Railway System in Japan- The Basics

by jersey01

Travelling in Japan may be one of the most difficult challenges that foreigners face when they arrive at Japan. Really, it's so complex that most Japanese do not understand them all. Indeed, if natives can't understand, chances are, you won't. But don't worry. This article will at least teach you the basics of Japanese railway systems and will definitely help you go around Japan without panicking at all.

Railway Connected Islands

If you come to Japan and choose to use the trains to get around, you'll soon notice that the islands of Japan are very much connected with rail. What I mean by this, is that the major islands of Japan: the main island- Honshu, the northern island- Hokkaido, the western island- Kyushu, and the southwestern island- Shikoku, are already connected with rail. Sorry, no Okinawa (although Okinawa has its unique railway system).Â

What this shows, is that getting around Japan with trains will be quite easy- if you have time.

Anyway, since we all now know that Japan is a country with a high railway density, lets move on to the classifications of railway companies in Japan.

Classifications of Railway Companies

One of the reasons why Japan has such a complicated railway system, is probably because of the complex web of railway companies. There are at least 20 railway companies that run trains in Tokyo, and more in the Kansai (western) region of Japan.

Classifying them is easy. All railway companies can be classified into three types: JR, private and public.

The JR Group

JR just stands for Japan Railways, which is the former government owned railway company JNR (Japanese National Railways), which became a private company in 1987. The JR group consists of 10 companies, and 7 of them, are passenger railway companies.

They are divided based on region, each having an individual business strategy, but for the most part, there is no difference for us to care. For foreigners who bought the Japan Rail Pass, this is the company you want to use the most since it allows you to use any of the JR trains for no extra fee with some exceptions (we'll talk about that some time).

Naming Trains

This is maybe one of the unique features of Japanese trains. All trains have unique names, each indicating the speed and the destination of the train. Even though there are rules to this, there are unlimited numbers of exceptions, making this super complicated.

Naming trains in JR is probably the easiest. The local train stops at every station without any exception; rapid trains stop at fewer stations. New rapid or special rapid trains stop at lesser stations than rapid, and limited express trains stop at the fewest stations except from the Shinkansen bullet train.

Although this is the basic rule of naming trains, it becomes extremely complicated in urban areas, especially in Tokyo. This will be covered in the next article, so don't worry for now.

Extra Fees

The JR does not charge most trains with extra fee other than the usual fare except from limited express trains and the Shinkansen bullet train, where they require passengers to pay an extra fee. Nevertheless, there are cases where an extra fee is unnecessary even when passengers are using limited express trains and or Shinkansen bullet trains especially when passengers are using the Japan Rail Pass.

Therefore, if you are planning to use the Japan Rail Pass, you MUST read carefully the regulations of that ticket and how to use it. Also, be sure you know the correct train to get to your destination so that you will not have to waste your precious time in Japan looking for the right train. -If you have any problems searching for the right route and train to use, just contact me and I will be able to help you at any means.

Anyway, the JR group has the biggest railway network around the country and is the most common railway transportation in Japan.

However, in some cases, using other railway companies may be necessary.

Private Railway Companies

Now, this is where it gets complicated. Private sectors have individual rules and ways of operating their network. This means that you will have to study each railway that you are going to use beforehand.

For example, Kintetsu railway is the largest private railway system in Japan, but they have a completely different way of naming trains. Express trains are extremely rare in the JR network, but in Kintetsu, it is the train name to replace what JR calls rapid trains. See? It's complicated.

Getting use to all the private railway networks in Japan is almost impossible, so as a general rule, just remember that local trains stop at every station, and other trains stop at fewer stations; so if you're wondering which train to get on but don't have time, just use the local train going to the right direction and that will do its job.

Public Sectors

This is basically the same as private railway companies but with a different business style -It is owned by the government, either local or prefectural. Some are owned by the city and some are owned by the prefecture.

Most of the public railway networks in Japan run underground (in Japan we call them 'Subways' like in the US, not 'Tube' or 'Metro'), but some are tramcars.

Luckily, in Japan, it does not matter if a train is running underground or on ground or in the air. It's just the company that is running the train that matters. So isn't that easy. No. Absolutely not.

That is why I am here to help you and I will try my best to consistently produce quality articles to help foreigners feel comfortable using the railway in Japan.

Thanks for reading. See you next time.