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Types of Trains in Japan

Travelling around Japan by train is a classic experience for those visiting this beautiful country. That’s because trains are not just the easiest way to get around cities and the country, they’re an adventure all on their own. But before you hop aboard the trains of Japan, it’s worth understanding just how complex train travel in Japan can be. So, to prepare for your journey, here are the different types of Japanese trains and ways you can get about Japan by rail.

JR Group

The Japan Railways Group, also known as JR Group, is a group of rail companies that operate the main network of intercity and commuter railways in Japan. JR Group is made up of six companies separated by region, with many long-distance train services managed by multiple companies.

The six regional companies are: Hokkaido Railway Company or JR Hokkaido, East Japan Railway Company or JR East, Central Japan Railway Company or JR Central, West Japan Railway Company or JR West, Shikoku Railway Company or JR Shikoku, and Kyushu Railway Company or JR Kyushu.

It is on these JR train networks that you can use the Japan Rail Pass to travel around Japan as you please. With a JR Pass or appropriate Regional Pass you can travel on all included high-speed trains as needed for the duration of your pass. To plan your route for travelling with the JR Pass, consult our Japan rail map.

Bullet Trains/Shinkansen

The backbone of Japan’s superb rail network are its Shinkansen trains, often also known as Bullet trains. These high-speed trains zip across the Japanese countryside connecting destinations across Japan’s islands. Shinkansen train cars have long been at the cutting edge of rail technology and consistently ranked among the fastest trains in the world since the first Shinkansen was introduced in 1964.

Japan has 9 Shinkansen lines in operation, made up of 7 Shinkansen and 2 mini-Shinkansen lines. You can use your JR Pass to travel on most train services operating on these lines. However, there are some notable exceptions like the Nozomi service on the Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen lines or the Mizuho service on the Sanyo and Kyushu Shinkansen lines, where you cannot use the JR Pass.

The Shinkansen lines in Japan are:

  • Tokaido Shinkansen
  • Sanyo Shinkansen
  • Tohoku Shinkansen
  • Joetsu Shinkansen
  • Kyushu Shinkansen
  • Hokkaido Shinkasnen
  • Hokuriku Shinkansen
  • Akita Shinkansen
  • Yamagata Shinkansen

Major Private Railways

In Japan there are also a variety of private railway systems that operate outside the JR network of trains. Japan’s Private Railway Lines provide connections to places not covered by JR trains, intercity alternatives, and rail connections to Japanese airports. Below are the major privately-owned railways in Japan, but there are more smaller railways not listed.

  • Tobu Railway
  • Seibu Railway
  • Keisei Electric Railway
  • Keio Corporation
  • Odakyu Electric Railway
  • Tokyu Corporation
  • Keikyu Corporation
  • Tokyo Metro
  • Sagami Railway
  • Nagoya Railroad
  • Kintetsu Railway
  • Nankai Electric Railway
  • Keihan Electric Railway
  • Hankyu Corporation
  • Hanshin Electric Railway
  • Nishi-Nippon Railroad

Metros

Trains in Japan aren’t just useful for getting from one city to another. Many Japanese cities, such as Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka have metro or subway systems that run throughout their city limits. These systems allow you to conveniently travel around these large cities, as Shinkansen, intercity and airport trains often only stop at a few select stations.

Read these articles for information on How to use Japan’s Metros or to see Metro Maps of the most used metro networks.

Trams and Cable Cars

Other alternatives to using the subway to get around major cities are trams and cable cars. While technically, public transport in Japan is divided into railways and tramways, trams and cable cars serve two very different purposes. Trams in Japan are street cars that travel through city streets. Cable cars however, are used to travel up to ski resorts or panoramic viewpoints in the mountain areas that overlook Japanese cities.

Joyful Trains and Night Trains

Trains hold such a cherished place in Japanese society that they’ve grown beyond simple transport and become attractions in their own right. These Joyful Trains, as they’re known, are special trains that offer unique experiences or chartered excursions for passengers to take. Often these Joyful Trains have a special theme reflected in their décor or destination, like the popular Hello Kitty Shinkansen.

There are also night trains, such as the Sunrise Express, which offer a very unique experience for their passengers.

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