You've landed in Japan. What next?
If you assumed that arranging transport and accommodation in Japan would be easy, then you assumed right! Japan’s public transport system is nothing short of superb – trains and buses are almost always on time down to the exact minute, and you can get almost anywhere you need for a reasonable price. Taxis are reliable (and not to mention everywhere), and hotel staff are welcoming and more than happy to accommodate you.
But when you travel to a new country for the first time, there are always different systems and certain ways of doing things, and there’s just generally a lot of ‘new stuff’ to get your head around. That’s where we come in!
Depending on your travel plans and where you want to visit in Japan, you might be able to
solely rely on public transport, or you might need a rental car to reach certain destinations. But just a heads up: if you’re planning on heading along to an automotive event at a race circuit or a remote location at some stage, the chances of needing a car for this are pretty high.
Ideally, a combination of driving and using public transport during your trip is the way to go. More than often, using public transport is better and way more efficient, but other times having a car will make your journey more direct – or it might actually be the only way to reach your destination. We’ll talk more about this later, but for now, let’s get started with our most important transport tip of all…
The Japan Rail Pass and why you need one.
STOP EVERYTHING! Before you go to Japan, you’re probably going to need one of these! A Japan Rail Pass or ‘JR Pass’ is a special pass that allows you to travel as much as you want on any JR-operated transport service (including trains, buses and ferries) for a certain period of time. They’re only available for tourists, and you’ll need to obtain one BEFORE leaving your home country for Japan. If you’re planning on moving around and visiting different cities in Japan and you’re wanting to travel by bullet train, it’s a real money-saver, and not to mention it’s easier than having to buy train tickets every time, as all you’ll need to do is show the booth attendant your pass, and they’ll let you through the gate. Easy!
You can buy your JR Pass online; Google ‘Japan Rail Pass’ and you’ll likely find a list of local websites that can supply a pass depending on your location. Or you can do what we do, and visit your nearest travel agent. You can get a pass for one week, two weeks or three weeks depending on how long your trip is, and once you’re in Japan, you’ll just need to pop into a JR office to exchange your documentation for an actual physical pass – it’s basically a fancy piece of card with your name on it and the dates it’s valid for.
NOTE. If you’re only planning on spending time in one city or spending most of your time in Japan with a rental car, the JR Pass probably isn’t worth investing in – they’re not cheap!
From The Airport.
Before you arrive in Japan, it’s a good idea to figure out how you’re going to get from the airport to where you’re staying. Japan’s biggest international airports are in Tokyo (Narita Airport) and Osaka (Kansai Airport), so chances are you’ll be flying into either of these.
Tokyo Narita Airport is an hour from Tokyo Station, so unless you’re staying out close to the airport, you really don’t want to get a taxi! The Narita Express or ‘NEX’ is our preferred option. This JR-operated train (yes, you can use your pass!) goes to Tokyo Station and then down towards Yokohama OR up towards Ikebukuro, depending on which train you catch. Look for the ticket booth in the arrivals lounge. Both Narita and Kansai have a JR Ticket Office where you can pick up your JR Pass too.
There are other trains (e.g. the Keisei Skyliner) and buses operated by different services that go into town from the airport – we’d recommend researching your route on Google Maps to figure out what’s going to suit you best. Again, we’d recommend doing the same if you’re travelling via Kansai Airport. Depending on where you’re heading, there are trains operated by both JR and Nankai, (JR might be your preferred option if you’re wanting to use your pass.)
Flying in via a different airport? Google your options before arriving to ensure you’re prepared! And if you’re stuck on ideas for where you should be staying, our next guide, Intermediate Guide #3: Where Should I Stay In Japan? will be able to help!
Getting around via train.
Have you ever seen videos of people being squished like sardines in a can into train carriages in Japan? The bad news is that this does actually happen sometimes! The good news however, is that it doesn’t happen too often. Travelling by train is generally the easiest way to get around metropolitan areas in Japan, and also between cities using the super-fast bullet trains on the Shinkansen (see further below for more on this). All signage is in English, and all of the lines and services are available in Google Maps, so you can easily search for train lines and timetables.
In big cities (especially Tokyo) the trains and stations can get very overcrowded, depending on when you travel. If you can help it, plan to travel outside of rush hour – between 7am to 9am is generally the busiest, with 5pm to 7pm also being quite hectic. Sunday afternoons and holidays can also get very busy, and there can also sometimes be a rush for the ‘last train’ of the night (trains generally run from 5am to midnight) on certain lines in the inner city. If you can’t get around travelling during a rush hour, try boarding the last train carriage at the end of the platform.
