If you’re getting started on planning a trip to Japan, you might have a bucket list, but don’t yet know how to get to all the places you want to go. Most first-time travelers to Japan choose destinations like Tokyo, Kansai, Hiroshima, and Sapporo. But take a look at Japan’s map, and you’ll see how far these areas are from each other. How will you get through your entire Japan itinerary?
Despite being an island nation, the public transportation system can take you from the tip of Hokkaido to the southernmost reaches of Okinawa. Everywhere you go, you'll be impressed by the convenient ferries, trains, and buses. Here's our guide on how to get around Japan!
Before diving into all of the alternatives for touring Japan, let’s go over two key questions everyone asks,
"How hard is it to get around Japan using English?"
"What should I do with my large suitcases in Japan?"
Getting Around Japan Without Knowing Japanese
Getting around Japan in English is less complicated than you might imagine. Workers in the travel industry, like hotel staff and cabin attendants, are often required to speak multiple languages. On the streets, you might be surprised at how many English speakers you meet. Unfortunately, not all Japanese people are forthcoming with their abilities.
Japanese people have a reputation for being shy and humble. Paired with a native English speaker, they may feel too intimidated to try. It doesn’t hurt to learn a little Japanese to help facilitate a conversation. If you do find yourself in total communication breakdown, gestures and Google Translate go a long way!
Getting Around Japan with Luggage
If you’re rolling around town with two suitcases and a carry-on, you’ll quickly regret your decision. Thankfully, Japan has an incredible system for delivering luggage. At Yamato Transport, some hotels, or convenience stores, you can ask for a Takkyubin form and pay a small fee to send your baggage anywhere in the country. In most cases, you can receive them within one or two days.
Taking the train in Japan is undoubtedly the easiest and fastest way to travel between and within most major cities. But don’t wait until you reach Shinjuku Station to figure out which pass you need! If you’re only visiting Tokyo, traversing the entire country, or something in between, what kind of tickets are best for you will be exceedingly different.
Japan Rail Pass
If you’re planning on seeing as much of Japan as possible, you might consider buying the JR rail pass. Japan Railways offers services through its regional companies: JR Hokkaido, JR East, JR Central, JR West, JR Shikoku, JR Kyushu, and JR Freight. You can save money on long-distance train travel by purchasing the JR Pass, which offers unlimited travel on all JR trains, some bullet trains, and the Miyajima Ferry.
The JR pass’s price ranges between 29,110 and 81,870 yen for adults (about US $270.00 - $760.00). That might sound expensive at first, but considering that one-way travel between Tokyo and Osaka on the Shinkansen costs 14,450 yen (about US $130.00), the JR pass could be a budget-friendly option for you. But before you finalize your purchase, thoroughly research your options for getting around Japan!
Shinkansen (Bullet Train)
Ask any traveler, and they’ll tell you a major highlight of their Japan trip was riding the Shinkansen. Imagine cruising at top speeds of 320 kph (200 mph) and watching the natural scenery fly past you from a plush reclining seat. The aisles are clean, the passengers are respectfully quiet, and the trains are so punctual their delays are measured in seconds. It’s an experience in itself that you don’t want to miss, and a great way to see the country.
The bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto takes about two hours, and the Tokyo to Osaka train ride is only a few more minutes. The journey from Tokyo to Hiroshima Station is a little under four hours. If you don’t plan on traveling this far away, you can take a quick trip for the experience! Shinkansen tickets from Tokyo Station to nearby cities like Omiya sell for around 1,000 yen (about US $9.00).
Quick Tips for the Shinkansen:
1. If you’re making a long journey, buy an ekiben (station boxed lunch) before you board!
2. To guarantee a reserved seat, buy a Green Pass to book a spot in the Green Car. If the train is full, you might have to stand!
3. Most people riding the Shinkansen are making a tiring business trip and want to sleep. Keep your voice down and only talk on the phone in-between carriages!
4. DON’T bring your large luggage on the bullet train! There’s no place to store bags bigger than carry-ons. Send your suitcases ahead of you!
Regional Rail Passes
If you plan on staying in one area of Japan, other train passes might fit your trip better. You can buy regional passes for private railways or JR operated lines for all prefectures except Okinawa. Some day passes sell for less than 2,000 yen (around US $18.50), and week-long ones go for about 10,000 yen (around US $90.00). To make a purchase, book your pass online and pick it up at the designated tourist information center.
Many cities across Japan also offer day passes for unlimited travel on local subways, trains, trams, and buses. You can buy these at any automated ticket machine without a reservation. However, some are only sold during specific seasons or on fixed days of the week. To check their availability, select “Discount Ticket,” “One Day Ticket,” or a similarly titled option.
