Get around in Japan
Japan has one of the world’s best transport systems, and getting around is usually a breeze, with the train being overwhelmingly the popular option. Although traveling around Japan is expensive when compared to other Asian countries, there are a variety of passes that can be used to limit the damage.
For sorting through transport schedules and fares, Hitachi’s Hyperdia  is an invaluable companion; it computes to-the-minute directions including connecting trains, as well as buses and planes. Jorudan  is a similar service, but with fewer options for exploring alternate routes. The paper version of these is the Daijikokuhyō (大時刻表), a phonebook-sized tome available for browsing in every train station and most hotels, but it’s a little challenging to use as the content is entirely in microscopic Japanese. A lighter version that just includes limited express, sleeper and bullet trains (shinkansen) is available from the Japan National Tourist Organization’s  overseas offices. English timetables are available on the websites of JR Hokkaido , JR East , JR Central  and JR Kyushu . Timetables for the Tokaido, San’yo and Kyushu shinkansen can also be viewed in English at Macoto’s Tabi-o-ji timetable site . Both Hyperdia and Tabi-o-ji offer schedule searches that exclude Nozomi and Mizuho services, which will benefit holders of the Japan Rail Pass (see below).
In Japanese cities, a place’s address is useful for mail, but it’s nearly useless for actually getting there. Most places are described in terms of the walking distance from the nearest train station, and relative to local landmarks. Business cards very often have little maps printed on the back to make navigation easier (at least if you can read Japanese). In addition, many train stations have maps of the local area that can help you find a destination if it is reasonably close to the station. Typical addresses are written as “1丁目 2-3″ or “1-2-3″, which would be district 1, block 2, house 3.
Japan’s railways are fast, highly efficient and cover the majority of the country, making this the transport mode of choice for most visitors. The first and most confusing aspect of Japan’s railway system (especially within large cities like Tokyo) that you will encounter is the overlap of several private railway networks with the JR network. Tokyo also has two separate metro systems to add to the confusion. Being aware of this one fact will substantially reduce the confusion you experience trying to understand railway maps and find your way around.
North Americans are usually astounded to find that Japanese trains, like other forms of mass transit, nearly always leave and arrive promptly on time, following the published schedule to the minute. If you are late, you will miss the train!
Note that most trains do not operate 24 hours, for example in Tokyo they do not run between 1:00 AM and 5:00 AM roughly. If you are planning to be out late and are relying on the train to get home, be sure to find out when the last train is leaving. Many bars and clubs are open until the first train runs again in the morning, so keep this in mind as another option.
The Shinkansen (bullet train) network, including routes that are planned or under construction.
The JR network is extensive as one would expect from what used to be the national rail system (now privately owned and split into regional companies). The JR group operates the Shinkansen lines, as well as a multitude of regional and urban mass transit lines. In the countryside the group companies also run bus services to connect places that don’t have a rail service. However, the JR network is not a monopoly and particularly within major conurbations there are other private rail networks.
Interestingly, people refer to JR in Japanese by its English initials, “Jay-Arru.” Hopefully even non-English speakers can help you find a station if you ask.
Japan Rail Pass
By far the best option for visitors who plan to do a lot of travelling is the Japan Rail Pass , which allows unlimited travel on almost all JR trains, including the Shinkansen, for a fixed period of 7, 14 or 21 days. Whereas a single round trip from Tokyo to Osaka costs almost ¥29,000, the 7-day Rail Pass in Ordinary (Standard) Class is ¥28,300. The 14-day and 21-day ordinary pass is 45,100 and ¥57,700, respectively. Green Car Rail Passes cost ¥37,800, ¥61,200 and ¥79,600 for 7, 14 and 21 days, respectively, and include unlimited travel in Green Car seating (See “Green Cars” below).
The pass can only be purchased outside of Japan from specific vendors. Upon purchase, you are given an Exchange Order, which can be exchanged at most larger JR stations in Japan, including all of the stations nearest to airports, for the Rail Pass itself. At the time of exchange, you will need to have your passport with you, and know the date upon which you will want the Rail Pass to start. Dedicated counters specifically for Rail Pass exchanges are available at Tokyo and Nagoya stations; wait times are little and as soon as you receive the pass you can start making free seat reservations immediately at the counter (recommended if you’re travelling on less-popular routes that might fill up, or if you are travelling with a large group).
The rail pass does have a few exceptions:
You are not allowed to travel on Nozomi or Mizuho services on the Tokaido, San’yo, or Kyushu Shinkansen lines (the full fare has to be paid).
If you use the Hayabusa service that operates between Tokyo, Sendai and Aomori, you cannot use the premium first class cabin, known as “GranClass”, unless you pay the limited express fare and GranClass fare (i.e. about ¥16,500 between Tokyo and Aomori).
You must also pay extra surcharges for most overnight trains, and for JR trains that travel on non-JR track.
