Welcome to Japan. Now that you’ve gotten into the country, you’ll need to figure out the efficient, but sometimes confusing Japanese public transportation systems. So, I’ve compiled some very useful Japan train, plane and taxi tips to help you out.
Public transportation in Japan is so flawless and well designed, that I firmly believe every country in the world should study and model their systems after the Japanese (and many actually are!) Besides the cleanliness and safety, you can literally set your watch by the train schedules: They are almost NEVER late, and the Japanese take this very seriously. Being such a punctual people, there are incredibly harsh punishments for causing trains or buses to be delayed (don’t touch that emergency stop!) Efficient travel in Japan will include the use of all of the available transportation methods.
Shinkansen Bullet Trains
The Shinkansen (bullet train) is a popular and fun method to see the country and get from city to city once you’ve landed. The experience is similar to flying, with regular food and beverage carts and toilets, except your traveling on the ground (and many do have smoking rooms). As the main cities in Japan are generally positioned on the coast, the Shinkansen runs North to South, hitting most major cities from the top to the bottom. Note that if you’re going very far, and not stopping in between cities, it is probably more economical to fly if you have not bought a JR Rail Pass. JR Railways (which owns most railways in Japan) offers a 7- or 14-day JR Pass at a STEEP discount to tourists who reserve passes in advance.
These must be mailed to your home country address and can take a few weeks, so order way in advance. If you’re doing much traveling, this is a must and will save you hundreds of dollars.
Additionally, if ordering the JR Rail Pass, the Green Car (think 1st class train ticket) tickets can be purchased for not much more than the standard non-reserved seats, where you run the risk of having to stand during high travel times. This is highly worth it for access to the entire country’s high-speed rail system.
For travel within cities and rural areas, the Local Trains are going to be your method. I would highly recommend downloading the free application HyperDia for mapping out your trips on the local trains, especially for travel within the cities. Japan’s city train systems can become quite complicated without the use of this app. Even natives frequently become lost, and I personally do not know how people got around Tokyo prior to this type of technology. For overnight tickets, I recommend utilizing 12Go.
The local trains are much more economical than the taxis and have stops scattered all over most sizable cities. The best way to get around is to utilize the local trains until you are forced to use a taxi to complete your journey. The Tokyo train system is a topic of its own discussed in detail in the Tokyo section below.
Taxis are expensive in Japan. Very expensive. Use them only when you must, or out of convenience if money is no object.
How expensive? A 1-hour taxi may cost the Yen equivalent of 100 USD, while the same distance covered in a local train will cost around 10 USD in the same amount of time. You can usually expect a very polite older man with white gloves as a driver, and expect to have to explain your destination, or show him a map and/ or name and address written and easy to read by someone with bad eyesight.
Hailing a taxi from the street in Japan is the same as any other country. Outside of train stations, there will be a pickup point for taxis, and the line will be evident for this when you see it. Don’t cut this line!
A taxi with a RED light in the front indicates that it is available. A GREEN light indicates that it has an occupant. GREEN does not mean GO, except that this taxi will go right on past you. (Cheesy joke opportunity)
Uber has recently broken into the Japanese market, to the scorn of many a taxi company owning politician. This is (as of this writing) Tokyo only, but expect this to spread to other major cities in the coming years.
Buses are an option for cheap travel within and between cities. With that said, they can be very confusing, and bus schedules and routes are rarely posted in English. Within Cities, buses typically start/ end their route at main train stations. Upon entering the bus, a small machine near the door will eject a ticket. Take this ticket and keep it. During the trip, a monitor at the front of the bus will tally the cost as the bus makes progress.
Upon arrival at your stop (announced by the driver NOT in English), you will need to depart the forward door and deposit the bus fare IN COINS into the machine. If you don’t have change, the machine will provide you change for small Yen notes (1-5,000 yen). You will then need to deposit the correct change in the machine. Do not carry 10,000 yen notes and expect change anywhere in Japan.
Try to avoid using buses within the city. They are best for city to city travel or from city to rural areas.
Buses between cities usually depart and arrive at the main train stations in each City/ Town, and the station staff will happily assist you, or, to research or book a bus trip in advance, I recommend japanbuslines.com and 12Go Asia, the most widespread bus and ferry travel agency in Asia. Search for buses below or Here. Buses are also a convenient means to and from main train hubs and airports.
