Series N700 shinkansen train in Japan
 

Series N700 shinkansen.  These trains link Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima & Hakata. Photo James Chuang.

►►► Click to buy a Japan Rail Pass

Exploring Japan by rail...

The railways are the best way to get around Japan.  On this page you'll find an introduction to train travel in Japan, plus:

How to check train times & fares in Japan

Map of Japanese train routes

How to buy and use a Japan Rail Pass

The Seishun 18 Kippu (pass for local trains)

Staying in Ryokans & capsule hotels...

Things to see in Japan...

Useful country information - currency, time zone etc.

Hotels in Japan.

Ferries to & from Japan...

Ferries from Japan to Russia

Ferries from Japan to China

Ferries from Japan to South Korea

How to travel from Europe to Japan by Trans-Siberian Railway

Flights to Japan

Travel insurance


Useful country information

Train operator in Japan:

There are six main regional railway companies, known collectively as Japan Railways, plus many local railway operators. 

Japan train times: www.hyperdia.com - English button is upper left. 

Japan rail map.  Tokyo metro website (with map): www.tokyometro.jp.

 

 

Japan railpass:

Japan rail pass advice & information.   Buy a Japan Rail Pass in the UK Buy a Japan Railpass in the USA & Canada, Buy a Japan Rail Pass in Australia/NZ, Buy a Japan Rail Pass in Europe, Asia, Africa

Time zone & dialling code:

 GMT+9 all year round.

Dialling code:

 

+81

Currency:

 

 1 = approx 150 Yen.   $1 = 95 Yen.  Currency converter

Hotels in Japan:

Find hotels in Japan   

Flights to Japan:

 

Cheap flights to Japan

Tourist information:

 www.jnto.go.jp or www.seejapan.co.uk.  

 Hotels in Japan  Tripadvisor Japan pages   

Visas:

 

 Not required by UK citizens.     Recommended guidebooks

Page last updated:

7 October 2014


Train times & fares for Japan

Japan has an extensive and efficient rail network and you can pretty much assume that the trains in Japan will go to all the cities and towns you want to visit.  Travelling by train in Japan is easy, as the stations have signs and departure boards in English as well as Japanese.  Japanese trains are very clean and modern, and are amazingly punctual.  Two classes of seating are provided, ordinary class and 'green car' (1st class), the latter indicated by a green clover symbol next to the entrance door.  As you'd expect, green car seating has more legroom and seats are arranged 2+2 across the coach, whereas ordinary class seats are normally arranged 2+3.  However, travelling standard class is perfectly adequate.

How to check train times & fares in Japan: 

    www.hyperdia.com or www.jorudan.co.jp  (English button at the top).

Map of Japanese train routes:  See map here

Here are some sample journey times, frequencies & prices...

 Japanese train times & fares

Journey:

Distance

Time by Nozomi *

Time by Hikari *

One-way fare:

Train frequency:

Tokyo - Kyoto

513km, 320 miles

2 hours 18 min

2 hours 49 mins

13,720  (101, $161)

Every 5-10 minutes, direct.

Tokyo - Shin-Osaka

552km, 345 miles

2 hours 18 min

2 hours 33 mins

14,250  (105, $168)

Every 5-10 minutes, direct.

Tokyo - Hiroshima

894km, 559 miles

4 hours 8 min

5 hours 2 mins

18,620  (137, $220)

Every 10-20 minutes, direct.

Tokyo - Nagasaki

1,328km, 830 miles

7 hours 14 min

8 hours 21 mins

24,980  (183, $294)

Every hour, change Hakata.

Kyoto - Hiroshima

380km, 237 miles

1 hour 36 min

1 hour 59 mins

11,290  (83, $133)

Every 10-20 minutes, direct.

Hiroshima - Nagasaki

434km, 271 miles

3 hours 10 min

3 hours 25 mins

12,090  (89, $142)

Every hour, change Hakata.

* Nozomi = fastest Shinkansen train type, Japan Rail Passes not valid.  Hikari = next fastest train type, Japan Rail Passes valid.

Check Japanese train times & fares at www.hyperdia.com or www.jorudan.co.jp.  Another useful resource is www.japanrail.com

Children aged 0 to 5 travel free, children aged 6 to 11 travel at half fare, children aged 12 and over pay full fare.

