Travel Around Japan: Ride the Rails Like an Expert

 Question: What means of transportation connects nearly the entire country of Japan in a convenient and user-friendly network?
Answer: Trains!!
The double exclamation mark is not an exaggeration; it's well deserved. Ask any local: Japan is well known for both its congested city streets and superior public transportation system. So if you ask a resident of Tokyo the best way to get around town, chances are your answer is unlikely to be, "A beat-up Isuzu truck."
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Riding the Rails by Nathan Hosken[/caption]
That said, like with many things in Japan, a little knowledge goes a long way. If you can master the rails, you can effectively traverse most of Japan's main islands.
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Mastering the Rails  by Nathan Hosken[/caption]
Take it from me, I took a train 'road' trip from my home in Nagasaki to the far east end of Shikoku. Here are my hints for riding the rails of Japan: 

Chances are high that even if you've never been to Japan, you've heard of the legendary bullet train or Shinkansen. Going nearly the speed of an airplane, and outright leaving such transport in the dust when it comes to comfort are certainly reasons to try this awesome means of "movin' people."
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Bullet Train by Paul Miller[/caption]
Shinkansen lines connect most major cities throughout Japan. You can purchase tickets in advance as well as on the day of travel. Most Shinkansen lines offer both reserved and non-reserved seats. The non-reserved seats are slightly cheaper. If you're going somewhere on an important Japanese holiday such as Golden Week (in April/May) or Obon (in August), you will likely encounter limited availability, so please plan accordingly. In short, if wanting to travel in style and comfort, the Shinkansen is an extremely viable option to travel between the major cities in Japan !
Next Hot Tip: Rail Passes
As Japan is a country with many rail companies, the names and terms will vary a bit, but you can often purchase money-saving rail passes. These range from day passes to all-you-can-ride passes available for weeks at a time. The most famous is perhaps the Japan Rail Pass offered by JR. Many visitors take advantage of this wondrous deal. It must be purchased before arriving in Japan and is limited to tourists only as Japan-based residents,  regardless of nationality, cannot buy it. The JR Pass lets you ride all JR trains, including certain Shinkansen lines, all day long for the duration covered and is a really good deal.
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The JR Yamanote Line in Tokyo by Nathan Hosken[/caption]
When purchasing the Japan Rail Pass you have many options. The price varies by number of days (7 days, 14 days, and 21 days), class (regular train cars vs. superior-class Green Cars), and whether you are an adult or child. As of the time of this blog post, the standard class 7-day adult pass costs about 29,110 Yen. Considering that heavy travelers can spend around 5,000 Yen a day on trains, the JR Rail Pass  is certainly a money saver! Another useful but lesser known rail pass is the Seishun 18 which allows five days of unlimited use of local and limited express trains for a very reasonable price (11,850 Yen at the time of this blog post). The Seishun 18 can be purchased domestically  by residents of Japan as well as tourists and visitors, but is only offered at certain times during the year.
IC Cards
Next, I want to recommend a way to save time at the train stations and thus maximize your time for eating delicious ramen, visiting cat cafes, and temple touring. Typically in Japan, you first buy a ticket at the kiosk then pass it through a machine that reads the ticket. This system is actually very efficient. Let’s do one better, though. If you plan to do any extended train travel in Japan, I recommend investing in an IC card.
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IC Card and Ticket Machines by Nathan Hosken[/caption]
These are rechargeable prepaid cards that streamline the ticketing process even further. Don’t be the foreigner bumbling awkwardly with change at the ticket machine or staring in confusion at the complicated fare maps! Instead of paying for individual tickets each time, you just put some money on the card. Instead of sending the card through a machine, you simply wave it nonchalantly over the IC reader on the ticket gate. It’s really cool! But wait…there’s more! Perhaps the most useful feature of the IC card is that you don’t need to know the train fare before using the card. It auto-calculates your fare based on where you start and where you get off! You can also use this handy card to pay for food in the stations, use it on some fancy vending machines and at most convenience stores. While the most well-known IC cards are PASMO and SUICA, other regional varieties such as SUGOCA, PiTaPa, and Kitaca also exist. SUGOCA is the regional IC card for Kyushu (I’m a proud holder!), PiTaPa is for the Kansai region and Kitaca for Hokkaido. In the past, these were usable only in their designated regions but are increasingly becoming accepted all across Japan.
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Local Trains Take You Everywhere by Paul Miller[/caption]
Online Tools
Finally, I want to share a quick note on navigation. While Japan is well connected by train lines, not all are owned by the same company. A majority of trains are owned and operated by Japan Rail (JR) Company, but many smaller, local train companies also exist. There are comprehensive route maps at train stations to visually assist you, but it can still be overwhelming to think of and find all the necessary stops and transfers to reach your destination. You can always ask an attendant for assistance. Most major cities have English speaking staff to help you. However, nowadays some phone apps can do the trick and make your life easier. Simple and effective, Google Maps “public transit” option tells you departure times and the most efficient train line (as well any transfers) to reach your destination. The only drawback is that some very small companies’ lines do not show up. Some other useful apps are NAVITIME (in Japanese) and HYPERDIA.
Armed with this information, go forth and ride the rails with confidence and determination! If you have any train tips of your own, please share in the comments. 

Find out about Paul's travels in Kyushu and Shikoku!