There are also a number of domestic Airlines flying within Japan, some at very low rates. These include:
- Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airlines (ANA): Both carriers offer discounted tickets, for travel within Japan, for foreign tourists. To book this, you must book in advance, on the US site (linked above) from outside of Japan, or from a VPN within Japan, and provide your international airline ticket number at the time of booking.
- Peach Airlines: Peach is a discount domestic carrier that operates between most sizeable cities in Japan. A good option if time is of the essence, or the Shinkansen is not an option (We’re talking about you Okinawa). Peach offers regular deals on travel internationally from Japan also.
- Other carriers include Skymark, Jet Star, Vanilla Air, and Air Asia.
Some advice with regard to the discount airlines: Be mindful of your luggage allotment. A discount rate can quickly turn into a standard rate or worse if proper attention is not paid to maximum baggage weight.
IC Charge Cards: The Only Way to Pay
IC Cards are the most convenient way to pay for public transportation. These are rechargeable cards that can be purchased at the same point-of-sale machines as a ticket and can be used for local trains, Shinkansen, buses, (some) taxis and even some vending machines and convenience stores. These are simply scanned across a reader at the entry and exit point of the train station or point of sale.
The ticket readers at each entrance will note the IC Cards accepted. Note that there are 3 main cards, for use in different regions and with different transportation companies. The main cards I would recommend for you to buy, depending on your locations are: Suica and Pasmo for the Tokyo area, Icoca for the Chugoko/ Osaka/ Kyoto area and Sugoku for the Kyushu region (South).
I recommend routinely checking your balance and topping off at the ticket machines. If you happen to need to top off while inside of the system and are denied exit due to insufficient funds on the card, look for the yellow “Fare Adjustment” machine.
Alternatively, you can, of course, make payment at each station, bus or taxi. This is a very inconvenient way to get around. I highly recommend purchasing an IC Card, which can make getting around much more efficient and less of a headache.
You have the basics, but you need a bit more expertise to effectively navigate the Ramen bowl of the Tokyo train system. Firstly, below are all mandatory items for getting around and exploring Tokyo, whether during the day or night:
- Phone or Wi-Fi service
- Ample phone charge with external charging capability (preferably a charger case or mobile charging device)
- Hyperdia mobile app
- Suica AND Pasmo IC Cards (covers all trains, buses, and taxis)
- Patience and the ability to overcome crowd anxiety, or at least the ability to prepare for it
The reasons for the first 3:
Mapping your way through Tokyo is a heavy drain on your phone, as you will be constantly referencing a map, app or googling your next destination. Do not get into a situation where you are dead in the water due to navigation or phone-related issues. A day and night out in Tokyo will easily consume 200% of a fully charged iPhone battery.
The Tokyo train system will likely be the first (and worst) overwhelming obstacle you experience in Japan. Due to years of expansion, renovation, the addition of numerous train lines and more expansion, many of Tokyo’s stations are a mess of long corridors, stairs, dead ends, confusing signage and more comparable to a bowl of tangled Ramen noodles than an organized transportation hub. You can be walking towards a train track, then realize there are numerous tracks of the same number, or even find yourself in an underground mall that seemingly came out of nowhere. This can be incredibly confusing even while using every technology aid possible, even for the locals.
You may need to exit one station, walk 5 minutes down the street, and enter another station to make connections. Do not rely simply on your navigational instincts or logic to get around. I cannot stress enough the use of Hyperdia or even Google Maps to aid you in navigating Tokyo’s train system.
My advice? If you are off course, ask the station staff for assistance. Many speak English and may even be kind enough you walk you personally to the correct track. This will save you time and possibly even prevent you from getting on the wrong train. Tokyo’s train system is quite an adventure.
Tokyo Train Tips:
- Get Hyperdia. If you’re too cheap, use Google Maps Transit feature.
- Buy Suica and Pasmo Cards. Keep them charged up with money (done at the point of sale).
- Do NOT take large luggage on the train. Use the Black Cat service
- Avoid trains at rush hour (8-9:00 am, 5-7:00 pm)
- Take a snapshot of your itinerary on Hyperdia or Google Maps for reference while on the train. Cellular service is scarce in the subways and it will save your battery.
- Reference the train platform signage on the columns and walls before getting on/ off the train.
- When you don’t see a sign for what you’re looking for, ask someone. You’re probably off course.
- When taking luggage (IF you must), keep in mind that the exit doors can change sides without warning. Try to stay in a neutral location so you can exit at either side if needed.