The easiest, cheapest, and most convenient way for tourists to explore Japan is by train. It's also one of the most challenging things to conquer in Japan, especially for tourists visiting for the first time. With people rushing back and forth and all the different Japanese signs all around, it can be so overwhelming! It might seem confusing at first, but keep calm and stay alert because here are a few tips to make sure you'll survive all the craziness.
1. Check your route ahead of time. Use Google Maps or Navitime Japan to search for your route as it is updated in real time. You can find the best routes to suit your needs and you can plan ahead so that you won't get too lost later on. Trains come and leave on time, and if you're on a time restraint, planning ahead would put you at a great advantage. Plus, the estimated cost of your commute would be displayed. You can find Wi-Fi in most major stations, but renting or buying a data package would be better.
2. Breathe. Don’t stress yourself out looking for your route right away. If you feel lost, stand in an area where you won’t block the way and calmly read the signs for help. Here’s where your powers of observation will kick in.
3. Assess where you are right now. What station are you in and where do you want to go? What line do you need to get on and where do you need to get off? Most of the train schedules will flash in English and in Japanese. Maps are available at the information booths and people will be willing to help you.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Look for a tourist information center or the train station information booth for help. Though not everyone you will encounter will be able to speak English, they will provide maps and help you with your route. Start by saying “sumimasen (excuse me)” and mention the station or the line you want to go to. Don’t forget to say “arigatou gozaimasu (thank you)” once you’re done!
5. Do your research! It pays to research a lot about the Japanese train systems. There are different train lines and routes that are interconnected with one another. Some stations are smaller and only have one line passing through, while others (like Shinjuku Station and Tokyo Station) are connecting to almost all the other lines.
6. Know your train lingo. In Japan, there are different kinds of trains: the local train, the rapid express train, the limited express train, and so on and so forth. The local train stops on every single station, the rapid express stops on more selected stations, the limited express stops only on major stations, and so on and so forth. Make sure you’re riding the correct train before boarding!
7. Invest in an IC card. To save you the time and the trouble of having to buy train tickets all the time, invest in an IC card. In Japan, the two most popular IC cards (to use in Tokyo) are the Suica card and the Pasmo card. Like the local Beep card, these IC cards can be used in buses, trains, shops, vending machines, and more! It’s immensely convenient and customizable, too!
8. Keep your IC card or your ticket nearby for easy access. You’ll need to tap your IC card/ insert your ticket when you enter and exit a station. Keep it on standby when you’re about to enter or exit the train so that you can enter easily without having to dig in deep your pockets and bags for your card or ticket – it will also be appreciated by your fellow commuters who are rushing by.
9. Try to avoid the rush hours. Major stations in Tokyo are also noted as some of the busiest stations in the world – and that’s not an exaggeration. Some of the busiest times would be from 7 AM to 8 AM and 5 PM to 6 PM – that’s when businessmen would go and come back from work.
10. Be mindful of yourself. In Japan, people prefer silence in their daily commute. Set your phone on silent or on vibrate. If you need to talk, use your indoor voices and keep it brief. Whenever you board a train, let people exit the train first before entering. Lastly, keep to the right or to the left (depending where you are in Japan) on the escalator to let people pass by.
That’s it! Just remember these 10 tips when you’re in the station and you’ll be fine. It’s confusing at first, but don’t be afraid. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll find it to be extremely easy and convenient! Good luck! Ganbatte!