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Top Tips For Japan Transportation

Transport tips for Japan

A big part of enjoying a trip to Japan is being able to get around effectively so here are some of our top tips for transport in Japan.  There’s a heck of a lot of information on this subject so I’m going to split this topic in two.  In this post I’m going to concentrate on:

  • the tips for saving you some cash where possible
  • how to find the best routes and the options to get where you want to go, and
  • all the general hacks and hints you’ll need to master Japan transportation, get around efficiently and see as much as possible in the time you have available.

Other articles include:  Using the Tokyo Subway, how to get from Narita Airport into Tokyo and Everything you need to know about the Japan Rail Pass

Public transport in Japan is almost always exceptionally clean and well maintained, that is the case whether it’s the latest bullet train or an old monorail from the 1970s.  It’s also very efficient, it’s exceptionally rare for a train, subway or even a bus not to run on time.  

I was somewhat surprised the first time that I heard an announcement in Kyoto station that apologised and announced the delay of my bullet train.  The announcement was for the train running three minutes behind schedule, by the time the Japanese then English announcement played the train was already on the platform, to be honest by my watch it wasn’t even late.

The thomas school bus

Hyperdia.com

You absolutely need to know about the Hyperdia website.  It covers most transport options available.  You just plug in the information on where you want to go from and to within Japan.  Then select the date and time of day, and select or deselect any options you don’t want to use. 

For example, if you are travelling with the JR Pass (which I’ll cover below) you’ll want to deselect the Nozomi Shinkansen option.  You can use this website for something as simple as finding how long a subway ride between two stops takes, check the time for the last train back to your accommodation or look at all the options for travelling from one side of the country to the other.

I use this site extensively for both pre-planning my trips and for checking options on the go when I’m in Japan.  Like most things related to transport in Japan – it’s very reliable.

 The JR Pass

The single biggest cost-saver in each of my trips to Japan has been the JR Pass, it’s meant my travel in-country has cost me half or less than it would have without the pass.  There are a few tricks with it, mainly that it’s only available to those entering Japan on a foreign passport and the 90-day visa. 

You have to buy the JR Pass at home before you travel, it can’t be purchased in Japan.    To work out if it’ll be good value for you you’ll need to have a reasonably good idea of where you are going and over what time period.  There are various versions, a 7,14 or 21-day version and a standard or green (first) class version.

The general rule is that if you are doing a return trip between Tokyo and Kyoto within a 7-day time-frame then it’s worth getting the card, this works for either the standard or green class.  You can use Hyperdia to work out the costs of your key travel requirements if you are considering a longer time-frame or want to see how much you will save. 

You can’t use the super-fast Nozomi shinkansen (bullet train) service with the JR Pass but it would only save you a couple of minutes anyway and everything else JR is covered including ferries like the one to Miyajima Island near Hiroshima.

We get so many questions on this subject that we just added a dedicated post explaining everything you need to know about the Japan Rail Pass.

Update:  Japan Rail is currently trialling a local purchase for the pass in a limited number of station offices. It is slightly more expensive to purchase the pass in Japan than in advance of your trip.

Shinkensen

PASMO, SUICA or ICOCA Card

Stored value cards for transport in Japan seem to be more about convenience than saving money but I wouldn’t be without one.  We’ve been using the same PASMO cards for years and when we first got them there was quite a decision to make on which to get based on where we were going and where they could be used. 

In 2013 that changed and these cards and a handful of smaller ones formed an alliance meaning you can now use them almost interchangeably across the country.  They can be used on trains, subway, buses and even some ferries.

I mostly use the ICOCA card as they can do a little more than the others outside these major cities.  For example they work on the buses and private train lines in Nara, Hiroshima and Mt Koya.  Your decision will more likely be based on where you fly into and where you want to start using the card. 

ICOCA is owned by JR West so is the easiest card to purchase in Osaka and Kyoto.  If you fly into Tokyo Suica is owned by JR East and Pasmo by the company that runs Tokyo Railway and the subway.  You can buy a card and top them up in increments of 1000 Yen at machines in most stations.  A few machines are in Japanese only  but almost all have an English button and are very simple to use. 

I usually use machines in the bigger stations and top it up with what I think I’m going to need so I don’t have to keep doing it.  If you end up with money still on your card when it’s time to leave Japan or you want the 500 Yen fee you paid for the card with the initial purchase refunded you can do that at machines or kiosks at larger stations that sell that card. I’ve not needed to do it but I’ve been told the easiest place for the refund is the machines at the airport.

