How to Get Around Japan

Senso-ji Market Street, Tokyo, Japan
Crowds in Kyoto
Taxi in Tokyo, Japan

Living in Japan has been great for my punctuality as everything is on time right down to the ‘T’, but getting around Japan is not cheap if you don’t know how to travel smart. 

Expenses in Japan can be manageable if you know how to not only use the transportation, but also know where to stay and where to eat. 

When I’m traveling around the big cities in Japan, there are two ways that I usually travel: for luxury and on a budget. If I go out to the most trendy cafes every day, then I can easily blow through a sizeable budget, but if you don’t mind going to the hole-in-the-walls and the chain restaurants for most of the trip, then you can save a considerable budget–a budget that can be used on more of the touristy things that big cities have to offer. 

Although Japan is a considerably small island (it can fit into the state of California!), traveling from the west to east takes more than 2 hours by bullet train and about 9 hours by car due to Japan’s mountainous terrain.

In this guide on how to get around Japan, I’ll show you how to get around Japan in comfort and on a budget.

Getting Around Japan

Getting around in Japan can be a daunting mess of train lines and kanji characters, but if you have the right passes or know the best ways to travel, you won’t find yourself quite as lost. When I first came to Japan in 2015, I was a young and naive 20 year old who although I spoke Japanese, never been outside of the United States. 

It’s safe to say that the culture shock I experienced in the first hour or two of me landing in Japan zapped all the Japanese I knew how to speak in a moment. Landing in Narita at 11PM was a confusing mess of last trains and shuttle buses, and I didn’t quite know how to use any of them–at least not in a foreign country. 

If you’re anything like I was at that moment, then getting around Japan can be confusing, but it doesn’t have to be! You just have to know your options before you start your trip. Whether its a train, a bus, a plane, or a car, there are many options for getting around in Japan. 

1. By Train

How to Get Around Japan: Manekineko Train
Yokohama Train

Regular Trains and the Subway

Regular trains in Japan come in all shapes and sizes with the trains in the biggest cities being the longest trains (e.g., the trains with the most cars). Venture out into the countryside and be surprised to see trains with only two to three cars. Regular trains and subway trains usually have a few options such as limited (stops at larger stations), rapid (the train stops at only the largest stations) and local (the train stops at every station on that line).

At any train station you can buy a train ticket at a ticket machine or from a train station attendant. On average, a train ticket can range from ¥100 to ¥200 for one direction (without transfer), and paying for a train ticket can only be done using cash. If you want to skip the hassle of figuring out train maps and train tickets, then train-goers and bus-riders can buy an IC card (i.e., PASMO, SUICA, ICOCA). 

If you buy the wrong ticket or need to add on to your fare ticket or IC card, you can do a fare adjustment at any train station window with an attendant or at a fare adjustment machine. 


IC Cards
Using an IC card can not only get you discounts when using the train, but you can also use your IC card to buy things at vending machines, convenience stores, and usually any department or apparel store. PASMO cards are issued by the Tokyo Metropolitan Subway. They can be used almost anywhere in Japan, and you can even engrave your name on these cards. SUICA is issued by JR East and acts the same as a PASMO. ICOCA is issued by JR West and can be seen mostly in the Kansai region of Japan (Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe); however, ICOCA can be used in the Tokyo area as well. Each IC card requires a ¥500 yen fee with a ¥1000-2000 yen deposit. 

Other cards include: Nimoca (Fukuoka), Hayakaken (Fukuoka), Kitaca (JR Hokkaido), Sugoca (Kyushu), Manaca (Nagoya), TOICA (JR Central), PitaPa (Kansai). I personally have a PASMO, but I have noticed no difference between PASMO and the other two cards.

Tip

When planning your train schedules, the best site to use is hyperdia.com. You can choose specific days, what type of train you would like to take, and from where you would like to take it. When searching using Hyperdia, you can even find the best travel routes for your budget!

Ladies-Only Cars
In cities like Tokyo and Osaka, there are often special cars only for female passengers. These train cars are to prevent the well-known groping problem on Japanese trains during rush hour or peak traffic times such as during work-commuting hours (around 8AM). The cars are denoted with pink signage that says “ladies only” in Japanese and English.

