Japans’ rail system—from its bullet trains to the efficiency of the Tokyo subway system—is famous for its orderliness, and for its rules. Lots of rules. But if you learn and follow them, you’ll better enjoy one of the world’s best transportation systems—and even have more fun.
If you plan on making any trips outside of Tokyo, buy a Japan Rail Pass ($233 for one week) in advance. They are not available in Japan, and with a pass you have access to most (but not all) of the high-speed trains. The second-class pass is fine, too—few people travel first class in the country because the second-class cars are first class by U.S. standards.
Plan your trip on HyperDia, which lists the country’s train schedules. You can choose your routes and print them out before your trip (and note that your JR Pass is not valid for all routes).
Once you arrive, have your JR Pass validated at a JR office, found at major train stations in Tokyo and at the airport. (Bonus: Your first ride to Tokyo station from Narita airport, regardless of whether or not you have a JR Pass, is half-price with your foreign passport.) Show the office your schedule and reserve seats, but do not expect the staff to plan your trip: Your itinerary is best decided in advance by you. Opt for window seats when you can, and when passing Mount Fuji, make sure your seat has views. Finally, hold onto your pass: If you lose it, it cannot be replaced.
On the day you travel, stop by the shops or restaurants in the train stations and buy a picnic, known as an eki-ben. These cost between $8-14, and offer choices of delicious, fresh crab pressed onto rice, salmon, yakitori (chicken), tonkatsu (fried pork), and more. Prefer Western food? There’s an Eataly in Tokyo station, and throughout Japan you can readily find first-rate French, Italian, and U.S. fare.
You are assigned a train car, a row, and a seat. Line up at your assigned car and wait for your train to pull in. When it’s time to board, move fast: trains fill with passengers and zoom out of stations within seconds.
Once seated, act as if you are in an Amtrak Quiet Car: No cell phones, minimal conversation kept to a whisper—and do not talk to your new neighbors. For the ride, relax and enjoy your eki-ben, but prepare for your stop: once again, the train will pull into the station and only give you seconds to grab your luggage and get out.
First, buy a Pasmo or Suica card at a subway station: They cost about the same as a Metro card, but they charge according to the distance traveled, potentially saving you money (you will need to scan it when you enter and exit the subway). You can use them at vending machines, and on the local JR trains, too.
Inside the station, do not stop, hesitate, or linger: There’s usually a crowd of fast-moving people, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Like with the trains, line up (it’s considered rude to position yourself next to a car’s doors rather than stand in line).
There’s no eating or drinking in the subway cars. Do not use cell phones or talk above a whisper, either, and avoid eye contact. Keep your hands to yourself; hold onto a strap or put your hands where people can see them; if by accident you touch someone with your hands, it can lead to unfortunate misunderstandings. In general, keep your feet on the floor, but if you must cross your legs, keep your soles facing down (it’s considered rude otherwise).
Plot your exit in advance: Each subway station often has multiple exits, often more than a dozen, and you can delay getting where you need to go while you search for the right one. Finally, remember that the subway stops at midnight—after that, your best option is a taxi.
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