Bullet trains galore.
They're fast, insanely reliable and pretty much always run exactly on time. Shinkansen trains are awesome. But there are other trains, too, and they usually give you a nice, relaxed and punctual journey throughout Japan. It's the way
Green class is the equivalent of first class. Service doesn't differ too much though, you're likely to get a wet towel when boarding and maybe some candy, but that's about it. There's some benefit in having a bit more space, better seat recline and, when travelling long distances, a more relaxed cabin. And I sometimes find it to be easier to get seats in green cars when the regular ones are full during season peaks, but that may only be anecdotal. There's really no need to go Green if you're on a budget.
Here's a smart thing. All trains have non-reserved cars. If you're trying to get a reservation and the train you want is full, you can still buy a non-reserved ticket or simply pass the gate using your Rail Pass. Information displays on the platform will indicate what car nubmers are non-reserved. Line up for any one of them and hope for the best, it's a free seating kind of situation and your best bet is to be there early and, even better, board at the end (uhm, start?) station when all cars are empty. In other words – by planning ahead you have a good chance of getting to where you want to go even if all reserved seats are full.
The way to go
The Rail Pass is the key when travelling between cities and regions. A pass runs for 7, 14 or 21 days in ordinary or green class and you have to buy it before you get to Japan. You'll get a voucher and once in Japan, simply redeem the voucher for a Rail Pass and specify from what date you want the Rail Pass to be valid.
The Rail Pass gets you unlimited travels on all JR railway lines along with JR ferries and the Tokyo Monorail, and that's pretty much everything you need. Almost. The two things you don't get with the Rail Pass are private non-JR railway lines (you'll have to buy regular tickets on those) and Nozomi/Mizuho Shinkansen trains. Those Shinkansen services won't block any of your travel needs, it's just going to take a tiny bit longer.
In general, if you do something akin to a return trip from Tokyo to Kyoto or more, the Rail Pass will get you better value. And it's a brilliant thing being able to criss cross the country using random, slow, tranquility inducing diesel trains. Do it.
Links: Rail Pass
A staff member will go up and down the train with a service cart selling all sorts of things – soda, bento boxes, snacks and more. If you miss it simply wait until it passes again. Sometimes you'll find a menu in the seat pocket.
If you need to call someone, go to the area between cars. Don't talk on the phone when seated.
The flip-down table in front of you often has a map on it explaining where vending machines, restrooms and other things are located relative to your car.
If you're hungry, get a bento box at the station prior to boarding. They come in a million varieties. At major stations, they're often sold in various stores after the ticket gates.
English PA announcements are made prior to and after each station call on the Shinkansen. And most signs and displays on board are in English, too.
To get a ticket, find a ticket office and line up. Show your rail pass and tell them where you want to go and when. Most staff know basic English and it usually works out really well. The more you know, the easier it gets. Ticket machines only work when you're not using a Rail Pass.
Good to know
Nozomi and Mizuho trains aren't valid options when you're using a Rail Pass. The ones you can use just takes a tiny bit longer and sometimes require a change of trains, that's all.
Ticket gates are pretty neat. Insert your ticket any way you want – the gate will magically flip it around in a heartbeat and return your ticket right-way-up at the other end of the gate. If your journey has multiple tickets, insert all of them. The gate will keep any used tickets and return the ones you need to keep. But remember...
If you're using a Rail Pass, you need to pass the manual gate and can't use the automatic ones.
Power outlets are common in newer Shinkansen sets and in green cars. When using the Shinkansen Travel Planner, a "100V" tag will display next to trains with outlets.
Luggage space is limited with overhead racks being the only option. If you have a large bag, here's what you do. Line up for the rear door of your car, and when the Shinkansen train arrives, board, then place your bag upright on the floor immediately behind the last row of seats (the first row you encounter when boarding from the rear door). Shove your bag towards the window and flip down the bulkhead table between the aisle and your bag. Works great on pretty much all Shinkansen and most regular trains.
Schedlues & Routes
Google Maps does a fairly good job of handling train routes and schedules across Japan, but if you want to dig deeper, use these tools:
- Travel Planner, Shinkansen – Make sure to select the option not to use Nozomi/Mizuho services if you're using a Rail Pass.
- Train Route Finder – Crappy interface, useful service. Will get you details on local and non-JR services. Great when planning obscure countryside railway travels.
- JR Kyushu Time Tables – Great place to go when planning funky trips around and across Kyushu. Lots of nice, slow, relaxing train services.