How to: Train around Japan

Catching a train may be one of the easiest ways of getting around between cities and prefectures due to the amount of trains that run throughout the day, and due to the beautiful scenery that you can see during your ride.  However…  For a country that is known for being organised, the train system in Japan is terrible.  I mean, trains do run by the timetable, and everything is clear cut, but that is only within each section of train system.  When you begin to overlap systems… that’s when it gets confusing.

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Tokyo, this is not okay | JR Metro | randomwire

I mean, there is the national railway network, JR, which controls most of the train lines around the country.  Then there are the local city subway systems, and then private train systems like the Keioh and Odakyu in Tokyo, Nishitetsu trains (and buses!) in Kyushu, and countless others that I don’t know the names of all around Japan depending on the region that you find yourself in.

They all run independently of each other, they have stations located close to each other but that may not necessarily be connected to each other, and if it’s your first time catching a train in Japan, you might find yourself on the wrong platform of the wrong train line and the train you wanted to catch leaving from an entirely different station.

So how do you actually go about training it around Japan?

Looking up routes

If you want to look up your train route by inputting your departure and arrival points, Google and Yahoo will both come up with route options for both shinkansen and non-shinkansen travel.  I usually use Google, and it always gives you services with options for time of travel, the cost of the trip, etc.  Yahoo is actually more reliable, but only if you use Japanese.

You can also get the HyperDia app or the MapsWithMe app, which will both show you accurate train travel route options from any city in Japan.  However, HyperDia needs an active internet connection to use, so if you’re not planning on getting a wifi egg or a short term SIM card, then MapsWithMe may be the better option.

All these search options also work if you need help navigating a city’s subway system, so try them all out and see which one works best for you!

IC Cards

All trains in Japan can be paid for using IC cards, which are used in the same way as the Octopus system in Hong Kong or the Oyster in London.  It costs ¥500 for the card, and depending on the area and the train company of your IC purchase, the design of the card will be different.  However, although using IC cards are useful and can be used to pay for most train trips, the money that you charge on there will run out very quickly if you start straying out of the bigger cities, and especially if you decide to put in a sneaky shinkansen trip across the country (a normal one-way trip from Tokyo to Osaka by shinkansen costs ¥14250).

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Why does one country even need this many cards…? | Suica| JR East

JR Passes and the Seishun 18

As mentioned before, JR runs most of the inter-prefectural train lines in Japan.  On these lines you have, from fastest to slowest, the shinkansen, limited-express, rapid services, and local services.  If you want to explore Japan cross-country and you happen to be a temporary visitor (or normal tourist), you can purchase a JR pass that will save you  A LOT OF MONEY because it gives you unlimited access to all JR trains and services (including the shinkansen).    This pass can only be bought overseas, so if you’re planning on using it, be sure to purchase this before you get to Japan.

If you forget to buy one, or if you’re only planning on exploring smaller areas of Japan, then you can buy JR-area specific passes after you arrive, which usually last less than a week and cost a lot less than the actual JR pass.

However… I am an international student right now, and therefore am not a temporary visitor… so how do I travel around Japan without breaking the bank on all these expensive train rides?

During specific holiday periods (summer, winter, and March-April), JR sells a ticket called the Seishun 18 which allows you unlimited travel on JR trains for any five days within its activation period.  I used this over the Christmas/New Year holiday, and I managed to get myself to five prefectures using just this ticket  (I will post about this trip soon!).  The Seishun 18 costs ¥11850, which equates to less than¥2200 of train travel a day.  However, you are not allowed to ride on shinkansen or limited-express trains, so definitely give yourself plenty of travelling time when you plan your train trips.

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One stamp for every day of travel you activate~!

And if you find yourself in Kyushu, you can get the JR Kyushu International Student Pass to explore and travel around (I did this and it was worth every yen).

Note: The Okinawa monorail doesn’t operate on any of these systems, so just buy the tickets individually… or invest in the Okinawan card

Despite all the confusion, I actually do think training it around Japan is more worth than flying in and out of the cities, or just staying in Tokyo or Osaka or Kyoto for a week.  There’s so much to see and do in Japan, and Japan is one of those countries where the process of getting to a place is half the adventure.

Just be sure to thoroughly research your routes before you board a train to anywhere.

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Golden Week: Kyushu~! Day One: Train-hopping from Fukuoka to Miyazaki

City: Hakata Station (Fukuoka)

Our itinerary said that our first train was at 8.57, so we gave ourselves an hour from leaving our dorm to get to Hakata, buy a ticket, get breakfast and still make our train.  However… we forgot that everyone else would be travelling during Golden Week, and so when we got to the station, the line was very long and the train that we wanted to catch was full in both the reserved AND unreserved seating.