Tip

If you experience inappropriate behavior from someone on a train car, don’t hesitate to make a scene. If you yell “hentai” (meaning pervert), this will draw attention to the act and hopefully cause the actor to stop.

Bullet and Sleeper Trains

The fastest way to get around Japan using train is the shinkansen (新幹線) or bullet train. At its top speed, it can run as fast as 200mph or roughly 321kmph. That is fast! These insanely fast trains are known to be safe, on time, and comfortable, but they are often not cheap. To get from western Japan (the Chubu or Hokuriku region) to Tokyo, it can cost up to ¥30,000 round-trip. 

There are two kinds of seating options on bullet and limited express (slightly slower) trains: “free” or unreserved seating (自由席) and reserved seating (指定席). Free seating is first-come-first-serve, and passengers usually line up as early as 30 minutes to an hour in advance. Reserved seating is, well, reserved, so your car and seat numbers will be written on your ticket. If you find yourself in the wrong seat, or even on a bullet train instead of a limited express train or limited express instead of a local train, then you go to the correct car when the train is not in motion or you can pay the difference of your ticket to the train attendant when they come around for their routine ticket inspection.

If you are late for your train and bought a reserved seat, you can also go to a ticketing window or office and request a later train. If you bought an unreserved seat, you can just take a later train. 

Shinkansens aren’t cheap, however if you are a foreign tourist visiting Japan for a short-term stay (less than 90 days), there is a cheaper way: the Japan Rail Pass

Japan Rail Pass
The Japan Rail Pass is a pass for foreign visitors to Japan on short-term or temporary entry visas (less than 90 days) to travel using trains in Japan. Issued by JR, there are two types of passes offered: “green” (for Green cars) and “ordinary,” and these passes are available for 7 days, 14 days, and 21 days. You must buy this pass and receive your exchange order (receipt) before you arrive in Japan

Taken from the Japan Rail Pass website.

After you’ve bought your exchange orders for the pass at a verified seller or online, you must exchange it at a JR ticketing office for your Japan Rail Pass as you can not use the exchange order as your pass. When doing this, you must have your passport with you and it must have a temporary visitor visa stamp or sticker. 

If you would like to make seat reservations for the trains you plan to take using your pass, you must visit the “green window” or “midori no madoguchi” (みどりの窓口) to do so. If you do not wish to reserve seats, you can simply ride most trains and JR local trains by simply showing your pass to a station attendant near the ticket machines. 

Lockers
Lockers are easy to find at most, if not all, train stations. They can be up to ¥1,000 for the whole day and the price depends on the size of locker necessary. In many major train stations, such as Tokyo Station, there is also an
online system that shows what lockers are available real-time. 


Luggage Holding
As an alternative to coin lockers, many major train stations such as Tokyo Station, Osaka Station, and Kyoto Station have luggage holding rooms. Prices are based on how much luggage you need held and for how long, but prices can range from ¥500 to ¥800 per day. 

At certain luggage holding rooms or offices, luggage forwarding services are also available.

Tip

Use Hyperdia to plan your train travel times. The website is offered in English and allows you to customize not only your route, but also your departure and arrival times, what mode of transportation you would like to take (local, limited, etc.), and what kind of seat you would like to buy.

2. By Bus

When I first came to Japan, I was most nervous about riding a bus. I had read about how the system is a little different to how I was familiar with in the United States, and how buses in Japan load from the back. What if I try to get on in the front and make a complete donkey of myself?  Luckily, riding a bus in Japan is not as hard as I feared. 


Getting Off and On
In Japan, you usually get on the bus from the back, and get off the bus in the front. Often, you can do as the Romans do and line up with Japanese passengers at the bus stop, but if you find yourself at a bus stop alone, remember
back to front. In some areas in Tokyo or in Yokohama, you board from the front, but this is not as common as the back-to-front system. The front of the bus is also where you pay your fare and where the fare chart for each stop is located. 