Regional JR companies also sell their own passes that cover only parts of the country. They are generally poorer value and you’ll have to plan pretty carefully to make them pay off: in particular, none are valid for travel between Tokyo and Kyoto/Osaka. Unlike the main Rail Pass, these can only be purchased in the country (at any major JR station), but they’re still for most part limited to visitors. From north to south:
Hokkaido: JR Hokkaido Rail Pass
Tohoku: JR East Rail Pass (also covers Kanto and some private rail lines)
Chugoku: JR West San’yo Area Pass; JR West San’yo-Shikoku-Kyushu Rail Pass (Includes all of Shikoku and all or part of Kyushu)
Shikoku: Shikoku Free Kippu, Shikoku Saihakken Kippu
Kyushu: Kyushu Rail Pass
When you make any rail journey (even if you obtained a ticket using your Rail Pass), you will need to show the Rail Pass at the manned ticket barrier. This is inconvenient if there is a queue, but it is usually acceptable to flash your pass at the ticket-taker as you slip past the other customers transacting business with JR.
Seishun 18 Ticket
The Seishun 18 Ticket is the most economic deal for travel in Japan, offering five days of unlimited train travel for just ¥11,500. Better yet, unlike the Rail Pass, the days do not have to be consecutive. You can even split a ticket so that (for example) one person uses it for two days and another for three days. The main catches are that tickets are only valid on local trains and that tickets are valid only during school holidays (March-April, July-September, December-January), so you need good timing and plenty of time on your hands to use it.
See also: Seishun 18 Ticket
Buying a ticket
For travel within big cities, the easiest thing to do is to pick up a rechargeable contactless smart card like Suica/Pasmo (in the Tokyo/Kanto area) or ICOCA/PiTaPa (in the Kansai area), which will calculate the correct fares for you automatically. Note that the Suica/Pasmo cards can sometimes be used at places surprisingly far from Tokyo, and also in buses; though it can also happen that having entered the system with the card, you find yourself exiting at a point on a private railway where the card doesn’t work, and you will have to pay cash for the whole journey, getting a receipt with which you can get your card cleaned up at a ticket office the next time you want to use it. But if you’re travelling longer-distance and don’t have a JR pass, or are just passing through and don’t want a local smart card, then buying a ticket can get more complicated.
At major stations there will be an obvious travel section where you can buy your ticket from a human being (look for the little green sign of a figure relaxing in a chair or ask for the midori no madoguchi . Since you probably need to know the train times and may want to reserve a seat as well this is a good thing. Generally speaking you can make your desires known by means of handwaving and pointing at destinations if the staff are unable to speak English. Writing down information helps as most Japanese have a much easier time reading English than hearing it.
On the other hand if you are at a local station (or a subway station) you will have more difficulty as you nearly always have to buy it using a machine whose instructions are in Japanese (although newer machines have an English mode). Most of these machines do not take credit cards although many JR East long-distance ticket machines do. Fortunately this is exactly the place where looking utterly bewildered is liable to lead to some nice Japanese offering to help. If they do then you are in luck, if not then here are some hints.
Firstly, there is usually a big map above all the machines that shows the current station in red, often marked with. Around it will be all other stations you can get to with a price below them. The nearer stations have the smaller numbers (e.g. the closest stations will probably be about ¥140, more distant ones rising to perhaps ¥2000.
If you recognise the characters of the station you want to get to, make a note of the amount you should pay and place that amount (or more) into the machine using coins or notes (most machines take ¥1000 notes, some also take ¥5000 and ¥10000 notes) the price you want will show up as one of the buttons to press. Note that some machines have large black buttons with nothing written on them. These are for different fare levels. Press the buttons until your fare level shows up, insert the money, and take your ticket.
If you cannot figure out the price, buy a minimum fare ticket and pay when you arrive at your destination. You can either present your ticket to the staff at the gate, or pay the balance at the “Fare Adjustment” machine. Look for a small ticket vending kiosk near the exit, but still inside the gate. Insert your minimum fare ticket and pay the balance indicated on the screen.
For express trains that require a surcharge and seating reservation, you will usually be able to find a staffed window. However, some trains have their own specific machines to do this. First, buy a regular train ticket to your destination. On the touchscreen machines, there will usually be a button for express services. Choose the name of the service you wish to travel on, your destination, preferred departure time and seating preferences, and then insert the surcharge amount. You will be issued a reservation card showing the departure time and your seat number. You must also have either a travel ticket, pass or smartcard to get through the ticket gates: a surcharge on its own is not valid for travel.
At bigger stations, you will probably have the choice of more than one train line, or more than one company operating the lines. Therefore, always first find the line you want to use, and then get your ticket from the nearest machine, instead of jumping on the first ticket machine next to the station’s entrance. Otherwise you might end up with a ticket for a different company and/or line. While you can usually choose your platform after going through the gate, and thereby activating your ticket, at smaller stations this might not be the case. If you notice later that you need to get to another platform, you might not be able to get out anymore without invalidating your ticket. So always have a good look at the signposts at every station.
