Japanese Railways

Railways in Japan


Christopher P. Hood

Trains are the main means of transport for many visitors to Japan. However, compared to many other countries, the visitor is often presented with a mind-boggling array of train transport options.

There are over 200 private and semi-private railway companies across the country. While some of these have their own distinct market, there are also numerous examples of lines that run close, and sometimes even right next to, competitor lines. This article will introduce some of the key elements of Japanese railways.

Across the whole of Japan (apart from Okinawa) there are the six JR passenger companies and one JR company for freight. These companies were created in 1987 following the break-up of the nationalized organization JNR.

The passenger companies are regionally based and their names reflect the regions they serve (JR Hokkaido, JR East, JR Central (sometimes also known as JR Tōkai), JR West, JR Shikoku and JR Kyūshū).

These companies' passenger services are made up of a mixture of trains for both suburban commuting and inter-city travel: local trains which stop at all stations and a variety of express and semi-express trains which stop at only the more major stations on their lines. JR East, JR Central, JR West and JR Kyūshū also have shinkansen ('bullet train') services for longer-distance and faster travel.

Shinkansen bullet train at Nagoya Station, Japan.
Shinkansen bullet train at Nagoya Station
Shinkansen Green Car.
Shinkansen Green Car

The main non-JR private companies are found in the larger cities around Japan.

Much of the companies' revenue actually comes from non-railway operations.

These companies historically bought up land near stations for development and built large department stores at the main stations along with hotels.

As a result, many people who travel on these lines into Tokyo, for example, barely leave the station as their sole reason for travel is to go to that railway company's department store before returning home.

To enhance commuting convenience, it is not uncommon for private lines to link up at certain points with the underground network to save having to transfer at busy stations.

Although all of these companies have their trains built by only a handful of manufacturers, the variation in design, let alone color schemes, between companies can be significant.

Bullet train arriving Nagoya Station, Nagoya, Japan.
The shinkansen bullet rain is an icon of Japan

It is no wonder then that train-spotting in Japan is such a popular pastime or that many visitors to Japan return home with a plethora of train photographs!

Indeed, while for the commuter the purpose to travel is merely to get between home and work, for many others in Japan the journey itself in terms of the experience of seeing and riding on one of these trains, let alone the view from it, is the motivation to travel, rather than what might await them at their destination.

Travel on the Japanese trains has become easier in recent years. The Japan Rail Pass provides easy, discounted travel for the tourist on most JR trains. In big cities, the move towards smart cards has meant that there is no longer a need to check the fare before traveling.

Passes which can be used on both JR and private lines are also now available in some areas. One word of caution is that express trains sometimes require a supplementary fare but the system varies from company to company (with many private companies requiring no supplement) and also varies depending on the type of express train.

Try to avoid traveling during the peak morning rush hour when capacity on some trains tops 200% - making it hard to board normally and impossible if with a suitcase (most Japanese trains have limited space for baggage as most Japanese send their cases by the cheap and efficient courier services).

While the variety of modern design trains in the major cities may wow, a trip to the countryside will often present an opportunity to see older rolling stock.

This contrast can give the visitor a real appreciation of the continued march of Japan's advances in recent decades despite the apparent economic problems and how different life is between the large metropolitan areas on the Pacific Coast and the rural communities in the countryside.

In some areas there are even preserved steam trains which operate special services (usually from the start of spring to the end of summer).

No account of Japan's train system is complete without mention of the 'blue trains'. These are the sleeper trains, which as their nickname implies, have traditionally been blue. Their number is decreasing, but a journey on one can be part of the magical experience of traveling around Japan.

Newer designs are much more like business hotels on rails than a traditional sleeper train and are particularly comfortable. Although even those with a Japan Rail Pass have to pay a supplement to use them, compared to the cost of staying at a hotel, and given the potential time savings if not traveling by air, they remain a viable option.

There can be no doubt that Japan is a great country to visit, and making use of Japan's superb rail system to travel around the country adds to this most rewarding experience.

Christopher P. Hood is Director of the Cardiff Japanese Studies Centre, Cardiff University and an Associate Fellow at Chatham House. He is the author of Shinkansen: From Bullet Train to Symbol of Modern Japan (Routledge, 2006), Japanese Education Reform: Nakasone's Legacy (Routledge, 2001), co-editor with G. Bownas and D. Powers of Doing Business with the Japanese (Direct Image, 2003), and regularly handles media enquiries relating to Japan.

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