Japan isn’t a big country really, at least if you compare it with other destinations as China, India, USA or even my home country, Argentina. Despite that I think Japan has the most extensive transportation system I have ever seen, including trains, subways, metro, tram, busses, monorail, cable cars… and they are all linked to each other, even sometimes they merge so the railway becomes a subway. It’s hard to make a generalization about how to use the system in all the country so I will focus on the place that I know and traveled more: Kansai
Kansai is the name of the region I live in and basically compresses the cities of Osaka, Nara, Kyoto and Kobe, and everything in between. What are their boundaries is hard sometimes to describe. Normally the limits for the cities are in the hills or mountains. For Example, The Nara Prefecture and the Osaka prefecture are divided by the Ikoma mountain range, but you could hardly notice that.
The JR (Japan Railways corp.) operates the Government transportation system, including the High speed Shinkansen (bullet trains), Highway busses (meaning Inter-city) and some subway lines, but normally subway lines are operated by the city or prefectural governments. The thing is that in Japan there are also several Private Railway Lines, often huge corporations that own Trains, Subways, busses, Hotels, Shopping malls, and even clubs. This Companies normally link their services to the Government JR and between them as well, which bring for the visitor a complete chaos when trying to ride outside the JR lines.
Back in Kansai there are 5 private railway lines: Hankyu, Hanshin, Kintetsu, Keihan, Nankai and the public JR. This lines combine between them, the JR and the subway in an integrated transportation system, conforming a huge commuter network. This lines sometimes serve the same destinations. You can get from Osaka To Kyoto by Kintetsu, JR (Shinkansen and normal train), Hankyu, Nankai… and they all have different terminals. Sometimes the terminals are connected like in the case of the JR terminal in Kyoto that is connected to the Kintetsu one in a massive building that’s both a Train Terminal, a shopping mall, a Hotel and a transportation hub, linking with local and intercity busses, subway lines and between train companies.
Lets see some important points on Japan transport:
Fares are measured by distance, and each company has its own fare chart, resulting in cheaper and expensive lines. Basic fare for up to 3 stations is 150 Yens, and fares between 2 cities between 900 and 1700 Yens. Conveniently for foreigners there is a machine called “fare adjustment machine” located right before the exit in which you insert your ticket and the machine calculates the fare from the station you boarded until the station you are adjusting for exit. So what I do is just get the cheapest ticket and worry only how to get to my destination, and I will pay the full fare before exit.
Transfer between lines and subways is available at connection points. Some times transfer stations have gates with ticket machines inside the platform, so you have to purchase another ticket or adjust the fare like mentioned previously. You can also purchase a transfer ticket at your boarding point, so It’s possible to be in a JR terminal a connecting ticket for Kintetsu. All machines have English explanation but not always is understandable.
Types of train
Trains in Japan have many different names depending on the stations in which they stop. A local train stops on every station along the way, then there are express, semi express, sub-semi express, and rapid trains. This applies for the Shinkansen also . The system is created for bringing far away commuters back and forth from the main city, so all the express trains will skip the stations in the middle of the trains trajectory, making stops inside the city (in the main terminals) and at the end of the way. Many private companies also offers Rapid Express or super express Direct rains that costs more money, they are direct because there is no need to transfer trains to get to the final destination. Sometimes they are convenient sometimes they are not, since the transfer is very well calculated and you need only to get down from one train and wait one minute until the next one arrives, other times one trains waits for the other so passengers can transfer.
Trains run from 5 AM to around midnight (last departure) and are extremely well organized and punctual, so if you check you clock and the itinerary and you think the train is late, adjust your clock. The trains and transfers are linked, so the last train in one side doesn’t leave until the last train arrives to that station. This last train system in quite inconvenient and if you miss the train you will be left on the street, but you can check other posts on this blog or in www.worldnomad.com.ar for info on what to do if you miss the last train.
All companies provide different passes for discounted travel. As a tourist the most famous is the JR pass, covering all public transportation, including long distance Shinkansen train and inner city trains as well. This JR pass excludes subways and privately operated lines.
But the private companies also offer passes, normally:
Day Passes: For a day for 3 days and also for week. For commuters there are monthly passes calculated on amount of trips not by day (you don’t get a 30 day pass, you get 40 trips to go to your job on weekdays)
Destination passes: To go to a certain location and back in the day, this kind of ticket may include busses, cable cars, subway and all necessary things to spend a day in certain place. Popular for mountains, important temples and Onsen
Seasons: Season passes are available throughout the year, sometimes for vacations, or Sakura sightseeing, etc
Student Discount: Reduced price tickets for students
Its really hard not to get lost in train stations, specially those big hubs where 2 or 3 train lines and subway connect, such as Namba and Umeda in Osaka or the JR terminal in Kyoto, but to avoid that you have to look at the details: the signs are different in the JR and the Kintetsu terminals and the floor is a different color. Also the gates are slightly different. To add trouble JR is the only one that have announces and trains signs entirely in English for the whole length of its journey.I used to live in the Nara Kintetsu line and there where no announces in English at all, and at some times stations names and maps are not in English as well.
Basically and to finish this post I I would recommend to travelers to get a JP pass to avoid this mess and move only in JR lines. But for the person staying a longer time in Japan this is impossible. As a foreigner with basic Japanese abilities is really hard to get on the information you need, I received a lot of help from my Japanese friends, and to be honest there is no other way around it. Information in English is scarce and the websites of the private lines sometimes they include only basic information such as schedule and company data. You friends, acquaintances, co workers or classmates might help you out if you need to travel.