Japan’s bullet trains provide an awesome travelling experience due to their speed, convenience and comfort. When aboard, it is easy to forget just how fast you are travelling, but if you have the chance to be at a station that bullet trains often pass through, it is a jaw-dropping sight to see one flash past.
While the bullet trains are all run by JR (Japan Railways), local train services are operated by a mixture of JR and private companies, which can sometimes make purchasing tickets a confusing proposition. That said, the oft-mentioned Japanese hospitality shines throughout the system, and helpful station staff, websites and English-language ticket machines all combine to make buying tickets a painless process.
Holidaymakers from overseas qualify for some excellent, money-saving travel deals such as the Japan Rail Pass (continue reading for more details). Bone up before you come, to ensure getting the best deals on offer.
The further into the countryside you get, the more infrequent the train services become, with some stations operating just a few trains a day. To make sure you can catch the return train you want, consider photographing the station timetable when you arrive.
How to book tickets:
• The much-lauded Japan Rail Pass must be purchased outside Japan. It will save you from having to fiddle about with coins and notes, as well as saving a lot of money if you are planning to use many trains during your stay. The seven-day pass is so cheap that its price is almost the same as just one round trip from Tokyo to Kyoto. For longer-stayers, the 14-day pass is also available, as well as child passes. Kids under six travel for free.
• You can reserve shinkansen (bullet train) tickets up to a month in advance of your trip. Slightly cheaper, non-reserved seats are available, but there is always the risk that you may have to stand for the trip if travelling at peak season or on busy weekends.
• Reservations can be made at the midorimadoguchi (green window) of major JR stations. The staff will usually have enough English to be able to process your booking with ease.
• Shinkansen tickets can also be purchased on the day of travel, but may involve a wait at the midorimadoguchi.
• Tickets for during the peak travel seasons of Golden Week and obon should be booked as soon as possible.
• For non-bullet-train rapid services that require a reservation, the midorimadoguchi is also the place to go.
• For local trains, most stations have automated ticket machines. Many lines make use of travel cards which can be purchased at ticket machines through English-language guidance. There is a variety of prepaid cards available (e.g. Pasmo, IC, Suika, Icoca, etc.) but they are all used in the same way. A purchase of one of these is highly recommended to save you time and anguish before boarding your train. Take note that the more rural a station is, the less likely it is to accept such cards and you might need to creak open the wallet.