How To Travel Using Japan's Public Transportation

Lots of pedestrians thanks to the efficient public transportation systemLots of pedestrians thanks to the efficient public transportation system
Japan is one of the few countries where you'd be nuts not to use the public transportation system. It's fast, efficient, pretty straight-forward to use, and it will save you money.

Like most things in life, there is a little bit of a learning curve, but having spent three weeks in the country using mostly their public transit system, we've got some info and advice for you. We've broken the topics down into the following:

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It's not a secret that Japan has a reputation for being expensive. We feel this reputation is outdated for things like local Japanese food (e.g. ramen, some sushi, soba, udon, etc.), but is warranted for many forms of public transportation. On top of that, the overwhelming majority of locals do not speak English so if you don't know any Japanese, you're going to find yourself doing lots of gesturing, pointing to pictures or phrasebook words, or just giving up on the communicating altogether. That said, most of the locals were incredibly friendly to us, and some went way out of their way to help us out when we were lost.

So given all that, why not drive or take a tour?

In short, it's cost! Driving with a rental car is upwards of well over $100 per day for something like a Toyota Corolla. Given the population density of urban centers like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, you may find yourself stuck in traffic or being tailed by locals who are more familiar with the roads than you are. Add to all this, the price of gas, which was upwards of $6/gallon as of June 2009.

Buses to this waterfall in Hokkaido are very infrequent The only exception is if you're going to more remote areas of the country where public transportation isn't as well-served (e.g. some parts of Hokkaido, Shikoku, and Kyushu), then it might be worth the expense of hiring a car for the flexibility and freedom. We managed to hire a car for about 5 days in sparesely populated Hokkaido.

As for going on a customized tour, this can be the most prohibitively expensive option depending on the type of tour you're doing. Generally speaking, no matter which country you go to, this is the most expensive option since you have to support a driver and guide as well as all their logistics (food, lodging, time, etc.). This may be a very attractive option if you find that time is limited and going off on your own is not as feasible. However, in Japan, we feel this is not the case. Now there are cheaper cookie-cutter tours, but you'll end up being in a large group and you'll probably go shopping for a large chunk of the trip.

Now if you're intending to go waterfalling like we did, then of all the tours to choose from, you'll probably find that customized tours would get you to most of the places within the time constraints that self-guided tourists couldn't manage. Such tours are not practical in Japan from a cost perspective. However, there are packaged tours of the country in a more regimented itinerary, if that's your thing, and could very well end up being worth your while. We didn't exercise this option though we did consider it when we tried to work out trip cost and logistics prior to the trip.

If you're considering taking a taxi, don't! You'll find that you could easily blow off well over $100 USD just to go from one end of town to the other. Use taxis only as a last resort (like if you're too hammered [drunk] to use any of the public transport options).

Finally, if you're there and feeling overwhelmed, there are fairly well-signed information kiosks in almost all the Japan Railways (JR) Train Stations. If not, they're not far from the stations. They're usually staffed by people who speak fluent or pretty usable English, and they can be a tremendous help to get you oriented as well as giving you the proper literature to help you navigate the local area on your own. Usually, the first places we go to whenever we arrive in a new place was the information kiosk. If we didn't have questions for the employee or she was too busy helping others, we could at least look for maps, schedules, brochures, etc. in English.

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If you're going to do any extensive travelling in Japan for at least a week or more, then for sure you're going to be utilizing many of the lines within the Japan Railways network. The government-sponsored company rules most of the lines throughout the country, and they even have a pass called the JR Pass, which is only sold to foreign tourists and overseas residents through a certified Travel Agent outside of Japan.

If you're doing any bit of travelling beyond just Tokyo and Kyoto, you'd be a fool not to get one of these passes. They'll save you lots of money because if you were to take the lines a-la-carte, you'll soon find out that the cost adds up very quickly. In fact, a round trip train ride via JR on a reserved seat in a shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kyoto and back almost costs as much as a 7-day JR Pass. There's also a 14-day and 21-day pass as well.

Many of these trains are so fast and efficient that it's faster to go from Tokyo to Sendai (about 3 hours) than it would be to fly there (if you count all the airport security, waiting, additional logistics, etc.)!!!

So here's how we managed to get our JR Pass, validate it, and then use it during our trip. We made extra sure not to lose it. For if that happens, you're out of luck (and $$$).

When we arrived in the Narita airport, we went to the JR Office. That was where we validated and exchanged our vouchers for the shiny JR Pass. We happened to buy the 21-day pass.

