NEW! Exploring Japan By Train – A Beginner’s Guide

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Exploring Japan by train is not only practical but also a fascinating way to see and experience Japan.

It's a convenient way to explore the country's countless beautiful landscapes and get away from the major cities. 

In this beginner's guide to exploring Japan by train, rail travel expert Stephen Turner shares his knowledge and expert tips. Including his recommendations for scenic routes, tourist trains and special places not covered by the bullet trains.

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Exploring Japan by Train a Beginner's Guide The Real Japan

Exploring Japan by Train: A Beginner's Guide
by Stephen Turner

In many countries using public transport is not an option, either because it does not exist or is unreliable.

Japan is very different, it has a very extensive rail network covering all the main islands (except Okinawa, which just has one monorail line), and more importantly it is a reliable and practical way to travel around Japan.

In this article I will tell you why exploring Japan by train is not only practical but can also be an interesting way to see and experience Japan.


Japan's rail network goes ways beyond the cities

People often know that the train is a good way to get around Tokyo and the bullet train will take me to Kyoto and Osaka, but wonder: "Where else can I travel by train?".

Japan has a 3,200 km (1,990 miles) shinkansen (bullet train) network and a total rail network of 27,400km (17,000miles).

exploring Japan by train Enoden 300系 Goryo Shrine

The retro-styled Enoden 300系 train passing Goryo Shrine is ideal for seeing key sightseeing spots along the Shonan coast |   Photo: © TSJR

You will often see social media posts and comments (often in relation to JR Rail Passes) saying that the JR network consists of the shinkansen and the Yamanote Line in Tokyo. Nothing could be further from the truth.

VIDEO: Kamakura's Enoden Ride: Visit Slam Dunk's Spot, Temples, Waves, and more!

You can crisscross through the mountains and along great river valleys from coast to coast as well as going round much of the coastline by rail. The shinkansen (that can be used for more than travelling between Tokyo〜 Kyoto〜Osaka〜Hiroshima), is only part of the rail network which also includes a network of Limited Express Trains that connect up many towns and cities that are not served by shinkansen and many local lines.

JR companies alone operate around 600 railway lines (around 40 in the Greater Tokyo area) and there are more than 150 non JR rail companies. 

exploring Japan y train Hello Kitty shinkansen Okayama Station

The eye-catching Hello Kitty shinkansen train at Okayama Station  |   Photo: © TSJR

Japan Rail shinkansen and limited express network map

The map (below) only shows the shinkansen and Limited Express Train network, but there are also many local lines that run through some amazingly scenic areas, whether between mountains, along great river valleys or along the coast lines.

A good example is the cities of Matsue and Izumo in Shimane Prefecture.

Popular with domestic tourists but do not get on to many foreign tourist’s itineraries as they are far from the shinkansen network. but the Limited Express Yakumo train that runs to and from Okayama takes you between “Yang and Yin” as it crosses the mountains that run down the middle of the Chugoku region separating Sanyo and Sanin and again through some great scenery.

exploring Japan by train JRPass Express Trains map Japan

Japan Rail shinkansen and limited express network map - CLICK TO DOWNLOAD FULL SIZE MAP  | Credit: Kotsu Shimbunsha (交通新聞社) / TS Japan Rail

Why exploring Japan by train is a good idea

The first obvious reason is that it is a very good way to get from A to B quickly and reliably, whether your journey is just across Tokyo or many other big cities in Japan, or across the country.  For most people in Japan travelling intra-city or inter-city the train is going to be the first choice.

Travelling by  train is also a very  good way to see Japan.

Although you will not see too much from the shinkansen (there are exceptions like the view of Mt Fuji from the Tokaido Shinkansen, and the scenery on the Yamagata and Akita shinkansen lines), many of the conventional lines run through some great scenery! The list of scenic routes is very long, but there is a list of 3 of my favourites at the end of this article.

explore Japan by train Lake Shinji Bataden

Sunset over Lake Shinji from an Ichibata Dentetsu train near Matsue  |   Photo: © TSJR

Getting off the shinkansen (bullet train) lines

Something that is not fully appreciated by many tourists is that travelling by train is a great way to experience Japan.

This is particularly true when you get off the shinkansen and travel on some of the other lines, whether in the big cities or in rural areas… you see daily life, the people and much more, both inside and outside the train. Of course you also get to see the beauty of Japan, whether it is the rugged coastlines, alpine scenery or the rice paddies of rural Japan. 

"But, I want to minimize the time I spend travelling and spend more time sightseeing." you might say.

Yes, I can understand that, but I also know that with a bit of planning you can travel through some very scenic areas, and visit some interesting places you would have never thought about.  Importantly the travel is not just “travel time” but will be part of your trip experience.

Explore Japan by train Tanba field art Akita

Tanbo (rice paddy) art , here seen from a train on the Akita Nairiku Jukan Tetsudo Train in Akita Prefecture   |  Photo: © TSJR

A good example of this is travelling from Tokyo to Takayama, which normally requires taking the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Nagoya and and then around 2 ½ hrs from Nagoya, so taking around 4hrs 45mins. The journey from Nagoya to Takayama however, going through the prefecture of Gifu is one of outstanding beauty as the train winds its way along the Hida River valley. 

explore Japan by train Seto Ohashi Bridge sunset

View from the longest railway bridge in Japan, the Seto Ohashi Bridge, at sunset  from a train on the JR Seto Ohashi Line  |   Photo: © TSJR

Japan's dedicated tourist trains

Japan has around 60 dedicated tourist trains.

