Show me someone who hasn’t boarded the wrong train at least once and I’ll show you a liar… or someone who doesn’t catch trains, which means they probably don’t live in Japan. It’s happened to all of us railway users at some point in our lives – even in our home environments or places where we can speak the language.
Given that trains are pretty much integral to getting around in Japan, recognizing signs around stations or on trains can really help your journeys.
When I first came to Japan, I learned two very important things about meeting people at train stations:
1) Learn the signs for exits
2) Never try to meet anyone at Shinjuku station without a phone
If you choose to do #2, then may the Station Spirit help you because it could be a very long time before you recover your friends or they recover you.
For learning the exits, however, it’s pretty simple. For starters, you just need to look for that reassuring square kanji:
入り口 ー Entrance
出口 ー Exit
北口 ー North Exit
東口 ー East Exit
南口 ー South Exit
西口 ー West Exit
The exits are often written in English, so if want to look like a real railway pro, you need to learn the types of train services, such as rapid or local.
Don’t be that person hovering in the train doorway, one foot on board, one on the platform, anxiously scrutinizing the electronic display, waiting for the Japanese to be replaced by the English that tells you, that YES, this train is the local train you need, and NO, it will not rush you to somewhere several kilometers beyond your destination.
急行 ー Express Train
準特急 ー Semi-special Express
特急 ー Special Express
快速 ー Rapid
普通列車 ー Local Train
You won’t be getting anywhere without a ticket, so look for these to guide you:
窓口 ー Service Window
切符 ー Ticket
改札口 ー Ticket Gate
If you’re using a Suica or Pasmo, then look for the machines marked チャージ (chāgi/charge) to top up your balance. And if the cost to your destination is more than the ticket you bought or the balance on your card, you’ll need to head to:
精算 ー Fare Adjustment
For some train services, such as the Narita Express (airport service) or Shinkansen (bullet train) services, you will have the choice of reserved or non-reserved seating. Knowing the kanji will help you board the train at the right place and save you an awkward trip stumbling through the aisles after the train has set off.
指定席 ー Reserved Seat
自由席 ー Non-reserved Seat
Finally, keep an eye out for priority seats and women-only cars. Although the pictures that usually accompany the signs are self-explanatory, being extra knowledgeable can’t hurt.
女性専用車 ー Women-only Car
優先席 ー Priority Seat
Plus knowing the kanji for woman/women (女) is a good way to ensure that you visit the correct toilet!