Kudos to the ticket people, because that line moved super fast and we managed to catch the next train out to Kumamoto.  The trains were also very frequent, so we only really lost maybe half an hour of travel time.  Besides, because there was a two and a half hour gap between catching this train and the next, we weren’t screwing up our plans anyway.  If you are on a tight schedule, make sure that you check all your train timetables and account for any sort of missed trains if you do miss out on a seat!

Hakata Station (Fukuoka) ~ Kumamoto Station
Train: Sakura No. 451

The Sakura No. 451 is the fastest shinkansen on the Kyushu JR rail system (I think), and one of two types of regular shinkansen services on the Kagoshima line.  It was so comfortable.  The seats were wide and there was so much leg room that you could probably squeeze your luggage in front of your legs and still have room left over.  It only took us forty minutes to get to Kumamsoto, so we didn’t really get to enjoy the luxuries of the train much.

Once we got to Kumamoto, we spent a bit of time shopping for souvenirs (because Kumamon), and then we headed out of the station to walk around the city a bit.  Except… we walked out of the back of the station, so we went exploring the mountainous outskirts of Kumamoto instead, which was set on the mountain and beautiful, and gave us serious house envy.

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Climbing through the back of Kumamoto

Kumamoto Station ~ Hitoyoshi Station
Train: SL Hitoyoshi

The SL Hitoyoshi was less modern and more old-school, with fabric plush seating and panelled wooden interiors.  The views along this ride were amazing.  Because it went through the mountains, we could see all these little towns and villages and villages so small they were more a collection of houses than anything.  And one section followed a river, so you could see looping roads on the far bank that led to mini bridges and rocky river banks and lonely picturesque houses.

Just one of the many beautiful views you get as you ride through the Japanese countryside

Just one of the many beautiful views you get as you ride through the Japanese countryside

Once we got to Hitoyoshi, a small town that was surprisingly busy and with a clock tower outside the station that sang and danced as it hit the hour, we only had twenty minutes before moving on.  However, the town seemed to be an onsen town, so maybe, someday I will be able to go back.

Hitoyoshi Station ~ Yoshimatsu Station
Station: Isaburo No. 3

This train is a quaint old-school wooden train with sliding windows and a dark red exterior that takes you on a looping mountain tour from Hitoyoshi station to Yoshimatsu station for an hour and a half.  It stops at little stations that would not get much traffic at all if it weren’t for the tourists that arrived with this train, and the entire train ride was one guided tour so you could get a little bit of the history behind the area and have Kodak moments when they stopped.  This was also one of the trains that gave out special collectors’ cards to stamp as a free memento for riding the train.

Yatake Station, with beautiful views and not much else...

Yatake Station, with beautiful views and not much else…

Truthfully, I don’t remember much of this ride except that it was quaint, there were cute little stations in the middle of no where, and that there was a little boy of maybe three or four who was sitting with his family across from us, and who fell asleep two three minutes into the train ride with his cheek smushed against the seat until he eventually curled up into a little ball, which then allowed his two older brothers to crawl over him as the train started and stopped, and allowed his parents to laugh and take pictures of his sleeping state until they decided to stretch him out over their laps.

Yoshimatsu Station ~ Kagoshima-chuo Station
Train: Hayato no Kaze No. 3

When we got to Yoshimatsu Station, we had a ten minute to grab a snack before we hopped onto the Hayato no Kaze No. 3, which is another old-school wooden train, but this was far smaller than the Isaburo. Because it was not a tour train, it ran along the tracks very fast for its rickety state, jolting all of us as it sped through the mountains.  However, there was another collector’s stamp/card on the Hayato, and it led to one of Kagoshima’s famous onsen towns, Kirishima, so it emptied out halfway and allowed us to space out a bit more on its wooden benches.  I remember nothing except hard wooden seats and falling asleep listening to a steady beat of chakchakchakchak as the train wound its way down to Kagoshima.

The cards collected today!

The cards collected today!

Stopover! Kagoshima-chuo Station

When we finally got to Kagoshima-chuo Station, all working out cricks in our necks and backs from naps on hard wooden benches, we had almost an hour before the next train.  Because we had not really eaten anything for the whole day, we went to get food at one of the restaurants in the station.  I don’t remember where we went, I don’t remember the name of the place, but that soba was. On. Point.

Kagoshima-chuo Station ~ Miyazaki Station
Train: Kirishima

Finally, it hit 16.30, and we got on our last train of the day to Miyazaki on the Kirishima.  And because it was a regular train, without any sort of wood in sight, running along its tracks so smoothly it was gliding, it felt so luxurious that I fell asleep almost immediately until we reached the outskirts of the city.  Arriving late afternoon/early evening to Miyazaki was an amazing idea, because my first sight of the city was the end of the sunset reflected off the river, the sun staining the horizon with golden orange light, framed by a still-unlit bridge, fading gradually into deep dark night.

