The time of year is an important factor to consider when arranging your transport around Japan. Peak travelling seasons are the few days either side of New Year, the Golden Week holidays of late April and early May, and the mid-August Obon holiday. During these times, the whole of Japan can seem on the move, with trains, planes and ferries packed to the gills and roads clogged with traffic. Book well in advance and be prepared to pay higher fares on flights, as all discounts are suspended during peak periods.

Domestic travel agencies, such as JTB, can book all types of transport and are also useful sources for checking travel schedules. The staff in these agencies have access to the jikokuhyō timetable, an incredible source of information, updated monthly, on virtually every form of public transport in Japan. There’s always a jikokuhyō available for consultation at stations, and most hotels have a copy too. If you’re going to travel around Japan a lot, get hold of a JR English timetable for all the Shinkansen and many major express train services, available from JNTO offices in Japan and abroad and at major train stations. Also incredibly useful is the Hyperdia Timetable (hyperdia.com), an online resource providing a whole range of travel options, including transfers by air, bus, train and ferry between almost any two points in Japan.

By train

The vast majority of services on Japan’s brilliant rail network are operated by the six regional JR (Japan Railways) companies: JR Hokkaidō (www.jrhokkaido.co.jp), JR East (www.jreast.co.jp), JR Central (english.jr-central.co.jp), JR West (www.westjr.co.jp), JR Shikoku (jr-shikoku.co.jp) and JR Kyūshū (www.jrkyushu.co.jp). JR is run as a single company as far as buying tickets is concerned. Smaller rail companies, including Hankyū, Kintetsu, Meitetsu, Odakyū and Tōbu, are based in the major cities and surrounding areas, but in the vast majority of Japan it’s JR services that you’ll be using.

Individual tickets can be pricey, especially for the fastest trains, but many discount tickets and rail passes are available to cut the cost. If you plan to travel extensively by train, the various Japan Rail passes provide the best overall deal, while the discount tour packages by the Japan Travel Bureau’s Sunrise Tours arm are also excellent value. If you have lots of time, and are travelling during the main student holiday periods, the Seishun Jūhachi-kippu is also an excellent buy.

Shinkansen

For many visitors, riding the Shinkansen (新幹線) is an eagerly anticipated part of a trip to Japan. Often referred to as the “Bullet Train” because of the smooth, rounded design of the earliest locomotives, you’ll barely notice the speed of these smooth-running beasts, which purr along some lines at a whopping 320kph. They are also frighteningly punctual – two seconds late on the platform and you’ll be waving goodbye to the back end of the train – and reliable: only the severest weather conditions or earthquakes stop the Shinkansen.

There are six main Shinkansen lines. The busiest route is the Tōkaidō–Sanyō line, which runs south from Tokyo through Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima, terminating at Hakata Station in Fukuoka (the Tōkaidō line runs from Tokyo to Shin-Ōsaka Station, while the Sanyō line continues from there to Fukuoka).

The Tōhoku line is the main northern route, passing through Sendai and terminating at Shin-Aomori; an extension through the Seikan Tunnel to Hakodate will open in 2016. The Akita line runs from Tokyo to Akita on the north coast, while the Yamagata line to Shinjō, in the middle of the Tōhoku region, splits off west from the Tōhoku line at Fukushima; these are both “mini-Shinkansen” services, and are not as fast as the regular ones.

The Jōetsu line heads north from Tokyo, tunnelling through the mountains to Niigata along the Sea of Japan coast, with the Nagano line (also known as the Hokuriku line) branching off west at Takasaki to end at Nagano; an extension to Kanazawa will open in 2015. Lastly, the Kyūshū line connects Kagoshima with Hakata.

To travel by Shinkansen, you’ll pay a hefty surcharge on top of the basic fare for a regular train. Three types of Shinkansen services are available: the Kodama (こだま), which stops at all stations; the Hikari (ひかり), which stops only at major stations; and the Nozomi (のぞみ; available on the Tōkaidō–Sanyō line only), the fastest service, for which you’ll have to pay an extra fee (and which you’re not allowed to take if you’re travelling on most types of rail pass). If you’re travelling from Tokyo to Fukuoka, the Nozomi shaves an hour off the six-hour journey on the Hikari, but for shorter hops to Nagoya, Kyoto or Osaka, the time saved isn’t generally worth the extra expense.