These trains include sightseeing trains, travelling on particularly scenic routes; café or restaurant trains that provide full meals or boxed meals featuring local cuisine or themed trains (Japan being the home of manga and anime).

exploring Japan by train JR Kyushu KiHa72 Yufin no Mori Tosu

JR Kyushu's Yufuin no Mori Tosu express travels between Fukuoka's Hakata station and Yufuin  |   Photo: © TSJR

There are some trains that will even slow down or even have a short extended stops whilst passing scenic areas to allow passengers to have a quick look and take pictures.

Often called “Joyful Trains” which is how the former Japan National Railways and later the JR companies branded them in their earlier days, they are a great way for foreign visitors to explore different parts of Japan and in some cases even experience local cultural performances on board the trains. 

VIDEO: JR Kyushu Design & Story Train “Yufuin no Mori” Intro Movie

How easy is it to explore Japan by train?

The fact that you are reading this blog means that you already understand that doing some research and planning can pay off big in terms of enhancing your travel experience.  

Exploring Japan by train, I cannot deny it needs a certain level of planning, particularly when you get off the beaten track (no pun intended!). Although there may be trains every few minutes on the Yamanote Line or every 10-20 minutes on the Tokaido Shinkansen, on others it can be less frequent, even down to just several trains a day. Do not let this put you off though!

On the other hand there is a lot of information available in Japan, even down to what you will see from the train on either side, where the viewpoints are etc.

Exploring Japan by train JR West KiHa120 Kisuki Line Bingo Ochiai

JR West's KiHa120 Kisuki Line Bingo Ochiai runs through the mountains of Honshu's Chugoku region  |   Photo: © TSJR

99% punctuality and high levels of customer service

Another point to remember is that Japan is a country where a high level of service is demanded.

This means that  signposting is good and staff helpful, trains run as per the schedule 99% of the time. This does not mean that there is not the occasional problem, but reliability is taken very seriously.

Many people are quite daunted when they start planning their trips, but once they get to Japan they often find it much easier than expected.

Depending on how adventurous you want to be, apps like Google Maps and Apple Maps, Japan Transit  (Jorudan) and Japan Travel (Navitime) are excellent for planning rail trips. I would caution though, that although they are good for getting from A to B, there are a lot of scenic lines and routes that will not ordinarily show up on these apps as they do not meet the algorithm criteria of being fastest or cheapest routes.

Explore Japan by train Yurikougen Railway figures

Scarecrows on display at Yashima Station on the Yuri Kogen Tetsudo Line in Akita Prefecture  |   Photo: © TSJR

How we can help

Both I and TS Japan Rail have been featured by the national press in Japan because of my interest and knowledge of the local rail lines in Japan and making these known to foreign tourists.

The Real Japan has partnered with TS Japan Rail, who are experts on Japan Rail Travel. Being Japan based they have access to a lot of information (most of which is in Japanese) and they can add value not only with ideas specific to rail travel, but also with detailed (and flexible) travel plans.

So whether you want to do a trip exploring Japan by train, want to do an excursion into particular regions by train as part of your Japan trip, or would just like personalized trip-planning assistance The Real Japan, with TS Japan Rail, can add value and take a lot of the stress out of the planning and your travels.

Details on the services available can be found here.

Ideas for ways to explore Japan by rail

Scenic routes

  • Gono Line – Japan Sea Coast route in Aomori & Akita Prefectures.
  • Tadami Line – along the Tadami River in Fukushima Prefecture
  • Yodo Line – Ehime & Kochi Prefectures Shikoku

Special places not on the shinkansen

  • Matsue & Izumo Taisha-Shimane Prefecture
  • Kochi,  Kochi Prefecture Shikoku
  • Shonai area (Tsuruoka, Sakata) of Yamagata Prefecture

Tourist trains

  • JR Kyushu “36 plus 3” All-round Kyushu Train
  • Kintetsu “Aoniyoshi”  Train Kyoto/ Osaka〜Nara
  • Yufuin no Mori Train (Fukuoka〜Yufuin〜Oita & Beppu)

Other interesting rail activities

  • Steam hauled routes throughout Japan.
  • Maglev Test Line (Otsuki Yamanashi Prefecture)
  • Train museums (Kyoto, Omiya, Nagoya & others)

Embrace the beauty of exploring Japan by train

Exploring Japan by train is an excellent way to experience the country beyond just the major cities. With an extensive rail network covering both high-speed shinkansen lines and local trains through scenic rural areas, trains allow you to witness Japan's natural beauty, observe daily life, and visit off-the-beaten-path destinations.

While it requires some advance planning, the reliable transportation system and wealth of available resources make rail travel very accessible for visitors. From dedicated sightseeing trains to journeys along picturesque coasts and river valleys, there are numerous opportunities to make your journey across Japan just as enriching as the destinations themselves.

If you have any other questions about touring Japan by rail feel free to leave a comment below.

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Stephen Turner TS Japan The Real Japan

About the Author

Stephen Turner has lived in Japan for more than 30 years and is the founder of TS Japan Rail, a travel advisor and planner specializing in rail travel in Japan for both tourists and rail fans.

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Exploring Japan by Train a Beginner's Guide The Real Japan

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