How to use trains in Japan | Travel Tips

How to use trains in Japan is a common question we get. If you come from a town or city without decent public transport, then there is a likelihood that you may never have even used a train before, let alone one in another country. Which is why it’s so important to get an understanding of how the Japanese train system works, and how you can get from A to B easily.

Japanese Train at station

Japanese trains are unlike any other in the world. Sure, they might look the same as the rest of the world, but no country matches the excellent service you receive on a Japanese train. As you may or may not know, the Japanese are a very precise nation and love consistency. Japanese trains are no exception. The majority of trains in Japan are usually always on time, operating down to the exact second for arrival and departure.  If a train does depart early, it tends to make people a little confused. in 2018, a train departed a whole 20 seconds early, and the company made a public apology for the inconvenience. 

Getting to/on the train

Know what train line and operator you are using

In Japan, there are several different train line operators, and the way things work varies around the country and by operator. The Largest rail operator is Japan Rail (JR). JR offers the Japan Rail Pass, which is an extremely helpful pass that entitles you to unlimited travel for a period of 7,14, or 21 consecutive days on the vast majority of JR services, including bullet trains.

Other operators, such as Metros, or Subways, etc. don’t operate with the same passes, and will not accept those passes as payment for your trip. 

There companies also have their own stations, sometimes by the same name. For instance, on the Osaka Loop Line, you have  JR Kyobashi Station, but you also have the Keihan Station and the Osaka Metro lines operating out of a Kyobashi Station. 

Think of it like an Airport terminal, you might have services operating out of one building for one rail line, but you might need to cross the road or walk a distance to the other station to catch the other service. This can be a little overwhelming to understand, but knowing who operates the service is a big step in understanding where you need to go at the train station. When using the Google Maps journey planner, you can see what train operator operates the service you are taking, and you can plan your trip accordingly based off that information. 

Get a Ticket

Knowing how to use the ticketing machines is one of the first steps for learning how to use trains in Japan.

You can buy train tickets at ticket machines located in the train stations. Most machines have English-language options, and you can pay with cash or credit card. If you are unsure about which ticket to buy, ask the station staff or use a fare calculator app. 

Ticket machines are usually conveniently located, and are super easy. You can also buy pre-paid IC cards, which help to automatically calculate fares as you tag on at your origin, and tag off at your destination. IC cards vary slightly in cost by region and type, but in general are a wise investment as they can be used for more than transportation. Vending machines at train stations, convenience stores, and even some arcades can accept your IC card as a payment. 

If you are travelling a lot on JR lines, then getting a Japan Rail Pass is highly recommended. A Japan Rail pass entitles you to unlimited travel for the period of validity on any JR line in the country, included seats on Bullet Trains, and the JR Miyajima Ferry. There are even some bus routes operated by JR where the Japan Rail Pass is valid. While these have a high up-front cost, With a few bullet train trips, you can more than easily get your moneys worth. 

Once you have your payment method of choice, be it a physical ticket, an IC card, or a Japan Rail Pass, proceed to the gates.

The gates are usually nearby the tracks, and offer a way in and out of the train station. If you have a phsycial ticket, insert your ticket at the top of the machine, and walk through the open gate. your ticket will be punched, and sent straight away to the other side of the gate. Collect your physical ticket from the other side of the gate, and hold on to it. 

If you have an IC card, then simply tag your card onto the card reader, and provided you have balance, the gates will open up for you. 

With the Japan Rail Pass, simply go to the manned gate and show the station attendant your Japan Rail Pass. They will check to make sure you are on a JR line, (if you are not at a JR station,  such as a Metro station, they will tell you your pass isn’t valid on their services), and they will also check the expiration date to make sure your pass is valid. With a quick glance, they will wave you though the gate very quickly.

Find your trains departure time

Trains in Japan are usually very punctual, so make sure you arrive at the station early and check the train schedule. You can find train schedules at the station or on the train company’s website.

Using a digital service like Google or Apple Maps is a easy and familiar way for most to find when and where the train departs from, and gives you a degree of assurance that the train you get on will take you where you want to go. If you haven’t used either of those services, then try them out in Japan for a super easy train network experience.

Find the right platform

In a large train station, it can be a little overwhelming trying to figure out where you need to be at what time. There are large electronic departure boards at most major stations, which indicate upcoming departures from what platform. 

On each platform, you will usually see a smaller version of these boards as well, which indicate next departures for that platform. Make sure you are watching this board closely to make sure you are getting on the right train at the right time. 

If you are unsure, the train station staff are more than happy to assist and get you on the right train. 

Japan often has good Google Maps and Apple Maps data available. In most cases among the large rail operators, the departure platform will be displayed in the Google Maps journey planner, which helps greatly when navigating the station.

Waiting for the train

Train Station

While waiting for the train, it’s best to stand at the markings on the ground that indicate the stopping positions for the cars. The trains in Japan are so precise, that they have floor markings which indicate where the doors will be when the train pulls into the station. While not perfect all the time, the conductors are usually very accurate with their stopping. Queuing in this area creates easy flow for those boarding, and alighting at each station.