Our personal experience is that the cards work more widely than just these major cities, for example we used our PASMOs in Sapporo with no problem on trains, subway and buses.  You can also use them on any local JR train in Japan.  As an added bonus you can also often use them on vending machines and in corner stores like 7 eleven which is handy for a quick purchase.

The notable times you can’t use these cards are for the airport limousine or highway buses, long-distance trains and the Shinkansen.  On some trains called ‘limited express’, you can pay the base fare on your card but need to buy a supplement fee ticket at the special machine.  Think of these cards as being for local, around town transport.

Taxi

I’ll cover types of transport further in my next post but just a quick word on Taxi in relation to your budget.  Taxi’s in Japan are very expensive even for a relatively short distance, think twice before you take a taxi from the airport to your city accommodation, it’s normally a very long and exceptionally expensive trip.  We have used taxi’s occasionally in Japan for short distances such as a central train station to our accommodation with luggage but rarely use them other than that.

Japanese taxi drivers are very honest, they don’t expect (or accept) tips but they also most often don’t speak English.  This is further complicated by the Japanese system of addresses.  If you think you might want to get a taxi back to the hotel later pick up the business card with Japanese directions from the front desk and keep it in your wallet.  A hotel concierge will always be willing to write out another address in Japanese if you need it to give to a driver.

Another tip with taxi’s in Japan is that they are small cars, two large suitcases will be beyond the capacity of some although we’ve always managed when we need to.

Taxi

Airport to Accommodation options

The two most practical options for getting to and from the airport in Japan are the train or the airport limousine bus service.  The train is generally faster but you’ll need to get from the central station to your hotel either by walking, taxi or joining a subway or local train which aren’t designed for luggage.  The airport limousine bus can be an easy option if your hotel is one of the stops on its circuit, especially if it’s your first trip to Japan it can just make your arrival a little more straight-forward.

We’ve used both options and flown in and out of Osaka, Tokyo (Narita and Haneda) and Sapporo airports with no real problems.  My preference is the train from Osaka and Sapporo, bus from Haneda and either from Narita.

You’ll find full details of all the options on getting from Narita Airpot to Tokyo city in this article.

Free or City Passes

These type of passes are designed for local and foreign tourists visiting certain areas.  They often provide significantly discounted transport options and a range of included activities which depending on your interests and time available can be excellent value.

Normally I’m not a fan of anything quite so structured but we’ve tried a couple when they worked for us including the Osaka Amazing Pass, Hakone Free Pass and the Tobu Nikko Pass.  Each represented really good value for us and we thoroughly enjoyed each day.

osaka river cruise

The language barrier

I’m assuming that because you’re reading my English language blog that you speak and read English, I’m not assuming that everyone does.  I wish I spoke more than a few words of Japanese, travelling anywhere is enhanced by the ability to communicate and engage with the locals and in Japan that will be limited if you only speak English but you can get around and have a fantastic time, we have done it a number of times now and plan to go again soon.

With transport, you’ll find it’s easy to get around within, and to and from the main centres and more popular tourist areas.  The train and subway signs, for instance, are usually also shown in both Japanese and English, there are also English subway maps as well as free walking maps widely available.

Do you have any top tips for transport in Japan to share?  Please leave any tips and experiences in the comments below and feel free to ask any questions.

85 Comments

  • Hi Toni
    Your post on Japanese transport has been helpful and I think I’m on the right track but just hoping you could add any advice. Here is our itinerary and I’m thinking that it would be better to use the ICOCA card and just buy individual tickets for our Osaka/Kyoto/Tokyo leg instead of buying a JR card. Is that correct? 2 adults and 1 child

    Toyko – 3 nights (we are planning on just travelling around the city, so could use ICOCA)
    We head up to Sapporo after that which all transport has been taken care of and then we fly from there down to Osaka.
    Osaka – we wanted to do a day trip to Kyoto (return) and then will take a one way train from Osaka to Tokyo. The other days we will be around Osaka city.

    Hopefully I’m on the right track and it’s more cost effective not having a JR pass as I assume we can purchase the Kyoto day trip on the Special Rapid Train once we get there. And just organise our individual tickets from Osaka to Tokyo before we leave home.

