Learn more about Japan Railway’s trains and networks

One of two express trains Kitaguni
One of two express trains Kitaguni

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”.


Hayate by E2 series on Tohoku Shinkansen
Hayate by E2 series on Tohoku Shinkansen

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.

Regular line

JR operate many types of train. But these can be classified roughly into four types.

  • Limited Express
  • Express
  • Rapid
  • Local

Limited Express

Wide View Hida (Nagoya-Takayama-Toyama) is connected with Shinakansen at Nagoya.
Wide View Hida (Nagoya-Takayama-Toyama) is connected with Shinakansen at Nagoya.

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.


Overnight Express Hamanasu (Aomori-Sappro) (C) Sonic Rail Garden
Overnight Express Hamanasu (Aomori-Sappro) (C) Sonic Rail Garden

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.

Rapid trains in Kansai area
Rapid trains in Kansai area

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.

Resort Shirakami operated by Kiha 40 series
Resort Shirakami operated by Kiha 40 series

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.


Local train is designed for the commuters. (C) Sonic Rail Garden
Designed for commuters. (C) Sonic Rail Garden

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.

11 thoughts on “Learn more about Japan Railway’s trains and networks”

  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.
      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.

      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:
      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.

      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.

      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:
      Midousuji line connects Umeda, Namba and Tennoji. This line is always busy. I don’t recommend to take this train with luggage.


      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.


      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.
      Takeshi / JP Rail

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