At the busy train stations of Japan, queuing in the right place at the right time is important, as with busy crowds, it’s very easy to bump into other people, get on the wrong train, or get lost. 

Stepping on the train

Once your train has arrived, wait for passengers to disembark before stepping on to the train. This allows for a safe, and efficient flow of passengers on and off the train. Stand in line, and wait to board the train. After no one is clearly getting off, then feel free to board. 

On the Train - Ettiqute

Trains in Japan are a great way to get around, as well as saving big on car rental costs. The Osaka Loop line makes it easy to get around Osaka, and get to all the things on your Osaka Itinerary.


This is a bit more of a universal idea. Seats near the door, are priority seating, used for the elderly, pregnant, disabled, or injured. If you are sitting in one of these seats and someone matching that description, please ensure you stand up and offer your seat to them. 

Also, during peak hours – usually in the large cities – don’t expect to get a seat. In Tokyo, where the trains are so busy,  sitting down becomes a luxury on peak train services. If you can, avoid travelling on trains in Tokyo during the morning and afternoon rushes – you will likely be packed in like sardines, and during summer, the words ‘extremely unpleasant’ do not do it justice. If you have a backpack on during the peak time, you are encouraged to take it off your back and hold it in your hands between your legs. 



Sleeping on trains in Japan is perfectly normal. A lot of people work long hours or wake up at early times, and by the end of the day, people are pretty tired. And so, don’t be surprised if you see anyone asleep during your commute. Going back to the earlier point about people talking on trains, make sure that if someone happens to be sleeping near you, then make sure you keep noises to a minimum out of mutual respect.

Secondly, sometimes, people might actually end up leaning on you because that is just what happens when the body goes to sleep. Just let them sleep on your shoulder, they won’t cause you any harm. They have been on the train often enough to know when to wake up for their station, so please don’t disturb or worry about them. If you need to stand up before they wake up, just gently nudge them to wake them. If you are a foreigner, you will often get a surprised expression, followed up by an apology.  

Speaking or Talking on the phone

In general, it is considered very rude to make unnecessary noise on trains in Japan. This includes having a loud conversation, talking on the phone, or playing music too loudly through your headphones. It’s important to ensure that you provide a peaceful riding experience for the other passengers on board. This goes back to the previous point, as people do sleep on the trains, and speaking loudly, or talking on the phone disturbs them. 

You will quite often see people taking phone calls on the train. Most of the time, unless there is hardly anyone on the train, people will pick up the phone, explain they are on the train, and hang up the phone in a few seconds. They will then usually apologise to the nearby passengers they have disturbed. At their end destination, once off the train, the passenger will pick up their phone and continue the conversation. If you take a call while on a train in Japan, you are expected to do the same. 

Eating and Drinking

Depending on the train, eating and drinking are not allowed. For longer distance trains, this may not apply, but for commuter/inner city trains, then eating and drinking are prohibited. 

However, you are allowed to eat and drink on station platforms. If you are really needing a bite or a drink, hop off the train at the next stop, have some food or swig back your favourite beverage from a vending machine, and get on the next train. 

Some stations even having standing restaurants, where you can eat a filling meal while standing around waiting for your train. This allows you to easily get your nutrients, while not consuming a large amount of your time. 


Japanese train conductors have to go through several years of training in order to operate the trains in a timely and safe manner. And because of this, Japanese trains are held in high esteem. But even after years of training, delays still do happen. There is only so much you can do as a conductor, but the human factor is always changing. Delays may encounter because people are people, and are unpredictable. There might be a sudden increase of passengers, leading to departure delays, leading to arrival delays. 

Getting off the train

Once at your end destination, get off the train, and head towards any of the marked exits. 

If you have a physical ticket, you will need to insert your ticket back into the gate machine. This time, the machine will not spit your ticket out at the other end when the gate opens. Simply walk through, and head off to your next destinations.

With the IC card, head to the same gate, and tag your card on to the reader. If you don’t have enough balance on your card for the trip, you will be told to go to the Fare Adjustment station, where you can top up your card with enough money to go through the ticket gate. 

With a Japan Rail Pass, head over to the manned gate, and show your rail pass to the station attendant. Providing your pass is valid for the trip you just took, and isn’t expired, the attendant will wave you through.

Storing Luggage

Luggage Lockers

Japanese Luggage lockers at station

If you are just travelling through a city, or have some time to kill while waiting for your hotel to be ready, but don’t want to lug your bags around, then these luggage lockers are a saving grace. The major stations around Japan will have these storage lockers, but you will be lucky to find them in the smaller cities. They are super convenient and fair amount per hour to securely store your luggage. As you can see in the above images, they can hold bags like purses, backpacks, and even suitcases. You can read our page on where to store luggage in Japan by clicking here now.