On the train, there are announcements and electronic signs in English telling you which stations are coming up. Get to the door in good time before the train arrives, as you’ll generally only have a few seconds in which to disembark before the train shoots off again.

Other trains

Aside from the Shinkansen, the fastest services are limited express (tokkyū; 特急) trains, their misleading name deriving from the fact that they make a limited number of stops. Like Shinkansen, you have to pay a surcharge to travel on them, and there are separate classes of reserved and non-reserved seats (see Train classes and reservations). Less common are the express trains (kyūkō; 急行), which also only stop at larger stations but carry a lower surcharge. Oddly, the rapid trains (kaisoku; 快速) are slower still, making more stops than express ones, but with no surcharge. Ordinary trains (futsū; 普通) are local services stopping at all stations, and usually limited to routes under 100km.

The above categories of train and surcharges apply to all JR services, and to some, but not all, private rail routes. To further confuse matters, you may find that if you’re travelling on a JR train on one of the more remote branch lines, you may be charged an additional fare due to part of the old JR network having been sold off to another operating company.

There are only a handful of overnight sleeper trains – the main services are from Tokyo and Osaka to Aomori and Sapporo; if you have a Japan Rail Pass and want a berth for the night, you’ll have to pay the berth charge (couchette cabin sleeping four to six ¥6000–10,000; private double or single room ¥6000–38,000 depending on the class of cabin), plus the surcharge for the express or limited express service. A few overnight trains have reclining seats, which JR Pass holders can use without paying a surcharge. Reservations are necessary.

There are several SL (steam locomotive) services across the country, which run from spring through to autumn, mainly on weekends and holidays. These leisurely trains, with lovingly restored engines and carriages, have proved a huge hit with tourists, and you’d be well advised to book in advance. Among the more popular routes are the Senmo line between Kushiro and Shibecha, along with the SL Fuyu-no-Shitsugen-go service in winter; the Yamaguchi line between Ogōri and Tsuwano in Western Honshū; and the Mōka line from Shimodate to Motegi via Mashiko in Tochigi-ken.

Buying tickets

JR tickets can be bought at any JR station and at many travel agencies. At major city stations, there will be a fare map in English beside the vending machine. Otherwise, if you’re buying your ticket from the ticket counter, it’s a good idea to have written down on a piece of paper the date and time you wish to travel, your destination, the number of tickets you want and whether you’ll need smoking or non-smoking seats. A fallback is to buy the minimum fare ticket from the vending machine and pay any surcharges on or when leaving the train – though this may sound dodgy, it’s completely kosher, and locals often do this too.

To make advance reservations for tokkyū and Shinkansen trains, or to buy special types of tickets, you’ll generally need to go to the green window, or “midori-no-madoguchi” – sales counters marked by a green logo. In order to swap your exchange voucher for a Japan Rail Pass, you’ll have to go to a designated ticket office; they’re listed in the booklet you’ll receive with your rail pass voucher and on the rail pass website.

Japan Rail passes

If you plan to make just one long-distance train journey, such as Tokyo to Kyoto one way, a Japan Rail Pass (japanrailpass.net) will not be good value. In all other cases it will be, and you should invest in one before you arrive, since the full Japan Rail Pass can only be bought outside Japan (other types of passes can bought inside the country, however). For unfettered flexibility, the comprehensive Japan Rail Pass is the way to go, while regional Japan Rail Passes are good deals if they fit with your travel itinerary. All the prices quoted below are for ordinary rail passes (Green Car passes cost more; see Train classes and reservations), and note that you will have to be travelling on a tourist visa to buy any of them.

The traditional Japan Rail Pass allows travel on virtually all JR services throughout Japan, including buses and ferries, and is valid for seven (¥28,300), fourteen (¥45,100) or twenty-one (¥57,700) consecutive days. The major service for which it is not valid is the Nozomi Shinkansen; if you’re caught on one of these, even unwittingly, you’ll be liable for the full fare for the trip. As with all JR tickets, children aged between 6 and 11 years inclusive pay half-price, while those under 6 travel free.

The JR East Pass (www.jreast.co.jp) covers all JR East services, including the Shinkansen; five days’ consecutive use costs is ¥22,000. JR West offers a couple of local travel passes (see By train and Dates in Japan) while both JR Hokkaidō and JR Kyūshū (see By train) offer passes for their respective networks.

