Japan has one of the best transport systems in the world and getting around is usually a breeze, with trains being by far the most popular option. Trains are rarely or never late and are one of the cleanest transport systems in Asia. Although travelling in Japan is expensive compared to other Asian countries, there are a variety of passes that can be used to limit the damage.
For sorting timetables and fares, HitachisHyperdia is an invaluable companion; it calculates up-to-the-minute directions, including connecting trains, as well as buses and planes. Jorudan is a similar service, but with fewer options for exploring alternative routes. The printed version is the Daijikokuhyō (大時刻表), which is a phone book-sized tome that is available to flip through at every train station as well as most hotels, although it is a bit difficult to use because the contents are completely in microscopic Japanese. A lighter version, which includes only limited express, sleeper and bullet (Shinkansen) trains, is available from overseas offices of the Japan National Tourist Organization. English timetables are available from the JR Hokkaido, JR East, JR Central and JR Kyushu websites. Timetables for the Tokaido, San’yo and Kyushu Shinkansen can also be viewed in English at MacotoTabi-o-jie. Hyperdia and Tabi-o-ji are both providing a schedule search excluding Nozomi and Mizuho services, which is advantageous for holders of the Japan Rail Pass.
In Japanese cities, the address of a place is useful for the post office, but almost useless for actually getting there. Most streets have no name; instead, street blocks are numbered and then grouped into districts. Typical addresses are written as “上目黒2丁目3-4” or “上目黒 2-3-4”, which would be Kamimeguro Neighbourhood, District (丁目 chōme) 2, Block 3, House 4. (Addresses are usually written in English as “Kamimeguro 2-3-4” or “2-3-4 Kamimeguro”; numbers joined by hyphens remain in the same order as in Japanese). The numbering of districts, blocks and houses is often not consecutive; numbers are usually assigned when buildings are built, chronologically or based on distance from the city centre. Small signs near street corners indicate the ward and district in Japanese (e.g. 上目黒2丁目, Kamimeguro 2-chōme); they often include the block number, but sometimes not, in which case the signs are very unhelpful, as a district can be a dozen or more blocks.
Most places are described in terms of walking distance from the nearest station and in terms of local attractions. Very often, business cards include small maps on their backs to help you navigate (at least if you can read Japanese). There are also maps of the surrounding area at many stations, which can help you find a destination if it is reasonably close to the station. Police boxes (交番 kōban) include more detailed maps of the area; Going to a kōban asking for directions is completely normal ( which is why they are there), despite the fact that the police officers don’t usually know much English.
One of the first things every visitor to Japan should do is get a smart card for public transport. The main brands are Pasmo and Suica in the Kanto region around Tokyo and ICOCA/PiTaPa in the Kansai region around Osaka, but since 2013 all major brands are fully interchangeable, which means you can pick up a card in Tokyo and use it virtually anywhere in the country. Fares are calculated fully automatically, no matter how complicated your journey or how many times you change trains, you just have to tap on and off at both ends. As well as buying tickets, smart cards are increasingly being used for all kinds of electronic payments, so they can be used in vending machines, convenience stores, fast food restaurants and so on. They are however not valid for Shinkansen high-speed trains.
These cards can be purchased at any station counter, including airports, and at many vending machines for a basic deposit of ¥500 plus the amount you wish to top up. The cards can be reloaded at the same places. The deposit and remaining value can be refunded when you leave Japan, or you can keep the card for your next visit as it is valid for 10 years.
With the rail
With one of the world’s most efficient rail systems, Japan’s crowning achievement is the Shinkansen (新幹線), popularly known as the Bullet Train, the world’s first high-speed rail line. Japan’s railways can also be some of the most complicated to navigate – Tokyo, for example, has thirteen underground lines, several private railways that reach the suburbs, and a circular line, the Yamanote Line, that keeps everything in place.
