Getting around Japan: Transportation Tips
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
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 ( for further details of public holidays). 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, an online resource maintained by Hitachi Information Systems, which will provide a whole range of travel options, including transfers by air, bus, train and ferry between almost any two points in Japan.
The vast majority of services on Japan’s brilliant rail network are operated by the six regional JR (Japan Railways) companies: JR Hokkaidō, JR East, JR Central, JR West, JR Shikoku and JR Kyūshū. 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.
For many visitors, riding the Shinkansen (新幹線) or Bullet Train (so-called because of the smooth, rounded design of the earliest locomotives) is an eagerly anticipated part of a trip to Japan. You’ll barely notice the speed of these smooth-running trains, which on the top-of-the-range E5 series can reach 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, Ōsaka 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. This line will extend through the Seikan Tunnel to Hakodate by 2015. 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.
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. There are plans to extend this line from Nagano to Kanazawa by 2014. 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 Ōsaka 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.
Aside from the Shinkansen, the fastest services are limited express (tokkyū; 特急) trains, so-called because they make a limited number of stops. Like Shinkansen, you have to pay a surcharge to travel on tokkyū and there are separate classes of reserved and non-reserved seats (see Train classes and reservations). Less common are the express, or kyūkō (急行), trains, which also only stop at larger stations but carry a lower surcharge. The rapid, or kaisoku (快速), trains are slower still, making more stops than a kyūkō, but with no surcharge. Ordinary, or futsū (普通), trains 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 Ōsaka 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 Senmō 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.
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 fall-back is to buy the minimum fare ticket from the vending machine, and pay any surcharges on or when leaving the train.
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.
If you plan to make just one long-distance train journey, such as Tokyo to Kyoto one way, a Japan Rail Pass 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 though). 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) and note that you will have to be travelling on a tourist visa to buy any of these passes.
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 21 (¥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 inclusive pay half-price, while those under 6 travel free.
The JR East Pass covers all JR East services, including the Shinkansen. This pass is particularly good value if you’re aged between 12 and 25. For five days’ consecutive use, the price is ¥20,000 (¥16,000 for 12- to 25-year-olds), while a ten-day pass is ¥32,000 (¥25,000 for 12- to 25-year-olds). Even better value is the flexible four-day pass (¥20,000/¥16,000), which is valid for any four days within a month from the date when the pass is issued. JR-West offers a couple of local travel passes while both JR Hokkaidō and JR Kyūshū offer a pass 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 ten percent, at all JR Group Hotels; check the list in the information booklet provided when you buy your pass.
On Shinkansen trains and JR tokkyū (limited express) and kyūkō (express) services, there’s a choice of ordinary, or futsū-sha (普通車), carriages or more expensive first-class Green Car, or guriin-sha (グリーン車), carriages where seats are two abreast either side of the aisle (as opposed to three). There may be a choice between smoking, or kitsuen (喫煙), and non-smoking, or kin’en (禁煙), cars; all JR East Shinkansen services are entirely non-smoking. On Nozomi Shinkansen it’s also possible to buy standing-only tickets for a small discount.
Each train also has both reserved, or shitei-seki (指定席), and unreserved, or jiyū-seki (自由席), sections. Seat reservations cost between ¥300 and ¥500, depending on the season; they are free if you have a rail pass. You cannot sit in the reserved section of a train without a reservation, even if it’s empty and the unreserved section full, although you can buy a reservation ticket from the train conductor.
If you don’t have a reservation, aim to get to the station with thirty minutes to spare, locate your platform and stand in line at the marked section for the unreserved carriages; ask the platform attendants for jiyū-seki, and they’ll point the way. If you have a reservation, platform signs will also direct you where to stand, so that you’re beside the right door when the train pulls in.
In most big cities, usually in shopping areas near stations, you can find discount ticket shops, or kinken shoppu (金券ショップ), which sell, among other things, cheap airline and Shinkansen tickets. These shops buy up discount group tickets and sell them on individually, usually at around twenty percent cheaper than the regular prices. These are legitimate operations, but you’ll need to be able to read and speak some Japanese to be sure you’ve got the ticket you need, and there may be some days when travel isn’t allowed. With the Shinkansen tickets you can’t make seat reservations at a discount shop, so you’ll need to go to a JR ticket office to arrange these.
The Seishun Jūhachi-kippu (青春１８きっぷ) is available to everyone regardless of age, but only valid during school vacations. These are roughly March 1 to April 10 (sold Feb 20–March 31), July 20 to September 10 (sold July 1–Aug 31) and December 10 to January 20 (sold Dec 1–Jan 10). 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, allowing you, for example, to use one of the day tickets (value ¥2300) to travel from Tokyo to Nagasaki (total journey time 23hr 36min). 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 (so are good for groups travelling to the same destintation). 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 or the tourist information offices if there are any other special tickets that could be of use.