If you buy any of these passes abroad, the cost in your own currency will depend on the exchange rate at the time of purchase – you might be able to save a little money by shopping around between agents offering the pass, because they don’t all use the same exchange rate. You’ll be given an exchange voucher which must be swapped for a pass in Japan within three months. Once issued, the dates on the pass cannot be changed. Exchanges can only be made at designated JR stations; you’ll be issued with a list of locations when you buy your pass. Again, note that passes can only be issued if you’re travelling on a temporary visitor visa; JR staff are very strict about this, and you’ll be asked to show your passport when you present your exchange voucher for the pass or when you buy a pass directly in Japan. Also, note that if you lose your pass, it will not be replaced, so take good care of it.

Rail Pass holders can get a discount, typically around 10 percent, at all JR Group Hotels; check the list in the information booklet provided when you buy your pass.

Other discount tickets

The Seishun Jūhachi-kippu (青春18きっぷ; jreast.co.jp/e/pass/seishun18.html) is available to everyone regardless of age, but only valid during school vacations. These are roughly March 1 to April 10, July 20 to September 10, and December 10 to January 20; all are sold from ten days before these windows until ten days before they close. For ¥11,500 you get five day-tickets that can be used to travel anywhere in Japan, as long as you take only the slow futsū and kaisoku trains. The tickets can also be split and used individually by different people. If you’re not in a hurry, this ticket can be the biggest bargain on the whole of Japan’s rail system: you can, for example, use one of the day-tickets to travel from Tokyo to Nagasaki – it’ll take almost 24 hours, but cost the equivalent of ¥2300. The tickets are also handy for touring a local area in a day, since you can get on and off trains as many times as you wish within 24 hours.

Kaisūken (回数券) are usually four or more one-way tickets to the same destination. These work out substantially cheaper than buying the tickets individually, and as such are good for groups travelling to the same destination. Among other places they are available on the limited express services from Tokyo to Matsumoto and Nagano-ken.

Furii kippu (フリー切符) excursion-type tickets are available for various areas of Japan, usually with unlimited use of local transport for a specified period of time. The Hakone Furii Pass, offered by the Odakyū railway company, covering routes from Tokyo to the lakeland area of Hakone, is particularly good value. If you plan to travel in one area, it’s always worth asking the JR East Infoline (see Travel information service) or the tourist information offices if there are any other special tickets that could be of use.

By plane

The big two domestic airlines are All Nippon Airways (ANA; ana.co.jp) and Japan Airlines (JAL; jal.co.jp). Both carriers offer substantial discounts for advance bookings, with an extra discount if the booking is made entirely online. There’s little difference between the two as far as prices and quality of service are concerned.

Local low-cost airlines have ballooned of late, providing much-needed competition to the rail; these include Skymark (skymark.co.jp), with cut-price routes between various major airports; Solaseed Air (skynetasia.co.jp), who operate routes to and from their hubs of Haneda and Naha; Peach (flypeach.com), who reach numerous destinations from their Osaka hub; and Jetstar (jetstar.com), who offer services from Tokyo and Osaka.

If you’re not using a rail pass, low-cost or discounted plane fares are well worth considering. For example, to travel by train to Sapporo from Tokyo costs ¥22,780 and takes the better part of a day, compared with a discounted plane fare which can fall to as low as ¥9000 for a journey of an hour and a half. Discounts are generally not available during the peak travelling seasons.

Both JAL and ANA offer discount flight passes to overseas visitors, which are definitely worth considering if you plan to make several plane trips. JAL (jal.co.jp/yokosojapan) offers the oneworld Yokoso and the Welcome to Japan passes: the former, only available to those using oneworld carriers to fly into Japan (including JAL, BA and Qantas), allows you to make up to five flights at ¥10,500 per sector; the latter, available to anyone regardless of which airline used, allows two flights for ¥27,300, three for ¥40,950, four for ¥54,600 and five for ¥68,250. ANA (ana.co.jp) offers the similar Star Alliance Japan Airpass, with up to five flights available on each pass at ¥10,500 per flight; and the Visit Japan fare with two to five flights available from ¥13,000 per flight. These fares are excellent value if you plan to visit far-flung destinations, such as the islands of Okinawa. These tickets are not available during peak travelling seasons such as July and August and the New Year and Golden Week holidays.

