Japan has an excellent rail and public transportation system, making rental cars completely unnecessary (and, in many cases, actually less convenient than simply taking public transportation, as long as a person is physically able to walk to and from train and subway platforms).
While the Shinkansen (bullet train) is the best choice for long-distance travel — for example, between major cities like Tokyo and Kyoto — local trains make short-range trips both simple and pleasant (at least, if you like trains as much as I do). It’s also a fantastic way to see the Japanese countryside.
Most rail lines offer both local and express trains, but the names can be a little confusing if you don’t know the designations:
Shinkansen high-speed trains are the fastest (and some shinkansen are faster than others). Shinkansen are recognizable by their tapered noses and streamlined cars:
Limited Express trains (tokkyū) are the next-fastest way to travel. These trains stop only at the busiest (usually largest) stations, and often reach their destinations faster than the slower local trains, which stop at every station along the way.
Express trains (kyūkō) stop at more stations than the limited express, but still skip the smallest and least-used stations. The same train cars are often used for local and express travel, so travelers need to check station signs and schedules (and signs on the trains, near the boarding doors) to identify a particular train.
Rapid trains (kaisoku) are actually slower than express trains – not in travel speed, but in the time it takes them to reach their destinations. This is because the rapid trains stop at even more stations than express trains do.
Local trains (futsū) stop at every station, and are the slowest way to travel – though they’re still convenient, and can be a pleasant way to see the countryside. Some of the local trains have special decorations that relate to the local sites of interest, like this “ninja train,” which connects the former ninja (shinobi) village of Iga–and stops along the way–with the larger Iga-Ueno station.
When traveling by train in Japan, make sure to check the timetables — even if the local train leaves earlier in the day, you can often reach your destination faster if you wait for a faster express train that leaves the station a few minutes later.
Although that’s counterintuitive for many American travelers, it makes sense when you realize that faster trains skip stations, allowing them to “leapfrog” past the slower local trains en route, arriving at the destination sooner.