JR pioneered the famous Bullet Train, known in Japanese as Shinkansen , and with speeds nudging 300 kilometers per hour (360 km/h in the near future), these remain the fastest way to travel around the country. Note that Shinkansen do not run at night, and eg. the last departures from Tokyo towards Kyoto and Osaka are around 9 PM.
The most important, most-travelled shinkansen route in the country is the Tokaido Shinkansen, which links Tokyo with Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka. This line continues from Osaka to Okayama, Hiroshima and Fukuoka (Hakata station) as the San’yo Shinkansen, then to Kumamoto and Kagoshima as the Kyushu Shinkansen.
There are a total of six different types of services operating on the Tokaido, San’yo and Kyushu Shinkansen lines. These can all be grouped into three types, reflecting the number of stops made:
Nozomi , Mizuho
These two services are the fastest, making stops only at major cities. The Nozomi is the primary service that runs through both the Tokaido and San’yo Shinkansen lines, though some other Nozomi trains run only between Tokyo and Osaka. A one-seat journey on the Nozomi from Tokyo to Osaka takes 2 hours 30 minutes, while trips from Tokyo to Fukuoka take 5 hours. Seamless transfers can be made at Fukuoka between the Nozomi and Kyushu Shinkansen trains: Tokyo to Kumamoto is 6 hours, and the full run from Tokyo to Kagoshima is about 7 hours.
The Mizuho, on the other hand, is restricted to services on the San’yo and Kyushu shinkansen between Osaka and Kagoshima, with two daily round-trips in the morning and two in the evening. Mizuho trains run from Osaka to Kumamoto in 3 hours, and Osaka to Kagoshima in 3 hours, 45 minutes.
A small surcharge on top of the Shinkansen fare is required, and seat reservations are mandatory for all but three cars on the train. Most importantly for tourists, the Japan Rail Pass is NOT valid on Nozomi or Mizuho trains.
Hikari , Sakura
These are the fastest services valid with the Japan Rail Pass, making a few more stops than the Nozomi or Mizuho. On the Tokaido Shinkansen, there are usually two Hikari trains per hour that depart from Tokyo: One train terminates in Osaka, and the other continues on the San’yo Shinkansen, terminating in Okayama. West of Osaka there is generally one Sakura train per hour (two during commuting hours) that runs from Osaka to Fukuoka and on to Kagoshima. Other Sakura services run only between Fukuoka, Kumamoto and Kagoshima on the Kyushu Shinkansen.
If you use the Hikari or Sakura with a Japan Rail Pass you will typically need to transfer at least once for long journeys. For trips on the Tokaido and San’yo Shinkansen, Shin-Osaka is the best location to transfer between services, with Shin-Kobe, Okayama, and maybe Himeji as alternatives for some connections.
Departing Tokyo with these services you can reach Osaka in 3 hours, Fukuoka in 6 hours, Kumamoto in 7 hours and Kagoshima in 8 hours. From Osaka you can get to Fukuoka in less than 3 hours, Kumamoto in 3 hours 30 minutes and Kagoshima in 4 hours 15 minutes.
Also valid with the Japan Rail Pass, these are the all-stations services stopping at every shinkansen station on the route. Tokaido Shinkansen Kodama services generally run from Tokyo to Osaka, or Tokyo to Nagoya. Separate all-station Kodama services run on the San’yo Shinkansen, and Tsubame trains run only on the Kyushu Shinkansen between Fukuoka, Kumamoto and Kagoshima. While Tokaido Kodama trains operate a full 16-car consist, San’yo Kodama services can operate with 16, 8 or 6-car trains. Kyushu Tsubame services operate with 6 or 8 cars. Be sure to check the signs on the platform for your proper boarding location.
On the newer and recently refurbished bullet trains, smoking is not permitted except in a designated smoking room located between cars.
Express train to Shibuya
Other JR services, particularly suburban ones, use the following generic labels:
Regular – local service, stops at every station
Rapid – skips approximately 2 out of 3 stops, no surcharge
Express – skips approximately 2 out of 3 stops, requires a surcharge
Liner – skips approximately 2 out of 3 kyuko stops, requires a surcharge
Limited Express – skips approximately 2 out of 3 kyuko stops, requires a surcharge and usually a reserved seat as well
Express services may offer first-class Green Car seats. Given that the surcharge of almost 50% gets you little more than a bit of extra leg room, most passengers opt for regular seats. However, if you really need to ride a particular train for which the regular seats are full, the Green Car is an alternative. The JR pass is available in two types “Ordinary”, which requires paying the surcharge to use the Green Car, and “Green”, which includes Green Car seats at no additional charge.