A tourist planning to travel extensively throughout the country should consider investing in a Japan Rail Pass, which offers unlimited travel on all Japan Railways (JR) services, including bullet trains, limited express trains and regular commuter trains, with a few exceptions. Seat reservations can also be made free of charge at a staffed JR ticket office. Prices start at ¥29,110 for a regular adult pass covering 7 consecutive days of travel, with the cost increasing for 14-day, 21-day and Green Car (first class) passes. For comparison, a return trip between Tokyo and Osaka costs ¥27,240, and children aged 6 to 11 can get a pass for half the price. There are no blackout dates, but passes must be bought abroad before arriving in Japan. There are plans to start selling the Japan Rail Pass within the country on a trial basis in the near future.
There are also regional and local rail passes offered by the various JR companies (e.g. the JR East Rail Pass), as well as by the metro and private rail companies. Many discounted tickets are also sold, such as the Seishun 18 ticket.
For short distances, you can buy a ticket from a ticket machine. At the stations, you will usually find a map above the ticket vending machine showing the other stations along the route or nearby, and the fare to each of them. If you are not sure, you can buy the cheapest ticket at your origin station and visit a fare adjustment machine at your destination station to pay the difference. In larger cities or regions, you can also pay for your journey with a chip card and only have to worry about topping up your credit if you are low on money.
Some of Japan’s railroad efficiency lies in punctuality, and the average delay of JR trains is only 10 seconds! All trains aim to run on time according to the published timetable, so arrive early if you know your train’s departure time. If you are even one minute late, you will miss your train. If you plan to be out longer, find out when the last train leaves the nearest station. Trains do not usually run in the late hours of the night, as maintenance work is often carried out on the system at this time. Also be careful as the last train may not run to the end of the line.
With the exception of airport lines, Japanese trains don’t usually have much space for luggage, which means it’s unlikely you’ll be able to find room for anything larger than a small suitcase. Fortunately, there are very convenient and inexpensive courier services in Japan that you can use to send your luggage to the nearest hotel where you will be staying. The downside is that your luggage usually takes at least a day to arrive at your destination. Therefore, you should take a small day bag to carry at least your clothes for the first night on the train. Your hotel concierge can usually arrange this for you, so ask them before checking out.
Japan’s excellent Shinkansen network means that flying is usually a luxury rather than a necessity. Nevertheless, flying remains the most practical way to reach Japan’s remote islands, especially for connections from the mainland to Hokkaido and/or Okinawa. Flying is also useful for reaching sparsely populated Hokkaido, where the Shinkansen network is limited.
Narita Airport in Tokyo handles some domestic flights, but most domestic flights depart from Haneda (IATA: HND) in the south of the city. Similarly, while there are some domestic flights from Kansai International Airport, most use Itami (IATA: ITM) in the north of Osaka, and Kobe Airport also has some flights. Narita-Haneda or Kansai-Itami is quite a walk, which means you should plan at least three, ideally four hours for the transfer. On the other hand, Chubu has many domestic flights and is built from the ground up for easy transfers.
List fares for domestic flights are very expensive, but there are significant discounts if bought in advance. Japan’s two largest airlines, Japan Airlines (JAL, 日本航空 Nihon Kōkū) and All Nippon Airways (ANA, 全日空 Zennikkū) offer “Visit Japan” fares, in which the buyer of a round-trip international ticket to Japan will be able to fly a variety of domestic segments anywhere in the country for as little as about ¥10,000 each (plus taxes). These are particularly good value for travel to Hokkaido or the remote southern islands of Okinawa. Blackout periods or other restrictions may apply during peak travel times.
In recent years, low-cost carriers have begun to establish themselves in the Japanese domestic airline market. Newer start-ups include Jetstar Japan, Peach Aviation and VanillaAir (formerly Air Asia Japan). Long-established low-cost carriers include Skymark Airlines, StarFlyer and Air DO. All of the above airlines, except StarFlyer and Air DO, offer online booking in English.
ANA, JAL and their subsidiaries offer young passengers (up to the age of 22) a special standby card, the Skymate Card. The card allows passengers to take standby flights at half the full published fare, which is usually lower than the corresponding fast-track fare. The card can be purchased at any JAL or ANA counter with a passport photo and a one-time fee of ¥1000.
