Japan’s domestic rail network is arguably the best in the world. Find out everything you need to know before travelling in our ultimate ‘did you know’ guide!
Fast, efficient, clean, and safe. Japan’s trains are the envy of the world and the most affordable way to explore this unforgettable country. In this special blog post, we’ve pulled together a wealth of fascinating information about trains in Japan and the country’s exceptional railway system to dazzle, entertain, and inform you. You may know that the Japan Rail Pass is the best value way to travel across this unforgettable country thanks to the unlimited travel it affords on the domestic rail network, but there’s much more to discover about Japan’s trains and railways. Get ready for an education - and some fun!
Did You Know This About Japan’s Rail Network?
Did you know that…
…Some Japanese trains have been programmed to bark like a dog to scare deer off the tracks?
It’s true! For both passenger and animal safety, the train network introduced this unique idea to ward off any deer who might wander onto the tracks!
…Japan employs ‘pushers’ whose job is to help squeeze passengers onto busy trains?
Japan’s domestic rail network is such a popular and heavily used way to travel in Japan, that Japanese train companies employ ‘pushers’ to help squeeze passengers into busy carriages. It’s not as easy as it sounds though. In fact, it takes six months of rigorous training to qualify!
…Japan has more than 30 different types of trainspotters?
Japan loves trains. It loves them so much it doesn’t just have one word for its trainspotters, but more than 36 at the last count. The general word for trainspotters or people who take photos of trains is tori-tetsu. However, this being Japan there are also nori-tetsu (people who love train journeys), eki-tetsu (those who love train stations), oto-tetsu (trainspotters who record the sound of trains), sharyo-tetsu (lovers of train design), yomi-tetsu (those who love reading about trains) and even ekiben-tetsu (fans of the bento lunch boxes sold at train stations). In short, if you love trains, railway journeys and train stations, you’ve come to the right country.
…The food on Japanese trains is amazing?
In a development that’s sure to shock western travellers used to eating a boring sandwich and a packet of crisps on their commute, the train food in Japan is actually amazing. Yes, prepare to be green with envy if you’ve only ever had bad train food. The remedy? Go to Japan and eat like royalty! Pronounced ‘air key ben’, the Japanese word ‘Ekiben’ is a portmanteau of the kanji symbols for ‘train station’ and ‘boxed meal’ i.e. ‘station-bento’. Its name perfectly describes what it is – a lunch box sold at train stations for eating during your rail journey. However, ekiben is far more than that. Ekiben are delicious, fresh, high-quality boxed meals, often using locally sourced ingredients that reflect the local region, which are sold in a huge range of special varieties, from simple, tasty meals to eat on-the-go to elaborate limited editions and regional specialities. They also change with the seasons too and come in a range of containers – from relatively simple and traditional-looking wooden boxes and trays right through to stylish shinkansen-shaped boxes. While most ekiben are rice-based, almost every Japanese food is available in lunch-box form, from sushi to yakisoba, omelette to wagyu beef. Some even include dessert! Ekiben are sold at train stations across Japan. To find out more read our Guide to Ekiben: The Best Bento Box for Train Journeys.
…Japan’s trains have set records for speed?
Okay, so you probably do know this one, but Japan - the country that invented the ‘bullet train’ - has some of the fastest trains in the world. You knew that? Okay, okay, but do you know how fast? Check this out. The world record for fastest train is held by the Japanese L0 Series Maglev, which has a speed record of 374 mph or 602 km/h. While this is a special train designed for breaking records, Japan is known for its super fast trains, especially its shinkansen ‘bullet trains’. For example, the Alpha X train shinkansen is one of the fastest in Japan and can make the journey from Tokyo to Sapporo in three hours - a route that even recently took seven hours. The Class E956 “Alpha-X” Shinkansen is a 10 car experimental bullet train operated by JR-East on the Tohoku Shinkansen line. It is the latest in speed and safety. And did you know, Alpha-X is an acronym for Advanced Labs for Frontline Activity in rail eXperimentation?
The world-renowned shinkansen bullet trains are arguably Japan’s best known trains thanks to their high-speeds and iconic design. Since their launch in 1964 for the Tokyo Olympic Games, Japan’s bullet trains have led the way in fast and efficient passenger journeys. The word shinkansen, which can refer to both the lines and high speed trains on them, while the term bullet train comes from the early stages of planning the shinkansen back in 1939, and comes from the Japanese word dangan ressha (弾丸列車), as well as a clear reference to the bullet shape noise of the first Shinkansen train series. However, today the design has been streamlined into different, more aerodynamic nose shapes, including a duck-billed design, to overcome a noise issue created by sonic booms while going through tunnels. One of the newest shinkansen models is the N700S ‘Supreme’ Shinkansen, the latest 700 series operated by JR Central, which runs on the Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen lines. The train runs at an impressive new top speed of 362 km/h (225mp/h). For more, read our guide to Why Bullet Trains No Longer Look Like Bullets.
…The country’s trains are also among the safest in the world?