Depending on where you travel in Japan, Green Cars do have some little perks. If you travel in the Green Car on JR East bullet trains north of Tokyo, for example, you are entitled to a free drink once you are on board. Tokaido and San’yo Shinkansen Green Cars have softer lighting with access to six channels of in-cabin audio – mostly in Japanese, with the occasional English language lesson included. If traveling on the Hikari or Nozomi you will receive hot towel service. Only on the premium Nozomi will you will be greeted by a female attendant who will bow to you as you enter the train and check your tickets in place of the train conductor. Depending on the day and time that you travel, Green Cars can be less crowded and quieter than the regular cars, but, of course, during Golden Week and other high-peak travel periods, all bets are off.
Smoking is not allowed on suburban trains. While it is currently permitted on long-distance services in designated cars and vestibules, JR companies are starting to ban smoking on many routes.
Presently, smoking is not permitted on nearly all JR trains in Hokkaido and Kyushu, along with all JR East Shinkansen services north of Tokyo and most JR limited express trains in the Tokyo area, including the Narita Express to/from Narita Airport. The new N700-series bullet trains, now in service on the Tokaido and San’yo Shinkansen, have segregated smoking compartments within the train; smoking is not permitted in the seating areas. Refurbished 500-series bullet trains in service on San’yo Shinkansen Kodama runs also have separate smoking rooms.
Usually non-smoking trains are marked in timetables with the universal no-smoking sign, or with the Japanese kanji for no smoking. Note that if you do not smoke, sitting in a smoking car for a long trip can be very unpleasant.
Making a reservation
A seat reservation ticket from 2008 for a Hikari bullet train service, printed in both English and Japanese.
On Shinkansen and tokkyu trains, some of the carriages require passengers to have reserved their seats in advance. For example, on the 16-carriage Hikari service on the Tokaido Shinkansen, only five of the carriages permit non-reserved seating, all of which are non-smoking. On a busy train, making a reservation in advance can ensure a comfortable journey. Especially consider it if you’re travelling in a group, as you’re unlikely to find 2 seats together, let alone more, on a busy train.
Making a reservation is surprisingly easy, and is strongly advised for popular journeys (such as travelling from Tokyo to Kyoto on a Friday evening, or taking a train from Nagoya to Takayama). Look out for the JR Office at the train station, which bears a little green logo of a figure relaxing in a chair – and ask to make a reservation when you buy your ticket. The reservation can be made anywhere from a month in advance to literally minutes before the train leaves.
If you are a Japan Rail Pass holder, reservations are free: simply go to the JR Office, and present your Rail Pass when requesting a reservation for your journey. The ticket that you are given will not allow you to pass through the automated barriers though – you’ll still need to present your Japan Rail Pass at the manned barrier to get to the train.
Without a pass a small fee will be charged, so a non-reserved ticket may be preferable to a reserved ticket, particularly if you are boarding at Tokyo or another originating station where all the seats will be open anyway.
Foreigners can make train advanced reservations for JR East trains on the internet, in English, at the JR East Shinkansen Reservation website. This website allows regular travelers and Rail Pass holders alike to reserve seats on JR East-operated Shinkansen and Limited Express lines. On the other hand, it does not allow you to make a reservation on the Tokaido, San’yo or Kyushu Shinkansen lines, which are operated by other companies. Seat reservations may be made anywhere from one month up to three days before the date of travel, and your ticket must be picked up at a JR East ticket counter anytime up to 9 PM on the day prior to departure. Also, the basic fare is NOT included in the seat reservation cost, unless you have a valid rail pass. One advantage to this website is that advance seat reservations can be made on the Narita Express from Tokyo to Narita Airport.
If the option is there for your journey, the private railways are often cheaper than JR for an equivalent journey. However this is not always the case as changing from one network to another generally increases the price. Most private railways are connected to department store chains of the same name (e.g. Tokyu in Tokyo) and do an excellent job of filling in the gaps in the suburbs of the major cities. Private railways may interpret the service classes above differently, with some providing express services at no additional charge.
Kobe, Kyoto, Nagoya, Osaka, Sapporo, Sendai, Fukuoka, Tokyo and Yokohama also have subway (underground) services. For seeing the sights within a particular city, many offer a one day pass, often between ¥500 and ¥1000 for an adult. Tokyo has several types of day passes, which cover some subway lines but not others. The full Tokyo subway pass (which does not include the JR Yamanote Line) is ¥1000.
Women-only car sticker on the JR Chuo Line in Tokyo
To provide a sense of safety and security for female passengers, many of the JR and private commuter rail lines in Japan reserve a car for women only during the morning and evening rush hour. These cars are identified by special placards and stickers on the train and platform, which also designate the times that women-only cars are in effect. Also, some limited express trains operated by JR West to and from the Kansai region have reserved seats specifically for women and their children. You will find men sitting in “women-only” seats, but they will make way if requested to do so. Normally, the first and last carriages are designated “women-only” during the morning rush time.