We were also given a very helpful blue book containing a timetable of major long haul JR schedules. We also picked up some useful JR East brochures mapping out many of the stops.

So what did the pass buy us?

  • Unlimited rides on almost all trains on the JR network
  • Reserved seats on JR trains that have them

We got to ride just about any train on the JR lines throughout the country without paying anything out of pocket. This included most of the shinkansen (the famous bullet trains, which can go over 300km/h) as well as the 90-minute train ride from Narita Airport straight to Shinuku Station in Western Tokyo (near our accommodation for that night). At each train station where there's an office or window next to the turnstiles, we were able to show our passes and were allowed through. Without it, we would've had to go to a ticket machine to get our tickets, which in turn would've allowed us to pass through the many turnstiles there.

We were also able to use our pass to reserve seats before getting to the proper train platforms (including the Narita to Shinjuku train ride). For something that usually costs more a-la-carte, this was a great way to save time, piece of mind, and even guarantee we'd have a seat (something we were glad to have for long haul rides).

We got our reserved seat tickets by showing up to a JR Office prior to getting through the turnstiles. We'd ask for a reserved seat, show our passes, and then be given additional tickets with seat number and car number (plus sometimes platform number) printed on them. From there, we'd walk around looking for the correct platform and then stand in the correct line as dictated by our ticket. When our train arrived and stopped, the door we're supposed to enter through was right in front of us whenever we lined up in the right spot. It's quite precise!

What the pass didn't buy us were rides on the...

  • Nozomi Express Trains
  • Green Cars
  • Overnight Sleeper Trains
  • Local non-JR Trains

Nozomi Express Trains are practically non-stop long haul trains that are part of the JR network. This is something to watch for if you're going east-west or vice versa (e.g. Tokyo to Osaka/Kyoto/Kobe, etc.).

Green Cars are luxury cars on some of the JR trains. Basically, if you're trying to find a seat on a JR Train, avoid the cars with a green star labeled next to the door (you have to be inside to see this). Silent radio streamers will also tell you which car is the Green Car as well as which ones are reserved, non-reserved, and in some cases which ones are smoking and non-smoking.

Overnight Sleeper Trains were something we didn't exercise. I know there are some that go through Northern Honshu and into Hokkaido and back.

View of Fuji from a local train Local non-JR Trains are scattered throughout the country. Japan Railways has a practical monopoly on the railway networks in the country. But every so often, some trains are not part of the network so you'll have to pay out-of-pocket to use them. This was especially the case when we tried to take the train to Kawaguchi-ko on the north side of Mt Fuji, the Matsumoto-Shin-shimashima line in the Nagano Prefecture, and the Toyama-Tateyama line in the Japan Alps.

We struggled a bit on the local lines because most of them had signs only in Japanese. We managed only by trying to recognize the kanji characters or asking a local, but we definitely had some close calls! Plus, we were sometimes charged "express train fees," which I think are extra fees for certain trains that make fewer stops.

In our experience, most JR Trains have English on them. But some local commuter trains (no reserved seats) on the JR network don't have English.

It took us a little bit of time to get the hang of riding the trains and planning our trip around them. We had to identify which trains were commuter trains (which stop at every stop; thereby making them slow and crowded) and which stops were skipped for express trains, etc. Even though it wasn't easy to plan our trip around the JR schedules prior to arriving in Japan, we did use the book titled Japan by Rail, which gave us a rough idea of what was feasible schedule-wise. Also, was a good website for figuring out JR timetables, but we needed to know beforehand which stations we were interested in for it to be useful. Thus, we didn't use this website until we were in Japan.

As for dealing with our luggage, we lugged them everywhere we went. While in some cases it's possible to do luggage forwarding services (takuhaibin), we eventually figured out (thankfully) that the rear of each passenger car has room behind the back seats to lay the luggage on the ground sideways. On rare occasions, there were dedicated luggage compartments near the doors (like the Narita Express Line). On commuter trains, we had to deal with the crowds with the luggage, which wasn't nearly as bad as dealing with train rides in China, but that's another issue altogether!

Finally, we must say that the trains were always on time! When they said the train would show leave at 9:46am, it left at exactly 9:46am. It was never late! Of all the transportation options (including air, buses, etc.), trains were by far the most reliable.

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Buses were essential for places where trains couldn't go. This meant we had to rely on them for most of the waterfall destinations.