Despite being the fastest, Japan’s trains are also incredibly safe with no passenger accidents in almost 50 years of continuous service. Shinkansen trains feature special automatic air brakes for earthquakes and the latest trains, such as N700s supreme shinkansen, have full active suspension and an all new ATC braking system for safety stops during earthquakes and other emergencies. The Alpha X, meanwhile, also features the most innovative safety technology. The train comes with a new set of technologies for a safe and quick stop in the case of an emergency, like an earthquake. These include air brakes on the roof and magnetic plates near the rails to slow down, in addition to the conventional braking system. Safety is a big plus about life in Japan generally. It is an extremely safe and orderly country with a very low crime rate - perfect for international visitors, couples, lone travellers, and families too. As well as being incredibly safe, Japan’s trains are impeccably clean and tidy too. You’ll likely never travel on better public transport.
…Instead of a whistle or horn, Japan’s trains play a melodic tune when leaving a station?
It's true and so much more cheerful than a loud whistle!
…Passengers who experience a very rare delay in their train - even 30 seconds - are issued with a certificate?
Japan’s trains are famous for their efficiency and timeliness. On the very rare occasions when trains are not exactly on time, Japan is typically polite and organised about it. Train companies apologise if a train leaves the station even 30 seconds early and official delay certificates are given to passengers if trains are late so they can prove to their employers and teachers that their lateness wasn’t their fault. Punctuality is very important in Japan. Needless to say, if you’re an international visitor travelling in Japan, you’ll be amazed by the efficiency of Japan’s trains, which run like clockwork all year round.
…One of Japan’s train stations has the highest footfall in the world?
Incredibly, Japan has 45 of the 51 busiest train stations in the world and the No.1 biggest and busiest - Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, which sees a staggering 3.6 million train travellers pass through every single day. It’s such a huge complex that a special app was designed to help visitors navigate the station without getting lost! Japan’s other busiest stations include Shibuya, Umeda, Ikebukuro, and Yokohama. The country’s stations are also diverse and beautiful. Two of the most stunning visually are Kanazawa Train Station and Kyoto Station. Kanazawa combines contemporary architecture with tradition in the form of a futuristic glass and metal roof supported by an imposing and impressive red torii gate (the ‘Tsuzumi-mon’ or ‘Wooden Drum’ gate). Since the opening of the Hokuriku Shinkansen a few years ago, Kanazawa can now be easily reached from Tokyo. Kyoto Station is a vast, modern architectural masterpiece that features a skywalk with stunning views of the city. Don’t miss Kyoto Ramen Street which is located on the tenth floor of Kyoto Station, to the south of the Daikaidan Grand Stairway. Perhaps surprisingly, Japan also has a train station that only opens twice a year. Tsushimanomiya Station only opens on August 4 and 5 every year for the summer festival at the Tsushima Shrine. This station on the JR Shikoku–Yosan Line might just be the quietest in Japan.
…Japan has the train station with both the longest name and the shortest?
It’s another true fact! Tsu Station in Mie Prefecture has the shortest name and the train station with the longest name is Minami Aso Mizu No Umareru Sato Hakusui Kogen Station in Kumamoto!
...Japan’s passion for trains dates back to 1800, but the real revolution began after WW2?
While Japan’s railways can be traced back to the 1800s and the end of the country’s self-imposed isolation, the modern day history of Japanese trains begins after the end of the Second World War. Following the war, Japan’s rail network was rebuilt under the control of Japan National Railways (JNR) and over the next 20 years, new trains, including limited express and night trains, and new routes were introduced as well as a programme of electrification. However, it was the 1964 Tokyo Olympics that proved the catalyst for Japan’s revolution in rail travel that would see it become a world-leader in trains with the opening of the Shinkansen – the world’s first high speed train to coincide with the games. This ‘bullet train’ became synonymous with Japan and ushered in a golden age for the country’s trains over the course of the next decade. Today the Shinkansen carries more than 150 million passengers every year. Japan has continued to build on its legacy with new innovations and achievements year after year. These included the world’s longest undersea train tunnel (until 2016) and the world’s first maglev (magnetic levitation) metro train. For a longer history of Japanese trains going all the way back to 1800 read our Guide to Trainspotting in Japan.
…Japan has Hello Kitty, Mickey Mouse, and other themed trains?
That’s right, Japan’s trains are not just futuristic and technical marvels. There are also hundreds of beautifully designed vintage trains, including steam trains, as well as quirky and colourful trains designed to look like Hello Kitty, Pokemon, Mickey Mouse, Studio Ghibli, and more.
…You can stay the night in a former sleep train carriage turned into a hostel?
