Trains in Japan, especially in Tokyo, are famous for being very complicated and difficult to understand for foreigners. However, if you learn a few key words and how to work the timetables, it's really not that difficult. Here are some tips for mastering the train system in Japan.

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Train cards

The first thing you should do when arriving in Japan, is getting a train card like Suica or IC to facilitate your travels. You can buy individual tickets in machines at every train station however, this can be difficult because you need to find your departing and arriving stations on a huge billboard, calculate your fare, or select your destination from a list all in Japanese. Using a rechargeable card is the easiest way to travel by train (and by bus). Instead of trying to figure out how much your ticket would cost, you can just charge your card with any amount that you wish, and use it by swiping it at the gates. Easy-peasy!

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Useful Words

In Japan, there are different kinds of trains for each line. The types of train refer to their speeds and weather they skip stations or not. If you can remember these few words, you'll be able to know which train is going to your destination.

普通 (futsuu): The normal train that goes to every station, also know as “local train”.
特急 (tokkyuu): The “limited express” or “special express” skips small stops to get to the larger stations faster.
急行 (kyuukou): The “express” train is the fastest and usually skips several small stations all at once in order to reach a large city as fast as possible.

There are more types than just these three however, these are the most useful to memorize.

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You'll probably be travelling a lot by train while in Japan, and you'll probably make some mistakes along the way. The only thing you need to remember is to remain calm. Even though there are many trains, and train stations are usually very big, it's fairly easy to get around if you take your time when travelling. If ever you are lost or confused, there are always train station attendants and train masters who can help you find your way. People in Japan are very helpful, so don't be afraid to ask at the information desk, or even a fellow passenger!