Unfortunately, this mode of transport was the most adventurous for us (a fancy way of saying it was the scariest) because practically nothing written nor spoken was in English. The rare exceptions were for touristy spots where there was a World Heritage Bus in Nikko or certain buses in Kyoto.

We basically had to try to recognize the kanji script and pay very close attention to the bus drivers' announcements whenever he stopped. Still, we had some hairy moments where we missed two stops our first time taking it to go from Sendai to Akiu Onsen, and we had some misunderstandings regarding our bus fare when we went to the Norikura Highlands. We even had difficulty finding the proper bus stops for the correct buses (especially in Kyoto).

Buses also tended to be narrow and crowded. If we had to lug our luggage around, this was a nightmare! We basically tried not to hijack a seat while still leaving enough clearance in the aisle for people to move about. Needless to say, this wasn't easy, but thankfully this wasn't a common occurance since we only had this situation in a couple of instances (e.g. in Nikko and in Sendai). This is definitely something to think about when planning out the logistics of your trip.

Some places have passes that include bus rides. The two-day All Nikko Pass in the greater Nikko area was one of them, and it was well worth it! If you see such passes are available, I wouldn't hesitate to buy them because bus fares add up very quickly when you buy them a-la-carte.

Speaking of bus fares, this is how it works.

As soon as you step into the bus, there's a machine dispensing tickets with a number on them. This number corresponds to a number on a screen with a table of numbers at the front of the bus.

It looks something like this...

If your ticket was labeled "4" and the screen looked like the table above at the stop you were disembarking from, then you owed 660 yen. You're supposed to insert payment with your ticket into the money drop box (there's a conveyor belt in there so the driver can see what you paid and the ticket you put in). There's also a change machine next to it so you can put in exact change (preferably you do this well before you hold up the line to get out of the bus).

Finally, buses have varying schedules. In some areas, they're frequent, while in others they're not. You're probably not going to know what the schedules are before your trip (unless they're posted online, but even then they might all be in Japanese). So the best advice I can give on this front is to head straight for a Visitor Information kiosk so you can ask questions and/or get a bus schedule of the area. Or, you can be resourceful and try to ask on travel boards like TripAdvisor and hope for a useful response. Then again, you can browse our Japan pages for particular waterfalls and get an idea of how we were able to pull it off.

Now even though we're kind of ragging on using the buses (since they're not terribly user-friendly for foreigners), realize that regularly scheduled buses to remote rural places are not even available in most places around the world! It speaks volumes about how extensive the country's public transportation system is. Imagine using the bus to go into the Angeles National Forest in Los Angeles (Good Luck!), and that gives you a pretty good idea of what's possible in Japan.

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In the metropolitan areas like Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe, there are subway lines that quickly and conveniently get you to where you need to go within the city. The maps are pretty straight-forward to read (most of the time, they're in both English and Japanese) so they're pretty easy to use. You just have to pay careful enough attention to recognize if you're going in the right direction or not.

Dontombori is just a subway stop away The way it works is this. You walk into a subway station (usually underground) and go right up to a machine. In our experience, every machine has had an "English" button on the lower left corner of the console. From there, you follow the instructions until you're given a choice of which fare to purchase.

Since you're probably not going to know how much you'll be paying, just push the button for the cheapest fare and pay that amount when prompted. You'll get a ticket, which you will insert at the turnstiles and recover it at the other end of the turnstiles. Hang on to that ticket because you'll need it when you leave the subway station at your destination.

Assuming your subway ride is over and it's time to leave the subway station, you'll be greeted with more turnstiles. You insert that ticket you've hung onto into the turnstiles, and it will tell you if the payment is enough (the turnstile will open up) or if you need a fare adjustment (turnstile remains closed and will probably beep a few times).

If the latter is the case, you recover your ticket and walk over to one of the fare adjustment machines nearby. Insert that ticket into the machine and it will tell you how much more money you owe. Remit the payment when prompted, get the replacement ticket dispensed by the machine, and then insert that replacement ticket into the turnstile, which now should let you exit. You won't get your ticket back (unless you overpaid, in which case you'd hang on to that ticket until its balance is exhausted and the machine sucks it up at a turnstile).

That's all there is to it.

When you stop and notice how few people drive in the country and how busy the train and subway stations are, you'll come to appreciate the efficiency, speed, and convenience of Japan's public transportation system. I'd say it's second to none and probably one of the best (if not the best) system in the world. And best of all, they're all zero-emissions (with the exception of buses)!

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Have a waterfall travel story you'd like to share?

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