Designed to faithfully replicate the unique experience of an overnight stay on the famous long-distance Hokutosei blue train, Train Hostel Hokutosei opened in December 2016. Set over four floors, the hostel reuses beds, tables, lights, signage, seating, bunks, and much more from the original train. Accommodation ranges from private rooms in the style of the old train’s Type A ‘Royal’ and ‘Twin Deluxe’ compartments as well as shared dormitories modelled on the former Type B berths. There are also shower rooms, a coin laundry, and there is a women-only floor for female travellers. Finally there is a shared kitchen, based on the original ‘Grand Chariot’ dining car, where guests can cook their own food. The hallways, meanwhile, are lined with foldaway chairs and decorated with photographs of the original Hokutosei train service that were donated by fans. The hostel has proved hugely popular with both Japanese residents and international visitors since it opened. If you’re a train lover like so many people in Japan, want to experience the romance and nostalgia of sleeping on a train, or you just want a great value and unique place to stay in Tokyo, Train Hostel Hokutosei ticks all those boxes and more. In fact, one of the best things about this accommodation is that, like other hostels, it is very affordable so it is highly recommended both for train lovers and those visiting Japan on a budget.
…The Japan Rail Pass comes with extra perks?
The JR Pass is the one ticket to explore the whole of Japan with, and covers the entire JR Network nationwide. In addition to unlimited travel, the pass includes a variety of perks that are less known but just as handy. These include free drinks and hand towels, travel on the Tokyo monorail, exclusive discounts, seat reservations, and more. For the full list read our blog post, The 7 Perks of the Japan Rail Pass You Might Not Know About.
…Japan has female-only train carriages?
Japan’s subway trains have special female only carriages for extra safety and comfort during busy congested periods. Women all over the world would likely appreciate their own countries adopting this approach.
…Has The Longest Train Bridge In The World?
Japan’s Seto Ohashi Bridge is the longest train bridge in the world at a length of 9,368 metres (5.8 miles) long. Bridging the gap between Okayama Prefecture on Honshu and Kagawa Prefecture on Shikoku Island, this amazing train bridge is actually a series of interconnected bridges. And that’s not the only record-breaking route. As well as the longest train bridge in the world, Japan also has the longest suspended monorail too. The Chiba Urban Monorail is 15.2 kilometres long and has 18 stations along the route - making it the longest upside down train journey in the world.
…There are beautiful steam trains in Japan?
Japan loves vintage steam trains as well as the latest technology and there are many wonderful, old-fashioned steam train journeys to try in Japan. The SL Hitoyoshi (SL 人吉) is a special excursion steam train operated by JR Kyushu, that takes you back to a time when mighty steam engines powered the world. And if that was not enough, the SL Hitoyoshi travels from Kumamoto city to Tosu, following the scenic Kuma river with the scenic Kyushu mountain range in the distance. Finally, to put the cherry on top, the SL Hitoyoshi is covered by the JR Pass as well as the JR Kyushu Pass. Another old-fashioned steam locomotive, the trains running on Oigawa line through Shizuoka also enjoy beautiful views of the countryside which are particularly in demand during the Cherry Blossom season and also in autumn. For more on vintage trains, read our Expert Guide to Steam Trains.
…It’s possible to travel from one end of Japan to the other by train?
If you want to embark on an epic 3,100km journey from north to south by rail, from the northernmost island in Japan to the most southerly, the country’s domestic rail network - which efficiently criss-crosses all of Japan’s islands - makes it achievable. This is yet another reason why Japan is such a paradise for train lovers - the incredible connectivity. The northernmost train station in Japan is in Wakkanai. Located in Hokkaido, this is also Japan’s northernmost city and contains the country’s northernmost point, Cape Sōya, from where the Russian island of Sakhalin can be seen. It’s so far north that even a trip to Sapporo - the capital of Hokkaido - takes five hours by train on the JR Soya Main Line. Wakkanai is also the gateway to Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park. Japan’s northernmost national park is blessed with rugged mountains, beautiful alpine flowers, and stunning coastal views along Rishiri Island and Rebun Island. It is ideal for hiking, nature photography and geology lovers. To visit, take the Heart Land Ferry to Rishiri and Rebun. In order to get to Wakkanai, depending on where you’re coming from, you can start with Japan’s longest train journey, the Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo to Shin-Aomori, then take the Hokkaido Shinkansen to Sapporo, and finally a limited express train to Wakkanai on the JR Soya Main Line. At the opposite end of Japan, you’ll find Ibusuki - an onsen town with the most southerly railway station in the country. Located on the southern tip of Kyushu, Ibusuki is famous for its dark sandy beaches, unspoiled nature and onsen. In addition to the scenic train ride to Ibusuki itself. Ibusuki is a popular day trip from Kagoshima city, but can easily be visited from anywhere in Kyushu using the JRailPass.
- You can find out more about the Japan Rail Pass, including the latest JR Pass Pricing and Perks here.
- Our dedicated blog also has a long list of guides and other articles about individual trains, journeys, and routes for you to read, from sightseeing trains such as the Ametsuchi, steam trains like the SI Hitoyoshi, luxury trains like the Saphir Odoriko, and of course, the famous Shinkansen bullet trains. This is just a small selection of our guides to individual trains. Explore our blog for more.
- Meanwhile, when it comes to trains, for practical help getting around Japan, read our Visitors Guide to Japanese Trains and Railways.
- And of course, there’s the Japan Rail Pass too. Why is it the best and most affordable way to travel across Japan? Read our guide to Why The JR Pass Is Worth It for a great list of reasons.