Getting Around in Japan

May 6th, 2009 | By | Category: Featured Articles, Travel

From your own feet to two wheels, and from four wheels on pavement to the shinkansen (bullet train) that races on rails or domestic airline flights, your transportation options in Japan run the gamut.

You’ve got your plane reservation and are on your way to Japan and now the question becomes how to get around once you are here.  Almost everyone has heard about the vast and efficient trains systems in Japan but there are other means of transportation that you should consider when traveling from place to place.

The country has come along way since the days of rickshaws, horse drawn carriages and samurai on horseback!  (Read more about the History of transportation in Japan)

From traveling cross country to moving about in the cities you will find getting around in Japan a lot easier once you understand your various options.

Shinkansen (Bullet Train)

Shinkansen Bullet Train Japan Many private railways exist throughout Japan but the predominant company serving the country is Japan Railways Group, better know as JR.  From Hokkaido to Kyushu, JR offers service in all regions of Japan, with the exception of Okinawa.

If you are planning to move around the country when you visit consider a Japan Rail Pass which can only be purchased outside of Japan for seven, fourteen, or twenty-one day periods.  A Japan Rails Pass offers travel on most lines, JR busses and ferries throughout the country.   If you are already in Japan, consider one of the regional Japan Rail Passes that can be purchased within the country.

If you are only making a a return trip from one place to another the Japan Rail Pass may not be an economical option for you and you may want to consider booking a single trip on the shinkansen.  The JR East Shinkansen Reservation system can be used to make a reservation but you will need to register as a member (free of charge) during the reservation process. A credit card and e-mail address will be required for membership.  Review the map of the service areas and the timetable to plan your trip.  This reservation system is intended primary for people entering Japan via Narita Airport (just outside of Tokyo) as tickets can only be picked up at major JR East Stations in the Tokyo metropolitan area and the Kanto, Tohoku, and some parts of the Chubu region. Tickets cannot be picked up in Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, or Sapporo.

One of the best resources for train travel in Japan is Hyperdia.  This system allows users to search train timetables across Japan in English and includes approximately 10,000 stations.

Highway Buses

Japan Highway Bus Japan also operates a network of highway busses that are a more economical travel solution that the shinkansen but will make your journey significantly longer, often overnight.

Information of Highway Busses in Japan can be bound at Japan Bus Web along with a searchable database providing pick-up and drop off points, travel time and fare information.

For travel on JR Busses be sure search their highway bus timetable for similar information.  Another company offering long haul bus transportation in Japan is 123bus.net.

Air Travel

Japan has a number of air carriers that offer travel within Japan.  Regular fares are often more expensive than those for train travel but discounts can be found.  Consider a Japan Airpass or consult with a travel agent to learn more about air travel options within Japan.

Public Transportation in Major Japanese Cities

Yamanote Train The public transportation system in Japan includes a combination of subway systems, local train lines and busses.  This is often the most economical and convenient way to explore the major cities of Japan.

In most major cities the subway system or local train lines are easier to use than city buses for those with limited or no Japanese language ability.  English signage is often posted and bilingual announcements on major tourist routes are common in lager cities.

Taking the bus can be more challenging as it is often hard to find English information for bus routes and timetables.  However, since train lines criss-cross most major cities you may never have a need to take a city bus.  If you do, check for information or ask for guidance at a local tourism office or from your hotel concierge.

Use these links to assist you as you make your way around on public transportation:

How to Take the Train in Japan
Tokyo Metro – Download the Tokyo Subway Route Map (PDF) for reference and use Tokyo Transfer Guide to plan travel routes in the Tokyo Metropolitan area.
Public Transportation in Kyoto
Public Transportation in Sapporo
Nagoya Subway
Public Transportation in Osaka
Hiroshima Street Cars and Hiroshima Online Route Finder
Fukuoka City Subway
Sendai City Transportation Bureau

Keep in mind that public transportation in Japan does not not operate on a 24 hour schedule.  Most trains and busses stop running around midnight, or earlier in some cases, so be sure to ask about this if you are planning evening outings.

Taxis

Taxi Shibuya Tokyo While taxis are often the most expensive transportation option, that may not always be the case and taxis should be considered especially when traveling with a group, young children or older people who may have a hard time getting around.  Most taxis accommodate up to four passengers but larger taxis are available but not common.

