What is JR? Learn about Japan Railway train networks and difference from Non JR train.

Akita Shinkansen and Tokaido Shinkansen at Tokyo station (C) James Chuang

JR (Japan Railway) is the biggest train company’s group in Japan. When you travel in Japan by train, you will take JR train. Because JR has a local train network in cities and operates many inter-city long distance trains. But a train system in Japan is very complicated. Because there are lots of train companies which are not under JR group. It is very hard to find which train JR is or not. And also there are many companies under JR group. Actually these companies under JR group are financially separated. It sometimes makes inconvenience for passengers.

In this post, I would like to explain about JR train network. And I also mention about Non JR train networks.

What is JR

All JR companies were Japan’s National Railway (JNR) before and it had huge number of lines in all part of Japan other than Okinawa. In 1987, JNR was privatized and divided into more than 10 companies by government decision because JNR had a huge financial deficit. Now these following six companies operates a passenger train service throughout Japan by areas.

Operation areas by each JR companies (C) Vladsinger [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons (Click to view large)

Railroad lines in operation by JR

JR operates the Shinkansen (a.k.a. Bullet train = 新幹線) and conventional lines (Zairaisen = 在来線).

The Shinkansen

The Shinkansen trains are completely separated from other trains on conventional lines. The Shinkansen trains run on the different standard track. Shinkansen trains cannot share the track with other trains on conventional line with a few exception. Because the rail gauge of Shinkansen is wider than others. (Shinkansen 1,435 mm / Conventional line 1,067 mm). Shinkansen is designed for high-speed train operation. There is no train crossings and have less stations than Conventional line for the high speed operation. The fare system is also different from other JR trains. You must have both the base fare ticket and the Shinkansen ticket. The Shinkansen ticket is required to proceed to the Shinkansen platform unless you use the train pass, such as JR Pass.

e.g.
Between Shin-Osaka and Kyoto
0 stations between these on Shinkansen line
13 stations on Conventional line
*If you take a rapid train or limited express train on Conventional line, you can skip many stations. I will tell you later about the rapid train and the limited express later.

Please refer the link below to learn more about Shinkansen.
What is Shinkansen?

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 your travel time.

Conventional line

JR operates many trains on Conventional line. There are three types of trains, a limited express train, a rapid train and a local train.

Limited Express

Limited Express Azusa runs between Shinjuku and Matsumoto/Hakuba.

This is the fastest train on Conventional line. The train runs between major cities where Shinkansen does not cover. Most of limited express trains are operated where Shinkansen is not operated.

e.g.
Limited Express Hokuto (Sapporo – Hakodate)
Limited Express Thunderbird (Osaka – Kanazawa)
Limited Express Wide View Hida (NagoyaTakayama/Toyama)

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. Both the base fare ticket and the limited express ticket are required to take the limited express train unless you use the train pass, such as JR Pass.

Please refer the link below to find the list of the limited express train.

JR trains list

Rapid

The rapid train is a kind of local train. Only the base fare ticket is required to take the rapid train without some exceptions. Rapid trains can be divided into two types.

Inter-city rapid train
Typical Rapid Service trains (JR West 223 and 225 series)
Kansai Airport Rapid Service trains (JR West 223 and 225 series)

This type of train is operated mostly in major cities and surrounding area, such as Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. This type of the rapid train stops at major stations only and it offers faster transit service 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.

Joyful train and cruising train
Interior of Resort Shirakami

The other Rapid trains are called the Joyful trains and the cruising trains. These types of trains are operated for the tourist by the specialized train fleet. Some trains offer you at the same level of service as the limited express trains as you see the photo of the interior of Resort Shirakami.

Most of these trains require the seat fee beside the base fare. Advanced reservation is also required to take some of these trains.

Local

Local train is designed for the commuters. (C) Sonic Rail Garden
Typical local train seat layout (C) Sonic Rail Garden

This types of train are operated everywhere for the commuters. You may take the local train for the short ride. In the major cities, you will hop on and off the local train, such as on Yamanote line (the loop line in Tokyo), Osaka Kanjo line (the loop line in Osaka). The train runs every minutes in these cities.