At the back-entrance (入口) of the bus, there is also a ticket machine that gives you a little slip of paper with a number written on it. You can match the number of the stop you got on to the fare chart at the front of the bus to know how much to pay when it is time to get off. 


Paying
When you have matched your bus stop to the fareboard and pressed the button (located either on the wall or seat-pole) to stop the bus, you can pay in cash, tourist bus pass, or IC card. It is important to note that if you pay in cash, you can only change a ¥1000 bill, ¥500 coin, or ¥100 coin for smaller change, and the bus cannot provide change if you do not have exact change for your required fare. Some buses have flat rates, meaning that no matter the distance, the rate is the same. This will most likely be noted somewhere on the bus, but some common flat rate fees are ¥200 to ¥300. 

IC cards and tourist passes are also great ways to use Japan’s bus system. Most major cities take IC cards unless expressly written, but in the case that a bus does not take an IC card, you can most likely get a tourist bus pass. Tourist bus passes can usually be bought from a tourist information center or from a train station information center. These passes offer you 乗り放題 (norihoudai) or all-you-can-ride for a specified time or day-limit. The most common cities you can get a tourist transportation pass is in Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, Fukuoka, and Sapporo, but most cities offer transportation passes for tourists and visitors.

Tip

Other foreigner-friendly bus passes include the Japan Bus Pass by Willer Express, the Shoryudo Bus Pass, the Sun Q Pass, and the Tohoku Highway Bus Ticket.

Highway and Night Buses
Another inexpensive way to get around in Japan, especially for longer distance traveling, is the highway or night buses. This method of getting around is much slower than using the shinkansen, but it is often much cheaper and can still be as comfortable as taking the train. 

You can book a highway or night bus through the bus company Willer Express, Japan Bus Online, or even Japan Expressway Net as they all offer English services. Willer Express in particular usually offers great discounts for foreign travelers and is used the most often among travelers foreign and Japanese alike. 

When using a highway or night bus, the cheapest times to book are for weekdays (Sundays are especially expensive as everyone is trying to get home before Monday) and it is best to book at least a month in advance. As you get closer to the date, cheaper rates and seats tend to sell out. 

Common one-way rates start at: 

    • Tokyo to Kyoto or Osaka – ¥3,000
    • Kyoto or Osaka to Hiroshima – ¥3,000
    • Tokyo to Nagoya – ¥2,500
    • Tokyo to Mt. Fuji  – ¥2,000


Ladies and Priority Seats
As with the train, there are priority seats for elderly, pregnant, or injured passengers on public buses and seats reserved for women on highway and night buses. Please be aware of these designations (usually written in English) when sitting on a public bus and when booking a bus ticket. I find that priority seats for women  on highway and night buses sell much faster than those for men, and if a bus has seats specifically for women and they sell out, you can not reserve seats that are marked for men. 

Tip

Many Japanese passengers wear a face mask when on highway and night buses during long-distance travel for the same reason as it is advised for when traveling on an airplane.

3. By Plane

If you want to knock some time off of your schedule and don’t want to take Japan’s infamous bullet trains or the public bus, then you can take a plane. The biggest operators in Japan are JAL and ANA for premium travel and Peach and JetStar for budget travel.

Personally, I prefer to fly ANA when I am flying long-international (i.e., to the United States), and Peach when I fly domestically or to other countries in Asia. Although JAL is a great airline because it combines comfort with Japan’s great hospitality, I always find that I have the best in-flight experience with ANA. The food options are delicious, the airline staff are always very helpful, and I always find that I can get the most snacks while flying with them. 

When it comes to flying with Peach to Asian countries, although the plane itself is small and the seating is cramped, they usually have some of the cheapest deals. You get what you pay for, they say. Although Peach is not as strict with luggage when flying internationally, they are very strict when flying domestic, so if you know your luggage is over their 15kg limit, it is best to buy the extra luggage weight and save yourself the headache. 


Major Airports
When flying to Japan, you’ll most likely fly to Narita Airport (Chiba), Haneda Airport (Tokyo), KIX (Osaka) or even Chubu Centrair (Nagoya). These airports are well-connected to the biggest cities in the region. 

