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Local Trains/Subways

Chances are, you`re not placed in a major urban center, and you will be relying on local trains to get you where you need to go.

The train system in Japan is very efficient, as you might expect. Trains are also by far the most popular method of transportation in Japan.  Local trains are slow, but convenient and inexpensive. On the major local lines, trains start up around 5-6am and stop running around midnight with trains running every 10 minutes or so during that time. Train lines going away from urban centers into the countryside stop running much earlier – sometimes the last train headed into the countryside will leave as early as 8 or 9pm. Many ALTs have known to miss their last train and sleep at the station to take the first train in the morning (not recommended).

  1. Buying a ticket
  2. Getting on the train (and off!)
  3. Once you arrive
  4. Rural train stations
  5. Subways
  6. Special trains

1. Buying a ticket

You typically buy your ticket from the machine.  If you haven`t picked this up at Tokyo orientation…it`s actually very easy.

When you are at the gates to enter the tracks, you`ll see a variety of machines along the wall. Above them will be a map of the train system in the area, along with a red marker of the station you`re currently at. Depending on the size of the station, the map may also have English names for some of the stations. If you cannot recognize the Kanji of the station you want to go to, you should check and memorize it beforehand. On the map, every city has price written underneath it – this is the price you need to pay to get there.

Go to the machine and feed it some money, on the screen different prices will appear for different tickets you can buy… press the button for the right amount. You canbuy for multiple people at once, for that you have to press a button on which two or three people are shown. Do this before you insert money.

If for any reason you can`t find what you`re looking for, but your friend has told you the trip costs a certain amount of yen, just buy a ticket for that amount as the prices don`t change.

You can also just buy the cheapest ticket, usually around 200 yen, and then go to a `fare adjustment` machine at the station you get off at (every station has this machine at the exit). Just get off the train, find the machine, insert your ticket, and it will tell you what balance you have to pay to exit through the gate.

If you`re taking a longer trip, we can suggest these things:

  • check your train times and connections before hand
  • write them on a piece of paper
  • check multiple train times, in case you miss a train (it happens!)
  • Only take the train you have checked online — even if another appears earlier on the same track. [this has happend to me – I was taking a train and thought the train 15 mins earlier would take me to the same destination. Little did I know that it would go out of service before my destination, and promtly turn around]

2. Getting on the train (and off!)

Once you’ve bought your ticket, head for the gates. Your ticket has a black magnetic stripe – stick it into the gave machine stripe down. The gate will open and you can walk through. Don’t forget to take your ticket on the other side of the machine – you’ll need it to get out of your destination’s train station.

If your ticket has a white back for some reason, you’ll need to go to office on the side to validate.

If you have multiple tickets for one trip, you must insert all tickets at once, piled on top of each other. The machine will separate them, stamp them, and return them to you on the other side.

Always keep your ticket while riding the train as there occasionally are checks, especially in reserved seating areas and of course on the Shinkansen. If you can’t produce a ticket, you must pay for the entire trip the train makes on this journey – that means if you’re just going from Shizuoka to HighashiShizuoka (210 yen trip), but that train originally came from Nagoya, you will have to pay as if you had gone from Nagoya to HigashiShizuoka – a 3600 yen trip!   Of course loosing your ticket isn`t any better, but it has happened to me a few times and I went to see the office at the station I got off at – I simply kept saying the station I came from and after a few blank stares they let me pay just that amount. Don’t count on it though!!

3. Once you arrive

Once you arrive, get off the train and walk to the exit gate. Here, you need to stick your ticket into the front of the gate as you walk through. The gate will open and will keep your ticket, unless you need it for changing trains or if you have multiple tickets. In this case it will keep just the used tickets and return the unused tickets. As with entering, you must insert ALL your tickets for all parts of your trip to get through.

If you didn`t buy the right ticket, you can find the `Fare Adjustment` machine next to the exit gates. Here you can insert your ticket and it will display the amount you have to pay to exit at the current station.

You cannot get a refund if you paid too much, but it has worked for me in the past – perhaps the station staff felt sorry for me. In any case, if you have a problem, head to the office next to the exit gates, and they will be able to help you.

You shouldn`t try to pass through the gate if you did not pay enough, the flaps will kick out and block you, the alarm will sound, and five sumo wrestlers will tackle you. So, to save the embarrassment, just pay the extra fare. at the fare adjustment machine.

4. Rural Stations

There are some very very very rural stations in Japan.  One of the most important things about these stations is the ticket procedures. Not all stops are manned, and not all stops have ticket gates. Luckily, there is a generally accepted procedure, which we will tell you here. Know this information will make all the difference in taking a local train in rural Japan.

When you get on the train, unless you already have a ticket, you should enter through one of the back doors. Typically, there are machines that dispense tickets at the doors on the inside of the train. There, you must take a ticket as you enter the train. Usually, the ticket has a number, which corresponds to your fare zone.

When you get off, you MUST exit through the front of the train. There, you can pay the conductor as you exit. Some people will get off the back doors, they have purchased monthly passes. So, just to be sure, you should just get off the front either way.

If exiting at a larger station, you do not have to pay at with the conductor, but pay the station staff as you exit. In this case you cannot use the automatic gates and you cannot use the fare adjustment machine, but must hand your ticket to the station staff at the exit.

Another important point is that, sometimes, you cannot use your ticket to transfer trains. The ticket you receive inside a local train may just be a simple token with a number, so if you want to transfer to another train to another city, you may sometimes have to exit the gates and pay, then purchase your ticket for the next part of the journey and enter again through the automatic gates.  This isn`t always the case, but personally I always do this, but if you know better please leave a comment here!!

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 28, 2011 11:47 am

    If you take the trains a lot a Toica or a Suica card comes in very handy. You can purchase them from the machines at most big station and just scan them as you go through the gates. Even the smallest stations now have card scanners. The only bothersome thing about them is you have to use them within one zone. For example, the Toica card runs from the edge of Shizuoka to Nagoya (but not to Atami!) and the Suica is used Kanagawa/Tokyo ish area. You can use your Toica card in Tokyo or your Suica in Shizuoka but you can’t cross the border of the zone in a single journey. Instead you have to get the ticket booth people to manually scan you out and pay for the ticket. If you end up getting off at an unmanned station (like I often do) your card can get trapped and, let me tell you, it’s not an easy thing to try and explain to the office staff a week later.

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