The most convenient way to travel around Japan is by train. It is both easy and fun. We travelled by train daily inside Tokyo, but we also took a train to multiple different cities in Japan. Someday, I would love to do a longer trip around Japan by train, but on our first visit to the country, we also wanted to spend a lot of time in Tokyo. From Shinjuku, Tokyo we travelled to Kyoto, and from there we did a day trip to Nara. Then we took a train to Himeji and from there to Hiroshima. At last, we returned to Akihabara in Tokyo. We sat in many kinds of trains, and even stood one time when the train was totally full.
WHY THE TRAIN?
When travelling by train, you can relax and enjoy the views, or even write your blog. You don't need to think about navigating, parking or road tolls. My husband is from the USA where people are used travelling mostly by car, so he asked right away, why aren't we renting one. After a little bit of research, I found out that going around the country by train is the easiest way in Japan. They sell a separate train pass, called Japan Rail Pass for travellers from foreign countries, which makes riding a train quite affordable. When travelling by train you don't have to worry about driving on the left side of traffic, or learning new traffic rules. It can also be quite expensive to park in the larger cities, and I figured that we would probably get lost quite often. Tokyo is huge! Or we would get stuck in the traffic. The word "traffic jam" makes every Californian sweat since we fight against the traffic every day. So in the end, it was pretty a clear choice to travel by train in Japan.
The bad side of travelling by train is that you will have to drag along all your luggage, but that can be overcome by bringing slightly smaller bags. I had read somewhere, that there is not much space to store your luggage in Japanese trains, so we made an effort to be among the first passengers when boarding. That was unnecessary. Our backpacks and umbrella stroller for our daughter fit just fine in every train. The only time we had problems with trains, was when we took a bullet train from Hiroshima to Tokyo on Friday morning. The faster train was fully booked, so we were directed to a slower train in which the Japan Rail Pass didn't entitle us to reserved seats, and then had to switch to the bullet train in the city of Kobe. The slower train was over it's capacity, and there were only two cars reserved for people without reserved seats. We survived by standing in the hallway by the doors, and in an hour we were able to change to the Hikari Shinkansen bullet train. If possible, I would recommend avoiding trains on Fridays and Sundays since they do get very crowded on those days, or at least make sure you get a reserved seat.
We used Google Maps to see what routes we should use, and what kind of trains are going to our destination. Google usually got the route correct, but it didn´t tell us what kind of train would take us there the fastest. And of course, it didn´t know that we had the JR Pass, so it often suggested other train lines first. We tried out a couple other train apps, but ended up using mostly only Google Maps. And we quickly noticed that visiting the JR office before travelling was worth it. They told us when the next available train leaves, and wether we can reserve seats with the JR pass or not. They also told us how to find the platform for the train we were taking. Some of the stations were huge, and it took some time to walk through the whole station to find the correct platform. The staff didn´t always speak much English, but they were very friendly and helpful.
The trains usually run on time and there is plenty of them, so most of the time we didn´t even look at the time tables before going to the station. The longest time we waited for a train was 45 minutes, and even that went fast when we had to walk to the other end of the station to find the platform. We often also wanted to buy some snacks from the many stores that they had at the station. For the local trains or metros the wait time was usually only 10 to 20 minutes. A couple times we happened to take the train from its starting station where you had to wait for the train to be cleaned first. The cleaners literally ran through the train while cleaning. The trains in Japan were very clean.
Japanese people talk very quietly or not at all in the train, since they don´t want to disturb other passengers. I also read from somewhere, that eating in the train is not polite. However, after we saw many of the Japanese opening their lunch boxes in the train, we ended up eating ours too. In the bullet train you can also buy coffee, tea and snacks from a sales trolley going around the train. Conductors were always very polite when talking to them, and they always bowed when leaving the car.
THE JAPAN RAIL PASS IS WORTH PURCHASING
The JR Pass aka Japan Rail Pass must be ordered before traveling to Japan. If you plan on using the train in Japan, you should do a little bit of math before purchasing train tickets. Train tickets in Japan are not very cheap, so the JR Pass will be worth purchasing already if you plan to take the train a few times among the trips from the airport and back.
The Japan Rail Pass is only sold for people entering the country with a tourist visa, not for example the citizens of Japan. There are passes with different durations, and you can use them in most trains around Japan, in JR busses and JR ferries. You can also use it on the bullet train (shinkansen). Using the JR Pass is very easy. When you want to activate your pass, you simply go to the nearest JR office and they stamp it. For example, we bought passes valid for two weeks which were activated in the Narita Airport. When activating your rail pass, you must fill out your information on it and show your passport. They also helped us to find a train to our destination and made seat reservations for us. Our 4 year old daughter didn´t need to pay for the pass but she didn´t get reserved seats on the train. In case of a full train, she would have had to sit on our lap but that only happened once. When entering the platform, you must show your rail pass to personnel who then let you in. The same goes when exiting the train.
You can use the JR Pass in most other trains except for private lines and metros. You can also use it on the Yamanote Line which goes around Tokyo, so it is easy to go from one prefecture to another. When looking for accommodations we chose to get apartments and hotels close to this line, so we didn't have to use the metro so much. JR stations are marked with a big, green JR logo.
There are two different kinds of passes for sale, and you can choose from several different durations. We purchased the regular pass, but there is also a so called "Green Pass". With the green pass you get to travel in more spacious first class "green cars", but you must remember to make a seat reservation before entering the train.
We got our JR Passes from here, but also some airlines and travel agencies sell them.
The bullet train (shinkansen) looks quite futuristic from outside but from inside is like a normal train. Some of them had three seats on one side of the car, and two on the other side. Inside the train you don't really feel the high speed even though they go as fast as 320 kilometres in an hour. The fastest bullet train, Nozomi Shinkansen is excluded from the JR Pass, but Hikari Shinkansen, which we used often, is only a couple minutes slower than Nozomi. And depending where in Japan you are, there are also other types of bullet trains.
Other trains in Japan that you might run into, and you can use with the JR Pass are Tokkyū (Limited Express), Kyūkō (Express), Kaisoku (Rapid) and Futsū (Local). We used for example the Rapid train and local trains, but we never quite learned which trains the JR Pass would allow us reserved seats. The local trains work the same way as the metro, so we didn't even ask for the reservations, but there are so many other trains and it got us a little bit confused. And of course, there are more trains that listed here, but at least for these you can use the JR Pass.
In the biggest cities we mostly used metros to the places where JR trains didn't go. On the first day, we were a little bit confused how to buy tickets since there are different lines that require different tickets. Most of the ticket machines work in English, and the bigger stations have staff standing next to ticket machines ready to help passengers who are buying tickets. You can buy either a one time ticket, or if you think you will be using the metro often, you can load money on a prepaid metro pass. Surprisingly fast we learned how to read metro maps, and we used the metro in both Tokyo and Kyoto.
The busy hours for the metro seemed to be in the early morning and in the evening after 5 pm. In the middle of the day, we never had problems finding a seat in the train. Most stations had an elevator which we used since our daughter was sitting in a stroller, but otherwise you should prepare yourself for a lot of walking at the stations.
Travelling by train in Japan is both fun and exciting!