Japan has an extensive and efficient train network; however, without an intimate knowledge of the system, its complexity can make it difficult to figure out an efficient route. On top of that, while most railway, bus and ferry companies publish their timetables online, few offer good English language resources. Luckily there are several excellent English language resources available to help travelers navigate the railway system in Japan.
English Online Route Finders
Route finders allow you to find transportation routes between any two train stations in Japan. While the systems vary in search options, at the most basic they offer an English interface and reliable results. The two services that we recommend are Hyperdia and Jorudan:
Thanks to its English interface and flexible search options, Hyperdia is the best route finder website available to travelers. It is also the only website with the option to exclude Nozomi and Mizuho trains from the results, making it an excellent tool for Japan Rail Pass holders to determine routes that are valid with their passes. Likewise, the option to limit results to only local JR trains makes it a good tool for Seishun 18 Kippu users.
Simple Search Options:
Hyperdia's basic search functions allow you to quickly look up routes between two stations. Just start inputting a station name, and Hyperdia will attempt to autocomplete it. One of Hyperdia's weaknesses is its inability to recognize alternate station name spellings. For example, Hyperdia will only recogize "Shin-Osaka" with a dash, but won't understand "Shin Osaka" with a space or "Shinosaka" written together.
Another minor challenge for the user is to know the actual station names. Fukuoka's main railway station, for example, is called "Hakata". Entering "Fukuoka" will get you to a small station in the countryside of Toyama Prefecture. Likewise, "Shimoda" will get you close to the northern tip of Honshu rather than to the more famous city near the southern tip of the Izu Peninsula whose railway station is named "Izukyu Shimoda".
To search the first connection of the day, select a departure time around 3am.
Advanced Search Options:
Clicking the SearchDetails button will open the advanced search options where you can further refine your search. This is especially useful to exclude airplanes or certain train types from the results, e.g. for Japan Rail Pass holders to find routes that exclude Nozomi trains.
Understanding the Results:
The routes that Hyperdia produces are fairly straightforward to understand, as long as you know a few of the symbols. We will go step by step from the following example:
Departure Station Information:
In-between Station Information:
Destination Station Information:
Fare and Seat Fee Information:
Notes for Japan Rail Pass Holders
One of Hyperdia's major strenths is that it allows Japan Rail Pass holders to limit their searches to those that are covered by their pass. To do so, you need to uncheck the following from the Advanced Search Options: Airplane, NOZOMI/MIZUHO/HAYABUSA, Liner, Sleepr Trains and Private Railway. Note that this will also remove search results that include Hayabusa trains on the Tohoku Shinkansen, which are covered by the Japan Rail Pass. On the other hand, be warned that the results may include a small number of JR trains that partially use non-JR tracks on which pass holders have to pay a supplement fee.
Notes for Seishun 18 Kippu Users
Hyperdia is also a powerful tool for Seishun 18 Kippu users. In their case they should only check the Advance Search Options boxes for: Japan Railway(JR), Ordinary Train and Walk. Note that results may include a small number of JR trains that partially use non-JR tracks which are not covered by the Seishun 18 Kippu.
Jorudan is a simple and reliable tool to look up train connections. Though not as flexible as Hyperdia, in some situations Jorudan may produce more accurate results. For example, Jorudan has been updating timetable data in a more timely manner than Hyperdia in the past. On the other hand, Jorudan is less useful to Japan Rail Pass holders and Seishun 18 Kippu users due to a lack of advanced search options and ambigious train labels that do not clearly distinguish JR trains from non-JR trains.
How to use:
Jorudan's search functions allow you to quickly look up routes between two stations. Their search box is very basic and they do not offer any advanced search options.
If there are multiple matches for an entered station name, the next page will ask you to select a specific station from a list of matching station names. If there is just one match for both departure and arrival station, you are directly forwarded to the result page. Note that Jorudan is a little more forgiving of alternate spellings of station names than Hyperdia.
Understanding the Results:
Jorudan produces results that are self explanatory. Take the following example:
There are only a few things that need explanation. One of them are routes involving trains that travel across railway company borders. In this case the route will appear to require a transfer between trains, but a "Direct" label to the left of the station name indicates that no transfer is necessary, and passengers can remain onboard the train. The example screenshot below illustrates that the "Direct" label can be easily overseen:
The other thing that requires explanations are the icons used to represent the different types of transportation. The following are the icons that appear on the result page and their meanings:
Japanese Online Route Finders
There are several Japanese language route finder websites and applications that offer a wide range of feature sets and additional search options. A few of the free web offerings include:
Printed railway timetables in Japanese are sold in bookstores and kiosks across Japan. Both nationwide timetables as well as those covering a specific region or railway company are available. The largest timetable books contain kana readings for all station names, but they can still be rather difficult to use without Japanese reading skills. Unfortunately, comprehensive printed English timetables are not widely available, however some rail companies print booklets and pamphlets of timetables for selected routes.
Among the most complete nationwide timetables are the JR and JTB timetable books, which are published monthy in full and pocket versions. Besides the full schedules of all train lines operated by Japan Railways (JR), they contain the basic schedules of trains by other railway, bus, ferry and airline companies as well as a wide array of practical information covering topics such as discount tickets, fares and regulations.