In the countryside, you may have to take the local train too. But the train does not run frequently in the countryside. On some lines, the train makes a few trips a day. You must check the train timetable before you are on board.

Private railway companies

There are so many private railway companies especially in the major cities, such as Tokyo, Osaka. And also there are many municipal subway lines too. If you use JR deals, such as JR Pass, basically these train lines are not covered.

I would like to show you only major companies which you should know to travel in Japan.

Hokkaido

  • Sapporo City Subway
  • Hakodate Tram

Tohoku region

  • Sendai City Subway
  • Sendai Airport Transit
  • Yagan Railway
  • Aizu Railway

Kanto region (Tokyo and surrounding area)

  • Tokyo Metro
  • Tokyo Toei Subway
  • Tokyo Monorail
  • Odakyu Railway
  • Keisei Railway
  • Keikyu Railway
  • Tobu Railway
  • Seibu Railway
  • Keio Railway
  • Tokyu Railway
  • Yokohama City Subway
  • Sotetsu Railway
  • Fuji Kyuko Railway
  • Enoshima Dentetsu Railway
  • Hakone Tozan Railway

Chubu region

Kansai region

  • Osaka City Subway
  • Kyoto City Subway
  • Kobe City Subway
  • Kintetsu Railway
  • Nankai Railway
  • Hankyu Railway
  • Hanshin Railway
  • Keihan Railway
  • Kobe Dentetsu Railway
  • Sanyo Railway
  • Kyoto Tango Railway
  • Wakayama Dentetsu Railway

Chugoku and Shikoku

  • Okayama Tram
  • Hiroshima Dentetsu Tram
  • Takamatsu Kotohira Railway
  • Iyo Railway
  • Tosa Dentetsu Tran

Kyushu

  • Nishitetsu Railway
  • Fukuoka City Subway
  • Kumamoto Tram
  • Kumamoto Dentetsu Railway
  • Nagasaki Tram
  • Kagoshima Tram

11 thoughts on “What is JR? Learn about Japan Railway train networks and difference from Non JR train.”

  1. Hi Takeshi,

    I’m so glad to have found this website – it is so comprehensive! Would like to consult you regarding my upcoming trip to Japan. My itinerary will be something like this:

    19 April – Arrive in Tokyo (Haneda)

    23 April – Tokyo to Kawaguchiko area

    24 April – Travel from Kawaguchiko area to Osaka; Stay the night

    25 April – Travel from Osaka to Nara; Stay the night

    26 April – Sightsee in Nara

    27 April – Travel from Nara to Kyoto

    28-29 April – Sightsee in Kyoto

    30 April – Travel from Kyoto to back to Tokyo

    1 May – Depart Tokyo (Haneda)

    Total days: 12

    Question 1: I am thinking of purchasing the JR Pass, but should I get the 7 day pass or 14 day pass? What would be more economical?

    Question 2: Is the JR pass enough to sightsee in Tokyo?

    Question 3: Would it be difficult to visit the Kawaguchiko area with big luggage because I will need to change trains?

    Question 4: Should I purchase a different subway pass in Kyoto in order to see the most sights?

    Last question: Are there are subways within Osaka and Nara that I have to consider?

    1. Hi Gen,

      Question 1: I am thinking of purchasing the JR Pass, but should I get the 7 day pass or 14 day pass? What would be more economical?
      7 days pass (24 to 30) is much better deal for you. 14 days pass is too expensive. It’s higher than even single fare.

