Getting around on the world’s most efficient transport system can make your journeys hassle-free.

The hardest part of using the trains in Japan is knowing which lines to take where, but that’s a skill that takes years to perfect. Luckily with technology, you can use the NAVITIME for Japan Travel app to find out exactly how to get anywhere in the country and you’ll be a pro in no time.

Now, with the advent of e-money cards it’s possible to easily jump between lines with just a touch of a card at the gate, and recently the cards can be used nearly all around the country with some exceptions.

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Knowing where and when to go
While there are a lot of transport tricks you’ll learn over time, the best thing to do if you’re new to the city is to use an app like NAVITIME for Japan Travel to know where to go and on what schedule. We can tell you exactly what lines to take, when, where to switch trains, and how much the trip will cost you.

It’s important to remember that while trains in the cities come often (sometimes every few minutes) in the countryside you can wait significantly longer depending on where you are. In some remote areas a train only comes once every hour or so as most everyone in the area uses cars to get around.

we still recommend getting an e-money card as one of the first things you do when you arrive

Paying for your trip
Even if you don’t think you’ll travel much by train, we still recommend getting an e-money card as one of the first things you do when you arrive. Put some cash on, and you can always get it refunded before you leave. Otherwise you’re going to have to get in line at every station, figure out how much your trip will cost, and buy individual paper tickets.

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Local vs Express
There are usually two kinds of trains on a single line, local and express, but some longer lines going out into the suburbs have super express or commuter express trains that go faster and stop at even less stations. It’s important to know if your destination is a local or express stop, because taking the wrong train can mean either going too slowly or blowing past your destination. You can check this on the line map at the station.

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Delays or Switches
It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes there’s an issue with the train, or the specific train you’re on is ending its run (often after rush hour) and you need to switch to another train on the same line. The reason for these sudden switches is usually announced in Japanese only, so in case of a surprise your best bet is to follow the crowd, but also quickly inquire to someone (ideally station staff on the platform) for what you need to do next. By using the NAVITIME for Japan Travel app you can avoid many of these issues, but a sudden delay or emergency stop is impossible to predict.

Japan Rail Passes are especially useful for moving between cities, but not really for moving around inside of them

Using pre-paid passes
Many visitors purchase Japan Rail Passes for use during their trip or get 2-3 day passes for using the Tokyo Metro system, but the problem with depending on these is that moving around in the city often means using many different operators and you end up limiting yourself. Japan Rail Passes are especially useful for moving between cities, but not really for moving around inside of them, so if you want to save some money and hassle you should only buy the pass for traveling outside of cities.

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Photo by fletcherjcm

Getting on and off
While rush hour trains are a cramped sight to behold, most of the time you’ll be able to line up patiently and get on and off without a fuss. If you need to get off and there are a lot of people in front of the door, just say “excuse me” and gently poke through. They will usually make room for you once they know you’re getting off.

If you don’t have internet access and are totally lost, it never hurts to ask someone. People are quite friendly and happy to help!

Sometimes it’s difficult to know which way to go when you’re on the platform, and sometimes limited signage. You’ll see in the app that for each train there’s a “direction” the train is going, so look for the signs on the platform identifying that direction. If you don’t have internet access and are totally lost, it never hurts to ask someone. People are quite friendly and happy to help!

If you are pregnant, elderly, disabled, or with small children it’s best to board at either end of a train car where there are often priority seats.

Trains are very rarely late, so you can usually depend on the schedule.

Trains are very rarely late, so you can usually depend on the schedule. However, it’s best to keep an eye on which stations are coming up next by either looking at a printed or digital guide in the train, or looking at the signage outside of the train at each stop so you know when to get off. It can be easy to miss a stop, especially out in the countryside.

Switching Trains
When you need to switch between lines, look for signs that point you in the direction of the next line you need to take. Sometimes these are hard to find, but if you walk a bit down the platform you’ll find something eventually.

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Which Exit??

This is always the classic conundrum. Even small stations can have many exits to choose from and it’s hard to know which is the closest to where you want to go. Perfecting this is an art.

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If you’re going to a major attraction you’ll often be able to find the right exit by using these large yellow signs. However, these can often be hard to read and more often than not the place you want to go isn’t on there. Once you’re outside of the gates you’ll find a map of the local area that can further help you decide. It’s best to at least try using these, especially at big stations because taking the wrong exit can often mean adding 20 minutes of walking!