If you want to take a domestic flight in Japan (e.g. from Tokyo to Osaka), don’t be surprised if a Boeing 747 Jumbo or 777 is used for the short 50-minute flight you are booked on. Japan is known for being the only country in the world that uses jumbo jets on short domestic flights of one hour or less, mainly on the Tokyo to Osaka sector.
With the boat
Given that Japan is an island nation, boats are a surprisingly rare form of transport, as all the major islands are connected by bridges and tunnels. There are some long-distance ferries connecting Okinawa and Hokkaido to the mainland, but prices are usually higher than discounted airline tickets and pretty much the only advantage is that you can take your car with you.
For some smaller islands, however, boats may be the only practical option. Hovercrafts and jet ferries are fast but expensive, with prices ranging from ¥2000-5000 for a one-hour trip. Slow cargo boats are more affordable, a rule of thumb being ¥1000 per hour in second class, but departures are irregular. There are also some cheap and convenient short-distance ferries between cities, such as the Aomori-Hakodate ferry.
These boats are typically divided into classes, with second class (２等 nitō) being just a giant tatami mat, first class (１等 ittō) giving you a comfortable chair in a large common room, and only special class (特等 tokutō) giving you a private cabin. Vending machines and basic restaurant food are usually available on board, but on longer journeys (especially in second class) the primary means of entertainment is alcoholic – this can be fun if you’re invited, but less so if you’re trying to sleep.
Buses are plentiful in Japan, and in recent decades they have become an important means of transport between cities, especially for overnight travel. Fierce competition between buses, trains and planes has resulted in affordable fares. While some buses offer fixed fares between two stops, in recent years many have adopted a dynamic pricing model where fares depend on the time of day, whether it is a day or night bus, the type of seats on the bus and how far in advance the ticket is purchased.
Major operators of intercity or long-distance buses (高速バス kōsoku basu; ハイウェイバス haiwei basu) include JR Group and Willer Express. Regional transport companies (Seibu in Tokyo, Hankyu in Kansai, etc.) also operate long-distance buses. Tickets for these buses can be bought at the departure point or – with some knowledge of Japanese – in shops or on the internet. Recently, some of the JR bus companies have started offering online reservations for their routes in English.
Willer Express, which travels all over the country with its distinctive pink buses, offers online reservations for its buses in English, Korean and Chinese. In recent years, they have also started selling tickets for other bus operators. Willer Express’ great strength for foreigners is the Japan Bus Pass, which offers discounted bus travel throughout the Willer network. The more the pass is used, the cheaper it is; for example, a 3-day weekday bus pass costs ¥10000, and if all available rides on that pass are used, each ride costs about ¥1100. The bus pass used to be limited to foreign tourists, but now it can be used by anyone with a foreign pass.
Another use of motorway buses is to travel to and from airports. In big cities, these buses are known as limousine buses (リムジンバス rimujin basu) and travel to large train stations and hotels. Buses also frequently travel to their own terminals in the city, which are strategically located to run on time – one example is the Tokyo City Air Terminal, or T-CAT, in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district.
Local buses (路線バス rosen basu) are the norm in big cities and small towns. Bus fares are either fixed (you pay once when you get on or off the bus) or distance-based (you get on the back of the bus, take a numbered ticket and match the number with the fare displayed on a board at the front of the bus when it’s time to get off). Many buses now also accept smart cards, making payment even easier. Buses are indispensable in less populated areas as well as in cities like Kyoto, where there are few local trains. The electronic board almost always includes a display and recorded voice announcements of the next stop – usually only in Japanese, although some cities (like Kyoto) make a welcome exception. However, if asked, most drivers will be happy to tell you when you have reached your destination.
You will find taxis everywhere in Japan, not only in the city but also in the countryside. Taxis are clean and perfectly safe, if a bit expensive: starting fees are usually in the range of ¥640-710 and the meter ticks up frantically after the first 2 km or so. But sometimes they are the only way to get where you want to go. Taximeters are strictly regulated and clearly visible to the passenger. If you are not sure if you have enough money for the ride, your driver may be able to guess the approximate cost of a ride beforehand. Even if money is no object, if you get an estimate beforehand, some taxi drivers will stop the meter at the estimated price, regardless of how far away the destination may be, which can save you money. Although it is quite nice when it happens, you should not expect this treatment from every taxi driver. Taxi fares are also higher at night. Tipping is not common and would most likely be refused.