Rail fares in Japan are expensive, and if you are an overseas visitor a Japan Rail Pass can be the cheapest way to travel even if you are only planning one return trip from (say) Tokyo to Hiroshima.  See the Japan Rail Pass section.

What are Japanese trains like?

Shinkansen high-speed trains...

Everyone has heard of Japan's bullet train lines, more properly known in Japan as shinkansen.  These are high-speed lines, built to European and North American standard gauge (4' 8").  The first shinkansen was the Tokaido Shinkansen linking Toyo, Kyoto and Osaka opened in 1964, later extended as the Sanyo Shinkansen to Hiroshima, Kobe and Hakata.  There are now a whole range of 'shinkansen' lines linking all the most important cities in Japan, including Niigata, Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Hakata and Kagoshima.

The trains have two classes, ordinary seats (2nd class) and Green Car seats (1st class).  Reservation is normally required on each train, but there's usually one or more 'unreserved' cars.

Series 700 high-speed train, as used from Tokyo to Kyoto, OPsaka, Hiroshima & Hakata.   Train travel in Japan:  Comfortable 'green car' seats on a Series N700 Shinkansen train

A series 700 train on the Tokaido shinkansen, now used on most fast Hikari & super-fast Nozomi services on the Tokaido Shinkansen between Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima & Hakata.  Photo courtesy of Peter Geran.

 

Green car (1st class) seats on a series N700 train used on the Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen linking Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima and Hakata.  Photo courtesy of James Chuang.

Ordinary seats on a series 500 shinkansen train   Series 500 shinkansen train

Ordinary (2nd class) seats on a series 500 Shinkansen train.  They are arranged "+ (2 abreast, aisle, 3 abreast across the width of the car), so there's less elbow room than in the Green car seats. Courtesy James Chuang.

 

A series 500 train on the Tokaido shinkansen.  Amazingly, these now operate the secondary stopping trains, bumped off the front-rank Nozomi services by the series 700 when they were only 8 years old.  Photo courtesy of James Chuang.

Original narrow-gauge network...

An extensive network of original 3' 6" narrow-gauge lines remains, covering the whole of Japan and taking you to almost every city and town of any size.  Nagasaki, for example, is well worth a visit but is not on the Shinkansen network.  You take a Shinkansen high-speed train from Tokyo, Kyoto or Hiroshima to Hakata, then switch to a Kamome Limited Express on the regular narrow-gauge network, see the photos below.

Limited Express Kamone from Nagasaki to Hakata   Limited Express Kamone from Nagasaki to Hakata

Limited Express Kamome connecting Hakata with Nagasaki. Courtesy David Smith

 

Ordinary class seats on the Limited Express Kamome to Nagasaki.  Courtesy of David Smith.

Sleeper trains... 

There are one or two impressive sleeping-car trains left, for example Tokyo-Sapporo.  These run on the original narrow-gauge lines, but they can save time compared with daytime travel, even using shinkansen.

1st class sleeper on the Tokyo to Sapporo sleeper train 'Hokutosei'   2nd class single-berth sleeper on the Tokyo to Sapporo sleeper train 'Hokutosei'   2nd class sleeper on the Tokyo to Sapporo sleeper train 'Hokutosei'

The Hokutosei sleeper train from Tokyo to Sapporo.  Accommodation includes a 1st class single room with en suite toilet and shower (above left), a 2nd class single room (above centre) and 2nd class berths in bays of 4 open to a side corridor (above right).  Photos courtesy of James Chuang More information about overnight trains in Japan.


Sponsored links...

 

Japan Rail Pass

  Train departure board at Tokyo station
 

Finding your train is no problem as departure boards are in English as well as Japanese.  Here, a departure board at Tokyo shows a Nozomi (which Japan Railpass holders can't use) and slightly slower Hikari (semi-fast) & Kodama (all stations) high-speed departures on the same Shinkansen route which can be used instead.  Photos courtesy of David Smith.

  Tokyo's main central station
 

Tokyo Station:  All Shinkansen routes converge on the same central Tokyo station.  Its western facade (above) survives from its opening in 1914.  Map showing Tokyo station.

