Trains in Japan to me were always something like a hit or miss. I remember when I first entered the Skyliner from Narita to Ueno and sat in someone else’s place, wrong car number (at that time I was very dummy at trains). Then in Sendai I never knew if I was at the right track, the right train or even with the right ticket.
It can be overwhelming, specially on the first attempts but it does get better as you gain confidence.
Paying for the ticket
You will arrive let’s say station A and you want to go to station B.
First thing you should do, is check if the ticket system in front of you allows you to select train stops by name to select as destinations. If it does, you’ve hit Jackpot you you can select your destination and move on.
However, some machines will only allow you to choose a value you want to pay. For this, previously you will have to find out, what value to select.
So you look up and around to find a giant map with station names. If your map has station names in English, Jackpot! You see the number indicated next to the station name and then select this number in the machine, pay and move on.
In case the whole map is only in Japanese, as many in the countryside are, you will have to discover which kanji make up the name of the place where you want to go. So in reality you need to know before hand the kanji for the city you want to visit. Then you can see the number next to it and choose it in the machine.
Note: There was a time, I relied solely on Google. Google maps would allow us to know the price for each journey and that’s the amount we would select. We did this a lot for going to Matsushima at the beginning of my Japan days; there was a lot of “let’s see if it works” going on at that time.
The ticket will have every information you need: Departure time and station, arrival time and station, train name and number, car and sit, price and type of ticket.
There are two types of tickets: with reserved and non reserved sitting. You will pay extra for the reservation of the sit. On the picture above you can see a ticket price of 5700 Yen and a reservation fee of 4610 Yen.
Some trains make you reserve a sit, for example the Shinkansen trains other allow customers to pay or not for reserved sitting. This will influence train cars you can sit in, much similar to 1st and 2nd class systems.
Moving to the track
Moving from the ticket machines, to the ticket checking. You slide the ticket into the machine and enter the train area. Machines will “eat” the ticket when you insert and “spit it” on the other side, so make sure to get it back.
In case you have the JR Pass, you need to go through the door, or passage way by a window, on the side, where a person will validate your JR pass.
Let me say, that in case you pass these buggers either in or out, from either side to the other without passing a ticket, they will very, very noisily make you stand out embarrassedly from the crowd, trust me on this!
Inside the paid ticket area, you look up and in the information board you locate which train and track number is yours.
To locate your platform, either train name, destination or direction can help you. In my case, I always use hours to be extra sure. If you know that the train leaves at, for example, 15:51, it really is that train. Don’t even bother entering the 15:50 train, I know this is a ridiculous example, but seriously, the trains will be on time.
In case doubt, look for the station’s staff around you and say “sumimasen” which means “excuse me” and explain your problem. It’s OK to ask in English, I think at least you may get pointed into the right direction or a yes/no response.
When on the track
Now you arrived at the platform, and where should you place yourself?
In case of a reserved sit, your ticket will tell you which train car and sit number you need to be at. Otherwise you can sit anywhere.
Train car numbers will be up along the train platform, just locate yours and move near to it. If they are not numbered at the station, I cannot help you. I know there has to be a logic for car order from smallest to larger depending on the direction the train is moving, but, honestly, I just never managed to find out. I know I’ve seen in some places a schematic of the train but its not common to find at all.
When you realise where you are supposed to be, look down to the floor and notice the colour markings. Sometimes there will be markings of two colors, one for the immediate train and another for queuing for the train after it.
If you are not comfortable with this, as I often am not, just remove yourself from both lines, otherwise you will create a gigantic chaos because you will confuse everyone. The system is not prepared for people who cannot read kanji and chaos is sure to ensue.
In case there is no proper marking on the floor, just, for the love of God, remove yourself from the front of the train door so that everyone can more properly. Again in case you’re not sure, just back away and observe how people do it.
The challenge is never over. After entering the train, notice a place for leaving heavy luggage near the doors, away from the sitting area. It’s not mandatory to leave your luggage here, many shinkansen will have enough space in front of you to have a big luggage.
In case yours is not one of these trains, just enter and make sure to take backpacks from your back. This is annoying in any part of the world and another reason locals hate tourist.
In Japan urban trains will open doors both sides, so no use leaning on doors. You may not notice but out loud the announcement will tell you which doors will open. If you hear “migi” that’s right and “hidari” left.
The wrong train
So, you boarded the wrong train and now you’re screwed. Fear not, in case you are not able to exit at the ticket validation area, or you wanna leave one station early or one station later, you can adjust the value you payed for your ticket.
Near the ticket validation area you will find a window saying “fare adjustment” where you will be able to adjust whatever you need to adjust.
If there isn’t one, just go through the door / pass by the window where the station staff is and explain your situation. However, there is a high probability you will need to have a little Japanese with you for this task.
Good luck and Safe travels!