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One of 10 million Tokyo train stations

The JR trains, or Japan Railway East Company, in Japan are incredible. The network of trains that go in every direction, crisscrossing and weaving with the utmost fluidity, are remarkable. Take the opportunity to walk around the city, and take an elevated crosswalk that crosses above them. You’ll see upwards of 10 lines working their magic. (Even if it isn’t technically owned by the JR company, we’re going to call it the JR company.) For kids that are from a country where local trains aren’t the norm, this is a really neat experience. 

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Top down view of the train tracks

At first the whole system is pretty intimidating. When we arrived at the Hiroshima Station, we were dumb struck. We didn’t know where to go, or which direction to go, which color train to board, which line to get on to board, where to buy tickets, how to buy tickets, how much tickets cost, and a number of other questions. We stood there looking around, looking at each other, trying to keep our kids away from the tracks and watched the train we ultimately boarded come and go at least 5 times.

Each city is a little different in terms of how to use the train system, but in general it is a seamless, intuitive process that is safe and easy for kids. It’s wonderful once you get the hang of it.

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We’ve got this

For navigation, you’ll hear HyperDia recommended often, but it’s not intuitive. Though it can be useful, you must know the exact name of the train station you are both departing from and arriving at. There isn’t a list to choose from, or a smart option to populate once you type in a similar name. So unless you are fluent in Japanese and part of your vocabulary includes the 10 million train stations, you’ll be at a loss. Disclaimer: This app might work differently on an iPhone. Google Maps in Japan isn’t always the most accurate way to get around, but it will get you in the general vicinity of where you want to go. From there, you’re going to have to use your street smarts.  

Trains have a built in navigation system, so as long as you board the correct train and know where you are headed you’ll be able to track your progress along the way.

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No one else can decipher this times guide either

Important Things To Remember

  • Never, ever talk to the conductor either on the train or on the platform. They have a schedule to keep and are not to be interrupted.
  • Information booths are located at every turnstile, and they will be happy to offer you directions or assistance with your ticket.
  • It’s okay if you don’t purchase the right fare. When you go to exit you’ll be denied, but you simply find a fare adjustment machine, insert your ticket, and you’ll be prompted to pay the difference.
  • You must have coins to purchase your fare. You can find a Lawson’s convenience store around every corner that has an ATM. The machines technically do accept bills though the reader rarely works and you’ll have to head back to the Lawson’s to get change.
  • They are not strict with children’s fares. If they look young enough they’ll generally get a free ride.
  • Train stations are like airports, they have restaurants, convenience stores, tourist shops, shopping, and more.
  • Announcements are made first in Japanese, and then in English.  

Hiroshima

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Hiroshima Electric Rail Map

Hiroshima employs an electric rail with 8 color coated trains that traverse the city. Lines 2 and 3 are the newest cable cars and are modern, sleek and nice. Line 5 is pretty old and dingy. The JR pass cannot be used for inner city travel. You purchase your fare on the train itself, when you exit. The conductor will provide change. A single tram ride is a flat fee of ¥160JPY.

Kyoto

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Kyoto Inner City Train Map

Kyoto operates on a grid system which makes navigation easier – if you are Japanese. It’s still like every other Japanese city with side alleys, streets that barely fit the width of a standard car, bike only roads, and constant construction. There are two subway lines one North to South and one East to West. There are 9 color coated trains that make up the trains here, but we recommend taking the train to your starting point, and walking from there. Kyoto is a city to explore on foot. The JR pass is of limited use here, unless you are traveling to Nara or Osaka. Typical one way fares are between ¥120JPY to ¥240JPY.

Tokyo

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This is titled simple Tokyo Subway Map

Tokyo has 10 million trains and another 10 million substations. This is the ultimate labyrinth. You will need to ask for directions, and you will get lost. Once you find the correct train station, maps are easily readable. The difficulty lies in finding the station, and consequently the substation. This is where the JR pass will serve you best as you can use it on every train, except for the Nozomi Shinkansen. Typical one way inner city fares are between ¥120JPY to ¥240JPY.

The rumor that rush hour lasts for 1 hour in the morning and 2 hours in the evening during the week are lies. Breathing room evaporates between 5pm and midnight every single day of the week. If you don’t think there is room to get on the next train, you’ll be waiting on the platform until the trains shut off for the night.

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Packed subway during rush hour

Create an emergency preparedness plan for your family if you get separated. Each parent needs to be responsible for a specific child, or children. Each member of the family needs money in case you need to buy additional tickets. You need to decide if only one parent is able to get off the train, where you will reunite, whether that is back at home in your airbnb/hotel, or at the train station where you were separated. Japanese people are unbelievably kind, but the reality is you just simply may not be able to make it through the crowds of people to the exit in time.

What did you think of riding the trains in Japan? Did you get up close and personal during rush hour? Did you get lost in the labyrinth that is the Tokyo Subway? We want to hear all about it!

Check out our other Japan posts too!

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