Overnight by Train
Overnight trains in Japan, containing the prefix shindai ) but more commonly known as Blue Trains because of the blue color of the sleeping cars, were once an icon of the entire country. Numerous services would run regularly, bringing the Japanese to different parts of the country in a timely, efficient manner. These days, however, with aging train equipment and other modes of transportation becoming easier and sometimes cheaper (i.e. Shinkansen trains and overnight buses), overnight trains have slowly been discontinued.
As of 2010, only these regularly-scheduled overnight train services remain:
Cassiopeia deluxe sleeper, Tokyo – Hakodate – Sapporo
Hokutosei, Tokyo – Hakodate – Sapporo
Akebono, Tokyo – Akita – Aomori
Sunrise Seto deluxe sleeper, Tokyo – Okayama – Takamatsu (during the high season, continuing to Matsuyama)
Sunrise Izumo deluxe sleeper, Tokyo – Okayama – Kurashiki – Izumo
Twilight Express deluxe sleeper, Osaka – Kyoto – Sapporo
Nihonkai, Osaka – Kyoto – Aomori
These trains are technically not shindai trains but operate overnight:
Hamanasu, Aomori – Sapporo
Kitaguni, Osaka – Kyoto – Niigata
For most of these services, three separate fares will have to be paid: The basic fare and limited express fare, which are both based on distance, and the accomodation charge, which is fixed over the entire journey. Lodging ranges from carpet spaces – where you literally sleep on the floor – to bunk bed-type compartments, to private rooms with a shower and toilet. The Japan Rail Pass will cover only the basic fare: if you sleep in a bunk bed or a private room, then the limited express and room fares will have to be paid. A few trains have seats or carpet spaces that are fully covered by the Rail Pass. On some trips that run over non-JR tracks, the basic and limited express fares for that portion of the trip will also have to be paid.
Some additional overnight services are added during periods of high demand, such as Golden Week, New Year’s and the summer months. Among these is the very popular Moonlight Nagara service between Tokyo and Ogaki (located between Nagoya and Kyoto). The Moonlight Nagara, and certain other extra services, are classified as Rapid trains with regular seating. As such, these trains can be used with the Seishun 18 Ticket – and tend to get crowded when they run.
There are a few drawbacks to overnight train travel. In most cases you cannot book the train until you arrive in Japan, by which point the train might be sold out (unless a helpful Japanese resident purchases the tickets for you in advance of your arrival). Some overnight trains are also subject to cancellation on the day of departure if inclement weather is expected along the route. For example, the Twilight Express, Nihonkai and Akebono, which all run along the Sea of Japan, are the most prone to cancellation if heavy snow or high winds are in the forecast.
The alternative to traveling overnight by train is to travel by bus (see below) – but if you have a Japan Rail Pass, there is another way that you can go about traveling by night – and it can be relatively easy. The key is to split up your journey, stopping at an intermediate station en-route to your destination and resting at a nearby (and preferably cheap) hotel. In the morning, take another train toward your destination to complete the trip. The Rail Pass will cover your train journey: your only responsibility is paying for the hotel room. If you can find accomodations in a smaller city, the chances are good that you will pay less for it compared to lodging in bigger cities such as Tokyo… not to mention you will have your own bed, bathroom and toilet. Toyoko Inn business hotels are sprouting up all over Japan – most of them near train stations – and are a great example.
With careful planning and research, you will be able to find an overnight itinerary that works for you. For example, using the Shinkansen you could sleep in Hamamatsu on a trip from Tokyo to Kyoto, or in Himeji on a trip from Tokyo to Hiroshima. For a trip north from Tokyo to Hokkaido you could choose to rest in Aomori.
If you have some extra money, consider forwarding some of your luggage to your destination using a luggage delivery service; this will make the trip much easier.
Japan’s excellent Shinkansen network means that flying is usually more of a luxury than a necessity. That being said, flying remains the most practical mode of reaching Japan’s outlying islands, most notably for connections from the mainland to Hokkaido and/or Okinawa. Flying is also useful for getting around sparsely populated Hokkaido, as there is no Shinkansen network there.
Tokyo’s Narita Airport handles a few domestic flights, but most domestic flights leave from Haneda (HND) to the south of the city. Similarly, while there are some domestic flights from Kansai International Airport, more use Itami (ITM) to the north of Osaka, and Kobe’s airport also fields some flights. Narita to Haneda or Kansai to Itami is quite a trek, so allow at least three and preferably four hours to transfer. Chubu, on the other hand, has many domestic flights and was built from the ground up for easy interchange.