      Question 2: Is the JR pass enough to sightseeing in Tokyo?
      It depends on where you want to go. Please find more info at the link below.
      https://jprail.com/travel-informations/best-way-efficient-how-much-can-we-use-japan-rail-pass-in-downtown-tokyo.html
      But if you use 7 days JR pass, I don’t think you can use JR pass for Tokyo. You may add subway pass or Tokunai pass.
      https://jprail.com/travel-informations/other-rail-passes/rail-pass-for-visitors/compare-many-discount-tickets-and-passes-for-sightseeing-tokyo-how-to-choose-the-right-tickets.html
      https://jprail.com/destinations/kanto-area/tokyo-metropolitan-district-pass-tokyo-tokunai-pass-good-choice-for-sightseeing-in-tokyo.html

      Question 3: Would it be difficult to visit the Kawaguchiko area with big luggage because I will need to change trains?
      Luggage may be issue when you travel in Japan by train. Please find more info about luggage at the link below:
      https://jprail.com/travel-informations/travel-tips/baggage/managing-luggage-how-to-carry-your-baggage-on-board-and-how-to-store-your-baggage-at-the-station.html
      But visiting Kawaguchiko is much easier than travelling with luggage in Osaka. When you go to Nara, which part of Osaka are you going to stay? If you need to change the train in downtown Osaka, it’s much tougher. Transfer at Otsuki on the way to Kawaguchiko is not very hard.
      https://jprail.com/travel-informations/basic-informations/station-information/otsuki-station-guide-how-to-transfer-from-jr-train-to-fuji-kyuko-train.html

      Question 4: Should I purchase a different subway pass in Kyoto in order to see the most sights?
      Yes. JR Pass is very limited to use in Kyoto.
      https://jprail.com/destinations/kansai-area/guide-to-take-trains-in-kyoto-how-to-choose-the-best-route-by-train-to-get-the-major-spots.html

      Last question: Are there are subways within Osaka and Nara that I have to consider?
      There is no subway in Nara. But in Osaka, you may need to take subway to visit attractions and may be on the way to Nara. Please find the map at the link below:
      https://jprail.com/destinations/kansai-area/guide-to-take-trains-in-osaka-how-to-choose-the-best-route-by-train-to-get-the-major-spots.html
      Midousuji line connects Umeda, Namba and Tennoji. This line is always busy. I don’t recommend to take this train with luggage.

      Cheers.

      Takeshi / JP Rail

  2. Hi

    I am planning to visit Mount Fuji-Hakone area from Osaka city & I have JP Rail pass & want to come back same day .Can you please suggest me the route & train which is most convenience.

    1. Hi Mir,

      First of all, you have to decide which part of Mt. Fuji you want to go. Lake Kawaguchi area is most popular. But it’s very hard to access from Osaka as day trip. If you want to see Mt. Fuji, you can see it from Hakone. I don’t think you can make both Hakone and Lake Kawaguchi in one day. Please see the following pots to get more details about Hakone and Mt. Fuji.
      https://jprail.com/travel-informations/tips-for-japan-rail-pass/how-to-use-japan-rail-pass-to-go-to-mt-fuji.html
      https://jprail.com/travel-informations/tips-for-japan-rail-pass/how-to-get-hakone-from-tokyo-compare-japan-railway-and-odakyu-lines.html

      Cheers,

      Takeshi / JP Rail

  3. Pingback: Takayama Express Days
  4. Hello, sorry for my english, I’m french!
    I will try to ask you some informations, and news about train in Japan, because my son must go to Shirakami on June, ( Aomori) I don’t know from what town he can go, but I think it would be easier to get it from Kyoto, because of the big and sad problems there are in the East coast. Is Twilight-express the right train? How much does it cost? I hope you will answer. Congratulations for your website. Sylvie.

    1. Hello Sylvie,
      I have lot of problems for my English either! Don’t worry!
      The nearest major city to Shirakami is Akita. Akita is accessible by Akita Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo.
      If your son access there from Kyoto, Twilight Express is not right train. Twilight Express does not stop at Akita. If he wants to have a direct access from Kyoto, Overnight train “Nihonkai” is right train. This depart from Kyoto at 18:22 and arrive at Akita at 05:32.
      I don’t know what kind of ticket your son will use. If he use Japan Rail Pass, he need to pay lots of extra for taking Nihonkai since Nihonkai has only sleeper class.
      Easiest way to get Akita, take Tokaido Shinkansen from Kyoto to Tokyo, then change to Akita Shinkansen at Tokyo.
      Shirakami is accessible by local train or local bus from Akita. If you need more information about Shirakami, please refer the link below.
      http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3790.html
      Takeshi / JP Rail

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