Taxis are readily available at most train stations and can be easily hailed on busier streets in most Japanese cities.  The base fare for most taxis is Y710 (around USD 7) and that includes the first 2 kilometers.  After that time and distance charges apply at a rate of approximately Y100 for each half a kilometer.  Rates can increase late in the evening after the trains and busses have stopped running.

If you plan on taking a taxi, a red light indicates an available taxi while green indicates one that is taken.  Taxis in Japan have automatic doors that are operated by the driver and it is frowned upon to open or close the door as a passenger.

For short trips with 3-4 people, taking a taxi can actually be cheaper than a train or bus.

Bicycles

bicycles in a row Japan In every corner of Japan you will find people of bikes.  Second to walking, it is the most common form of transportation in Japan.  Bicycles can get you to your local market, the train station and beyond.  Most people in Japan own at least one bicycle and a row of parked bicycles is a common sight.

For those visiting some cities offer bicycle rentals and even tours for you to take advantage of – it’s a fun way to move around a city and offers more flexibility that other modes of transportation.

Check out Cycle Tokyo! for a list of bike rental locations in Tokyo or contact them about guided rides in the city.

Bicycle rentals in other areas of Japan:

Kyoto Cycling Tour Project
Mujirushi Ryohin Bicycle Rental (Kyoto)
Kamakura Bicycle Rental (scroll down the page)
Niigata Bicycle Rental
Suwa City (Nagano Prefecture) Rental Bicycle
Rental Bike Apro (Okinwawa)

This list is not all inclusive so be sure to check for with the local tourism office or your hotel concierge to find out if there is a bike rental shop near you in Japan.

On Foot

walking in Japan You will do a lot of walking in Japan and commuting from one place to another will almost certainly involve stretching your legs.  Your walk may be as short as a minute from the bus stop to the shopping mall or restaurant or it could be fifteen minutes or more from the train station to a temple or other sightseeing destination.

Comfortable footwear is essential when traveling around Japan so be sure to come prepared and consider leaving your high heels at home – your feet will thank you!

Getting Around in Japan

Getting around in Japan is fun and relatively easy even if you don’t speak the language – with good planning and knowledge of your transportation options, you will find that moving around the country is a lot less stressful than you may have thought.

Image Credit:  Personal Collection & Flickr, Bicycles, Bicycles, Everywhere!, Shinkansen, Tokyo, Dream Kobe (JR Highway Bus) @ Takarazuka Station & IMGP1500

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  1. Ah, Shinkansen, how I love thee… A great tip for taking the Shinny is that, unless it’s Golden Week and assuming you don’t need to get off at some obscure place and therefore need the only train that doesn’t express through there that day, don’t book in advance! Relax, get to the Eki when you get there and buy your ticket for the next train – no need to be flustered trying to make some time you booked a month ago and before you found out about that festival you want to stay a bit longer for!

    Also, at least compared to Australia, taxis are actually very reasonable – esp in a city like Kyoto where anything you might want to see is fairly close. We rarely paid more than 800yen from our hotel in Kyoto (the Miyako so not downtown either) to any of the areas we wanted to see and was well worth it since in between its mostly, well, a city. Save your walking feet for the Gion or the mountains where it’s worth walking!

  2. […] sure to read Getting Around in Japan to learn about your other transportation options, unfortunately many of the others don’t […]

  3. […] like Rilakkuma, when traveling around Japan, have a quick read of The Nihon Sun’s article on Getting Around in Japan for some handy tips from […]

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  5. […] you have familiarized yourself with with the variety of options for getting around in Japan the next issue that you will need to tackle is how to find everything.  While finding English […]

  6. […] Getting around in Japan provided an overview of the different transportation options that you have when you visit or live in Japan but for most people the predominant mode of transportation is the train system.  Whether you take the Narita Express (NEX) into the city from the airport, the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto or or the local metro system you will likely spend a lot of time on trains! (see budgeting your time in Japan for planning strategies & tips) […]

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  8. No matter which mode of transportation you take be sure to carry a card from the hotel you are staying at so that you can always show it to someone if you are lost or need to get a taxi driver to take you back to the hotel.

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