Japan Railway Groups (JR) operate many trains and it is very complicated for the travellers from overseas. If you understand JR trains and networks, it is easier to make your travel itinerary. So I will tell you what types of trains JR operate and how to use these trains.
Railroad lines in operation by Japan Railways
JR operate Shinkansen (=新幹線) and Zairaisen (=在来線). Shinkansen is very well known and it is as known as “Bullet Train”. Shinkansen is used as train’s name but it is originally the name of railroad lines. Simply speaking, Zairaisen is other than Shinkansen. So most of railroad lines by Japan Railways are Zairaisen. I could not find any English word for Zairaisen. I call it “Regular line”.
Shinkansen trains are completely different trains from the trains on Regular lines. Shinkansen are operated on the different track from Regular line. Basically Shinkansen trains cannot share the track with Regular line trains, because the rail gauge is different. (Shinkansen 1435mm / Regular line 1067mm). Shinkansen does not have any level crossing and have less stations than Regular line for the high speed trainsfer. For example, if you transfer from Kyoto to Shin-Osaka, you don’t have any stations on Shinakansen between Kyoto and Shin-Osaka. Regular line has 13 stations on same route. (But if you take Rapid train on Regular line, that train stop at a few stations. I will tell you later on this page.)
Please see “What is Shinkansen?” about every Shinkansen lines.
When you make your trip plan, you have to make sure that you can use Shinkansen to go to your destination or not. Try to take Shinkansen as much as you can. That is the key to save the time to transfer. And also most of limited express trains have a right connection time with Shinkansen on timetable. Now let’s see about Regular line.
JR operate many types of train. But these can be classified roughly into four types.
- Limited Express
The fastest train is operated on Regular line. Most of limited express trains are operated where Shinkansen is not operated. You can transfer to these trains from Shinkansen easily.
ex) Tokyo (Tokaido Shinkansen “Hikari”) Nagoya (Wide View Hida) Takayama
Tokyo (Tohoku Shinkansen “Hayate”) Shin-Aomori (Super Hakucho) Hakodate
More than 100 types of limited express trains are operated throughout Japan. Most of the places in Japan can be accessed by Shinkansen and limited express trains.
Some of limited express trains are overnight trains. “Sunrise Izumo“, “Sunrise Seto” and “Akebono” can be used by Japan Rail Pass without any extra charge. But other than these three trains, such as Twilight Express, Cassiopeia and Hokutosei, cannot be used by Japan Rail Pass without any extra.
Most of express trains were stopped operating these days. Some of the trains were upgraded to Limited Express. The other trains were downgraded to Rapid. Japan Railways do not operate any scheduled express trains in daytime. They operate only two overnight trains, Hamanasu (Sapporo-Aomori) and Kitaguni (Osaka-Niigata).
*Kitaguni will be discontinued on Mar 17, 2012.
Rapid service train is a kind of local train. Basically Rapid service train stop at major stations only and is faster than local trains. If you pay a single fare, you do not need to pay any charge other than basic fare. Rapid trains can be divided into two types.
The first one is intercity rapid service. This type of train is operated throughout Japan for commuters. Most of these trains that are operated in Greater Tokyo area and “Rapid Marine Liner” (Okayama to Takamatsu through Seto Ohashi bridge) have Green class. If you want to have better comfortability in even Rapid trains, you can take Green seat. If you have a Japan Rail Pass Green, of course you can take this with no extra charge.
In Tokyo and Osaka, the faster Rapid service trains are operated. These trains are called “Special Rapid Service”. You may take these trains on Chuo line (Tokyo-Shinjuku-Hachioji-Takao-Otsuki) and on Tokaido line, a.k.a. Kyoto-Kobe line (Maibara-Kyoto-ShinOsaka-Osaka-Kobe-Himeji). These trains are fast and very frequent.
And you may take Rapid service trains to access to the airport. Rapid Airport Narita (Kurihama-Yokohama-Tokyo-Chiba-Narita airport), Kansai Airport Rapid Service (Kyobashi-Osaka-Tennoji-Kansai airport) and Rapid Airport (Sapporo-New Chitose airport) are operated. Japan Railways operate Limited Express, like Narita Express (Narita airport-Greater Tokyo) and Haruka (Kansai airport-Shin Osaka/Kyoto) too. But if you will pay a single fare, you can consider about taking these Rapid trains to save your budget.
The other Rapid trains are cruising trains. This type of trains are operated by special trains. Some trains give you almost same level of service as limited express trains. These trains are operated in popular sightseeing spot and mostly operated on the route that has a beautiful scenery from the window.
ex) Resort Shirakami (Akita-Aomori/Hirosaki via Gono line)
Nanohana DX (Kagoshima Chuo-Ibusuki via Ibusuki Makurazaki line)
These trains have a train name and have reserved seats. Resort Shirakami has reserved seat only.
This types of train are operated everywhere for the commuters. You may use this train in Tokyo. When you transfer from Tokyo to Shibuya, you may take local train on Yamanote line. Sometimes you need to take this train to get popular sightseeing spot, such as Miyahjima (from Hiroshima), Nikko (from Utsunomiya). Local trains do not give you any comfortable accommodation. So I do not recommend to take this train for a long distance.