Planning a trip to Japan? With a land area of over 1.5 times that of the United Kingdom, Japan is no small country. Fortunately for visitors though, whilst less so for folks living there, most of Japan's geography is covered in mountainous areas hence limiting most of its population as well as visitor attractions to a few major cities. Combine this with an incredibly clean, efficient and hyper modern transportation system of air, rail and road networks, getting around is generally very convenient and very accessible in Japan.
Recently, I was in Japan's main island of Honshu to visit the 3 key cities of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. Whilst 98.5% of Japan's population (2013 statistics) are ethnic Japanese who (obviously) speak & read Japanese, the folks there have done a really good job in making travel around Japan most doable for the self traveling foreign visitors. These days, there are plenty of English signs available, and help for a lost visitor is almost always just an ask away of a nearby local.
Even so, whilst doing this third trip to Japan, I still found it challenging at times to navigate the complex transport network and unique culture of this land. As such, I have put together some tips which I have learned over time. Hopefully, you find these tips useful if you should be heading that way .. Please also do not hesitate to let us know if you have better tips and tricks to share by posting a comment to our Facebook page. Cheers!
Japan has some of the busiest airports in the world. Tokyo's Haneda Airport (also known as Tokyo International Airport) is in the list of World's Top 10 Busiest Airports. Three (3) of Haneda's routes (Sapporo, Fukuoka and Okinawa) are listed in IATA's Top 10 Busiest Air Routes in the World! Given the statistics, over 78 million passengers went through Haneda Airport in 2015, with an average of over 50 aircraft heading in or out every hour. You can only expect that there will be many people passing through that airport and all major airports in Japan.
Even through Japanese airports are very busy, it has always been a really good experience passing through them. My early morning sunrise arrival into Tokyo's Haneda Airport in late November was really hassle free. I cleared immigration, collected my luggage and sailed through customs rather quickly. After which I went for a hot cup of coffee and a croissant, opting to get on the train bound for Tokyo City only after the infamous mad morning rush period (i.e. after 9:30am). There were plenty of storage lockers to park my medium size suitcase whilst I wandered through Haneda - including a stroll through the top floor of the airport and out onto the nice large outdoor observation deck there.
If you are heading out of Japan, queues can get quite long at peak periods and some aircraft gates can be quite far away (given the size of the major international airports). You will likely need extra time to (queue for and) take a light rail followed by a fair bit of walking to reach your outbound aircraft.
TIP: For international flights, do go to the airport early (2-3 hours prior to departure time), check-in, clear outbound security, drop off your tax-free receipts, pass through immigration, and find your departure gate as soon as possible. Do all that without getting too distracted by all the many last minute shopping facilities in the area!
Japanese trains operate on legendary world renown efficiency. Trains always depart on time - well almost always, otherwise it would be in the news - see "apology after Japanese train departs 20 seconds early"! Private companies, including the predominant JR (Japan Rail) group and others, own and operate these train lines.
To the first-time visitor, Japan's train network may seem rather intimidating. To keep things simple, I found it easy to think of trains in 3 broad categories. These are based on the distance covered by a train line from shortest to furthest (& fastest!):
2. Local/Express lines
3. Shinkansen (bullet trains!)
To get between places within a city, the subway (i.e underground train, also known as the metro) is your best friend. These trains almost never see the light of day except at fringe stations located outside the city metropolitan areas. They run very regularly, and if you miss a train, the next one is usually mere minutes away. They are easy to use and their stations are well numbered for each subway line - typically with an alphabet and number, e.g. station M21. Connections to other subway lines are usually within walking distance with good sign posting along interconnecting subterranean pedestrian walkways.
When you arrive at your first major city or airport in Japan, get an IC card - there are many different brands of IC cards, and they are mostly interoperable between cities. For example, if you enter Japan via Tokyo, get the Pasmo IC card (or Suica IC card if you are arriving into Osaka). A card allows you to enter/pay/exit train stations, pay for bus/tram rides and more.
Pictures and Details on How to Buy a Pasmo IC Card
Video: How to Buy and Use a Suica IC Card
Note: the IC Card machine will light up the slot(s) which it's expecting money to be inserted into.
The machine will take automatically a 500 Yen value as a deposit for the card when it issues you a new card - which is loaded with the remainder of the money value you have inserted & selected.
Whenever you are about to run out of stored value on your card, simply "charge" your IC Card with more stored value by inserting cash at any of the IC card machines located around subway/train station entrances.