A Japan Rail Pass will probably save you money...

Train fares in Japan are expensive, and even if you are only planning a couple of inter-city journeys, a Japan Rail Pass can save money over normal tickets.  For example, the normal return fare from Tokyo to Kyoto is 27,000 Yen, about 180 or $285, and from Tokyo to Hiroshima 37,240 Yen, about 250 or $390.  A Japan Rail Pass costs 196 or $279 for 7 days unlimited travel throughout Japan.  You can see that a rail pass can save money even if you're making just one return journey from Tokyo to Hiroshima.  You can use www.hyperdia.com to check point-to-point fares for the journeys you intend to make, then compare these with the Japan railpass prices at www.internationalrail.com/rail-passes (UK residents),  www.japan-rail-pass.com (US & Canadian residents), www.railplus.com.au/japan-by-rail or www.internationalrail.com.au or  (Australia & NZ residents) or www.japan-rail-pass.com (residents of Europe, Asia, Africa).

Japan Rail Pass...

Japan Rail Passes covering the whole of Japan are available for 7, 14 or 21 consecutive days unlimited travel on the national Japan Railways (JR) network, in a choice of ordinary class or green car (first) class.  You can use any JR train service, both high-speed Shinkansen and ordinary slower narrow-gauge trains, except for the fastest Nozomi expresses on the Tokyo-Osaka-Hakata Tokaido Shinkansen and the fastest Mizuho services on the Hakata-Kagoshima Kyushu Shinkansen (this is no big deal, as you can use the alternative only-slightly-slower Hikari expresses on the Tokaido Shinkansen and Sakura services on the Kyusu Shinkansen).  A green class rail pass is great if you can afford it, but standard class on Japanese trains is perfectly adequate, there's no real need to pay more.  You can also use overnight sleeping-car trains with a Japan Rail Pass, if you pay the rather large sleeper supplement, around 10,000 (about 77) one-way for a basic 'B' category bunk in addition to your pass.  The Japan Rail Pass does not cover lines that are run by private rail operators, only the Japan Railways (JR) Group.  See www.internationalrail.com/rail-passes (UK residents), www.japan-rail-pass.com (US & Canadian residents), www.internationalrail.com.au or www.railplus.com.au/japan-by-rail (Australia & NZ residents) or www.japan-rail-pass.com (residents of Europe, Asia, Africa) for more information.

Japan East Rail Pass, Japan West (Sanyo) Rail Pass, Japan West (Kansai) Rail Pass... 

There are also three regional Japan Rail Passes covering smaller areas.  The Japan East Pass covers Tokyo, Nagano, Niigata, Sendai, Morioka, Misawa & Akita.  The Sanyo area pass covers an area including Osaka, Himeji, Okayama, Hiroshima & Hakata.  The Kansai area rail pass covers Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Nara & Himeji and costs only around 15 ($23) a day, a pretty good deal.  See www.internationalrail.com/rail-passes (UK residents), www.japan-rail-pass.com (US & Canadian residents) or www.internationalrail.com.au (Australia, NZ, Asia residents) for more information.

How to buy a Japan Rail Pass ...

You need to buy your Japan Rail Pass before you leave your home country as you can't buy a pass once you're in Japan.

  
  

     If you live in the UK or Ireland, buy from UK rail specialist www.internationalrail.com.  Passes can be sent to any UK address or any address worldwide.  To buy by phone, call 0844 248 248 3, lines open 09:00-17:00 Mon-Fri.

  

    If you live in the USA or Canada, buy from Japan Railpass specialist www.japan-rail-pass.com.  Passes can be sent to any US or Canadian address or any address worldwide.

  

    If you live in Australia or New Zealand, check pass prices & buy a Japan Rail Pass online at Australian rail specialist www.internationalrail.com.au.  Prices in AUD$, passes sent out from International Rail in Australia.  You can also check prices buy passes at www.railplus.com.au/japan-by-rail

  

    If you live in Europe, Asia or Africa, click to check pass prices & buy a Japan Rail Pass online at www.japan-rail-pass.com.  Prices are in various currencies including euros.