By bus

Japan has a comprehensive system of long-distance buses (chōkyori basu; 長距離バス), including night buses (yakō basu) between major cities. Fares are always cheaper than the fastest trains, but the buses are usually slower and can get caught up in traffic, even on the expressways (Japan’s fastest roads), especially during peak travel periods. Most bus journeys start and finish next to or near the main train station. For journeys over two hours, there is usually at least one rest stop.

Willer Express (willerexpress.com) is one of the largest long-distance bus operators and offers some great deals. A seven-hour overnight service from Tokyo to Kyoto, for example, can cost as little as ¥2160; by way of comparison, the Shinkansen costs ¥12,710, and takes 2hr 40min. There are hundreds of small bus companies operating different routes, so for full details of current services, timetables and costs make enquiries with local tourist information offices. Buses come into their own in the more rural parts of Japan where there are few or no trains. With a handful of exceptions (mentioned in the Guide), you don’t need to book tickets on such services but can pay on the bus. JR runs a number of buses, some of which are covered by the various rail passes. Other private bus companies may also offer bus passes to certain regions; again, check with local tourist offices for any deals.

By ferry

One of the most pleasant ways of travelling around this island nation is by ferry. Overnight journeys between Honshū and Hokkaidō in the north, and Kyūshū and Shikoku in the south, are highly recommended. If you can’t spare the time, try a short hop, say to one of the islands of the Inland Sea, or from Niigata to Sado-ga-shima.

On the overnight ferries, the cheapest fares, which entitle you to a sleeping space on the floor of a large room with up to a hundred other passengers, can be a bargain compared with train and plane fares to the same destinations. For example, the overnight ferry fare from Ōarai, two hours north of Tokyo, to Tomakomai, around an hour south of Sapporo on Hokkaidō, can be as low as ¥8500. Even if you pay extra for a bed in a shared or private berth, it’s still cheaper than the train, and you’ll have a very comfortable cruise as part of the bargain; see sunflower.co.jp for details. Ferries are also an excellent way of transporting a bicycle or motorbike (though you’ll pay a small supplement for these); many also take cars.

Ferry schedules are subject to seasonal changes and also vary according to the weather, so for current details of times and prices, it’s best to consult the local tourist information office.

By car

While it would be foolhardy to rent a car to get around Japan’s big cities, driving is often the best way to tour the country’s less populated and off-the-beaten-track areas. Japanese roads are of a very high standard, with the vast majority of signs on main routes being in rōmaji as well as Japanese script. Although you’ll have to pay tolls to travel on the expressways (reckon on around ¥30 per kilometre), many other perfectly good roads are free; regular petrol averages around ¥140 a litre. For a group of people, renting a car to tour a rural area over a couple of days can work out much better value than taking buses. It’s often possible to rent cars for less than a day, too, for short trips.

There are car rental counters at all the major airports and train stations. The main Japanese companies include Mazda Rent-a-car (mazda-rentacar.co.jp); Nippon Rent-a-car (nipponrentacar.co.jp); Nissan Rent-a-car (nissan-rentacar.com); and Toyota Rent-a-car (rent.toyota.co.jp). Budget, Hertz and National also have rental operations across Japan (although not as widely spread). For local car rental firms’ contact numbers, see the “Arrival and departure” or “Getting around” sections in the relevant area accounts, or consult the car rental company websites. Rates, which vary little between companies and usually include unlimited mileage, start from around ¥6500 for the first 24 hours for the smallest type of car (seating four people), plus ¥1000 insurance. During the peak seasons of Golden Week, Obon and New Year, rates for all cars tend to increase.

Most cars come with a GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) navigation system. It’s sometimes possible to get an English-language version CD to work with the GPS – ask for this when you book. Input the telephone number for a location (the number of the hotel you’re staying at or a museum you want to visit, for example) and the GPS system will plot the course for you.

Since you’re unlikely to want to drive in any of the cities, the best rental deals are often through Eki Rent-a-Car (www.ekiren.co.jp), which gives a discounted rate by combining the rental with a train ticket to the most convenient station for the area you wish to explore. Eki-Rent-a-Car’s offices are close to stations, as are often those of other major car rental firms.

To rent a car you must have an international driver’s licence based on the 1949 Geneva Convention (some international licences are not valid, including those issued in France, Germany and Switzerland), as well as your national licence. Officially, if you have a French, German or Swiss licence (regular or international) you are supposed to get an official Japanese translation of the licence – contact your local Japanese embassy for further info. You may get lucky and find a car rental firm that doesn’t know or ignores this rule, but don’t count on it. If you’ve been in Japan for more than six months, you’ll need to apply for a Japanese licence.