If you fly into Narita and Haneda airports, both have direct buses and train routes to get you into Tokyo central. Flying into Osaka (KIX)? There is a rapid service train line and a local train line that can take you back and forth to KIX airport. If you fly into Chubu Centrair, you can take the Meitetsu train to Nagoya station for under ¥1,500. 

Here are some typical round-trip prices for domestic flights from Tokyo to other major cities in Japan: 

    • ANA Tokyo to Osaka – ¥9,950
    • JAL Tokyo to Osaka – ¥9,950
    • JetStar Tokyo to Osaka – ¥6,900
    • Peach Tokyo to Osaka – ¥9,530
    • JetStar Tokyo to Fukuoka – ¥8,270
    • Peach Tokyo to Fukuoka – ¥9,370
    • JetStar Tokyo to Hokkaido – ¥8,640
    • Peach Tokyo to Hokkaido – ¥5,740
    • JAL Tokyo to Komatsu – ¥14,390
    • ANA Tokyo to Komatsu – ¥13,790

4. By Ferry

Because Japan is a nation characterized by its chain of large islands, traveling by ferry or even cruise ship is also a way to get around in Japan–albeit a much more time-consuming way.

If you want to book a journey by ferry in Japan, you book the Japan Ferry Pass online. The pass is ¥21,000 and covers up to 6 trips within a 21-day period and 14 available routes. 

The 14 route are Izumiotsu → Shinmoji, Kobe → Shinmoji, Kobe → Miyazaki, Kobe → Oita, Maizaru → Otaru, Nagoya → Sendai → Tomakomai, Niigata → Otaru, Orai → Tomakomai, Osaka → Beppu, Osaka → Shibushi, Osaka → Shimoji, Tokyo → Tokushima → Kitakyushu, Tsuruga → Tomakomai → Higashi, and Tsuruga → Niigata → Akita → Tomakomai → Higashi.

5. By Taxi

How to Get Around in Japan: Taxis

Japanese taxis are not your average taxis. The doors open automatically, the drivers usually wear white gloves like butlers in old black-and-white movies, and if you’re lucky, there’s a tv in the back. The best part is, Japanese taxis are clean, and with the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, taxis are more equipped to handle foreign tourists with little to no Japanese. If you don’t speak Japanese, you can use Maps or Google Maps and show the address to the driver. The driver should be able to understand the address even if it is written in English, and if that fails, you can also show the building or the name of the location you want to go to in Japanese. 


Paying
Although taxis also accept credit cards, IC cards, and prepay app services, the most common way to pay for taxis is by cash. Also, as with most services in Japan, you do not have to tip and it can be seen as rude if you try to. 

Typically taxi fares for the daytime can be up to ¥400 for the first kilometer (about half-a-mile) and up to ¥700 at night.  

There are three common ways to hail a taxi: at a taxi stand, at a convenience store (コンビニ, conbini), and from an app. 

Hailing a Taxi
When hailing a taxi, be sure to check the sign on top of the vehicle or even in the window to see if it is available. A red sign with “空車” means that it is available while a green sign with “賃送” means that it is occupied. Additionally, a yellow sign can mean the taxi is not in service (回送), picking up a customer (迎車), already reserved (要約車 or 割増), or is even in the process of customer payment (支払). 


Taxi Stands
Taxi stands are usually clearly marked with a taxi stand sign, a circular sign with a taxi silhouette. If you are standing at one of these stops and there are no taxis already waiting there, you can just step on the street or lean from the curb or sidewalk and wave one down. The door will automatically open for you when the taxi stops, and then you can proceed to get in the back. 


Convenience Store
This option may require a little more Japanese, but most convenience store attendants know how to call a taxi for you. They will arrange for a taxi to come to the convenience store, and all you have to do is tell them where you want to go and wait outside. If you cannot speak Japaanese, don’t give up! Google Translate can be your best friend in this situation. 


