How to use the public transportation in Japan – everything you need to know

Fushimi Inari shrine
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So you’re ready to go to Japan soon. You have bought your plane tickets, reserved your hotel, researched and established an itinerary, and you even have set a budget for your trip. But the thought of using public transportation in Japan scares you more than usual.

I get it. You don’t know the language, you cannot even read anything since it’s a different alphabet. You have heard all of your life that Japan is more like another planet than another country. You also know that Japan, in general, is a pricey destination, so you would like to not spend more on moving from A to B than to enjoying A or B.

I felt the same. And since I’m a bit anxious, this was not a nice feeling for me. That’s why I decided to write this guide for you. It’s a way of telling you that it can certainly be done and that it’s not that hard to do if you have the right information. So stay tuned, you’re in for a challenge.

Is it easy to get around Japan?

This question is more about a feeling than about actionable advice. Still, it is helpful, so I’ll go for it.

Yes, it felt easy to get around Japan. And I don’t mean only Tokyo, but also more secluded places like a village in the mountains like Gero. The only time we got lost was in the Tokyo Central Train Station, which is a huge thing. And we didn’t know how to use the information from Google Maps yet.

Everything is very nicely marked all over the place. Signs, directions and maps, all have the writing also in the Latin alphabet, so you can read them easily.

There are also tourist information centers in the main train or metro stations, so you can ask there if you need help. Most ticket machines have also an option for English, so you can use that to buy what you need.

People from ticket counters speak English, and train tickets can also be printed in English. Even if they do a mistake and print it in Japanese (it has happened to us once), you will still understand what you need to do and where to go.

Hell, even the floors help you! Train platforms are marked in such a way that you cannot stay in the wrong place, even if you try. Like I like to call them, they’re idiot-proof. It takes one to know one.

Don’t have time to read it right now? Pin it for later!

Japanese transport system – fun facts

I feel like Sheldon and Amy Farrah Fowler in “Fun with flags”. Yes, I get excited about weird trivia when it comes to visiting places. That’s why people don’t come with us on trips. Anymore…

The general idea is that the Japanese transport system is state of the art. And, based on my limited experience, I can say that I agree. My limited experience includes traveling in Switzerland and Germany, so I think I have a good overview. I can answer all sorts of questions:

Interesting train in Japan
Just look at this train that you probably can only find here

Is the punctuality as they say?

Most definitely, it is. A series of incidents are being considered remarkable by Japanese society. Just to name a few:

  • one train left 25 seconds early and extensive apologies were presented for this;
  • if a train is delayed, “late notes” are being given to passengers so they can excuse themselves to other people for being late
  • ministers and train company officials apologize or resign after each train delay that happens and is the company’s fault

Are the means of transportation as clean as they say?

Even more than they say. But this is a general thing in Japan anyway. The whole country is amazingly clean, and the people as well.

How fast are the Japanese trains anyway?

The fastest train in Japan is operating at 200 mph (320km/h). Not too shabby, right?

Is there any gender segregation when using public transportation in Japan?

Yes, some cars are reserved for women. It’s a project similar to creating parking spaces exclusively for women – this helps in keeping them safe. It is by no means a rule that women have to use this car, but they have the option to do so.

Do people sleep in public transportation?

Yes, they do! Myself included. Most Japanese people work long hours and the commute is also tiring, so they use this time to catch up on rest. I did this as well to cope with the early mornings we had to put in while there. I was never a fan of power naps (I either sleep for 8 hours or don’t sleep at all), but the 20-30 minutes of recharge time was gladly appreciated.

Is there any Uber in Japan?

Yes, it is. But as for the taxis, no one recommends these options due to the huge prices. If money is no object, go ahead, use the taxi. But you could also invest that money in ice-cream.

Planning your trip to Japan? I know you will need to research the entry fees for the most important things to see, so I have prepared this awesome printable PDF with this information, so you don’t have to do all this research. Download it now!

Need a JR Pass for your upcoming trip? Perfect, you can buy it here!

Public transportation in Japan for tourists

It is important, in some cases, that you specify you are a tourist. The best example is when buying a JR pass. I will get into much detail further down the road, but this Pass is only available for tourists.

This is something you have to know before getting there. Mostly because it’s easier and cheaper to buy it before entering the country. Until recently, you couldn’t even buy it while in Japan, so it was pretty clear the target buyers for this were the tourists.

Also, the entire system is made in such a way that it doesn’t require you to talk too much. Most of the operations can be made without exchanging one word with anyone. This is especially nice for socially awkward people (just like me!) and for people that feel weird when being way out of their comfort zone.

The last point before getting real with this guide is that I recommend using public transportation versus renting a car, especially for first-timers. It’s easy, convenient, it allows you to see more while using it, has great coverage across the country and is an experience in itself.

So, let’s dig in!

Types of public transportation in Japan

I don’t know what you’re used to at home, but for me, diversity was the selling factor. The options one has when visiting Japan are:

Shinkansen (bullet train) - inside view
Shinkansen (bullet train) – inside view

Trains

  • shinkansen (bullet train)
  • local trains
  • monorail

Local transportation

  • bus
  • tram
  • metro

Special means of transportation

  • cable car
  • ferry

With these many options, you can suspect the granularity is big. Well, not quite. I mean, you have easy access everywhere, but you’ll walk a great deal as well. You just cannot take a bus for 1 station and expect it to be right near your hotel. The distances are huge, and this is why we woke up at 5 AM almost every morning to be able to cover everything we wanted.

Navigation

Considering the diversity you have when traveling to Japan, knowing how to easily find your way around places is a major concern. In this regard, I have two big pieces of advice.

