Traumatized by Japanese trains.

Based on my reading of seemingly every other blog post and trip report I read before we left, I may be in the minority here, but I was absolutely traumatized by Japanese trains, for many reasons. I did not find them to be intuitive at all, and in fact, they were one of my least favorite parts of our time in Japan.

Before we left, we bought Japan Rail passes, and while they were absolutely a great value, they didn’t work to get around the city in Kyoto, where we spent most of our time. Instead, we had to figure out the ticketing system and work out the number of stops we needed for each trip.

We didn’t take the metro enough to warrant buying day passes, but we did take it enough to be thoroughly confused on multiple occasions, to the point where we would sometimes walk a mile or two to our next destination instead of taking the metro because we didn’t want to deal with it.

I’m sure that someone out there is going to school me on how elementary the process is, and how I could have figured it out simply if I had only done something extremely basic – and honestly, I hope someone does. And then I hope that someone else reads this post and gets that information before a trip to Japan. Then I will feel like this worked out karmically. 😉

In the meantime, here is exactly what was confusing and/or traumatizing for us:

1. Lost in Translation.

Almost everything is written in Japanese.


And of course it is – it’s Japan, after all.

IMG_4479Often, we would seek out and then happily encounter “Information” signs, only to have our hopes completely dashed when all of the info we needed was completely inaccessible because we couldn’t read it.

2. Crowds

There are just so many people in busy train stations. If you know where you are going, this would probably not phase you at all. However, when you:

a) Have absolutely no idea where you need to go to catch your train

b) Are traveling with two kids who don’t want to hold you hand, but who have a tendency to get separated from you if you don’t have your eye on them at all times

c) Are on any kind of time schedule (for example, your train is leaving in three minutes)

d) All of the above

this can be stressful.

3. Promptness

I am an extremely prompt person. In fact, before this trip to Japan I would fantasize about living in a world where trains, buses and planes departed a couple of minutes early, just to keep stragglers on their toes. So I never, EVER thought I would say this, but the fact that Japanese trains leave exactly on time was very stressful for me. There is just no leeway. If you’re late, you’re late. And woe to you if you happen to (ahem) get on the wrong bullet train and then realize it as soon as you step on and the doors close.


4. Assigned Seats

While we’re on the subject of things I’ve said that I’d maybe like to retract, the assigned seats on the bullet trains are also a little stressful. Because yeah, we got on the wrong train once. So our reserved seats? They weren’t any good. And that’s kind of a bummer when all the unreserved seats are taken. Even though there were numerous open seats in all of the reserved cars, we couldn’t sit in them, because they weren’t assigned to us.

5. Different train companies in the same station.


I understand the concept behind this – sort of. For example, in San Francisco, BART and the Muni train are in the same station. That is probably very confusing for visitors. But at least there are only two of them, and they don’t really serve the same function.

The fact that there are multiple train companies serving the city of Kyoto, all on the same information maps and signs? Impossible. I give up. Seriously.

On the bright side, we saw a lot of the city on foot, and it was just beautiful.

Have you ever been frustrated/confused by public transportation? Did you figure it out?


  1. You should have read the guide at:

    Yes their train system is confusing, but this website will tell you exactly which train company goes to which landmark. And the rail pass worked pretty well for me in Kyoto. Inside the city there wasn’t much to do by rail, but you could go to Osaka on a bullet train for 10min…or Miyajima in a few hours. How cool is that!

  2. Hey Kendra,

    I found the BART system a little confusing myself. Do I need to go north or south? What platform? Where do I transfer to Caltrain? Now…add a language barrier & I can see how it could become a nightmare.

    Sounds like you’re managing in Japan…even if it’s a bit rough. Would any of the smartphone translation apps (e.g., Google translate, et al) that use the camera, help to decipher anything?

    Since I’ll be heading to Japan in November, your posts are of particular interest to me. Would love to see some info on the pros & cons of buying train passes, how to go about it, finding the best value, etc.

    • Points Pixie says

      Tim – I will try to write a train post, but the issue I am having is that I am clearly confused. I don’t want to lead anyone astray!! I might just talk about what WE did and hopefully that will be helpful.

  3. Good job – more reports like this and the chattering masses will stay away from JR trains, leaving more seats for people like yours truly who think Japanese trains are the best in the world.

  4. I used Google maps on my iPhone for all my public transit needs in Japan. I simply had to put in my destination, and then had Google maps map out my route via public transit. It told me the route, the stop, the train/bus/subway number, direction of travel, color of the line (if there was one), and the schedule. I would then monitor my travel via Google maps so that I knew where I was during the trip and how long I had before I had to make a transition.

