Getting Around Japan

One of the things I worried about most before I went to Japan was the trains, and public transportation in general. Having lived in a rural area my entire life, I had no idea how I would adapt to a heavily urban environment. Luckily 90% of the time you will be riding the JR lines, which are fairly easy to navigate, cheap, and almost always on time. The subways operate roughly the same way, but can be a little bit more confusing, especially in Kyoto where you have different subway companies operating in different areas. Busses and in rare cases, trolleys, tend to be a bit more confusing, schedules are usually in Kanji and they are almost always incredibly crowded. If you have the money take the taxi instead.


The first thing you need to know is that train fares are based on distance, not destination. That is, if I'm in Hikone, and I buy a ticket for Maibara (130 yen I think) I can just as easily go to Minami-Hikone in the opposite direction. The map will list fares with the location on top (in romaji, or roman characters, thankfully) and then two numbers below, the large number is for adults, the small number is for children. Determine the amount of money you need to get to your destination, put it in one of the machines (ticket machines, not the green ones), then press the button with the price of your destination, the machine will then spit out your ticket and any change you're owed. If you plan on commuting back-and-forth you should consider purchasing tickets by the month or even getting one of the new passes that uses radio-ID tags. This way you just run your wallet over a small pad on the front of the turnstile and gates open automatically. In most train stations there is an office with a green sign over it that can help you buy tickets and rail passes.

Another thing you need to know is that you can typically get discounted tickets in the department stores surrounding a train station, typically they buy tickets to common destinations in bulk, then when you want to go to a place they will give you a combination of tickets that will get you there. Typically you will save 10-20% this way, though for long distances you may have to carry four or five tickets with you. To use multiple tickets, simply use the ticket that has your current position printed on it, then when you get to your destination go to the station attendant and hand them the tickets, as long as one of them has a hole punched in it you should be fine.

If you don't know where you are going, or if it's so far that it isn't listed on the fare map, just buy a cheap 100 yen ticket, then when you get to your destination use the fare adjustment machine to buy a proper ticket to your destination. The worst case scenario, in which the ticket turns out to be more than you can afford, you can simply get on a train heading home and you'll be out all of 100 yen.

Private Railways

Private railways are typically more expensive than the JR and somewhat less convenient, especially for those who don't know Kanji. You may have to use a private railway if you are going to an out-of-the-way place. There are also a number of city owned railways that serve large metropolitan areas, and occasionally upper-class lines that run through rich neighborhoods and expensive department stores.

The Shinkansen

The Shinkansen is the "bullet train" that you often see on Japanese tourism posters. Contrary to rumor it is not a maglev train, but it does use special tracks that are welded together for a smoother ride. Shinkansen tickets run between 7,500 yen and 20,000 yen+, depending on whether you go for reserved or unreserved seats and the distance you are going. Unreserved seats are the first three cars of the train, and the third is reserved for smokers. The unreserved cars can get quite crowded, so don't be surprised if you don't have a place to sit, also remember to bring some water or a drink as it can get rather hot. If you going under a tourism or cultural visa you should be able to buy a railway pass for around $500 that allows you unlimited access to the Shinkansen for an entire week, which is a great deal. When you buy Shinkansen tickets you are given two tickets, one gets you into the train station, and the other gets you into the Shinkansen station within the train station.

General Tips

Japanese trains are typically packed from 7am to around 9am and from 5pm onward. The final train usually runs around midnight, this one will be packed with drunks, so avoid it if you can. If your destination is far away try to get to the center of the car, that way you'll have an easier time getting to a seat. Seats on the forward and back parts of a car are usually reserved for the elderly, pregnant, or women with small children. Using cell-phones near these areas will result in immediate painful death. On that topic, if you have to use your cell phone, use text messaging, it's considered rude to talk on your phone on the train or in most public places. In some parts of Tokyo there are also all-women cars which are denoted by a pink sign. If you're female this means a less crowded commute, if you're male this means you have to ride the train with a bunch of frustrated chikan. One more thing: be prepared to give up your seat for old folks and mothers, it's the nice thing to do, and whether you like it or not, people will judge all westerners by your example.

  • Tickets are based on distance not location.
  • You can get discounted tickets in most department stores
  • Use fare adjustment when you aren't sure what the fare is to your destination
  • Try to avoid the trains and subways between 7-9am and 5pm onward (avoid the last train if you can help it).
  • Talking on your cell phone is forbidden, text message if you must use your phone


Subways run almost exactly like the trains do, though they do cost a little bit more. Kyoto runs a number of private subway lines, this can be frustrating if you buy a day pass from one subway line only to find out it doesn't work on another.

Buses and Trolleys

Buses are pretty much everywhere, and fairly cheap. They're also impossibly cramped, with bus schedules that are difficult to decipher. You pay your fare when you get off the bus, remember to have exact change.

Trolleys seem to be exclusive to Hiroshima, you can buy a day-pass in front of the train station. They have two types of pass, one just for the trolleys, and another for the trolley and the ferry. Buy the cheaper ticket, the ferry to Miyajima covered by the ticket is the last stop on the trolley line and takes about two hours to get to, two hours in a packed trolley car is not fun, believe me. If you plan on going to Miyajima go to the closer port and take a speed-boat, it's much faster and a lot more fun.

Ferries and Boats

For a number of coastal areas, as well as the cities along Lake Biwa, taking a boat is a good way to see the sites. They even have small craft that travel along the moats of some castles. Hiroshima has a number of boats that run along the many rivers in the city, as well as speed boats and ferries that run to Miyajima. Otsu, about 30 minutes from Kyoto along the Biwako Line, has the "Michigan Boat", a restored steam-ship that tours Lake Biwa.


Taxis come in two flavors: white and black. Supposedly the black ones are more expensive, I don't know if it's true or not. Basically you pay a flat fee of around 600 yen just by getting into the cab and then a certain rate given the distance to your destination. The driver can close the doors automatically so don't be like me and constantly close your own door. You can usually find a taxi stand outside of train stations. If you need a taxi at a specific time remember to call 30 to 40 minutes beforehand, as they can get backed up at peak times.


Getting a drivers license is quite an ordeal in Japan, requiring large amounts of money and larger amounts of paperwork. This means you will be using your bike a lot, especially if you live in a more "rural" area of Japan. There are two kinds of bikes: the cheap mass-produced ones, and the expensive mountain bikes. The cheap ones are good for getting around town, though they are geared pretty low (they only have one gear) and not the most stylish bikes ever made. In the U.S. these would be women's bikes because of the low cross-bar, I don't think Japan has these distinctions. The mountain bikes are considerably more expensive, and have actual gears. Whichever you choose, you will have to register your bike when you buy it, presumably to prevent theft.

Bicycle Parking

Tragically you can't just park your bike anywhere. Most parking garages have a separate bicycle section, some department stores even have free parking. If these stores are near a train station and you plan on coming back before 9pm then it's a good deal. You can ride to the store then get on the train to get around, however if you leave your bike there after the department store closes the police may impound your bike, which will result in a fine. The other, probably more legitimate option, is to find a bicycle parking facility. These are almost always located in the general area of a train station and it typically costs around 100 yen for overnight parking. You can also buy passes per month.