Driving is on the left, the same as in Britain, Ireland, Australia, South Africa and most of Southeast Asia, and international traffic signals are used. The bilingual Japan Road Atlas (¥2890), published by Shōbunsha, includes many helpful notes, such as the dates when some roads close during winter. If you’re a member of an automobile association at home, the chances are that you’ll qualify for reciprocal rights with the Japan Auto Federation (jaf.or.jp), which publishes the English-language Rules of the Road book, detailing Japan’s driving code.

The top speed limit in Japan is 80kph, which applies only on expressways, though drivers frequently exceed this and are rarely stopped by police. In cities, the limit is 40kph. There are always car parks close to main train stations; at some, your vehicle will be loaded onto a rotating conveyor belt and whisked off to its parking spot. Reckon on ¥500 per hour for a central city car park and ¥300 per hour elsewhere. If you manage to locate a parking meter, take great care not to overstay the time paid for (usually around ¥300/hour); some have mechanisms to trap cars, which will only be released once the fine has been paid directly into the meter (typically ¥10,000–15,000). In rural areas, parking is not so much of a problem and is rarely charged.

If you’ve drunk any alcohol at all, even the smallest amount, don’t drive – it’s illegal, as well as dumb, and if you’re caught by the police you’ll be in big trouble, as will anyone sharing the vehicle with you (drunk or otherwise).

By bike

Although you’re unlikely to want to cycle around the often traffic-clogged streets of Japan’s main cities, a bike is a great way to get from A to B in the smaller towns and countryside, allowing you to see plenty en route. Cycle touring is a very popular activity with students over the long summer vacation. Hokkaidō, in particular, is a cyclist’s dream, with excellent roads through often stunning scenery and a network of basic but ultra-cheap cyclists’ accommodation.

In many places, you can rent bikes from outlets beside or near the train station; some towns even have free bikes – enquire at the tourist office. Youth hostels often rent out bikes, too, usually at the most competitive rates. You can buy a brand-new bike in Japan for under ¥20,000 but you wouldn’t want to use it for anything more than getting around town; for sturdy touring and mountain bikes, hunt out a specialist bike shop or bring your own. Although repair shops can be found nationwide, for foreign models it’s best to bring essential spare parts with you. And despite Japan’s low crime rate, a small but significant section of the Japanese public treats bikes as common property; if you don’t want to lose it, make sure your bike is well chained whenever you leave it.

If you plan to take your bike on a train or bus, ensure you have a bike bag in which to parcel it up; on trains, you’re also supposed to pay a special bike transport supplement of ¥270 (ask for a temawarihin kippu), though ticket inspectors may not always check.

If you’re planning a serious cycling tour, an excellent investment is Cycling Japan by Brian Harrell, a handy practical guide detailing many touring routes around the country. There’s also useful cycling information on the following sites: japancycling.org, kancycling.com and outdoorjapan.com. If you’re up for a two-month pedal from Hokkaidō to Kyūshū, see the website for Bicycling for Everyone’s Earth (BEE; beejapan.org).

Hitching

There’s always a risk associated with hitching. That said, Japan is one of the safest and easiest places in the world to hitch a ride, and in some rural areas it’s just about the only way of getting around without your own transport. It’s also a fantastic way to meet locals, who are often only too happy to go kilometres out of their way to give you a lift just for the novelty value (impecunious students apart, hitching is very rare in Japan), or the opportunity it provides to practise English or another foreign language.

As long as you don’t look too scruffy, you’ll seldom be waiting long for a ride; as is the case anywhere, it’s best to pick your standing point wisely (somewhere cars can see you and stop safely, and are likely to be heading your way). It’s a good idea to write your intended destination in large kanji characters on a piece of card to hold up. Note that in Japan, convenience stores are a godsend; almost all have decent maps of the surrounding area, toilets and spare cardboard boxes which you can tear up and scrawl your destination on. Carry a stock of small gifts you can leave as a thank you; postcards, sweets and small cuddly toys are usually popular. Will Ferguson’s A Hitch hiker’s Guide to Japan and his entertaining travel narrative Hokkaidō Highway Blues are useful reference books.

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