Japan has one of the most developed railway systems in the world. The extensive rail network covers almost every city and town in the country. Trains in Japan are safe, clean, comfortable and punctual.
Rail services in Japan are provided by more than 100 companies, including Japan Railway Group, private rail companies and third sector companies. For foreigners, it is a bit difficult to tell the differences. In general, Japanese trains can be divided into five types: local train, rapid train, express train, limited express train and shinkansen.
Japanese rail transport services are provided by more than 100 private companies. Trains owned by different companies have different shapes and sizes.
Japanese railway was government-owned by Japanese National Railways (JNR). IN 1987, the Japanese National Railways was privatized into seven companies: East Japan Railway Company (JR East), West Japan Railway Company (JR West), Central Japan Railway Company (JR Central), Hokkaido Railway Company (JR Hokkaido), Kyushu Railway Company (JR Kyushu) and Shikoku Railway Company (JR Shikoku) and Japan Freight Railway Company (JR Freight).
Large proportion of Japanese rail service, including the well-known shinkansen, is operated by JR Group. JR East, JR West, JR Central, JR Hokkaido, JR Kyushu and JR Shikoku provide passenger transport service. JR Freight provides freight service.
Private railway companies in Japan operate private railway systems. These private rail lines mainly provide passenger service between major cities and commuter service in urban areas. Each railway company has its own separate routes and overlapping ones. There are 16 major private railway companies and other medium-sized and small railway companies.
Third sector companies are funded jointly by regional governments and private companies.
Trains in Japan can be classified as five types. They are shinkansen, limited express, express, rapid and local.
Shinkansen are high-speed lines operated by six JR Group companies. They are all built to standard gauge (1,435 mm/4’8.5’’) and use separate tracks and platforms from conventional rail lines.
The first shinkansen line, Tokaido Shinkansen, was opened in 1964, connecting Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. This rail line is also the world’s first commercial high-speed rail system, with the maximum speed of 320 km/h.
Currently, the nine shinkansen lines cover almost the entire Japan main islands from the northernmost island of Hokkaido to the southern island of Kyushu, connecting almost every major city in the country.
Nine Shinkansen Lines
There are nine shinkansen lines in Japan, including seven high-speed shinkansen lines and two mini shinkansen lines.
Mini shinkansen run on the existing narrow gauge lines which are widen to the standard gauge lines. Compared to high-speed shinkansen, mini shinkansen has a maximum running speed of 130 km/h (81 m/h).
High-Speed Shinkansen Lines
|Name||Route||Length||Top Speed||Main Stops||Operator|
|Tokaido Shinkansen||Tokyo – Shin-Osaka||515 km (319 mi)||285 km/h (177 m/h)||Shinagawa, Shin-Yokohama, Odawara, Atami, Nagoya, Kyoto||JR Central|
|Sanyo Shinkansen||Shin-Osaka – Hakata||554 km (343 mi)||300 km/h (186 m/h)||Shin-Kobe, Himeji, Okayama, Hiroshima, Shin-Shimonoseki||JR West|
|Tohoku Shinkansen||Tokyo – Shin-Aomori||675 km (419 mi)||320 km/h (198 m/h)||Utsunomiya, Fukushima, Sendai, Morioka||JR East|
|Kyushu Shinkansen||Hakata – Kagoshima||257 km (159 mi)||260 km/h (161 m/h)||Shin-Tosu, Kumamoto||JR Kyushu, JR West|
|Joetsu Shinkansen||Tokyo – Niigata||270 km (167 mi)||240 km/h (149 m/h)||Ueno, Takasaki, Echigo-Yuzawa, Tsubame-Sanjo||JR East|
|Hokuriku Shinkansen||Takasaki – Kanazawa||221 km (137 mi)||260 km/h (161 m/h)||Ueda, Nagano, Toyama, Shin-Takaoka||JR East, JR West|
|Hokkaido Shinkansen||Shin-Aomori – Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto||149 km (92 mi)||260 km/h (161 m/h)||Okutsugaru-Imabetsu, Kikonai||JR Hokkaido|
|Name||Route||Length||Top Speed||Main Stops||Operator|
|Akita Shinkansen||Morioka – Akita||127 km (79 mi)||130 km/h (81 m/h)||Morioka, Shizukuishi, Tazawako, Kakunodate||JR East|
|Yamagata Shinkansen||Fukushima – Shinjo||149 km (92 mi)||130 km/h (81 m/h)||Yonezawa, Takajata, Akayu, Yamagata, Murayama, Oishida||JR East|
Shinkansen Train Levels
Shinkansen trains have different levels, which have different running speed and differnt numbers of stops along the way. Each level has its own name.
Six major shinkansen levels:
Limited Express, also called Special Express, is a is an express train service with limited stops at only major or most often-used train stations. Limited express lines cover more cities than shinkansen.
Limited express trains are the fastest of train other than shinkansen, as well as the fastest type on narrow-gauge (3’6’’) lines.
JR Group and other private railway companies operate Limited express trains. The ticket fare is cheaper than that of shinkansen trains. But the seats are as equally as on shinkansen.
Like shinkansen trains, a surcharge will be added to the ticket fare when buying tickets on limited express.
Express trains stop at a few more stops than limited express trains, take a bit more time than limited express trains on the same route. Currently, express trains are all operated by JR Group.
Rapid trains stop at more stations than express trains. No extra fees will be charged when booking rapid train tickets.
Local trains are the slowest type of train and they stop at every station. Like Rapid trains, there is no surcharge be added to the ticket fare.
Shinkansen is Japan's high-speed train (bullet train), with maximum speeds of 240–320 kph (149–198 mph).
If you plan to take trains in Japan, JR Pass is an incredibly good value for money and can save you a lot of hassle.