List prices for domestic flights are very expensive, but significant discounts are available if purchased in advance. Both of Japan’s largest carriers, Japan Airlines (JAL, 日本航空 Nihon Kōkū, ) and All Nippon Airways (ANA, 全日空 Zennikkū, ) offer “Visit Japan” fares where the purchaser of an international return ticket to Japan can fly a number of domestic segments anywhere in the country for only about ¥10,000 (plus tax) each. These are a particularly good deal for travel to Hokkaido or the remote southern islands of Okinawa. Some blackout periods or other restrictions during peak travel seasons may apply.
The low-cost carrier concept has yet to make significant inroads into Japan, but Air DO () provides a little much-needed competition between Tokyo and Hokkaido, while Skymark Airlines () and StarFlyer () serve Tokyo, Osaka and Kyushu. Usually these airlines offer lower walk-up fares than the majors but are not as competitive for advance-purchase discounted tickets.
ANA, JAL, and their subsidiaries offer a special standby card, the Skymate Card, to young passengers (up to the age of 22). With the card, passengers can fly standby at half of the full published fare, which is usually less than the equivalent express train fare. The card can be obtained from any JAL or ANA ticket counter with a passport-sized photo and a one-time fee of ¥1000
If you do wish to go on a domestic flight in Japan (e.g. Tokyo to Osaka), don’t be surprised if a Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet is supplying the short 50 minute flight that you are booked on. Japan is well-known as being the only country in the world to use jumbo jets on short domestic flights of an hour or less, mainly on the Tokyo to Osaka sector.
Given that Japan is an island nation, boats are a surprisingly uncommon means of transport, as all the major islands are linked together by bridges and tunnels. While there are some long-distance ferries linking Okinawa and Hokkaido to the mainland, the fares are usually higher than discounted airline tickets and pretty much the sole advantage is that you can take your car with you.
For some smaller islands, however, boats may well be the only practical option. Hovercrafts and jet ferries are fast but expensive, with prices varying between ¥2000-5000 for an hour-long trip. Slow cargo boats are more affordable, a rule of thumb being ¥1000 per hour in second class, but departures are infrequent. There are also some inexpensive and convenient short-distance intercity ferries such as the Aomori-Hakodate ferry.
These boats are typically divided into classes, where second class is just a giant expanse of tatami mat, first class gets you a comfy chair in large shared room and only special class gets you a private cabin. Vending machines and simple restaurant fare are typically available on board, but on longer trips (particularly in second class) the primary means of entertainment is alcoholic — this can be fun if you’re invited in, but less so if you’re trying to sleep.
The JR “Premium Dream” highway bus at Tokyo Station.
Willer Express highway buses are known for their distinctive pink colors.
Long-distance highway buses serve many of the inter-city routes covered by trains at significantly lower prices, but take much longer than the Shinkansen. Especially on the route between Tokyo and Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe triangle the high competition broke down the prices: as low as ¥3500 one-way. There is a multitude of operators, including Star Express and Willer Express , Kansai Bus, as well as companies of the JR group.
Note that your JR Rail Pass may be valid for JR buses (although choosing the bus instead of the Shinkansen or any Express train for the same trip would be a very awkward choice in terms of comfort and speed).
Many of these are overnight runs , which allows you to save on a night’s accommodation. It may be worth it to pay a premium to get a better seat; remember that it is less fun to sightsee after a sleepless night. Look out for ３,sanretsu shiito, meaning there are only three seats per row instead of four. Intercity buses usually have significantly less legroom than intercity trains, so passengers over about 175 cm may be uncomfortable.
A few buses offer more luxurious Premium Seating. These seats are bigger, offer more legroom, and are exclusive, with only a few seats allocated to an entire bus. Examples include the first floor seating on JR Bus’ Premium Dream service, and Cocoon seats on Willer Express services. Expect to pay around ¥10000 for such a seat on an overnight service between Tokyo and Kansai.
Like their railroad counterparts, a few overnight buses can be used only by women (an example is the Ladies Dream Osaka bus service between Tokyo and Osaka).
Japan Bus Pass
Bus operator Willer Express offers a Japan Bus Pass for travel on their network of highway buses. It is available to both Japanese and foreigners, but must be purchased outside of Japan. The cost of a Bus Pass is ¥10000 for 3 days, ¥12000 for 4 days or ¥14000 for 5 days. Travel days are non-consecutive but passes must be used up within two months. You are limited to a maximum of two bus trips per day and you cannot travel twice on one route in the same day. Passes are not transferrable and photo identification is required when boarding the buses.
If you have a lot of time on your hands, want to visit several major cities in a single trip, and do not mind the time spent on buses (including sleeping), then the Bus Pass is worth considering. The more trips you take, the more cost-effective the pass will be. You can potentially ride Willer Express buses for as little as ¥1400-1600 per trip.
There are a couple of small drawbacks to using the Bus Pass: You are restricted to using buses that seat four to a row, as opposed to three (see above). You also cannot use the Bus Pass during Japan’s major holidays (New Year’s, Golden Week, Obon) and certain other weekends, unlike train passes (Japan Rail Pass), which have no blackout dates.