    I paid for an international data roaming plan just for this reason. The only difficulties I had was navigating the train stations as these could be huge and very crowded. Finding the correct exit made a big difference in how much walking you had to do.

    • The Google Maps transit function in Japan is truly a life saver and I agree it is worth the roaming charges. I just spent a year in Japan for work and used the Google Maps transit funcition a bit too much. I do have to agree that going to mega stations with JR Rail, Electric Lines, Subway, etc can be confusing to find the “right” station or entrance.

    • Points Pixie says

      Louie – Yeah, next time I will consider paying for roaming. Didn’t do it this time and I think it might have been worth it.

    • …or better yet, you could have downloaded the Hyperdia app. I don’t know if Google uses it for its info, but that app was spot on for all trains and routes, down to the second.

      Also, you can now get a SIM card for Japan for about $30 (or $40?). I forget what website I used, but you preorder it, it gets shipped to your hotel on a specific day and is good for 2 weeks after activation, with 1GB of date.

      Bam! no roaming charges.

  5. It will be easier next time.

    For more fun, try taking luggage on the Paris subway…

  6. The JR pass is a good option if you are only going to be riding JR trains. Sadly the JR pass isn’t accepted by non-JR companies like Tokyo Metro, Osaka Municipal Subway…etc.

    The option is to get a SUICA card, which is a multifunction prepaid card issued by JR. This card can be used on most transit systems around Japan and even on city busses. It can also be used to purchase things from station vending machines, many convenience stores, and restaurants. Money can be added to the card at train stations around Japan. The drawback to this is SUICA can not be used on the shinkansen.

    This is JR’s page explaining SUICA in English.

    Sorry this info comes a little late.


    • Points Pixie says

      Andrew – See! I should have called you!!! 😉

    • Why is it that you should only use one or the other? JR pass is good for anyone who’s in Japan for about 2 weeks and plans to take at least two long distance bullet trains between cities, and as an added benefit you get to use JR commuter trains inside cities while you’re at it.

  7. We haven’t been overwhelmed YET, but fear of it is helping to keep us out of Asia. The thought of traveling through Japan with children grips my throat. I’m at the age where even Europe is a little dicey.

    When we train from one country to another, we take the route with the fewest changes. We’re off to Europe again next spring and already a little worried about navigating the various Paris train stations.

    When I was in my 20s I never gave any of it a second thought. My multi country trip in my 40s was a little bit stress inducing. And now in my 60s, I really have to force myself to take on some of these challenges.

    Hmm, I guess I’m saying that age has changed us a bit.

    • Points Pixie says

      Anne – The great thing (ONE of the great things) about Japan is that it is so safe. So even though we were completely lost on multiple occasions, we knew that we would eventually get back to where we needed to be, and we weren’t worried about wandering through different sections of the city.

      I’m in Paris now, and it’s really easy. Lots of English signage and also English speakers. I’m going to do a post on it soon. Exciting that you are headed here in the spring!

      And I’m always impressed with your travels. 🙂

  8. We loved the Japan rail pass, but yes there are some challenges. Thought it was especially great for the inter- city trips. We found taxis in cities like Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima and others to be immaculate and surprisingly affordable, especially considering the savings in time.
    Hope you are enjoying France!

    • Points Pixie says

      Kate – Yes, traveling to different cities with the passes was GREAT.

      Thanks – Paris is really fabulous so far.

  9. AlohaDaveKennedy says

    We never had any major problems going all over Japan by rail or ordering at local restaurants. Of course my SO being a native who spoke the language helped…

    That said, we did find an Indian family gone 20 miles the wrong way on a trip to Hakone and even we had difficulty determining which cars had our reserved seats on the way to Yokohama.

    • Points Pixie says

      AlohaDaveKennedy – It’s all part of the journey. Stressful in the moment, but after a certain point, what can ya do?

  10. I had a traumatizing experience in Germany with their public transit trains. I asked at my hotel, where I could get a train to get from Hoechst to Frankfurt. The clerk directed me to the corner across from the hotel. There was a ticket vending machine (instructions only in German, of course). I made my best guess and purchased my ticket. As I stood and waited for the trains arrival, I figured out, that I had actually purchased a ticket to an intermediate stop, not my final destination. Train was coming. I hoped I could pay the balance on the train, however, the driver didn’t speak any English and indicated that I couldn’t pay on the train. So, I rode the train to the end of the line where I had to get off the train (and it wasn’t the right place anyway). I decided the best thing to do was to take the train back to the hotel. I had no more change for the vending machine (before they took credit/debit cards). When the train was ready to return, I boarded, scared the whole way back that I would be caught riding without a ticket (they give you a big fine in Germany for that). Back at the hotel, I called a taxi and had him take me to Frankfurt. That was the last time I attempted the streetcars in Frankfurt, though my coworkers told me they were simple to navigate.