Quick Regional Pass Travel Tips:
1. Most passes are only available to foreign tourists, so have your passport ready to prove your international status!
2. When purchasing a one-day ticket, make sure you intend on using its entire value!
Local Train Tickets
Depending on where you go, you might not take the train very often. Most destinations in Kyoto City are on bus routes, and the subways are more reliable in snowy Sapporo. Tokyo’s major stations and most of its outlying cities connect by JR. However, Tokyo Metro’s train fares are so reasonable that acquiring a JR Pass for a Tokyo only trip isn’t practical.
You can buy individual tickets for subways and trains at automated machines by selecting the cost of your train fare. Unfortunately, you can’t search by destination names on the screens, so you’ll need to look at the metro map above. Station maps are usually written in English and easy to read, but you might find the process tiring.
To streamline your transfers and travel time, you can also purchase an IC card from the automated ticket machines. The company names are different depending on which city you buy one in (Passmo, Kitaca, Icoca, etc.), but they all work the same way. With an IC card, you can preload a fixed amount and tap the card reader to enter the platform, board the city bus, or transfer to the subway. Some convenience stores and vending machines accept payment by IC card as well.
Quick Local Train Travel Tips:
1. Be careful not to confuse local (普通; futsū) limited express (特急; tokkyū), and semi-express trains (準急; jyunkyū)!
2. Shinjuku Station is the busiest train station in Japan and the world! Try to avoid it during rush hour (8:00 - 9:00 am and 5:00 - 7:00 pm).
3. If you get lost during your Tokyo travels, get on the JR Yamanote line. It goes in a circle and hits places like Shibuya Station and Ueno Station.
Japan’s trains and stations get a lot of attention for good reasons, but they’re not the only modes of transportation that are accessible for international tourists. In some circumstances, alternative means might better serve your wanderings.
Domestic Flights and Airlines Within Japan
After making the journey from your home country to Japan, you might not want to see the inside of a plane again. Flying to far-flung regions, though, is sometimes the best option. The Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Hokkaido takes five hours, with an additional four-hour bus ride to Sapporo. Ground transportation from Hiroshima to Naha includes a 25-hour ferry!
Dominating carriers JAL and ANA offer around two-hundred domestic routes in over fifty airports and provide fantastic service and generous luggage allowance. If you want to save money on your ticket, check out Low-Cost Carriers like Peach Aviation, Spring Airlines, and Jetstar Japan. Be wary that hidden fees and baggage charges may apply.
Narita and Haneda airports are among the busiest, with Itami and Kansai airports coming next. Other major airports include Shin-Chitose Airport in Hokkaido, Nagoya’s Central Japan Airport, Kobe Airport, Kagoshima Airport, Fukuoka Airport, and Okinawa’s Naha Airport.
As with most places in the world, you can save by reserving early, but some LCCs offer deals when you book only a few days in advance. It’s also a good idea to avoid flying during peak travel periods like Golden Week (April 29 - May 5th).
Taking the Bus in Japan for Long-Distance Travel
Frugal adventurers might skip riding the Shinkansen in favor of taking buses between cities. Companies like Willer Express provide services for long-distance journeys. Bus fares tend to cost a fraction of the price of the bullet train but can take twice as long and aren’t always as comfortable. Many young people who want to save time and money take overnight routes.
Riding a Ferry in Japan
Japan is made up of four major islands and hundreds of small ones scattered along the coast and in Okinawa. The Seto Inland Sea also has many stunning destinations like Naoshima and Shodoshima, which you can reach by ferry. Also, companies like MOL Ferries offer comfortable overnight accommodations for long routes. The Japan Ferry Pass 21 provides six trips for 21,000 yen (about US $195.00).
Renting a Car in Japan Travel Tips
If you want to take a road trip through the countryside where public transportation is infrequent, it’s easy to rent a car in Japan. Drivers must be 18-years-old or older and hold an International Driving Permit. Japan doesn't issue IDPs to foreign travelers, so you must obtain one before your arrival.
Japan’s leading rental car companies are Toyota Rentacar, Nippon Rentacar, Orix Rentacar, Times Car Rental, and Ekiren. Most have English websites or phone number reservation systems. Typical rental fees start at 5,000 yen (around $45.00) for one day, but it’s also possible to rent for six or twelve-hour periods. You can make payments by cash or credit card.
Although driving through rural Japan makes for a pleasant trip, driving in large cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto can prove frustrating. In addition to hitting unavoidable traffic jams during rush hour, finding a place to park in these cities can get complicated. Additionally, keep in mind that cars drive on the left side of the road. If this seems intimidating, you might want to avoid renting a car.