Travelling by train in Japan

For my first trip to Japan, we planned to visit Tokyo, Hakone and Kyoto. These cities were relatively close to each other and only required a few hours of rail travel to reach.

A Japanese bullet train (shinkansen).

Getting to Hakone

We decided to travel to Hakone as it was heralded as a verdant oasis, mere hours from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo city life. We were drawn to this destination as we would have the opportunity to stay in a traditional ryokan (Japanese guesthouse) and we hoped to get a closer look at Mount Fuji. 

We had organised a seven day JR pass prior to departing Australia as friends had recommended that this was the easiest and most hassle free way to get around the country. The one downside to the JR pass though is that there are no direct JR trains from Tokyo to Hakone.

The mountains of Hakone

Using the JR pass you can get to Hakone by getting a shinkansen from Tokyo station to Odawara, which takes about 80 minutes. Once in Odawara, make sure to purchase the 2 day Hakone free pass from the Hakone information counter. This pass will allow you to access all of the transport in the Hakone region. Alternatively, you can purchase the Hakone free pass from Shinjuku station in Tokyo. This will pay for a direct train from Tokyo to Hakone on a private carrier – this is a good option if you don’t want to purchase a JR pass. 

At Odawara you will need to get on the Hakone train, which takes 14 minutes to arrive at the Hakone-Yumoto station. Once here, you will need to change trains again and board the Hakone Tozan Railway which takes you up into the Hakone mountainside. As the train departs Hakone-Yumoto station (96 m above sea level) it steadily climbs to an elevation of 541m above sea level before stopping at Gora station. The scenery is absolutely stunning, verdant green forests, stunning valleys and alpine vistas. This train is a local train, taking 40 minutes to reach Gora and can be a nauseating journey if you are prone to travel sickness due to the number of switchbacks on the track.

The Hakone Circuit and transport options,

Depending on where your hotel is located, you may need to travel further up into the mountains. The Hakone region has lots of transport options to traverse the mountainous countryside. This includes cable car, ropeways and buses, which are all accessible with the Hakone Travel Free Pass

Hakone – Kyoto trains

To get to Kyoto, we had to head back to Odawara station in order to catch a direct shinkansen to Kyoto. As we had the JR pass this was very easy to organise, we ended up visiting the JR counter in Odawara and had the customer service team book our train for us. The best thing about the JR pass is that, there is lots of help around. It takes away the stress and anxiety of not knowing if you have bought the right tickets for your destination. The train system although efficient in Japan, is very confusing when you first get there. Signs at times can be in Japanese or have the Japanese version of the name. 

When catching the train from Tokyo to Kyoto make sure you sit on the right hand side in the travelling direction – you will be able to see Mount Fuji, majestically peak out from the clouds about half way into your journey! It will be on the left in the travelling direction on the way from Kyoto to Tokyo. 

Mount Fuji during our train ride from Odawara to Kyoto, you will be able to see it in the train journey from Tokyo to Kyoto as well.

Once in Kyoto, we ended up staying in old town which is across the river from the newer part of Kyoto and is located near the Gion district. Staying in this area was perfect to immerse ourselves in the old world culture of Kyoto. To get to this area, we ended up paying for a taxi to transport us and our luggage to and from Kyoto station. Using the local metro was also really easy from this location.

Travelling to Osaka

We were even able to travel to Osaka using the JR pass, we took the JR Kyoto line to Osaka station and arrived there within 30 minutes. On the way back from Osaka, we ended up having to catch the local train back to Kyoto as we travelling after 10pm, this train journey was 40 – 45 minutes. It was relatively easy to travel between the two cities. 

The view during the train ride from Kyoto to Osaka

Kyoto to Tokyo

The train back to Tokyo from Kyoto was smooth without any dramas. We arrived at Tokyo station which is chaotic and huge but managed to find the metro train we needed to get to our Air Bnb in Shinjuku. We had only bought a 7 day JR pass for our 10 days in Japan as we knew we weren’t going to need it in Tokyo. We didn’t end up doing the Tokyo metro pass as we weren’t using the trains all that much in Tokyo. But it is definitely an option to explore if you are going to be spending more than a few days in Tokyo. 

On the way to Tokyo.

Public transport in Japan is incredibly efficient and arrives like clockwork. The Japanese train network can be very confusing especially in larger stations like Tokyo.

There are many rules to travelling by train, for the most part you can just copy the locals and take their lead. A couple of truths to remember though include:

  1. Minimise noise whilst on the train, speaking on the phone on trains is frowned upon.
  2. There are strict disembarkation and embarkation procedures in place, they are drawn out on the platforms of each station and customers are expected to follow them. Always wait for all travellers to disembark before getting onto the train
  3. The Japanese use services to send their luggage ahead of them when travelling across the country. This saves the hassle of carrying them onto crowded train carriages
  4. During peak hour, you will need to fight to squeeze yourself onto the train, otherwise you may find that you have to wait a very long time to get to your destination…
  5. Google maps is a very useful tool as it will give you details like the platform number and the gate you should enter the train station