Apps
Even though I speak Japanese, if I’m in a big city and I can’t find a taxi stand or I don’t feel like asking someone at a convenience store (or even if I’m at my house in small-town Fukui), I use a taxi hailing app. Unlike in the U.S. or in other countries, there is no widely-used ride hailing app like Uber (limited access in Tokyo), Lift, or even Grab in Japan, so people rely on walking, trains, buses, or taxi stands. The app that I recommend is
JapanTaxi. You can use this app in major cities like Tokyo, or even small towns or cities like in Fukui. JapanTaxi can be downloaded from the Apple or Google app store and is even offered in English. 

In addition to JapanTaxi, there is also LINE Taxi if you have the LINE messenger app, but the service is limited to the Tokyo metropolitan area and you are required to pay a pick-up fee.

Tip

If you are in Tokyo, you can also reserve taxis by phone in English and book online with two companies: Tokyo Taxi and Tokyo MK Taxi. You will be required to pay a pick-up fee on top of your ride fair when reserving a taxi on the phone.

6. By Car

How to Get Around in Japan: Car

Not interested in taking a plane, bus, or even ferry for your longer distance travels in Japan? You can also rent a car. Renting a car in Japan can be as easy as renting a car in your home country. Most major car rental locations have online websites, branches in major cities, and most importantly, branches at airports. 

When renting and driving a car, there are two things to worry about: a license from your home country coupled with an international driving permit (or an official translation of your license for certain countries), and an understanding of the highway toll system and Japanese traffic laws. 

If you are not from Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Monaco, Slovenia, Switzerland and Taiwan, you are required to not only have your driver’s license when renting a car, but also an international driving permit (IDP). If you are a U.S. Citizen, an IDP can be obtained at any American Automobile Association (AAA) or American Automobile Touring Alliance office in the United States.

After you have all the correct licenses and permits to drive in Japan, the next thing is to know the traffic laws and toll system. As with many European countries, Japan drives on the left side. This can be confusing for many American drivers, but you should be able to adjust quickly to this difference. Note that because Japan drives on the left side, you can not make right turns on red. When you’ve gotten used to driving in Japan, you’ll have to decide to either take free back roads or highway toll roads to travel to different prefectures (and sometimes even to different parts of major cities quickly). Japanese highway toll fees are known to be costly, with fees from Tokyo to Kyoto being almost ¥10,000 (roughly $100 USD)! If you are driving a rental car, it is most likely fitted with an empty ETC card (an automatic payment card for tolls), so if you would like to use the ETC card, then you should ask your rental company how to do this. 

If you decide to rent a car in Japan, major car rental companies include Nippon Rent-A-Car, Times Rental, Toyota Rental Car and Orix Rentacar, and many of these sites have English websites. If you are renting from an airport, there should be English assistance and even some international brands you may know (i.e., Hertz, Budget) that cooperate with local rental companies for foreign tourists. 


Parking
Parking in Japan can be extremely expensive, with parking in most major cities topping out at ¥600 for 30 minutes or even ¥2,400 a day minimum. If you decide to drive in Japan, be aware that your hotel may not have a parking lot or offer parking options, so you may need to find somewhere in the city to park. In smaller cities or towns, hotels are more likely to have parking lots. 


Gas Stations
If you are driving locally (especially in smaller cities or towns), many gas stations close early (around 8PM), but when you are using the highway, small gas stations are usually located next to or in the vicinity of rest stations. 

Most gas stations in Japan are self-service, but you will find some that are only full-service, meaning they will pump your gas for you. This means that the price of your gas will be higher than if you would have done self-service, but it also saves your hands from smelling like gasoline!

In the case of injury or accident, call 119 (ambulance and fire services), 110 (police), and your rental company.

Tip

In 2017, Japan introduced a new discount toll pass for foreign short-stay visitors (less than 90 days) driving in Japan. Visit the Central Nippon Expressway website to learn about the Central Nippon Expressway pass.

7. By Bicycle

Bikes in Ishikawa, Japan
Ishikawa, Japan: Bike-share

After trains, the most common method of transportation for Japanese people is by bicycle. There is a common belief that almost every Japanese person owns a bike, and when you see the large bike rack systems at major train stations, you’ll believe it. Although it doesn’t make sense to buy a bike for your short-term stay in Japan, you can do bikeshare or bike rental. 