1. With this IC card, you are all set to get through entry gates to any train other than the Shinkansen. The remaining stored value on the card will show up when you tap to enter the station and the value from your ride(s) will be deducted when you tap to exit a station. Easy, there is no need to worry that you have not bought the right ticket(s) for the the right train line(s). Without an IC card, buying separate tickets for each train ride can get rather confusing, especially when your journey involves changing train lines along the way.
2. If you have mobile data (or from your hotel room/wifi-cafe), open Google Maps and enter your destination. Google Maps will tell you which line you should get on, the terminal-destination (for train direction) and how many minutes it will take to get there. Alternatively, look for a train map and manually figure out a route to your destination - this method might take you a while ..
There are a number of private local/express rail operators in Japan. The most notable are those of the JR (Japan Railways) group. Others have names like Kintetsu, Eizan, etc. These trains cost a fair bit more the further you travel on a trip.
Your (subway) IC card will work for taking (both local and express) rail trains.
Unlike the other train categories, the Shinkansen (i.e. bullet train) is the train to take for traveling between cities. These trains are reliable and fast - very fast!
Here are some options for the Shinkansen tickets you will be buying:
Similar to the local/express rail service, remember to pick a Shinkansen service which will actually stop at your departure and arrival stations!
Photo: Seats in an Ordinary Car of a Shinkansen
Your **IC card will *not* work** for Shinkansen trains (unless they are pre-registered with Shinkansen).
Current prices of Shinkansen in central Japan
You can join a queue at the Shinkansen ticketing office to buy your tickets. To skip the lines, buy your Shinkansen tickets from one of the Shinkansen ticket machines. These are usually located right outside the entry gates into the Shinkansen station.
The ticket selection flow could go something like:
When you buy your Shinkansen ticket(s), you will usually be issued with two (2) separate tickets for each train service/trip. Occasionally, you might get a combo ticket.
See if you can spot these two ticket types (required for each trip) in the photos below. The pair on the left was for my trip from Shin-Osaka station to Himeiji; and the pair on the right is for my trip back to Shin-Osaka on the same day. Both trips were on non-reserved seats.
To enter the gates, insert both tickets (one after the other) to get through. Collect any ticket(s) that pop back up on the further end of the gate post - you will need this ticket(s) for use to get through the next set of entry gates ahead - when there is a separate Shinkansen only area at some stations.
Likewise, when exiting the station, insert both tickets into the gate to exit the area. Collect any ticket which might pop up on the further end of the gate post and collect it for use at the next set of gates up ahead.
Well, we have covered quite a fair bit on trains in Japan here. There are plenty more cool train types in Japan.
Photo: the Namba Rapi:t rail, a luxury service between Kansai International Airport and Namba inthe center of Osaka City
When there is no train service to take to your desired destination, a bus service will be your last bet. Whilst trains are easier to use and more comfortable to ride in than buses, a bus service beats excessive walking anytime. Similar to buses, there are small light rail/tram services around which operate in a similar manner.
For folks coming from most countries, you may also find that things work a little differently on Japanese buses ..
Photo: Payment / Change Machine, located next to bus driver. You will need to have exact change available if you will be using cash/coins.
Photo: The same Payment / Change Machine, this time located next to the light-rail driver here. Note the small yellow arrows which show where you should insert your notes (or larger coins) to get small change which drops out into the black bin at the bottom-right of the photo. Tapping your IC Card on the IC CARD pad is way easier for making payment (before you exit the vehicle).
There are coin lockers located conveniently across Japan for you to leave luggage, shopping (and whatever else you can think off!) for a few hours. The larger the train station or airport, the more lockers you will generally find. Some lockers accept IC cards in place of 100 Yen coins.
Photo: lockers at a train station which accepts IC cards or coins
Photo: coin lockers by the side of a busy shopping street in Kyoto
During my trip across Japan, Google Maps on my phone was very accurate with its recommendations for the right trains (line, number, stops and times) and/or buses to take to get to my various destinations. I highly recommend you have this app installed on your phone along with data-roaming or a pocket-wifi. Well done Google!
Hope the above info helps you get around busy Japan, and blend in better with the locals (well, at least to not cause a human traffic-jam!).
If you are looking for a way to organise your travel schedule and map, please feel free to check out our pre-made travel itineraries for these major places in Japan:
Best of Tokyo Experience, 7-Day Itinerary
Kyoto Culture, 4-Day Itinerary
Osaka and Nara, 3-Day Itinerary