  1. Have a SIM card with internet available at all times (or a pocket Wi-fi, but we found the SIM card most cost-effective). Buy it from the airport where you arrive and set it upright on the spot. Do not leave the airport without it. You don’t want this to be your first experience in Japan.
  2. Learn how to read the information provided by Google maps, and to match it with your surroundings. If Google maps says you have to use the D14 exit, you use the D14 exit. You don’t mock Google maps. You’ll take large detours if you’re mocking Google maps.

Useful apps for transportation in Japan

We used mostly Google maps and we were okay with it. They provide all the information you need: the train/metro/bus combination you need to use, the times for each of them, sometimes even the platform where you’ll find the train, the exit you need to take from an underground station, even the price for buses that don’t have a flat fare.

We have heard of people using Hyperdia and Japan Navitime as well but cannot give you hands-on experience. The best feature for Hyperdia seems to be the option to select (or exclude) the trains from the JR system, which can become pretty useful.

The apps recommended by the JR pass are good as well, and I would also recommend installing Yurekuru Call if you wish to be notified about earthquakes and other such things in advance. I know it’s not exactly transportation related, but I would rather tell it to you off-topic than to risk you guys not knowing about this.

Costs of transportation in Japan

As I have previously stated in my Japan budget guide, transportation will be a serious chunk of your expenses for this trip. If you decide to buy the JR pass, you will pay, up-front, about 96.417 Yen for the 14 days one – this is about 800$.

Apart from the JR pass, we spent around 20.000 Yen on buses, trams, metros and a cable car. This is about 180$ and includes some big trips like a bus from Odawara to Hakone (4.200 Yen) or a cable car to see Mount Fuji (3.200 Yen). But both were SO worth it, just so you know.

A good overview goes like this: inside cities, you’ll pay about 210-230 every time you’re using a bus or tram, outside the city and while using a metro, you’ll pay based on the distance you have covered. Depending on your itinerary, you can estimate your expenses quite easily with this rule of thumb.

Using the trains in Japan

Trains in Japan are a technological work of art. It’s also part of their culture. Using a train in Japan is like riding a double-decker red bus in London: it’s just something you have to do.

We intensively used trains in Japan because we took a star-shaped approach: we had 2 hubs, Tokyo and Kyoto, and did day trips from these points instead of moving once every two days. We thought it would be a good idea, and it turned out to be like this, especially considering the difficulty of moving around with bulky luggage.

The most important things to know about trains in Japan is that they are always on time, are very clean and comfortable, enable you to cover many miles in less time, and that you can sleep while on the run. But, also, you can spot Mount Fuji on a window, so I don’t know if you’d like to sleep in the end.

I have written a very detailed guide about using the train in Japan, and I urge you to read it if this is your main concern. I initially planned to put all of that information in this guide, but I was not nearly done yet and this text had 5.000 words already, which will make most people bored and/or regretting their decision to read it.

You can buy your JR pass here!

Using a bus, tram or metro in Japan

While the trains in Japan are awesome, they won’t take you everywhere. The other types of transportation will come for the rescue in this case. You’ll see, this can only help you in the long run.

Using local buses, for example, you can visit more remote places, like a cave near Hamamatsu, or even go enjoy an onsen that’s not in Hakone, where everyone goes. Using city buses will help you navigate easily across huge urban areas like Tokyo, one of the most crowded places in the world.

The most important things to know about using these means of transportation in Japan are the following:

  • having an IC card goes a long way (I’ll explain everything in detail in a separate guide)
  • fees are either variable (can go up to 4.000 Y per way), or flat, especially inside cities (~ 210-230 Y)
  • you should not eat inside a local vehicle, but you can sleep while on the run

So, if this is your main concern right now, or if you’re planning to only visit one area (Tokyo or Osaka area, for example), you must read the guide for using the tram, bus or metro in Japan. And even if you think you won’t need it, read this guide nonetheless. You’ll see you’ll need it at some point anyway.

Other means of transportation in Japan

No, I’m not referring to spaceships, although I would want to. I mean everything that’s not so easy to spot from the first look, but you may find it interesting.

For example, using a cable car, you can see Mount Fuji and take the most iconic pictures of it, without any “noise” polluting your shot. It’s a bit pricey at 3.200 Yen, but it’s worth it!

Using a ferry in Miyajima can show you an awesome view of a floating torii gate, and some pretty nice temples and shrines as well. You can also use ships to get to other islands, some of them pretty far away, with almost a Hawaiian feel to it – check out this awesome video that doesn’t belong to me, but the guy is super cool!

You can also rent a bike or even a Segway so you can visit cities while on a run. We saw plenty of people using bikes in Tokyo, and we’re still not clear about the rules (like, do they have to use the sidewalk, or the street, or both maybe?), so it’s doable.

You can also use some short distance flights, but I honestly don’t see the point in that. If you add up the time needed to go to the airport, the pre-boarding time, the luggage claim time and the flight itself, you will realize using the train is much faster, sometimes cheaper, and more comfortable. I mean, the legroom and catering are worth it.

And now you’ll laugh at me, but you’ll use something more often than not: your plain old legs. You’ll walk a great deal, don’t be fooled by this extensive list of ways to get around Japan. I hit the 20.000 steps mark every day while there, and some days were even more intensive. In this regard, the most you can do is to have comfortable and sturdy shoes and to plan realistic schedules.

Key takeaways

Getting around Japan is easier than it initially sounds. They are an amazing nation and it’s like everything they created so far was just for us to enjoy and admire. Anything you need to travel in Japan is very easy to find and use, and you also have the support of people being, truly, deeply nice.

I know it feels overwhelming in the beginning, but after reading all my guides on this topic, you’ll feel like you can conquer the world and trust yourself that you’ve got this. The world has evolved a great deal since the invention of the wheel, and transportation in Japan is the most definite proof of this evolution.

Psst! Psst! You can buy your JR Pass here!
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