One of the most challenging parts of planning my trip was breaking down transportation in Japan. Which train? Which pass? What route? These were just a few of the questions that kept coming up, over and over again. I couldn’t reserve seats in advance, and in my planning Type A personality, it was against my usual norms. Once there, I realized that understanding the transportation in Japan was a complete breeze!
So I am going to break down transportation in Japan as simply as possible, and give a few different solutions for getting around.
Breaking Down Transportation in Japan
There are two things that will be your best friend in Japan, the Suica card and the JR Rail pass. Let me explain…
JR Rail pass: The JR Rail Pass is essentially a joint pass for the majority of the trains in Japan that are under the “JR” company. You purchase the pass by either a 7, 14, or 21 day period. The prices may seem steep, but if you do a quick tally of individual ticket prices (especially between Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and other regions) it will be worth it. You can use it on the JR lines in Tokyo and Kyoto as well which will connect you to neighborhoods faster than the local metro (these too add up). In order to be eligible, you have to enter Japan as a temporary visitor and be sure to have the stamp on your passport. You purchase the JR Rail Pass prior to arriving in Japan and upon arrival, you go to a JR office (at most stations/airports) and exchange it for your pass. You can purchase it through this link and I advise doing so a few weeks prior to ensure you get the package in time.
One other benefit is that you can book seats upon arrival once you have your pass. Using HyperDia, you can find the routes and I advise printing a photo of each train schedule you want to take so you can show it to the officer to ease booking the seats. The reservations are complimentary except a few trains. You can also get on to “non-reserved” cars on trains supported by the JR pass if you change your plans. These often will not fill up except at rush hour.
Using your JR pass is easy. Simply pass through the gate by the guard by showing the attendant your pass and they will let you right through!
Suica Card: This magical green card seems to be the credit card of the locals. You get one by putting a deposit of 500 yen on it (refundable at anytime by turning the card in at a JR office) and putting a minimum of 1000 yen on it. The card is refillable and can be used on the bus, the local metro, and vending machines. When taking the local trains in Tokyo/Osaka/Kyoto, you just press it to the electric reader and pass through. You can see how much you have left on it as it will light up on the machine. Easily refill it at a Suica machine in any station.
Okay now that I’ve shared a bit of the back end of the transportation, I will share a bit on the modes of transportation.
Trains: As I shared above, this will be your fastest mode of transportation. When it comes time to load, check your ticket for your card and seat number to be sure to board correctly. The trains are timely and leave accordingly. Don’t think you can arrive a minute before. The trains leave with or without and I would recommend being at the platform a minimum of 10-15 minutes before. If you do not have a JR Rail Pass, you can purchase an individual ticket at the office at the station. Sometimes there is a cue to buy tickets, so be sure to budget time for this.
Buses: These were the best to use in Kyoto as they take you very close to destinations and the train system is more limited than in Tokyo. Use exact change or your Suica card for payment.
Taxis: It’s indeed the most expensive form of transportation in Japan. Traffic can be horrendous and the meter starts at 600+ yen to just sit in the taxi. We used a few in Kyoto as the prices were cheaper than Tokyo. Often it was a less than 10 minute ride we would get in. Buses/trains are around 230 yen each, so it’s only a few dollars more if the ride is not too long. It can be worth it too if you are splitting it with four people. The doors open automatically, don’t be alarmed! Also have your destination pulled up as we found drivers often spoke little to no English.
Uber: Uber is available in Tokyo and it’s even more expensive than a taxi as there are only black cars. We had no cash upon arrival and needed to get from Shinjuku to Hatsudui Station. $35 later and fifteen minutes in the car we made it to our destination (ouch). That was the one and only Uber we took and a nice reminder to withdraw some cash at an airport ATM before catching the train into town.
Walking: This is the best way to see a neighborhood!
I hope this helps break down transportation in Japan and that it helps with planning. Once you get there, a few times through the metro and you’ll find that it’s uber easy to use!
Thinking of visiting Japan? Checkout these 10 photos to inspire you!