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Japan is an island nation that is easy both to reach, and to navigate once you get there. The country’s transportation infrastructure is sophisticated and extensive, so no matter where you go, you will find it easy to travel on to your next destination.
There are many means of transportation in Japan and they all have their pros and cons. Factors such as how long you’ll be traveling, where you’ll be going, and what your comfort levels are, all add into the equation to help you figure out the most efficient and cost-effective means of travel for you.
This article will provide you with some more information about how best to travel within Japan.
Going by rail is the most thrilling way to see Japan, especially if you're only in the country for a short visit. The bullet train can take you from Tokyo to Kyoto, Nara, Osaka and other major cities within a few hours, making the shinkansen the favorite type of transportation for foreign visitors.
There are six main shinkansen lines. The busiest route is the Tokaido line, which runs south from Tokyo through Nagoya, Kyoto, and Osaka. On the train there are announcements and electronic signs in English telling you which stations are coming up. So don’t worry if you don’t understand Japanese.
The Japanese Rail Pass is the most popular pass to use, allowing travel on JR trains and buses with only a few exceptions (like certain shinkansen trains). Passes are available for 7, 14 or 21 days. Using the JR pass is very easy: just show your pass to the staff at the gate and make your way to the train.
Information on JR trains and schedules is available at Travel Service Centers at major JR stations throughout Japan. It is important to buy your JR Pass before arriving in Japan because it is not available for purchase after you arrive.
Because of the long distances between, for example, Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu and Sapporo on Hokkaido, flying is often the fastest way to travel, with airlines like JAL and ANA providing the most extensive coverage. Smaller domestic airlines with more competitive rates include Skymark, Solaseed Air and Jetstar Japan.
Overseas visitors can save money on domestic flights by purchasing tickets along with their international flights. Both JAL and ANA offer cheaper domestic fares for passengers flying international routes to Japan with them or any partner airline (such as ANA’s Star Alliance partner, United).
Slightly more expensive fares are available for non-partner airlines. Several restrictions apply; for example, tickets must be purchased outside of Japan after buying the international tickets, and there are certain blackout dates. The prices of domestic airline tickets depend greatly on the season. You can book tickets either from official websites or through travel agents.
Buses are used extensively throughout the country. They are a low-cost alternative to trains, for reaching areas not served by rail, including more remote areas and Japan’s many islands.
Long-distance buses travel between major cities, such as Tokyo and Kyoto, with much cheaper fares than trains, unless you have a JR Pass. Some buses are quite luxurious, with reclining seats for overnight trips and even salons.
Many long-distance buses, especially overnight buses, require seats to be reserved in advance. It is recommended to make reservations early for popular routes and during busy travel seasons. If the bus is not booked out, however, it is usually possible to purchase a ticket just prior to departure at the bus terminal.
On some shorter bus lines, seat reservations are not possible.
Ferries are a major form of transportation to Japan’s many islands. Smaller islands, like Naoshima in the island-studded Seto Inland Sea, can only be reached by ferry.
Long-distance ferries may provide a more relaxing and cheaper alternative to planes.
Overnight ferry trips between Honshu and Hokkaido in the north, and Kyushu and Shikoku in the south, are highly recommended. If you cannot spare the time, try a short hop to one of the islands of the Inland Sea, or from Niigata to Sado-ga-shima. These are the most popular destinations.
Ferry schedules, however, are subject to seasonal changes and also vary according to the weather, so for up-to-date details of times and prices it’s best to consult the local tourist information office. Or you can go to their official website for more information, where tickets can also be booked.
Japan has an efficient public transport network, especially within its large cities. The Japanese transport system, including subway, monorail, buses, taxis and even bicycles, can help you explore the city. Public transport is usually characterized by punctuality, excellent service and cleanliness.
City-wide subways are a quick and easy option for reaching any destination within big cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. Subway train announcements are made in Japanese but often in English too. The next station is often displayed on electronic boards in the carriages in both Japanese and English.
Most subway systems in Japan start at around 5 am and end around midnight. Services are less frequent at weekends and on public holidays. Some subway lines in Japan have women-only carriages running in the rush hour period, normally 8 to 9 am. The JR Pass cannot be used on subways, so you need to buy a ticket from a vending machine or ticket window.
As well as the subway, Japan has an extensive monorail system, and one Japanese line is the second longest monorail in the world. Big cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Hiroshima all operate monorails.
Monorails are easy to ride. You can use your JR Pass on some of them. In case you cannot use your JR Pass, tickets for monorail can be purchased from the vending machine or ticket window. Riding the monorail in Tokyo is a memorable experience, because you can often enjoy seaside views. On clear days, Mount Fuji is visible in the distance.
Bus services are available throughout Japan’s cities, but sometimes it can be difficult for non-Japanese-speaking visitors to find the relevant timetables and to reserve seats.
Buses can be a useful alternative to trains if you are staying outside the immediate city center. Although buses might not be as frequent as trains and generally take longer to get from place to place, they often travel to lesser-known areas and are a good way to avoid crowded train stations. Some have a free Wi-Fi system in place.
Japan has an estimated 260,000 taxis nationwide, with Tokyo alone having around 35,000 taxis from more than 320 different taxi companies. Kyoto also has a large number of taxis. All Japanese taxis can be hailed on the street, from virtually anywhere you like, at most times and in most areas.
Many taxis accept payment by credit card, and an increasing number accept payment by IC card. Stickers on the door often indicate accepted payment methods. When paying in cash, try to avoid paying small amounts with large bills. There is no tipping in Japan.
Riding a bike is a great way to get from A to B in the smaller towns and countryside, allowing you to see plenty of beautiful landscape and to meet up with local people.
Hokkaido, in particular, is a cyclist’s dream, with excellent roads through scenery which is often stunning. You can rent bikes from outlets beside or near the train station. Some towns even have bikes for hire free of charge – enquire at the tourist office.
1. Get your JR Pass before leaving your home country.
2. Avoid the morning (8-9 am) and afternoon (5-6 pm) rush hours to beat the crowds in major cities like Tokyo and Osaka. The traffic volume on certain urban and suburban trains is so intense that passengers are pressed against each other to the extent that they are unable to move.
3. Carry at least 10,000-20,000 yen in cash with you. Most Japanese ATM machines do not accept foreign cards. Also many establishments do not accept credit cards. So, if you come across an ATM that accepts foreign cards, it may be a good idea to take out some money.
4. Don’t tip anyone; even taxi-drivers will be offended if you do so.
5. Write down the full address of your hotel or destination to show to someone, in case you lose your way.
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