A rosen basu in Hachioji, Tokyo.
You won’t need to use local buses much in the major cities, but they’re common in smaller towns and the idiosyncratic payment system is worth a mention. On most buses, you’re expected to board from the back and grab a little numbered slip as you enter, often just a white piece of paper automatically stamped by the dispenser as you pull it. In the front of the bus, above the driver, is an electronic board displaying numbers and prices below, which march inexorably higher as the bus moves on. When it’s time to get off, you press the stop button, match your numbered slip to the electronic board’s current price, deposit the slip and corresponding payment in the fare machine next to the driver, then exit through the front door. Note that you must pay the exact fare: to facilitate this, the machine nearly always has bill exchanger built in, which will eat ¥1,000 bills and spew out ¥1,000 worth of coins in exchange. If you’re short on change, it’s best to exchange before it’s time to get off.
Increasingly, buses accept smartcards such as PASMO and Suica – you will need to tap your card against a scanner by the entrance (usually above the ticket dispenser) and then again using the scanner next to the fare machine by the driver when you exit. If you fail to ‘tap on’ when boarding, you will be charged the maximum fare when alighting.
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 glad to tell you when you’ve reached your destination.
You will find taxis everywhere in Japan, not only in the city but also in the country. Taxis are clean and completely safe, though a bit expensive: starting fees are usually in the ¥640-710 range and the meter ticks up frantically after the first 2 km or so. But sometimes, they are the only way to get where you are going. Taxi meters are strictly regulated and clearly visible to the passenger. If you are not sure if you have enough money for the trip, your driver may be able to guess the approximate cost of a trip beforehand. Even if money is not a concern, if you get a cost estimate beforehand, some taxi drivers will stop the meter at the estimated price regardless of how much further the destination may be, which can save you money. Although it is quite nice when it happens, do not expect this treatment from every taxi driver. Taxi fares are also higher at night. Tipping is not customary and would most likely be refused.
In the city, you can hail a taxi just about anywhere, but outside train stations and other transfer points you should board at a taxi stand. (The taxi stand will usually either have a long line of patient passengers, or a long line of idle taxis.) If the destination is a well-known location, such as a hotel, train station, or public facility, the name alone should be enough. Note that even in the major cities, extremely few taxi drivers can speak English, so carrying a pamphlet or card of your hotel or destination with the address on it can be very helpful. Likewise, have staff at your hotel write down the names and addresses of places you want to visit in Japanese to show your 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 board the taxi. Taxi drivers also have a reputation for speeding and aggressive driving, but there are very few accidents involving bad drivers.
Bihoro Pass and Highway 243, Akan National Park, Hokkaido
Rental cars and driving in Japan are rare in or around the major cities, as public transport is generally excellent and gets you almost everywhere. In addition, the roads of major cities like Tokyo are plagued with massive traffic jams and parking is expensive and difficult to find, so driving there is more of a hindrance than anything else. However, many rural areas can really be explored with only your own transport, so driving should certainly not be dismissed out of hand, especially on the vast, sparsely populated island of Hokkaido. Due to Hokkaido’s cooler climate it is a very popular destination in summer, so if you are considering renting a car at this time be sure to do so well in advance of your planned travel date as they are often unavailable at this time. Often the most feasible option is to combine the two: take the train out to the countryside and then pick up a rental car at a station. JR’s Ekiren  has outlets at most larger train stations and often has discounted train & car packages.
An international driver’s license (or Japanese license) will be required if you wish to rent a car or drive in Japan, and must be carried at all times. Rental rates typically start from ¥6000 a day for the smallest car. Purchasing insurance from the rental car company is highly recommended as any rental car insurance from your home country (especially through most credit cards) is unlikely to be valid in Japan, check your policy before heading out. Club ToCoo!  offers an online booking service in English for most major rental car companies, and often provides rental specials and discounts.
Driving is on the left as normally found in UK/Australia/NZ/India/Singapore, opposite to continental Europe/USA/Canada. There is no “right turn on red” (or left turn, rather) rule in Japan, however in rare cases a sign with a blue arrow on a white background will indicate where turning on red is legal (not to be confused with the white arrow on a blue background, which indicates one-way traffic). Drivers are required to make a complete stop at all at-grade railway crossings. Driving while drunk can result in fines of up to ¥500,000 and instant loss of licence, at above the official “drunk driving” blood-alcohol limit of 0.25 mg. It’s also an offence to “drive under the influence” with no set minimum that can be fined up to ¥300,000, with a suspension of license. Using a cell phone while driving without a hands-free kit can result in fines of up to ¥50,000.