In the city you can hail a taxi almost anywhere, but outside stations and other transfer points you should get in at a taxi rank. (The taxi rank usually has either a long queue of patient passengers or a long queue of unused taxis). If the destination is a well-known place, such as a hotel, train station or public facility, the name alone should be sufficient. Note that even in the larger cities it is very unlikely to encounter a taxi driver who speaks English, so it can be very helpful to have a piece of paper or a map with the address of your hotel or destination on you. Also, ask the staff at your hotel to write down the names and addresses of the places you want to visit in Japanese to show the taxi driver.
An interesting feature of Japanese taxis is that the driver controls the opening and closing of the rear left passenger door. Try to avoid the habit of closing your door when you get into the taxi. Taxi drivers also have a reputation for driving too fast and aggressively, but there are very few accidents involving bad drivers.
All licensed taxis in Japan have green number plates. Unlicensed taxis have standard white or yellow plates and should be avoided.
Car hire and driving are rare in Japan in or around the big cities, as public transport is generally excellent and will take you almost anywhere. Also, the streets of big cities like Tokyo are plagued by massive traffic jams and parking is expensive and hard to find, so driving there is more of a hindrance than anything else. However, many rural areas can really only be explored by personal transport, so driving should certainly not be dismissed out of hand, especially on the large, sparsely populated island of Hokkaido. Due to the cooler climate, Hokkaido is a very popular destination in summer. So if you are considering renting a car at this time, do so well in advance of your planned travel date, as vehicles are often unavailable at this time. It often makes the most sense to combine the two: travel by train to the countryside and then pick up a rental car at a station. JR’s Ekiren has branches at most major stations and often offers discounted train & car packages.
An international driving licence (or Japanese driving licence) is required when renting or driving a car in Japan and must be carried at all times. Rental prices usually start at ¥6000 per day for the smallest car. It is strongly recommended that you take out insurance with the car rental company, as car rental insurance from your home country (especially via most credit cards) is unlikely to be valid in Japan; check your policy before you set off. ClubToCoo! provides an online booking service in English for most major car rental companies and often offers rental specials and discounts.
Driving on the left is common in the UK/Australia/NZ/India/Singapore, as opposed to continental Europe/USA/Canada. There is no “right turn on red” (or rather left turn) rule in Japan, but in rare cases a sign with a blue arrow on a white background indicates where turning on red is allowed (not to be confused with the white arrow on a blue background indicating one-way traffic). Drivers must stop completely at all level crossings. Driving under the influence of alcohol can result in fines of up to ¥500,000 and immediate loss of licence if the official blood alcohol limit of 0.25 is exceeded. It is also an offence to “drive under the influence” for which there is no minimum limit and which can be punished by a fine of up to ¥300,000 and licence revocation. Using a mobile phone while driving without a hands-free device can result in fines of up to ¥50,000.
The tolls for the motorways (高速道路 kōsoku-dōro) are usually much higher than the cost of a train journey, even for the bullet train. So for one or two people, it is not cost-effective for direct long-distance travel between cities. In major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, a flat toll is charged when entering the motorway system. On motorways between cities, the toll is based on the distance travelled, a ticket is issued on entry to the system and the toll is charged on exit. Avoid the purple ETC lanes at the toll booths (unless you have an ETC device) as these are reserved for electronic toll collection, all other lanes accept either yen cash (exact change is not required) or major credit cards. The motorways between the cities are well developed and offer clean and convenient parking at regular intervals. However, be careful when travelling to large cities on Sunday evenings or at the end of the holiday season, as traffic jams can be up to 50 km long at these times. Using local roads for inter-city travel has the advantage of being toll-free and offering more opportunities for sightseeing along the way, but traffic jams and numerous traffic lights slow down the journey considerably. Covering a distance of 40 km in 1 hour is a good rule of thumb for planning an itinerary on local roads, generally more so on Hokkaido.
