The 3 Parts of the Japanese Railway System

Published May 13th, 2022

One of the most impressive things about Japan is its transport systems. If you see yourself coming to Japan pretty soon, whether it’s next month or next year (fingers crossed the borders are open by then), then be prepared to be on Japanese trains for more than half the time, especially if you’re planning to go to more than one city.

Transportation in Japan, particularly the train system, has been complimented time and time again to be one of the world’s most efficient. And regardless of whether or not you’ve been here, the whole thing can be quite confusing. In our Season 4 Episode 5 of the Nihongo Master Podcast, we cleared things up right up while preparing you for your next visit, but here’s a recap of what we talked about (don’t worry, you will have plenty of information on this blog post too).

Transporting in Japan

The Land of the Rising Sun is well connected with all the methods you can imagine — air, land and sea. Flights from one city to another are running even during the pandemic, and ferries and ships are abundant too, linking mainland to the smaller islands. But the most prominent means of transport is land, consisting of everything from buses to taxis, but today we’re looking particularly at railway transport.

And for this type of public transport, which makes up 72% of the country’s transport system, you’d need an IC card. What is it, you ask? It’s a type of rechargeable card used to pay fares on transport and not just that — you can use it to make payments at other places like vending machines, convenience stores, restaurants and other types of transport with just a touch of the card.

When it comes to IC cards, though, there’s more than one company that makes it. There are a total of 10 of Japan’s most popular IC cards, and since 2013, they’re all compatible with each other and able to be used in most of Japan’s large cities.

Suica by JR East Company is the prepaid IC card that you can get in Greater Tokyo, Niigata and Sendai regions. Pasmo is the IC card initially for Tokyo’s railway and bus systems. Icoca by JR West Company is the one mostly used in the Kansai region, including Osaka and Kyoto.

So as you can see, commuting in Japan via train is a breeze — but the price does rack up quite a bit. That’s because there are various transport companies that make up the transport system in Japan. We’ll have a brief look at a few categories: JR System, shinkansen and private railway companies.

JR System

First and foremost, the JR System. Quite a vast majority of railway services in Japan are operated by JR. JR stands for Japan Railways, and the six regional companies are divided into the various areas of the country but they all run as one. There are other rail companies under JR that are smaller, existing in major cities, but in most parts of the country, you’ll just get JR.

With the Japanese railway, you’ll get a few types of trains. There’s the local train (futsuu, 普通)and it stops at every station. You also get the rapid train (kaisoku, 快速) — this type of train skips a few stations so it’s definitely faster than the local. Then you have the express train (kyuukou, 急行) and it skips a lot more stops so it’s naturally more expensive. And at the top of that list is the limited express (tokkyuu, 特急) and it’s faster than the express and therefore more expensive.

If you’re planning on travelling mostly by JR train lines, your best bet to saving a few bucks is by getting the Japan Rail Pass — at a flat rate, you’re allowed to travel on virtually all of the JR services for 7 consecutive days which includes buses, ferries and Shinkansen (which we’ll get into in a bit). If you’re only roaming around for a couple of days in just one city, I don’t recommend this one.


The Shinkansen is something not a lot of people don’t know about. The Japanese bullet train is called that because of its design — it looks like a bullet with its smooth, rounded front and back ends. On this type of train, you barely feel the speed — it goes up to 320 kilometres per hour!

There are six main Shinkansen Iines that connect the south end of the island to the north end, and there are three types of trains: kodama which stops at all stops (kind of like the local train of Shinkansen trains), hikari which stops at major stations (so the equivalent of a rapid train) and nozomi which is the fastest service of them all and only available on one line.

With nozomi trains, you’ll pay a hell lot more for the speed, so if you’re going one end to the other, you’ll cut down quite a bit of time.

After you’ve chosen your type of train, you have to choose your type of carriage. There’s the more expensive first-class ones known as the Green Car. Some believe that it’s named after the pale green line drawn on the outside of the car so it’s easily recognised.

After that, you now have to pick your seat — pick between reserved or non-reserved. There are sections for the seat types, and some train types don’t even offer non-reserved seating, so you are kind of forced to fork out the extra cash.

Private Railway

Our last category is the private railway companies. This is where your transport prices bump up even more — switching from JR to these private companies. While the JR System brings you to most parts of Japan, you might find yourself coming across private railways not owned by JR.

Larger cities have bigger private railway companies like some subway lines — so don’t think it’s only the smaller cities that have privately-owned railway systems. Kanto’s private lines connect Tokyo to major tourist cities like Nikko, Chiba and Gunma.

Some railway runs only in the city — take Hakone for example. This mountainous city has a private railway system that climbs up the mountainous terrain. So if you go there from Tokyo, you’ll be switching from JR to private, so you’d have to come out with a bit of extra cash on top of your JR Pass if you bought one.

But don’t worry, popular cities offer discount passes for a flat rate over a period of time — kind of like the JR Pass.

Vocab Recap

We used a lot of useful new words in the episode, so here’s a list of it:

Jihanki (自販機) — vending machine. You can also call it by its full name, jidouhanbaiki (自動販売機)

Konbini (コンビニ) — convenience store

Inaka (田舎) — countryside

Toshi (都市) — city. A word to mean the opposite of the countryside is tokai (都会).

Futsuu (普通) — local train. This is also the word for normal

Kaisoku (快速) — rapid train

Kyuukou (急行) — express train

Tokkyuu (特急) — limited express train

Kodama (こだま) — local Shinkansen

Hikari (ひかり) — a rapid Shinkansen

Nozomi (のぞみ) — the fastest shinkansen

Guriin-sha (グリーン車) — green car

Shitei seki (指定席) — reserved seat

Jiyū seki (自由席) — non reserved seat. Seki means seat

Katamichi (片道) — one-way

Oufuku (往復) — round trip

Chikatetsu (地下鉄) — subway

Tetsudou (鉄道) — railway

ekiin (駅員) — station attendant

The Reliable Japanese Railway System!

And within minutes, the complicated railway system of Japan has been broken down into three categories — with all the basic vocab words you need on your first few travel trips here. Head over to the Nihongo Master Podcast for the full episode on this topic, and more!