    • Hi Jodie. You are definitely on the right track, with your Hokkaido travel booked the remainder doesn’t justify the cost of the JR Pass so individual tickets for the shinkansen and an IC card for the rest makes sense. As you are flying into Tokyo you will be best with the SUICA available from JR Tokyo stations or the PASMO cards which you can pick up in the subway offices. You can use any of the 3 cards all around the country but the ICOCA is issued by JR West so the pickup point (and if you wanted to return for a refund) would be somewhere like Osaka or Kyoto. With Suica you can do that in Tokyo which might work better with your plans.

      For getting from Osaka to Kyoto return it will depend a bit on where in Kyoto you are headed and where you are staying in Osaka. JR trains go into Kyoto station but with Hankyu or Keihan railways you can go directly into Gion so it will often work out faster and cheaper, we use those options quite often if we don’t have a JR pass active.

    • Hi Jodi
      We are travelling to Japan for the first time in May this year. We will initially be spending 7 nights in Tokyo and will be using the transport system to get around Tokyo. We will then be travelling to Kyoto for 7 nights and will be travelling around Kyoto to see the sights. We will then be flying out of Osaka to return home. Can you suggest the best transport pass for us?

      Thanks, Cheryl

      • As you have only one long distance trip mentioned, from Tokyo to Kyoto, you will be best to use an individual ticket for that. Depending on when in May you might want to book that early in your visit, trains are particularly busy during Golden Week. For the rest I’d pick up a Suica or PASMO card in Tokyo, they can be used on trains, subways and many buses in both cities. There is a deposit on the card, I think it’s Y500 that you won’t be able to refund at Osaka airport but we find it worth it for the convenience. You can also use the card on many drinks machines and at convenience stores which saves building up a pocket full of change.

        • Thanks so much for your advice. It all makes sense to us however our travel agent is pushing the JR pass suggesting it would be great value but I’m not sure. As you have suggested the only long distance trip we will be doing is from Tokyo to Kyoto. Whilst in Kyoto we will probably do a couple of day trips and of course we will need to travel the airport in Osaka. Would the PASMO card cover day trips out of Kyoto? I have done some rough calculations on Hyperdia and am not sure we need the JR pass. I guess I’m just wanting some clarification on whether or not you still think we are best without the JR pass? Regards, Cheryl

          • I have heard from too many people over the years who were pushed to buy the pass and just didn’t get the value out of it. It is one of the best travel bargains we have ever found BUT it’s not suited for every trip. No one wants to waste their travel dollars, regardless of their budget. A PASMO card can be used on the subways and buses in Kyoto and the trains to nearby areas on day trips, you aren’t limited to only JR, that choice is useful for places like Osaka and Arashiyama where other company stations might be more convenient. The only reason I would suggest you take another look at the pass is if you planned to do some long day trips, I’m talking about things like Hiroshima and Kanazawa rather than Nara and Osaka.

          • Toni, if we were to take a day trip to Osaka and Uji from Kyoto would we be able to do this on the PASMO? Should we purchase the PASMO and the fare from Tokyo to Kyoto here or in Japan. If in Japan, can we purchase them at any station. We will be staying in Shinjuku near Higashi. Thanks again for your help and your valuable time. Thanks, Cheryl

          • The PASMO is a good option for local trains such as those between Kyoto and Osaka or Uji. With the card you can use JR trains if you are near Kyoto station or use Keihan trains if you are down around Gion or Shijo. I have some information on getting to Uji in this article.

            For the Tokyo to Kyoto section I wouldn’t have any concerns booking it in Tokyo as you are there a week before you move on to Kyoto. You can’t purchase Shinkansen tickets at the smaller JR stations but you are about a 15-minute walk from the main Shinjuku station which has a good JR East Travel Service Centre, it’s easy to find and has English speaking staff. My exception to booking a single ticket before I go would be if using the Shinkansen on a popular route like Tokyo to Kyoto during Golden Week which is 29 April t 6 May this year. During Golden week a lot of Japanese have time off and travel so the intercity trains are busier during that period. During Golden week even with a booking I’d use a luggage forwarding service rather than taking a large suitcase on the shinkansen as storage space is limited.

