Transportation in Japan (Railways)

Public Transportation

Japan today has one of the most developed transportation networks in the world.

Although the present road situation in Japan ( road systems and conditions ) lags behind despite the growing number of cars, public transportation such as airlines, railways and buses are well developed, and are now essential to daily Japanese life. Especially between large cities or within metropolitan areas, public transportation, known for its punctuality, comes in handy to move around. Here I'd like to introduce some basic information about Japanese transportation, focusing on its merits and demerits.


There are mainly three types of railways in Japan, JR lines, private railways and subways. Each of them has its own characters and would be very useful, once you know how to use them. Especially when you're traveling inside the city or between large cities, trains comes in handy because of their punctuality.

In fact, many Japanese living in the center part of large cities, often use trains instead of cars as a means of transportation, when he or she wants to reach some place in time. The reason why they do so is because cars can be easily caught in serious traffic jams, in the center of a big city. ( especially in a city like Tokyo ).

JR Lines ( JR )

Railways operated by Japan Railway Group ( the former Koku-tetsu, privatized in 1987 changing its name to JR ) which consists of regional railway companies ( JR Hokkaido, JR East, JR Central, JR West, JR Shikoku, JR Kyushu ). Runs troughout the country with an extensive network on all four main islands, and can take you to most anywhere you want. Takes the pride in operating Japan's fastest train Shinkansen, commonly known to the world as the "bullet train".

The merits of JR lines are that it's fast and covers most areas, which is good for traveling long distance between cities. Noncontact prepaid card ( has many functions besides paying the train fare, and you can also achieve some benefit from it ) is available, and they offer special ticket service for foreign visitors ( Japan Rail Pass ).

The demerits of JR lines are the comparatively high fares, and that it is not so useful when traveling short distance inside cities.

Private Railways ( Shitetsu )


Private railways are operated by private railway companies. Mostly run inside and around large cities like Tokyo, and Osaka, carrying passengers for short distance rides.

The merits of private railways are that it is useful when traveling in and around large cities, in both short and middle range distance, and that some railway companies sell prepaid cards, which can also be used on some other railways or transportation.

The demerit is that because each lines are operated by different companies, the operating system partly differs according to each railway company, ( express, limited express, etc. ) and is a little confusing.

Subways ( Chikatetsu )


Running underground mostly in and around the center of large cities such as Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. As of 2005, subways are run in 9 cities, Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Yokohama, Sapporo, Kobe, Kyoto, Fukuoka, Sendai, and are used as a complementary transportation to JR and private railways, for short disatnce travel.

The merits of subways are that it's convenient for traveling short distance in metropolitan areas, and that the fares are comparatively low. They also have prepaid cards which can be used on some other railways or transportation.

The demerits are that they are not good for traveling long distance going out of cities, or for traveling middle range distance between terminal stations. This is because subways mainly run between terminal stations inside large cities, carrying passengers only for short to middle distance, stopping at many stations on its way. That means that if you're moving from a terminal station to another terminal station, it would be quicker and sometimes cheaper, to use the JR lines or the private railways.

Another demerit is that since so many lines run in such limited areas, the complexity makes transfers rather confusing, sometimes making it easier for us to get lost.