Japan’s trains

With Japan opening up its borders to tourists, I thought I’d cover a few things that might be helpful to know when you’re visiting.

Last month I talked about what you should do if you lose something here. Today, it’s trains.

Japan prides itself on its clean and usually prompt train options. It’s how the vast majority of people living in or around Tokyo get to work every day.

Still, take one look at the train map for Tokyo, and you might see why a lot of people find using the system overwhelming. Here are a couple of tips to follow to hopefully make your trip easier.

Various companies

Japan has a series of companies who own and operate the various train lines in the nation. Probably one people know most is Japan Rail (JR). They have lines running all over the country, with maybe their most famous one being the Yamanote Line, which runs in an oddly shaped circle around Tokyo.

Tokyo also has Tokyo Metro, Keisei Lines, Keio Lines, and probably a few more I have forgotten about. Osaka and other major cities will have their own train lines as well.

How to use the trains

Surprisingly, this depends on where you are and what station you’re using. For the most part, though, the station will have a little ticketing machine where you can buy your tickets. I highly, highly recommend buying a Pasmo or Suica card, which is a card you can charge money on.

Otherwise, you have to look up at a map above the ticketing gate or use a train app to determine what amount you need on your ticket.

For example, if you’re just going from one station to the next, you look up at the map above the ticketing machine and find the station you’re trying to get to. It will have a number underneath it, which is how much it will cost you to get there from where you are. So you need to buy a ticket that has that amount.

Most ticketing gates have an English option.

Once you get your ticket or card, use the ticketing gates. All of them will have a little pad onto which you touch your card, and only some of them will have a little slot into which you need to put your ticket if you went the paper ticket route, so keep an eye out for which one you need to go through (again, I can’t recommend a Pasmo or Suica card enough).

Next, you need to know what the name of the last stop is for the direction you’re going in. To know this, either just ask someone working at the station (they usually have an office near the ticketing gates for just such questions, and just tell them what station you’re trying to get to), or find a map that lists all the train stations in one direction or another depending on the platform. They should be listed near the entrance to the platforms. Look at the map and figure out what the last stop is.

For example, you want to go to Shinjuku Station in Tokyo and you’re at Kanda Station. You find a map that suggests the fastest way would be using the JR Chuo Line, which cuts through the lopsided circle the Yamanote Line makes.

You see two platforms for the Chuo Line: One headed toward Tokyo Station and the other toward Otsuki Station.

Shinjuku Station is in the Otsuki Station direction, so you want to get on the train bound for Otsuki Station.

Taken from Wikipedia

All announcements will be read in Japanese and English, with some lines and companies adding other languages like Mandarin Chinese and Korean. If the names sound confusing, it can help to look below the names at the two-letter and number box and remember which one you’re trying to get off at. It will be announced during the English announcement time on the train.

If you have a Suica or Pasmo, you can easily switch from the JR company line trains to Tokyo Metro and other company lines.

Manners on the train

Here are some of the big things to know about when using the trains.

  1. Especially during weekday rush hour (mornings and evenings), don’t talk on your phone.
  2. Don’t be loud on the trains.
  3. People here are still wearing masks everywhere, so wear them on the trains, too.
  4. Try not to sit down unless you’re especially tired. If you are, then don’t sit in priority seating unless you: 1. Have small children with you. 2. Are pregnant. 3. Have an injury. 4. Have a heart condition. 5. Are old.
  5. When the train arrives at the station and you are still on the platform, go off to the left or right of the train doors as they open to give space for people getting off the train. They get off first, then you get on.

Rail passes

If you plan on exclusively traveling by train while in Japan, I recommend getting something like the JR Rail Pass, which you can only buy before you come visit. The pass gives you unlimited use of any JR line train while you’re here and is only available to foreign tourists.

If you don’t feel like committing to something like that, though, JR and other companies like Tokyo Metro offer day passes at almost all ticketing gates (and there’s an English option). These passes, of course, mean you can only use that company’s lines for the entire day so make sure you don’t buy a Tokyo Metro pass and then hop aboard the Yamanote Line.

Beating the heat in 2 major cities

If you plan on visiting Japan in the summer, unless you plan on staying up north like in Hokkaido or Aomori, you can expect temperatures to be in the mid-30s C here for most of the summer and even into autumn in some parts.

I’ve been to the following two major cities in Japan during the summer, and I have a few tips.

Tokyo: With so many streets lined with buildings rather than trees, it’s a concrete oven in the summer.

To try and survive, I recommend getting some items that will help cool you down from an 100-yen shop like Daiso (they have neck scarves you douse in water that cool your neck and fans). Also, feel free to roam department stores or electronics stores for no other reason than to bask in their AC.

Kyoto: This is like Florida in a heat wave. The heat just hits your lungs like you’ve run into a wall. This is all because Kyoto is in a valley surrounded by mountains, making it a little bowl that lets heat and humidity just sit there. At least Tokyo is near Tokyo Bay in some areas, allowing for a sea breeze every now and then.

If at all possible, try to avoid Kyoto in the summer. Kyoto is the place to go in the autumn and spring. If you can’t avoid it, however, I survived with those 100-yen items mentioned above and by making a beeline from one convenience store to another. I used to love admiring the ice cream section of each store for no other reason than it’s the coldest section of the store.

Most temples and shrines, unfortunately, don’t have AC, which means your risk of heat stroke greatly rises. I have found the river near Arashiyama can be a nice respite from the heat, at least, but Kyoto will suck the soul out of you if you stay outside for too long in the summer.