Japanese trains are extremely efficient and fast, and a major part of their efficiency is due to all the different kinds of express trains! Here is a quick break-down of the names and types of trains you might see when you travel with your Japan Rail Pass.
Shinkansen - the bullet train
The shinkansen is well-known worldwide. It's the fastest way to travel by train! It's probably a good idea to know both the word bullet train as well as the Japanese name, the "shinkansen."
tokkyū - limited express
The next fastest train is called the tokkyū, or limited express. Its speeds don't approach that of the shinkansen by a long shot, but it stops at only the biggest, most often-used stations, so its the fastest of the normal speed trains.
kyūkō - express
The "kyūkō" express train stops at a few more stations than the limited express. Be sure to check maps in the station or Hyperdia online to check which trains go to your destination !
kaisoku - rapid
Kaisoku means rapid train, but consider it as a semi-express. This train will not stop at every station, but it will definitely stop at more than an express.
futsū - local
A "futsū" train will stop at every station. If your destination is only reachable by local train and you're comfortable changing trains, you can do as the Japanese do and cut down your train time: ride an express as far as possible without passing your destination, then hop on a futsū from there!
other speeds you might see
Sometimes you might need to take a non-JR train, such as when visiting Mt. Fuji or Mt. Koya. Here's a few other names explained. Learn more about private lines in Japan here.
juntokkyū - semi special express
Some private train lines may have a semi special express, which are in between the limited express (tokkyū) and express (kyūkō) speeds.
junkyū - Semi express
While other train lines with have a semi-express: only slightly faster than a local (futsū) train.
tsūkin - commuter
As their name suggests, these trains run only in the morning and evening during rush hour. They are similar to an express train-- quite fast-- with a few exceptions. Don't hesitate to use this train even if you're not a commuter!
check the map on the train platform
These different kinds of express trains may sounds a little confusing, but every Japanese train line will have an express train map on every train platform.
These maps will have an array of different colored horizontal lines, with the line at the top the fastest express train and the line at the bottom the local train. The vertical white boxes intersecting these lines are station names, with major stations intersecting every line, and smaller stations staying at the bottom with the local train.
If you're not sure what the fastest train you can take is, this map will be really helpful!