as you know where you’re going you should be fine. If it’s all getting a bit confusing, a great tip is to buy the cheapest ticket. Japan has things called fare adjustment machines. When you get to the other end of your journey, find one of these machines and put your ticket in. It will automatically work out how much more money you need to pay. After you’ve paid, you’ll receive a new ticket that you can use to get through the barriers.