Both rental costs and fuel are more expensive than in the US, but fuel is usually cheaper to find than in Europe. Most petrol stations are full-service stations, to fill your tank with regular fuel, say regulaa mantan to the attendant. Car rental agencies usually offer smaller cars from ¥5,000 per day, a full-blown sedan costs around ¥10,000 per day. Most rental cars have some form of satellite navigation (“sat nav”), so you can ask the car rental company to set your destination before the first trip. Some models (especially newer Toyotas) have an English language mode, so it doesn’t hurt to ask the staff to change it before you drive. However, if you cannot read Japanese, you may need to ask for help to make full use of the navigation computer. Japanese driving habits are generally as good as anywhere else, and usually better than in other Asian countries. Japanese roads are generally of good quality, with smooth bitumen surfaces. Gravel roads are very few, mostly forest roads, and are unlikely to be on the itinerary of many tourists. Road works are frequent, however, and can cause annoying delays. Some mountain passes are closed in winter, for the others you need either snow chains or a combination of studless winter tyres and four-wheel drive. If you rent a car in mountainous/northern areas, this equipment is usually already included.
Navigating within the cities can be confusing and parking in them costs ¥300-400/hour. Larger hotels in the cities and regional hotels usually offer parking, but it would be advisable to find out about parking options before booking. Paid parking is available in some car parks attached to large department stores in major cities, but don’t expect to get more than 2-3 hours free. The best car in Tokyo is a taxi.
In Japan, there are horizontal traffic lights, with the arrows appearing below the main traffic light. Colour-blind people should note that the red (stop) is on the right and the green (go) is on the left. Usually there are only one or two traffic lights per intersection pointing in the same direction, which can make it difficult to see when the signals change. However, some prefectures, such as Toyama and Niigata, have vertical traffic lights (this is supposedly because of the amount of snow they get).
Japanese signs follow a mixture of European and North American conventions, but most should not cause any difficulty in understanding. “Stop” is indicated by a downward-pointing red triangle, not to be confused with the similar-looking Yield sign in North America. English signage is very good on motorways and near major cities, but can be patchy in more remote areas. Electronic signs can be found everywhere on motorways and major arteries and provide helpful real-time information on road conditions, unfortunately they are only displayed in Japanese. Below is a short list of the most common messages and their translations:
- 通行止 – Road closed
- 渋滞 – Congestion (with indication of length and/or delay)
- 事故 – Accident
- 注意 – Caution
- Chain control – chains required
Warning signs for repairs, breakdowns and road works are always well lit at night and usually appear at least once before the main obstacle, even on higher speed roads such as motorways. Other road hazards include taxis who think they have a God-given right to stop anywhere at any time, long-distance drivers (especially late at night) who are often pumped up on stimulants and prone to hitting the bumper of any slower car in front of them, and farmers in their ubiquitous white mini-trucks that never seem to get beyond a crawl and can emerge unexpectedly from rural side roads.
The speed limits on the roads are in kilometres per hour. They are 40 km/h in cities (with different ranges: some at 30, roads by schools usually at 20), 50 to 60 in the countryside (if not marked, the limit is 60) and 100 on the motorways. There is usually quite a bit of leeway in terms of speeding – about 10 km/h on normal roads, for example. If you go with the flow, you should have no problems, as the Japanese often pay no more attention to speed limits than they have to.
Japan has many great options for cyclists. Bike rentals are available throughout the country, especially near popular routes. Some routes (such as the Shimanami Kaido, which runs from the mainland (Onomichi) to Shikoku (Imabari)) have been set up specifically for cyclists.
If you are spending an extended period of time in Japan, you should consider buying a bicycle. If you decide to do so, be aware that you will need to register it. If your bike does not have the proper sticker, it can be confiscated. It is important that any bike that is not a rental bike is registered in the rider’s name. If you are caught renting a bike that is registered in someone else’s name, it is considered stolen in Japan and you will likely be taken to the police station. Police often check bicycles, so avoid problems by obeying the law.
Riding a bicycle on the sidewalk, even in large cities with many pedestrians, is normal and helmets are not considered mandatory for adults.
Japan is an excellent country for hitchhiking, although there are no Japanese customs for this and some Japanese language skills are almost mandatory.