Tolls for the expressways are generally significantly higher than the cost of a train ride, even on the bullet train. So for one or two people it’s not cost-effective for direct long distance travel between cities. In major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, a flat rate toll is paid when entering the expressway system. On inter-city expressways, tolls are based on distance travelled, a ticket is issued when you enter the system and the toll is calculated when you exit. Avoid the purple ETC lanes at toll plazas (unless you have the ETC device fitted) as they are reserved for electronic toll collection, any other lane will accept either yen cash (exact change not required) or major credit cards. Inter-city expressways are well-serviced with clean and convenient parking areas at regular intervals, but be wary of traveling into large cities on Sunday evenings or at the end of a holiday period, as traffic jams at these times can reach up to 50 km long. Using local roads to travel between cities has the advantages of being toll-free and offering more opportunities for sightseeing along the way, but traffic jams and numerous traffic lights slow things down considerably. Covering 40 km in 1 hour is a good rule of thumb to follow when planning an itinerary on local roads, generally more on Hokkaido.
Both rental costs and fuel are more expensive than those in the USA, but fuel is generally cheaper than found in Europe. Most fuel stations are full service, to fill up the tank with regular fuel, say regulaa mantan to the attendant. Rental car companies generally offer smaller cars from ¥5,000 a day, and a full size sedan will cost around ¥10,000 a day. Most rental cars have some kind of satellite navigation (“navi”) thus you can ask the rental car company to set your destination before your first trip. Some models (specifically newer Toyotas) have an English language mode, so it doesn’t hurt to ask the staff to change it before you head out. However unless you read Japanese you may need to ask for assistance to make full use of the navigation computer. Japanese driving habits are generally as good as anywhere else, and usually better than other Asian countries. Japanese roads are generally of good quality, with smooth bitumen surfaces. Gravel roads are very limited, usually forest roads, and unlikely to be on the itinerary of too many tourists. Roadworks are frequent however, and can cause annoying delays. Certain mountain passes are shut over winter, those that are not usually require either snow chains or a combination of studless winter tires and 4-wheel drive. If you rent a car in mountainous/northern areas they will generally come with this equipment already included.
Navigating within cities can be confusing and parking in them costs ¥300-400/hour. Larger hotels in the cities and regional hotels normally offer car parking, but it would be wise to check car parking however before you book. Validated parking is available at some car parks that are attached to major department stores in large cities, but don’t count on getting more than 2-3 hours free. The best car to use in Tokyo is a taxi.
Japan has horizontal traffic lights, with any arrows appearing beneath the main lights. The color-blind should note that the red (stop) is on the right and the green (go) is on the left. There are usually only one or two traffic lights per intersection pointing the same way, which can make it hard to see when the signals change. However some prefectures, such as Toyama and Niigata, have vertical lights (this is supposedly due to the amount of snow they get).
Japanese signs follow a mixture of European and North American conventions, but most should not pose any difficulty in understanding. “Stop” is indicated by a downward-pointing red triangle, not to be confused with the similar looking Yield sign found in North America. On the highways and around major cities English signage is very good; however in more remote locales it may be spotty. Electronic signs are everywhere on expressways and major arterial roads, and provide helpful real-time information on road conditions, unfortunately they are displayed exclusively in Japanese. The following is a brief list of the most common messages and their translations:
- Road Closed
- Traffic Jam (with length and/or delay indicated)
- Chains Required
Warning hazards for repair, breakdown and construction are always well illuminated at night and tend to also appear at least once before the main obstacle on higher speed roads such as expressways. Other road hazards to be aware of are taxis, who feel they have a god-given right to stop wherever and whenever they like, long-distance truckers (especially late at night) who may often be hepped up on pep pills and tend to ride the bumper of any slower car in front, and country farmers in their ubiquitous white mini-trucks, who never seem to go above a crawl and may pop out of rural side roads unexpectedly.
Road speed limits are marked in kilometres per hour. They are 40 km/h in towns (with varying areas: some at 30, roads by schools usually at 20), 50 to 60 in the countryside (if unmarked, the limit is 60), and 100 on the expressways. There is usually a fair bit of leeway in terms of speeding – about 10 km/h on normal roads, for example. If you go with the flow you should not have any problems, as the Japanese often pay speed limits no more attention than they have to.
Japan has many great opportunities for bikers. Bike rentals can be found throughout the country, especially near popular routes. Some routes (like the Shimanami Kaido, which takes you from the mainland (Onomichi) to Shikoku (Imabari)) have been set up specifically for bikers.
If you will be spending an extended period of time in Japan, you may want to consider purchasing a bike. If you choose to do this, be aware that you need to have it registered. If your bike does not have the proper sticker, your bike can be confiscated. It is important that any bike that is not a rental bike is registered under the rider’s name. If you are caught borrowing a bike registered under someone else’s name, it is considered stolen in Japan, and you will likely be taken to the police station. The police often check bikes, so avoid problems by obeying the law.
Japan is an excellent country for hitchhiking, although there is no Japanese custom for this, and some Japanese language ability is almost mandatory. See Hitchhiking in Japan for a more detailed introduction and practical tips for this fine art.