Using the train system in Japan is one of the best ways to get around, especially in and between cities. That said, the myriad of options and gigantic stations of some of Japan's major hubs can be overwhelming for the first-time visitor. With a little know-how, however, the task of getting from point A to point B is relatively straight-forward and more often than not the most convenient and cost-efficient method of transportation.
So where do you begin? Planning your journey ahead of time can save you time, money and energy. Even if you don't know exactly where you plan to visit, knowing how far away major stops are from your accommodation or areas of interest will help you familiarize yourself with a city before you've even said konnichiwa to your first train carriage.
If you have access to the Internet, you can save time staring at those maps that look as if someone has thrown a bowl of spaghetti on them and find the best way to reach your destination using Hyperdia. Hyperdia is a timetable and route searching site that allows you to check Japanese train (and flight) schedules and compare routes and prices.
How does it work?
1. Firstly select the tab for your preferred language (Japanese, English or Chinese).
2. Then start typing the name of your starting station and after a few letters a list of options matching your search query should appear below. Simply select your desired station. Then repeat for the station you will be traveling to.
3. Select the date and time of travel.
4. Then select the type (departure, arrival or average). By selecting departure you are saying that the date and time above is when you want to depart, by selecting arrival you are saying that is when you need to arrive by, and by selecting average the date and time is irrelevant and doesn't need to be changed (by default it will display the current time). The “average” option just allows you to see “on average” how long it would take you to get from your starting to finishing point via different routes. Useful if you don't know when you are planning to go but are just wanting to get a sense of distance.
5. Click search and a list of different options will come up. The very useful thing about Hyperdia is that it gives you several options for your journey. Often (especially in larger cities) there are several ways to reach your destination (JR, subway or even bullet train for longer journeys). Hyperdia conveniently shows you different options and also the pricing so you can make a decision about what is more important to you (the fastest route, the cheapest, the one with the least connections and so on).
For longer term stays (minimum of one month) where you plan to take the same route regularly (e.g. for work or school), Hyperdia also conveniently shows how much it would cost to get a commuting ticket (basically a pre-paid ticket that allows you unlimited journeys on a particular route for the validity of the ticket) should that apply to you.
Some tips for using Hyperdia effectively:
Search Tip #1: Please note that some stations include hyphens, slashes, spaces and parentheses (the latter particularly for places where there are multiple stations in the one area or stations with the same name in more than one city). Your search query needs to match the station name in the system so if you can't find the station you are looking for, first check the spelling and then whether or not it may contain a hyphen or other punctuation.
Whether or not it has a hyphen is not necessarily consistent. Remembering that in Japanese the station name doesn't include any hyphens so how it is reflected in Roman letters is up to however the train company or hotel or individual decides to write it. Hence a station may or may not include a hyphen on Hyperdia but the signs at the actual station may have the opposite. Rest assured, hyphen or no hyphen they are the same place and does nothing to change how the station is pronounced. Not all stations possibly have a hyphen, some never do because of the nature of the station name. A typical situation where a hyphen may be used is when the station name includes a direction like “west” (nishi) or “east” (higashi) e.g. Higashi-nakano.
Search Tip #2: To make it easier to find the station you are looking for, type the station name slowly. After the first few letters, a drop down list should appear. If you type the station name too quickly and you have missed a hyphen or other punctuation, you may not have given the system enough time to catch up and nothing will appear as if the station doesn't exist. So give it a few seconds after you type the first few letters, especially on slower connections, to find stations that match your query.
Search Tip #3: Also note that in the Japanese language, there isn't a distinction between a single ‘n' and ‘m'. So whether you say ‘nnn' or ‘mmm' doesn't make a difference to the Japanese spelling or understanding. In fact, many Japanese people say they can't hear the difference! What it does mean, however, is that there is a choice in the English spelling.
For example, a few months ago I wanted to go to Kuhonbutsu in Tokyo. I used Hyperdia to check the best way to get there but no station came up. But when I searched Kuhombutsu, I found the station I was looking for. Note that this does not apply to ‘n' or ‘m' sounds followed by a vowel. For instance, ‘nu' and ‘mu' are different sounds in Japanese and are pronounced as you would expect them to be in English.
Search Tip #4: Issues with finding a station can usually be resolved by only typing the first couple of letters and waiting for the results. However, on occasions where there are many stations with those starting letters, only a certain number will appear and if your station is not towards the top of the list, you may not be able to view it. That's where being as accurate as possible makes it easier to find your chosen station. That being said, most of the time you shouldn't have difficulty finding the station you're looking for.
Search Tip #5: If you do need to change trains, be sure to check the connection times. Hyperdia will give you the next available departure which may be very tight or even actually impossible. For small stations and even large ones, this may not be an issue as it may be just the case of walking from one side of the platform to the other where the connecting train will be waiting for you. However, if you are changing train companies/lines and particularly if you are changing to/from a subway line, there may be quite a walk between your arrival platform and the departing one. Some connections will require you to physically leave the station you arrived at in order to enter the subway and Japanese subway stations seem to love a long escalator or ten. So if you are on a time deadline, your best bet is to always allow more time to reach your destination.
Search Tip #6: When your search displays your options, you can utilize the “Station timetable” link to view all the departures from that station on that line for the day. Useful as a quick guide to see frequency of trains, not to mention the time of the all important last train! The “Train timetable” link will show a list of all the stations on the line and the time it takes to travel between them. Unless you are boarding the train at the end of the line, they'll always be two platform options for the one train line – one heading in one direction and the other in the opposite. So unless you already know which direction you need to take, this link is very helpful to ensure you're heading in the right direction!
Search Tip #7: Don't want to take a plane or bullet train (shinkansen)? Use the “Search details” button on the search page to de-select certain modes of transport and refine your search.
Being in a place for the first time you may still need to ask directions at the station, but knowing what train you want to take will mean you know exactly what you are looking/asking for. Having the train departure time when you do reach the train platform with all the different train types (local, semi-express, express, rapid, special rapid, commuter rapid…) also means that you can be assured that the train you are getting on will stop at your destination station.
Japanese train stations can be overwhelming at first with their large crowds and numerous lines, but with a quick Internet search Hyperdia can give you the information you need to make the most of your time in Japan.