Or buy a Japan Rail Pass by phone...  If you live in the UK, Ireland or elsewhere in Europe, you can buy a Japan Rail Pass by phone from International Rail, call 0844 248 248 3, lines open 09:00-17:00 Monday-Friday.  From outside the UK +44 844 248 248 3.

  The 'Spacia' limited express from Tokyo to Nikko
 

Day trip to Nikko?  Nikko is a great day trip to make from Tokyo.  You can get there in less than 2 hours on the Tobu Railway's Spacia Express from Tokyo Asakusa station.  Departures are frequent (though Tobu railway isn't covered by Japan Rail Pass, so you'll need a normal ticket).

How does a Japan Rail Pass work? 

When you buy a Japan rail pass in the UK, you will be given a voucher which needs to be exchanged for the railpass itself in Japan any time within the following three months.  Vouchers can be exchanged at all the most important Japan Railways stations, including Tokyo and its international airports, but unfortunately not including Sakaiminato if you arrive by ferry from Vladivostok.  Good pages for further Japan Rail Pass information are www.japantravel.co.uk/jrp.htm and www.japanrailpass.net and (with excellent information on all the different trains)  www.jprail.com.

How do you make reservations with your pass?

It's easy to make seat reservations once you get to Japan at any ticket office, showing your Japan rail pass and passport.  However, with one notable exception reservations cannot be made from outside Japan before you get there.  But don't worry, unless you are travelling at the busiest peak times you are unlikely to have any problem getting reservations on the trains you want.

The exception is JR East, who have set up a website for Japan Railpass holders to make reservations on their high speed trains north & east of Tokyo, including the Narita Express and Tokyo-Niigata Joetsu Shinkansen, but obviously not the Tokaido, Sanyo or Kyushu shinkansen linking Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Hakata, Kagoshima as these aren't run by JR East!  To make reservations on JR East services, see www.eki-net.com/pc/jreast-shinkansen-reservation/English/wb/common/Menu/Menu.aspx (if this link stops working, try www.jreast.co.jp/e/eastpass/index.html#category08 and please let me know).  Seat reservations made using this service must be collected before 21:00 the day before ravel, or they will be cancelled.


Seishun 18 :  5 days unlimited travel on local trains for 13 or 22 per day...

The Seishun 18 Kippu (= Youthful 18 Ticket) is sold to both Japanese citizens and overseas visitors, of any age in spite of its name, during specific Spring (March-April), Summer (July-September) & winter (December-January) periods.  It gives 5 days unlimited travel on Japan Railways local &  trains and kaisoku (accelerated local) trains for around 11,850 yen.  That's just 67 or $109, about 13 or $22 per day.  It's possible to travel all the way across Japan this way, incredibly cheaply, but only using the narrow-gauge local trains.  Rather than explain it here, see this page for full details:  www.japan-guide.com/e/e2362.html or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seishun_18_Ticket or www.jreast.co.jp/e/pass/seishun18.html


Europe to Japan by Trans-Siberian railway

You can reach Japan from London without flying in just two weeks, by Trans-Siberian Railway.  First, travel from London to Moscow, see the London to Russia page (48 hours).  You then have a choice.  Option 1, take the Rossiya which runs every second day from Moscow to Vladivostok in 7 days.  The 1993-built ferry Eastern Dream operates once a week all year round from Vladivostok to Sakaiminato in Japan, taking 36 hours.  Option 2 is to travel from Moscow to Beijing on one of two weekly Trans-Siberian trains, taking 6 days.  From Beijing, take an overnight train to Shanghai, then there are two weekly ships to either Osaka or Kobe in Japan.  Going via Vladivostok is easier to organise as you need fewer visas, but going via Beijing is the more varied and interesting option.  See the Trans-Siberian page for more information on both these routes.


Ferry links Japan to China, Korea, Russia

Japan is linked by regular ferries to China, Korea & Vladivostok in  Russia.


Ryokans & capsule hotels...

  A room in a traditional Japanese 'Ryokan'

Ryokans...

There are two unique types of overnight accommodation which you should try in Japan.  'Ryokans' are traditional Japanese inns.  The rooms don't have beds, but are covered with 'tatami' matting on which you place a bedroll.  You will probably be offered a hot cup of green Japanese tea when you first arrive.  Ryokans are the Japanese equivalent of B&Bs, so they are an inexpensive option compared with hotels, as well as an experience.  You can now find ryokans online on hotel booking sites such as www.booking.com, if you search at the less expensive end of the market.  Search for Ryokans in Tokyo Search for Ryokans in Kyoto.