City: Miyazaki

Once we stepped off the train and onto the streets of Miyazaki, despite having no clue whatsoever about the layout of the city, or where we were going, or what we wanted to do, by some stroke of genius city-planning, the main street that leads into the city centre is the one that leads straight from the station when you walk out of the exits that face department stores, which meant that we walked in the right direction without needing any sort of help from Mr. Google Maps.

Thank you, city planning engineer people.

When you see a Japanese city's covered shopping street, you know you're in the city centre

When you see a Japanese city’s covered shopping street, you know you’re in the city centre

When we finally got to the main strip, we had just eaten food at Kagoshima station… but we were still hungry.  And then we found a pub which was still in Happy Hour for another five minutes.  And of those five minutes, four were spent trying to order our beers and our foods and ‘oh is there no more wedges… then chips is fine’ in our kind-of-not-really-getting-there Japanese. But we got our snacks, and then just… kept ordering more food.

Finally, after feeling satisfied again, we wandered around the streets of Miyazaki CBD for a while before heading to a large onsen complex called Tanamura no Yu located between the station and the main Miyazaki city centre.  This onsen is quite large and very easy to find if you keep an eye out for the ゆ sign placed in unobtrusive places on the streets.  Entry costed us around ¥850 each to enter, which covered soap, shampoo and unlimited access to all the baths available until closing at 1:00 AM.

We stayed until closing before heading back towards the station to spend the night at a internet cafe called e-PLANET Internet and Comic Cafe (ph. 0985-60-7306), located directly across from the station, on the same side as the onsen and the city centre, and costed less than ¥1400 for a six-hour pack.  This was our first foray into the whole staying-at-internet-cafes-while-travelling-to-save-money situation, but as seedy as it may seem overseas, staying at internet cafes in Japan is safe, cheap and definitely the way to go for budget travelling.

The other two girls settled down and fell asleep quickly, but since I hadn’t had decent internet connection since getting to Japan… I stayed up to catch up on all the manga updates I had missed, and before I knew it, sunlight was spilling through the high windows…


Golden Week: Kyushu~! The JR Kyushu International Student Pass
Golden Week: Kyushu~! Day Two: Absorbing the ashes of a volcano
Golden Week: Kyushu~! Day Three: Catching ferries and climbing bridges

Golden Week: Kyushu~! The JR Kyushu International Student Pass

WHAT TIME IS IT? ADVENTURE TIMEEEEEEEE! Albeit adventure times that occurred six months ago.

Courtesy of the JR Kyushu International Student Pass.

Look at all the stamps you get when you go in/out of the JR stations!

Look at all the stamps you get when you go in/out of the JR stations!

Usually, in the other islands/regions/prefectures, any person that is not classified as a ‘Temporary Visitor’ to Japan is unable to buy any sort of JR Rail Pass.  However, for some weird, special, magnificent reason, Kyushu exempts foreign students for this rule.  As long as you show your student card and/or a valid ID (passport or residence card is fine), they will give it to you.  SO MAGICAL! This is why everyone should not neglect this little island in preference for Tokyo and Kyoto and all them famous cities.

And because we’re travel hungry cash-strapped exchange students, a couple of friends and I decided to take advantage of this Rail Pass and travel all around Kyushu on an epic train-ride adventure.  There are a few itinerary plans that are provided on the JR Kyushu site, and we picked one that focused on experiencing the different specialty trains available on the train system as a guide to our own trip (the ‘Enjoy the Great Outdoors’ plan on the website).

How much was it?

  • ¥7200 for a Northern Kyushu only pass
  • ¥14400 for a Whole of Kyushu pass

Where do you get it?

Any JR ticket office! Don’t be fooled like we were and go to the JR Pass window.  Because you are buying the ticket, you need to queue up like errbody else.  The JR Pass window is only for when you are redeeming your pre-purchased, tourist-only ticket.

Any small print?

The only one really worth noting is that the international student’s JR Pass is only for unreserved seating.  If you want to reserve a seat, you will have to pay extra.  However, this is only a problem on the main Kagoshima line during peak hour, or very small trains that run maybe three times a day and everyone is trying to catch this one train.  Some trains are marked ‘Reserved Seating Only’, but this is a lie because there will always be some sort of unreserved seating.  I mean, they have to put us peasant shoestring-budget exchange students somewhere, right?

Here is more information on the Kyushu Rail Pass (in English!):


Golden Week: Kyushu~! Day One: Train-hopping from Fukuoka to Miyazaki
Golden Week: Kyushu~! Day Two: Absorbing the ashes of a volcano
Golden Week: Kyushu~! Day Three: Catching ferries and climbing bridges