How to buy a seat ticket on Express trains in Japan could be all confusing, challenging and intimidating at the same time. First you should be aware that the train fare in Japan is categorized into many types but I am not going to explain all types here as I think there’re mainly 3 types you need to know, base fare, limited express fare, and platform ticket.
Base fare ticket or Jousha Ken (乗車券）meaning “Train boarding ticket"
This is the regular ticket where you pay for the fare from Point A to Point B as your destination. If you ride on the same train company, Point A is the station you check in and no matter how many transits you make through any stations, it doesn’t count until you check out at the gate ticket machine at your destination station which is Point B. But if where you want to go requires 2 different train companies operation, you would need to buy a ticket separately at the departure station. On some Japanese websites, they would advise you to buy the lowest fare in case you can’t find your destination station on the board which sometimes is all in Japanese so when you want to get out at any stations, you need to do a fare adjustment at either the machine or with staff at the counter to pay the difference of the fare.
(The picture of Base fare ticket here is for a single journey costing 840 yen for an adult and 420 yen for a child. When you put it in at gate machine at your arrival station, the machine will take and keep your ticket.)
Buying a single train ticket every time you want to go on a train in Japan can be troublesome because train is the most convenient way to commute here and you probably have to get on and off several times a day for sightseeing. Therefore, my recommendation is that you buy a Prepaid IC Card like Suica which only requires 500 yen deposit but it saves you from headache or standing confused in front of the ticket vending machine figuring which station you would choose. With Suica, you just beep in and out at any train stations and the fare will be automatically calculated and deducted from your card for you. All you need to do is charge your Suica at the ticket vending machine in front of stations and make sure you have enough money on it. Even if you don’t have sufficient funds on your card, you can also adjust your fare by giving your Suica to the staff at your destination station and say the name of station you come from, they will tell you how much you need to pay to cover the rest of the fare after deducting all from your card. After that they would adjust your Suica card and show that now the balance is zero. If you don’t plan to use that Suica anymore, you can return it at the ticket office and get your 500 yen deposit back. You can also keep the card and use it the next time you come visit or give it to your friends to use when they come to Japan because it has no expiry date for the IC card. I am using mine for more than 10 years and there’s never any problems with it. Using Suica allows you to have freedom during the ride, you could change your destination whenever you want without worrying about which train lines or train companies you use. Another plus point for Suica is you can use it for payment at any convenient stores; this way you don’t end up having all coins you get from the change lying around in your wallet after the trip.
(Picture of IC Cards)
Limited Express fare ticket or Tokkyu Ken (特急券）meaning “Limited Express ticket"
Limited Express train is optional because you can get to any stations with normal train by paying only a base fare ticket, but unless you don’t mind riding on several trains for 3 hours instead of 1.5 hours on the express one, you could save some money here. The Limited Express fare ticket is basically a fare for a seat on Limited Express trains, so it’s fair to simply call it “Seat ticket” for easier understanding. On local normal trains you don’t have to pay for a seat but only pay for the ride between Point A and Point B, but on Limited Express trains all seats have to be paid for. So when you want to get on any Limited Express trains, you need to buy 2 tickets, one base fare ticket and one seat ticket. For IC Card user, you just charge your card and don’t need to worry about the base fare ticket but still you need to buy a seat ticket from the Limited Express train vending machine. For Non IC Card user, you have to buy both tickets from the same machine. This Limited Express ticket vending machine (which is dedicated for selling the Limited Express fare only) where you will find in front of station and on the same platform of which that Limited Express train will depart. There is English instruction but the logic for going through the whole ticket buying process is a little bit strange for every foreigners I’ve known because it shows a lot of information on the screen where you can freely choose any options rather than guides you to choose only what you need to buy a ticket.
Step by step...
The tricky part is there are 2 types of seats, Reserved and Non-Reserved. In a common sense understanding, we would ask ourselves why we would want to buy a Non-Reserved seat when we are buying a seat ticket. To top up this confusion, the announcement on the Limited Express train says that all Reserved seats will have the green lamp above the seat and the red lamp indicates the Non-Reserved seats. It means that anyone who’s holding a Non-Reserved seat ticket can sit in one of these red lamp seats until the passenger who might reserve this same seat from another station come on board and that is when the red lamp turns to yellow lamp reminding the person sitting on this seat to prepare for giving up the seat for the next passenger who reserved it. So you see how confusing it is getting!
After several rides on the Limited Express trains myself, I came to understanding how it works. Here it is. When you buy a seat ticket, make sure you choose Reserved seat ticket and select the seat you like on the screen. You can pay for the fare either by cash or by IC Card (inserting the card and the machine will deduct from your balance right away). The machine will issue you a Reserved seat ticket with a car number and seat number you have chosen. It should look like this.
(In the picture, it shows a limited express ticket with reserved seat for a child fare of 770 yen which is bought buy an IC Card at the limited express ticket machine, traveling on Apr 12th for the Limited Express train named “Azusa 24” departing at 16:31 from Kofu and arriving Shinjuku at 18:04 in Car No. 4 Seat 11-C.)
About the mystery of what Non-Reserved seats ticket is for, it is for when all Reserved seats are booked meaning there’s no seats available on the train anymore but you need to ride on that train, you buy a Non-Reserved seat ticket so that you could just get on a train but have no seats to sit on. This is where the green, red, yellow lamp role comes in. With Non-Reserved ticket, you could sit on any seats with red lamp on. But when the lamp turns yellow, it means that the passenger who reserved this seat will board the train at next stop, so you should change to the seat where the red lamp above is still on. If you don’t see any red lamp seats, it means no seats are all taken so you could stand in a space between a car until the red lamp shows up on any seats in any cars. That’s it. Although I see how it works now, I still don’t get why you will be allowed to choose to buy a Non-Reserved ticket in the first place when Reserved tickets are still available. Why would anyone want to buy a seat ticket which has no seat coming with it? But this is how it works here…in Japan.
Platform ticket or Nyuujou Ken （入場券）meaning “Entering platform ticket"
This is the type of ticket where you go in and come out from the same station. This kind of ticket suits well when you just want to meet someone for a small talk or to hand over something without going to another station. It costs 140 yen and you can come out at any exits so some people pay for a platform ticket just to walk through inside the station for a shortcut. The platform ticket can also be bought from the automatic ticket vending machine. Be aware that IC Cards can’t be used to get in and out at the same station.