Capsule hotels...

Another Japanese experience, which (purely incidentally) is an ultra-cheap option for staying a night in the heart of Tokyo or other big cities, is a night in a capsule hotel.  These are more civilised than you might think.

Why not stay in a capsule hotel..?  

The hotel reception looks like any other hotel reception - just remember to take your shoes off before you walk in, and place them in one of the lockers in the lobby.  Upstairs, there will probably be several floors of fibreglass sleeping capsules, each floor with its own locker room and shared showers.  You change in the locker room and put your clothes and bags into your locker.  Your capsule has radio, alarm clock and TV, and a screen or curtain pulls over the capsule entrance for privacy.  Unfortunately, the main clientele for these hotels is Japanese businessmen who have missed their last train home, so they don't tend to cater well for women or couples.

The picture shows end-entry capsules, but some capsule hotels have side-entry types, and you'll now find some capsule hotels with larger, more hotel-style capsules too.

You can usually walk into a capsule hotel and ask for a bed for the night, but if you want to pre-book this unique experience, try the Capsulevalue Kanda in downtown Tokyo not too far from Tokyo station, a bed in Tokyo for as little as 24 per night!  Only men can stay there, no women or children.

How to book hotels & ryokans...

I generally use two sites for hotels & accommodation worldwide, and they'll find some (though not all) ryokans and capsule hotels, too.  (1) www.booking.com, which usually allows me to book accommodation at no risk with free cancellation, and (2) www.hotelscombined.com, named the World's Leading Hotel Comparison Site at the World Travel Awards 2013, which can find hotels in even the smallest places, and find the cheapest seller of any given hotel from the many major hotel booking sites out there.


Things to see in Japan...

A Series 300 shinkansen train crosses a Tokyo streetIt's impossible to mention every sight or attraction Japan has to offer, but here are some highlights of a visit to Japan that might give you some ideas.

Tokyo

One of the world great cities... Stay in a capsule hotel;  visit the site of the Tokyo castle (now just foundations) near the entrance to the Emperor's palace;  shop till you drop in Tokyo's busy Shinjuku district; take a JR suburban train out to Kamakura to see the Great Buddha, the second largest bronze Buddha in the world.

The 'Three Monkeys' at Nikko, JapanNikko

A not-to-be-missed day trip from Tokyo, Nikko's history as a sacred site began in the middle of the 8th century AD.  There are many temples and historic buildings spread through woodland in the hills around this small town, including the famous three monkeys:  'See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil' (pictured, left).

Frequent trains of the Tobu Railway link Tokyo Asakusa station with Nikko in less than 2 hours  (Japan Rail Passes don't cover the Tobu Railway).

Kyoto

Golden Pavillion, Kyoto, JapanCapital of Japan from 794AD until 1867, Kyoto should be on every visitor's itinerary.  Office blocks and pinball arcades in the modern city rub shoulders with tiny wooden houses in the older parts of town.  There are several important temples in and around the city, including the famous Kiyomizu-dera Temple, and the Kimkaku-ji Temple or 'Golden Pavilion', pictured right.

Nara

A worthwhile day trip from Kyoto, Nara is home to the Great Hall of the Buddha, the world's largest wooden building, housing the world's largest bronze Buddha.  The train trip from Kyoto takes just 35 minutes, and there are usually two trains each hour.  This line is run by the Kesei Railway.

Himeji castleHimeji

The best-preserved traditional Japanese castle (pictured, left) is to be seen at Himeji, on the Shinkansen between Osaka and Hiroshima - well worth a stop.

Nagasaki

The second atomic bomb exploded in Nagasaki three days after the Hiroshima one - although this time not quite in the centre of town, but in a suburb called Urakami.  However, Nagasaki has much more to offer than reminders of 1945.  Nagasaki has a long and fascinating history, and many beautiful temples and historic buildings have survived.Atomic bomb dome, Hiroshima

Hiroshima

Hiroshima needs no introduction.  It's a large modern city, but you'll never forget your visit to the Peace Park, site of the epicentre of the atomic bomb explosion, or a tour of the museum there.  You can see the 'T' shaped bridge (or rather, it's modern replacement) at the top of the Peace Park - this was allegedly the aiming point of the bomb-aimer of the 'Enola Gay'.  Pictured right is the 'atomic bomb dome', previously the Industrial Promotions Hall, and one of the few buildings not completely flattened by the bomb.