Ladies only carriages.
As per our Beginner Guide #1: Basic Etiquette For Visiting Japan guide, this is something to keep in mind: some trains do have ‘women-only passenger cars’, although this rule generally only applies during specific hours. These were introduced to prevent women being groped by men on overcrowded trains, something which unfortunately is a problem in Japan.
The Yamanote Line in Tokyo.
If you’re visiting Tokyo you’ll likely be using the Yamanote Line a lot! Stopping at 29 different central areas around Tokyo, it’s essentially a big loop that takes around an hour the whole way. Trains on the Yamanote Line run every 2-4 minutes from stations like Tokyo Station, Akihabara, Ueno, Shibuya, Harajuku, Shinjuku and Shinagawa – just look for the lime green coloured line!
The Subway (Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway).
The other way to get around the inner city (without a JR Pass!) is by using the subway, which has 13 different lines – yes, it does get a bit confusing and it’s just a bit less foreigner-friendly. But don’t be afraid, follow the signs and colour-coded train lines, and you’ll be fine!
PRO TIP: It’s polite to take your backpack off when you’re travelling by general commuter trains, especially in rush hour!
Buying train tickets using the ticket machines.
If you’re without a JR Pass or you’re travelling on a non-JR line, you’ll have to buy a train ticket instead. It looks confusing at a first glance, but it’s actually super easy! Find the station you want to go to and locate the ticket machines. They should look something like this:
Above the ticket machine there’s generally a large map. Looking at the line you want to take, find the station where you want to travel to and there should be a price, e.g. ¥240 next to it. On rare occasions, the map might not have the station names written in English, in which case you might have to use Google Maps to figure out how much the fare is. Using the ticket machine, select the ‘English’ option and then select the ‘buy tickets’ option. It should come up with different pricing options. Select the required fare amount, and then choose the amount of people you want to buy tickets for. Easy!
Approach the gate, insert your ticket and don’t forget to take it out from the other side before you continue! Losing your ticket sucks, and you’ll have to pay another fare when you exit.
High speed trains (bullet trains).
The Shinkansen is a network of high-speed railway lines connecting Japan’s major cities. The advantage of taking these ‘bullet trains’ (instead of driving) is that they’re SUPER fast, with some trains travelling in excess of 320km/h! For example, it takes 6 hours to drive from Tokyo to Osaka, yet it’s less than a 3-hour trip on the Shinkansen. And if you’ve got a JR Rail Pass, the costs are already covered!
If you don’t have a JR Pass, it would be wise to check the cost of your desired trip before planning to take the Shinkansen; you might be surprised at how expensive tickets are.
Sometimes it can cost more than airfares! Unlike normal trains, you’ll need to book a seat on the Shinkansen trains, as in most cases the seats are reserved. The easiest way is to visit a JR ticket office (they’re located in all main JR Stations and they usually have green sign-writing).
PRO TIP: There’s a really amazing online transport planning tool called Hyperdia that you can use to plan your routes around Japan – we’d really recommend it!
If you’ve got heavy baggage or you aren’t close to a train station (or your destination isn’t), not to worry – catching a taxi is super easy in central areas in Japan. Look for a nearby taxi stand or flag a taxi down, or you can ask your hotel to call one for you. Just keep in mind that if your destination is remote or not in a populated area, you might not be able to easily catch a taxi back to where you came from again. It’s also pretty common for taxi drivers to not speak any English, so try saying your destination with a Japanese accent, and if that fails, have the address of your destination ready in written Japanese on your phone.
If you’re in Tokyo, there’s also the TAKKUN TAXI APP which is actually an official app of the Tokyo taxi association. You can use this to dispatch the closest taxi available from taxis running all around Tokyo simply by specifying the location where you want to call a taxi from the map. This is available in 23 Wards of Tokyo, Musashino, Mitaka and the Tama area – but not outside of these areas (for example, it doesn’t cover Yokohama).
Hiring a rental car.
If you’re wanting to get out of Japan’s main cities and go exploring in the countryside, hiring a rental car is your best option. Not only will you have more freedom, but you’ll get to see more of Japan too! For more details on this, check out our Intermediate Guide #6: How Can I Drive In Japan?
It’s also important to know:
– You can’t drink any alcohol and drive in Japan.
– You’ll need an International Driver’s Permit (along with a full driver’s license) to legally drive in Japan. It’s easy and cheap to obtain one of these, simply by visiting your local driver testing station in your home country.
