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.
Table of Contents
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.