 

 


Guidebooks

Lonely Planet Japan - click to buy online...Rough Guide to Japan - click to buy onlineJapan by Rail guidePaying for a guidebook may seem an unnecessary expense, but it's a tiny fraction of what you're spending on your whole trip.  You will see so much more, and know so much more about what you're looking at, if you have a decent guidebook.  The Trailblazer 'Japan by Rail' guide is specifically aimed at train travel around Japan, with both city and train information.  For the serious independent traveller, the best guidebooks to take are either the Lonely Planet or the Rough Guide.  I personally prefer the layout of the Lonely Planet, but others prefer the Rough Guides.  Both guidebooks provide excellent levels of both practical information and historical background. 

Click the images to buy online at Amazon.co.uk...


Hotels & accommodation in Japan

 

◄◄ Hotel search & price comparison.

www.hotelscombined.com checks all the main hotel booking sites at once to find the widest choice of hotels & the cheapest seller.  It was named as the World's Leading Hotel Comparison Site at the World Travel Awards 2013 and I highly recommend it, both to find hotels in even the smallest places and to check that another retailer isn't selling your hotel for less!

www.booking.com is my favourite booking site.  It's really clear and you can usually book with free cancellation and so confirm your accommodation at no risk months before train booking opens.

Other hotel sites worth trying...

Backpacker hostels...


Flights

Overland travel around Japan by train is an essential part of the experience, so once there, don't cheat and fly, stay on the ground!

But a long-haul flight might be unavoidable to reach Japan in the first place.  To compare airlines, use Skyscanner.com.

skyscanner generic 728x90

Travel insurance

 

 

Columbus direct travel insurance

Get travel insurance, it's essential...

Never travel overseas without travel insurance from a reliable insurer, with at least 1m or preferably 5m medical cover.  It should also cover cancellation and loss of cash (up to a limit) and belongings.  An annual multi-trip policy is usually cheaper than several single-trip policies even for just 2 or 3 trips a year (I have an annual policy myself).  Here are some suggested insurers.  Seat61 gets a small commission if you buy through these links.

In the UK, try Columbus Direct or use Confused.com to compare prices & policies from many different insurers.

If you have a pre-existing medical condition or are over 65 (no age limit), see www.JustTravelCover.com.

        If you're resident in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland or the EU, try Columbus Direct's other websites.

  If you're resident in the USA try Travel Guard USA.

Get a spare credit card, designed for foreign travel with no currency exchange loading & low or no ATM fees...

It costs nothing to take out an extra credit card.  If you keep it in a different part of your luggage so you're not left stranded if your wallet gets stolen, this is a form of extra travel insurance in itself.  In addition, some credit cards are significantly better for overseas travel than others.  Martin Lewis's www.moneysavingexpert.com/travel/cheap-travel-money explains which UK credit cards have the lowest currency exchange commission loadings when you buy something overseas, and the lowest cash withdrawal fees when you use an ATM abroad.  Taking this advice can save you quite a lot on each trip compared to using your normal high-street bank credit card!

You can avoid ATM charges and expensive exchange rates with a Caxton FX euro currency Visa Card, or their multi-currency 'Global Traveller' Visa Card, see www.caxtonfx.com for info.

Get an international SIM card to save on calls & mobile data...

Mobile phones can cost a fortune to use abroad, so consider getting a global pre-paid SIM card for your mobile phone which can cut call & data costs by up to 90%.  At the time of writing, www.roamsure.com claims a definite 25% saving within the EU and up to 90% saving in the rest of the world.  Incoming calls are free in 73 countries, including the USA, Australia, South Africa and EU.  There's no contract or commitment, and at time I write this Roamsure is offering a global SIM card for free when you buy 20 of call credit.  Seat61 gets some commission to support the site if you buy airtime from Roamsure.

 


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