– Road tolls in Japan can add up really quickly! To get around in Japan efficiently you are going to have to use tolled highways, and the longer you travel for, the more you have to pay. A return trip from Tokyo to Osaka would easily cost in excess of ¥10,000!
– Take a pocket WiFi device and a USB car charger – together this simple technology combo can really save your butt! You can book and pay for a mobile WiFi device online. There are heaps of companies that rent them and you can even pick them up at the airport upon your arrival and then drop them off again when you depart!
NOTE: We use the company ‘Wi-Fi Rental Store’ for mobile Wi-Fi in Japan, and we pick it up at the airport when we arrive in Japan. It’s super easy…
Bicycles or jitensha are a popular method of transport in Japan, especially in Osaka. Some hotels in Osaka have bikes for rent, or if you’re staying in Japan for a longer period of time, buying a bike would be a good investment. Cheap bikes are available on Yahoo Japan auctions, but you’ll need to be a member (or know someone who is) to buy one!
Tips for hotels in Japan.
Hotels in Japan are pretty normal. Well… actually they aren’t! The rooms are generally very small, (you’ll see what we mean!) but on the flip-side they’re always well equipped with amenities and the hotel staff are always helpful. The water is safe for drinking, although we prefer to drink bottled water in the city, as the water has quite a chemical taste if you’re not used to it. You can also leave your bags at your hotel (at reception) if you’re too early to check-in, or after you’ve checked out. If you’re driving and you have a rental car, check that your hotel has on-site parking before booking! And most important of all, ensure that you have your passport with you as this is a requirement upon checking-in.
PRO TIP: If you don’t have to stay in a specific area and you don’t mind a slightly longer train ride, try booking accommodation that’s not next to a central station (like Tokyo or Shibuya etc.) as you’ll get a slightly cheaper rate and a slightly bigger room! We use Bookings.comand Hotels.com for bookings.
PRO TIP 2: If something goes wrong and you lose your passport while you’re in Japan, this can cause serious problems if you’re due to check into a new hotel. It’s a legal requirement in Japan for hotels to scan your passport upon check-in, so we’d really recommend that you keep a scanned copy of your passport photo page on your laptop or your phone – or both – as a back-up. You can then email it to the reception desk (we’ve actually had to do this before!).
Power sockets/plugs in Japan. These are Type A, so they’re the same as in North America, although the voltage in Japan is 100v and North America is 120v. Depending on where you’re staying, sometimes other higher voltage equipment will work (although not as effectively and at your own risk!) so make sure you have some good quality power converters before you get to Japan, especially if you’re travelling with camera equipment or a computer – or a hair straightener!
NOTE: We travel to Japan with tonnes of camera equipment and computers which need charging via Type I to Type A converters, and we’ve stayed in various accommodation types and have never had any issues with electronics ‘blowing up’ or not working. However, sometimes devices might charge at a slower rate and your straightening iron might not get as hot!
The Ryokan experience.
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese-style inn or guest house. More common in less-populated areas of Japan, these often family-owned establishments are quite a different experience from a normal hotel. Ryokans often only have a small number of rooms, decorated in traditional fashion, with woven tatami mats and futon beds. They also often offer traditional dining options and public or sometimes private baths, called ‘onsen’. There’s a catch however; nude bathing is compulsory! Onsen etiquette is both detailed and confusing, so we’d recommend doing some serious research on this before trying it!
The superior option: Airbnb rental apartments.
If living in a refrigerator-sized room or hanging out in your birthday suit with old, wrinkly Japanese men in hot tubs isn’t for you, (don’t worry, we understand), we couldn’t recommend the website Airbnb.com enough! If you’ve never used it before, it’s basically a website that allows people to list their apartments (or houses and sometimes even boats!) for people to rent, so you can find all types of places on there and there are hundreds of listings in Tokyo alone.
You can rent whole apartments to yourself, or if you’re on a budget, you can book a room in someone else’s apartment! Rent is cheap and generally there’s only a 1-night stay minimum, and the coolest part is that it’s often more affordable than a hotel.
Some people offer special weekly and monthly rates if you’re interested in a longer stay too. Book a log cabin in the mountains in Nagano, stay with hosts in a traditional homestay in Kyoto, or book your very own inner city apartment in Tokyo! For more detailed information and tips, make sure to check out this JCC blog post on How To Book The Perfect Airbnb In Japan!
We hope you’ll find this information useful for your Japan trip – we certainly did!