In a country as organized and precise as Japan, it is no surprise that their train system is one of the best in the world. With great ontime records, new modern trains, and an extensive network, traveling by rail in Japan is a great idea. Trains crisscross the country covering both large cities and small towns with a total of over 27,000 km of track laid. The rail system in Japan is even more impressive when you look at the numbers. Over 20 billion people ride the trains in Japan each year and the country is home to 46 of the world’s 50 busiest train stations.
For travelers, such an efficient and popular rail network is both a blessing and a curse. Train prices in Japan are high and tickets often sell out for the most popular trains. Crowds can be overwhelming in the train stations, especially during rush hour, and while the system is well organized, it can be easy to get turned around. On the other hand, traveling by rail is incredibly convenient with train stations often located in the center of town and the trains themselves fast and comfortable.
There are a number of different types of trains in Japan which a traveler might find themselves on. The famous high-speed shinkansen or “bullet trains” are the most iconic Japanese trains, linking all the major cities of the country. The trains can reach speeds of 200+ mph, making them a great alternative to flying. Keep in mind though that the bullet trains are much more expensive and book up fast. Another option are the slower night trains which also cross major sections of the country but at a much slower pace. There are far fewer night trains than there use to be due to faster trains and lower priced bus options but when you do come across them, you can expect quality similar to Western Europe.
Japan Rail Pass
For travelers who plan on seeing as much of Japan as possible, a Japan Rail Pass is a great idea. Japan Rail Passes work on nearly all JR trains – JR being the largest rail company in Japan, covering around 70% of all train routes in the country. The passes offer unlimited use of all covered JR trains and can be purchased in 7, 14, or 21 day increments.
The Japan Rail Pass is such a good deal that it is actually only available for foreigners. If everyone could purchase a pass, the rail companies in Japan would lose billions in profit. Instead the Rail Passes are designed to be solely used by tourists and can not even be bought in the country. With this in mind, it is very important that you plan ahead and buy your Japan Rail Pass before arriving. After purchasing, you will be given a voucher which must be exchanged for your actual pass once in Japan. With your pass, you can often just hop on a train and go, though making seat reservations is recommended for certain trains that tend to book up or if you are traveling during a holiday season.