Bike-share or bicycle-sharing is a system in which bicycles are available for short-term rental use for a fee. Usually, you can rent a bicycle from one dock or bicycle rack and return it to a different rack within the sharing system. 

Currently, major cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Fukuoka, Sapporo, and Kanazawa have bike-sharing systems.

8. By Walking

How to Get Around in Japan: Walking In Shinjuku

The last way to get around Japan is good ‘ole walking. Walking is not best for long-distance travel in Japan, but it is best for traveling local or in big cities. While you can use the efficient train or bus systems, walking in Japan offers you a great way to see the city and even find some hidden gems not found on internet guides or in guidebooks. 

When walking in Japan, Maps or Google Maps is a great way to navigate even the most complicated city streets. Five years ago, navigating the packed streets of Tokyo was a nightmare with Google Maps, but the app has really gotten better at knowing your location and finding the best routes. Most businesses are accurately marked on both Maps and Google Maps, and you can even use both apps for buses, trains, and even when getting into a taxi. 

In certain major cities like Tokyo and Nagoya, there are also people in the most touristy areas to help you navigate in English. Also, if you’re ever feeling lost, don’t be shy to just ask a local! Most Japanese people can speak at least elementary English (I can vouch for this as an English teacher in Japan), and with the ever-growing translation apps, you can get directions without knowing Japanese. 

Still worried about not knowing Japanese? Useful translation apps for Japanese are: Google Translate, Waygo Translator, iHandy, and iTranslate. These apps can be downloaded from the Apple App store or the Google App store. Outside of phone apps, there are also translation devices such as ili that you can speak into in sticky situations.

Best Way to Get Around

The best way to get around depends on where you want to go and what you want to do. If you are traveling to cities or prefectures on the same island, then I recommend you take the trains as they are safe, fast and efficient. When you are traveling in a city, the best way to get around is by bus, especially if there are tourists passes (i.e., in Kyoto and Nara). 

If you are going from a city or prefecture from one island to the next (i.e., Okinawa to Hokkaido), then the best way is by plane as that will give you the shortest travel times. 

In summary, traveling around Japan can be cheap and expensive depending on the way you want to travel, but if you’re looking to stay on budget, don’t be discouraged by Japan’s expensive rumors. Whichever way you choose to get around in Japan, it will be safe, usually clean, and time-efficient. 

Have any more questions about how to get around Japan? Have any more questions about how to get around Japan? Leave them in the comments or email me!

For more about Japan, check out my experience doing a farm-stay in the Japanese countryside!

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20 thoughts on “How to Get Around Japan”

  1. I’m so desperate to go to Japan and even more so after this post!! Such beautiful photos and so much useful info, I’ll be coming back to this post when I finally make it to Japan!!

    1. Hanna, I’m glad I could insight that Japan wanderlust even more! Thank you so much, and I will definitely be posting more about Japan this year. 😀

  2. My hubby and I sort of stumbled around on the bus system which wasn’t all that easy to figure out (at first) wish I had read more articles like your before I went to Japan, but I totally appreciate it now! Not a lot of English-speaking folks to help so having a little knowledge ahead of time is important!

    1. Christine, you should definitely go back to Tokyo when you have more time to explore! I’ll be posting more on Japan and Tokyo specifically, so be sure to check out those posts as well. 😀

  3. I’ve always wanted to go to Japan, but one of my concerns was not speaking the language and not being able to muddle through reading signs. This guide to Japan’s transportation would definitely help take away some of that anxiety. Thanks – pinning for a future trip!

  4. This is such a great post! Thank you for all the information – and so organized as well! We’re planning for Japan next year and this really helps with clearing up confusion on getting around.

    1. Sue and Renesh, I’m glad you liked this post and that it could be helpful! I’ll be writing even more about Japan this year, so please look out for that! Enjoy your visit in Japan next year. 🙂

  5. What an amazing, detailed and helpful article! It definitely refreshed my memories about getting around in Japan and I even learned new things that I didn’t know before! Well done.

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