  11. I love the train system there. You could use your JR pass on the Yamotoe line in Tokyo. Yes, you need to get/ buy another ticket for the metro in Kyoto but it’s doable. You just need to watch out which one is the regional line and which one is the metro. I suspect you probably encounter this on the way to Fushimi Inari Temple.
    If in doubt, ask. That’s what we do when we were there. We asked the train station staff. They were very helpful.

    My sis and I just go with the flow. We usually ask the staff in the hotel how to get to a place, and they would try to give us the easiest way to get there, and would tell us what ticket to buy. Once there, and we got a hang of the system, we then just go to what we feel like. This works for us as we discovered a great small grandmother shop where we had fantastic food for lunch while in Kyoto.

    Walking is fine as there are vending machines every block.

  12. best thing to do is relax and go with the flow. Forget about the schedule and all the temples, sights you are planning to see. In years to come the best stories will be all about the day you went 80 miles in the wrong direction on the bullet train. also you might well end up far off the tourist trail and get to see some real Japan. 🙂

    • Points Pixie says

      tom – Exactly! Josh and I both decided that if/when we return, we’re just going to take our rail passes and head to the end of the line 🙂

  13. Japan is one of the only places where I have had not one but two emotional meltdowns over public transportation. I once sat in the Shinjuku station crying because I couldn’t figure out how or where to connect to my next train – and no one could help me. I couldn’t even find my way out to the correct exit to try to catch a taxi. That feeling is though a very unique one to Japan and it should not deter people from visiting Asia as almost all other places on the continent are easy to navigate by comparison!

    • Points Pixie says

      Jetsetter’s Homestead – Thank you so much for saying that!! I agree – I’ve traveled all over and have really never felt like that before.

  14. Don’t feel so bad! Hubs and I didn’t even attempt the Metro in Moscow! We went into a few stations, but ended up walking everywhere.

    PS Be watchful in Paris – had an encounter with a pickpocket in the Paris Metro.

    • Points Pixie says

      Ann – Thank you 🙂

      And thanks for the Paris heads-up. I’ve heard that from a few different people, so we’ve definitely been extra careful.

  15. Google maps! i paid for a MIFI (portable internet) also a SUICA card would have save you all the trouble of buying any ticket at all and you can even use it to buy at the convenience store and vending machines. granted the Rail pass is not as convenient if you are staying in one city, i visited over 7 cities and got over 3000 dollars worth of expense from it.

    • Points Pixie says

      tony – We were so confused. SUICA would have saved us for sure. We got our money’s worth from the rail passes as we traveled to a few different cities, but we couldn’t use them in Kyoto.

  16. I´ve spent 2 weeks in japan 2 years ago and took a lot of trains and metro in different cities. I can´t agree with you, the system is very easy to use and to get around. I don´t remember getting lost even once during this 2 weeks.

  17. Haven’t tried it myself but stumbled upon the Waygo app, which translates Japanese and Chinese, when I was researching a trip to Tokyo. It’s said to work even when offline. Here is a TechCrunch article about it:

  18. If I were to go to Tokyo again I would just get the pre-paid Suica card. It makes taking the subway so much easier since you just swipe as you enter and swipe as you leave. No fussing with ticketing machines.

    Looks like Kyoto has similar cards:
    Surutto Kansai Miyako Card and Traffica Kyoto Card
    Totally the way to go.

  19. I completely understand about different company’s trains in the same station confusion. In London, there can be two trains from two different companies leaving at the same time at the station and eventually ending up at the same place. I once got on the wrong one–the slower one with multiple stops rather than an express which I had paid for–and it was a disaster. No seat (they were assigned too) and I had to buy a new ticket AND pay a penalty. The whole thing cost $125. It didn’t occur to me there would be two 11:02 trains to the same place and I felt stupid. But here on the East Coast it is either the local or Amtrak and that is it!

  20. sounds like quite the adventure! I’m so leery of public transit systems in neighborhoods I *am* familiar with, not sure I could handle it in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language! Bravo to you all!


  1. … [Trackback]

    […] Read More to that Topic: […]

  2. … [Trackback]

    […] Find More on that Topic: […]

Speak Your Mind