          • Thanks again Toni. We won’t be arriving in Japan until the 19th of May so we won’t be there for Golden week so I guess it will be fine to take our suitcases on the train with us to Kyoto? Cheers, Cheryl

          • In the past that would be correct but Japan Rail has announced they changing the luggage rules in May this year impacting that route but the information that has come out is ambiguous. I am trying to clarify it with JR East at the moment so I can update our articles. The measurement they give is in centimetres that should be the sum of the height, width and depth of the suitcase. But it also says 160cm is cabin bag size and would go overhead when this is the size of my large American Tourista case that would definitely not go overhead. From what I can read between the lines I think you will be fine, assuming you don’t have oversized luggage it appears it will just mean that you need to book your seat (and your suitcase), you are already booking your seat and there is no extra cost for the bag so they will seat you in a row at the back of the carriage and your bags will go behind you. If you don’t book and just get on with a larger suitcase, it looks like there will now be a Y1000 fee and the inspector will stow your bag.

            I’ll let you know when I have clearer information but I wouldn’t be too concerned in the meantime.

          • What a coincidence we also have large American Tourister suitcases! Let’s hope they don’t change the rules for luggage on this route. Hope to hear from you if there are any changes. Thanks again, Cheryl.

        • Hi Toni. We are looking at getting either the airport limousine or a shuttle bus from Narita to our hotel in Shinjuku. Is there any particular company you would recommend and can we purchase the tickets on arrival at the airport or is it best to purchase them here before we leave? Roughly how much do they cost? Thanks again, Cheryl

          • If your hotel is one that the airport limousine bus stops at and at a time that is convenient to catch it (they don’t line up with some early flights or late night arrivals) I find that a great simple option. While it does take a little longer than the NEX into Tokyo station, you arrive at your hotel directly, you don’t need to then add on time to catch a subway, walk with your cases or then catch a taxi. Shuttles are also door to door but can be quite expensive if the limousine bus works. There is an article on our site going up later this week on all the ways to get from Narita Airport into Tokyo which will give more detail on the options and who they are best suited to. I’ll pop back and link it here when it’s published.

          • Unfortunately it looks like it doesn’t stop at our hotel but drops us off at the Shinjuku express busway terminal which is about a 15 minute walk from there. It is possible there may be four of us travelling so I’d be interested in getting an idea the best way for four of us to travel from the airport and if not then two of us. Look forward to your information on this. Thanks

          • Our article on options for getting from Narita Airport to Tokyo city discusses and compares the various transport choices. Shinjuku Higashi is a little away from the main part of Shinjuku so that’s a bit of a walk with suitcases. I would take the NEX through to Shinjuku station or the bus to one of the major hotels nearby then a taxi for the couple of kms to your hotel, the taxi pricing for short distances across town is similar to Australia.

  • hello just found your blog on transport in Japan.
    We are going to Osaka Kyoto Tokyo what travel pass do you think we would need.thankyou

    • Hi Kerry, in deciding your best options there are a few things that will be considered. How long you are there for? Are you doing a return trip between Tokyo and Kyoto/Osaka or one way only? Are you planning any day trips out of the cities?

      • Hi,

        I am reaching Tokyo and flying out of Osaka. I will be there for 7 days.
        My plan is to do Tokyo – Hakone – Kyoto – Osaka. Does it make sense for me to buy a JR pass? And if not what are the tickets/cards I will be requiring for the trip.

        Also, do I buy there Sioca, Pasmo or ICOCA card?

        I had read on your website which side of the train to sit on while traveling to Hakone from Tokyo. Unfortunately I can not find that article again.

        Since I am very short on time and this is my first trip I would like to take the Romance car since I am staying in Shinjuku.

        Thank you so much for your help!

        • Our article on the JR Pass should answer a lot of your questions. With just the trips mentioned here on a 7 day period, the JR Pass would not be economical.

          Suica, Pasmo and ICOCA are collectively referred to as IC cards, or tap and go cards. They store a value you put on them and then deduct the correct fare depending on what station you top on at and where you exit. They can also be used in other places such as convenience stores and at drinks machines. Suica and PASMO are purchased usually in Tokyo, they are issued by JR East and Tokyo Subway. The ICOCA card is issued by JR West and will usually be purchased in Kyoto or Osaka. For day to day use it doesn’t matter which you have, they can all be used and recharged across the county.

          If you sit on the right-hand window seat leaving Tokyo towards Hakone, either on the JR or Odakyu (Romance Car) line you can see Mt Fuji on a clear day.

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