On long-distance trains there’ll almost always be a trolley, laden with overpriced drinks and snacks, being pushed down the aisle. You’re generally better off both financially and in culinary terms packing your own picnic for the train, but useful fallbacks are the station noodle stands and the ekiben, a contraction of eki (station) and bentō (boxed meal). At the station noodle stalls you can get warming bowls of freshly made hot noodles, usually soba or the thicker udon, for under ¥500. Ekiben, often featuring local speciality foods, are sold both on and off the trains and come in a wide range of permutations. If you have time, pop into a convenience or department store close to the station for a more keenly priced selection of bentō.
The big two domestic airlines are All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Japan Airlines (JAL). Both carriers offer substantial discounts for advance bookings with an extra discount if the booking is made entirely online. Other local airlines include: Skymark, with cut-price routes between Tokyo and Fukuoka, Kōbe, Naha and Sapporo and Kōbe-Naha; Air Do for discount services on routes from Tokyo to destinations in Hokkaidō; Skynet Asia Airways for flights between Tokyo and Kyūshū, including Kumamoto, Miyazaki and Nagasaki; IBEX Airlines for flights from Ōsaka’s Itami airport to Sendai, Fukushima, Oita and a few other destinations; and Starflyer for Tokyo–Ōsaka–Kita–Kyūshū flights. The busiest routes apart, there remains little competition as far as prices and quality of service are concerned.
If you’re not using a rail pass, 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 from Tokyo to Shin-Chitose airport, near Sapporo, a journey of ninety minutes. 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 has 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 ¥10,000 per sector; the latter, available to anyone regardless of which airline used, allows two flights for ¥26,000, three for ¥39,000, four for ¥52,000 and five for ¥65,000. ANA offers the similar Star Alliance Japan Airpass, with up to five flights available on each pass at ¥11,550 per flight; and the Visit Japan fare with up to five flights available from ¥13,000 per flight (with a minimum of two flights). These fares are excellent value if you plan to visit far-flung destinations, such as the islands of Okinawa, where standard one-way fares from Tokyo cost over ¥30,000. These tickets are not available during peak travelling seasons such as July and August and the New Year and Golden Week holidays.
Japan has a comprehensive system of long-distance buses, or 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 during the journey.
Willer Express 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 ¥3500 compared to ¥12,710 (non-reserved seat) on the Shinkansen which takes two hours and forty minutes. 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, 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.
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) and 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. Contact the Japan Long Distance Ferry Service Association for more information; there are links on the website to the sites of major long-distance ferry services; tickets can be booked on some sites.
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 and regular petrol averages around ¥105 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; Nippon Rent-a-car; Nissan Rent-a-car and Toyota Rent-a-car. Budget, Hertz and National also have rental operations across Japan (although not as widely spread). For local car rental firms’ contact numbers, see the Listings sections in the relevant city accounts. 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 (a subcompact Minica, 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 (say the number of the hotel you’re staying at or a museum you want to visit) 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, 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 such as those issued in France, Germany and Switizerland are not valid), 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 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, 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 and if you’re stopped by the police and breathalyzed you’ll be in big trouble.
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).
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. It’s a good idea to write your intended destination in large kanji characters on a piece of card to hold up. 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 Hitchhiker’s Guide to Japan and his entertaining travel narrative Hokkaidō Highway Blues are useful reference books.
Japanese addresses are described by a hierarchy of areas, rather than numbers running consecutively along named roads. A typical address starts with the largest administrative district, the ken (prefecture), accompanied by a seven-digit postcode – for example, Nagasaki-ken 850-0072. The four exceptions are Tokyo-to (metropolis), Kyoto-fu and Ōsaka-fu (urban prefectures), and Hokkaidō – all independent administrative areas at the same level as the ken, also followed by a seven-digit code. Next comes the shi (city) or, in the country, the gun (county) or mura (village). The largest cities are then subdivided into ku (wards), followed by chō (districts), then chōme (local neighbourhoods), blocks and, finally, individual buildings.
If a building has a name and/or holds several different businesses or homes on different floors you’ll find the floor number generally listed according to the US fashion with the first floor (1F) being the ground floor and the second floor (2F) being the first floor above ground. B1F, B2F and so on, stands for the floors below ground level, Some addresses, where the block is entirely taken up by one building, will only have two numerals. If an address has four numerals, the first one is for a separate business within a certain part of the building.
Japanese addresses are written in reverse order from the Western system. However, when written in English, they usually follow the Western order; this is the system we adopt in the guide. For example, the address 2F Maru Bldg, 2-12-7 Kitano-chō, Chūō-ku, Kōbe-shi identifies the second floor of the Maru Building which is building number 7, somewhere on block 12 of number 2 chōme in Kitano district, in Chūō ward of Kōbe city. Buildings may bear a small metal tag with their number (eg 2-12-7, or just 12-7), while lampposts often have a bigger plaque with the district name in kanji and the block reference (eg 2-12). Note that the same address can also be written 12-7 Kitano-chō 2-chōme, Chūō-ku.
Though the system’s not too difficult in theory, actually locating an address on the ground can be frustrating. The consolation is that even Japanese people find it tough. The best strategy is to have the address written down, preferably in Japanese, and then get to the nearest train or bus station. Once in the neighbourhood, start asking; local police boxes (kōban) are a good bet and have detailed maps of their own areas. If all else fails, don’t be afraid to phone – often someone will come to meet you.