Updated: May 27, 2018
Navigating Japan - Public Trasportation
When getting lost, its always a good idea to be able to find your way back eventually. This can be especially intimidating in an unfamiliar place when you don't speak the language. But thats what we are here for, to help you put many of those fears of visiting and exploring Japan to rest. In this post we will discuss the public transportation of Japan, renting cars and bicycles, finding free wifi, options to have a working smartphone, as well as highlight a few apps that can make things a lot easier. So lets get started with, Japanese public transportation.
Japan is a very service oriented country. They are renowned for their levels of customer service. They also have some of the best public transportation systems in the world making it easy to get almost anywhere in the country fairly quickly. This also makes living here without a car really easy for most. Taking full advantage of the full system of public transportation will open a whole new world to your life or visit to Japan. Lets get you familiar with them now.
Of course you arrived by plane, unless you opted to take a month(s) long cargo ship cruise to get here. The major Japanese airlines are well known and are my favorite way to go back to America when I visit family. They are clean, friendly, and comfortable. I once had a flight on another airline arrive in New York late, Japan Airlines had an attendant waiting for me as I got of the plane to help rush me through and get me onto my connecting flight to Japan. It was a good feeling to have received that level of service.
The two major airlines here are JAL - Japan Airlines and ANA - All Nippon Airlines.
If you can afford it, these are definitely the fastest travel method. If you are lucky enough to fly over on a clear day and have a window seat on the correct side of the plane, I can tell you it is an amazing view of Mt Fuji. But there are tons of other options too. Budget airlines have recently been growing in size, number, and available destinations. They can really cut time and cost from your travel budget, but may take some skill to navigate a website in all Japanese to book the flight. Airlines like Peach and Vanilla Air are definitely worth checking out. Flying is a great way to cover lots of distance in a short time, and its also a necessity if you want to visit Okinawa. However, My favorite travel method is by train.
Trains, Shinkansen and IC Cards
Japan loves its trains and rightfully so. They are one of the most efficient systems at work. Whether local train or Shinkansen (bullet train), these trains run so well on time that you could quite literally set your watch by them. Not too long before writing this article, one major company issued a public apology because a train left the station 20 seconds too early. If your train runs too late, they will issue you a note to give your employer to show that it wasn't your fault. Once, due to a rockslide, I missed the last train from Fukuyama back to my home. I was prepared to stay up all night in the station and wait for the first train back, but upon arrival, the station attendants gathered everyone from the train that couldn't get home and paid for the taxi ride back for us. For my own fide, this would have cost me about $70 or more if I had to pay for it myself.
Stations are all marked with both English and Japanese signs. Even the electronic signs will scroll English from time to time. This helps make sure you never miss your stop and also makes it easy when getting directions to and from. Many stations keep an attendant on sight for assistance should you have any trouble, and in some larger cities they may even be able to help you in English. They can tell you what train you need and what platform to goto, help you make fare adjustments, or fix and problems you might have with ticketing or using an IC card.
Ticketing and IC cards
Purchasing your ticket is very simple. The machines are automated and all include an English option. There is typically a map above the ticketing machines that show the train routes, stations, and the ticket price needed for each location. Simply follow the guides to purchase the ticket you need. The Machines can handle any coin or bill from 10 yen to 10,000 yen and dispense proper change and a receipt in needed. These Machines can also be used to charge an IC card.
If you dont want to worry about checking the map and price of your ticket each time, then buy an IC card. Which Card you get will differ depending on where in Japan you are. For example, in Tokyo you will get a Suica, but in Hiroshima you will get an ICOCA. In the end, it doesn't matter which you get. They will all work at any station that accepts IC cards. This is most places but be warned, there are some parts of Japan that will not accept IC cards. Typically you will purchase the card from the ticketing machine for about 2000 yen. This will cover a 500 yen deposit that can be reclaimed if you return your card, and a starting balance of 1500 yen to use. There are also machines inside the gate to allow you to charge if you forgot to do so before getting on the train.
If you have an iPhone 7 or newer, you can also add a Suica to your wallet app. This will allow you to use your phone or apple watch (2nd gen or later) as an IC card that has a credit card tied to it. Meaning you charge it from your own credit card. If you transfer your existing Suica to the phone, then the IC card itself dies and can no longer be used.
IC cards can make traveling in Japan a lot easier. Not only do they work for the trains, but many convenience stores, vending machines, and bus companies will accept and use them too. Look for the IC card logo, but try to familiarize yourself with the rules for the area you will be in. In Hiroshima, you could use a certain ICOCA for the trains and buses, but there was a different PASPY car that gave you a discount on bus rides and was used for street cars and the ferry to Miyajima. However the Paspy does not work for the trains. In any case, I highly recommend getting an IC card for your travels.
While not as timely as the trains, buses are still a great option for getting around. bus schedules will typically be posted at each bus stop letting you know when the buses will arrive and where they are headed. They are not as detailed or as easy as the trains to figure out either, but not too bad either. The major bus terminals in big cities will offer more English guides and help. Local busses will maintain regular routes you should familiarize yourself with. If you use Apple maps on an iPhone, then all the routes and timetables are built right in. You can use the built in turn by turn directions to select public transportation and it will tell you exactly which bus or train you need.
Buses are also the cheapest way to get across the country if you have the time. In fact, night buses can be the most affordable method of transportation. They are also relatively comfortable too. You will need to purchase a ticket in advance though in order to reserve your spot. This can sometimes be done at a convenience store or by visiting your nearest bus terminal.
A not so cheap way to get around would be to take a taxi. Its a taxi, just like anywhere else. It takes you more directly to where you want to go. And its expensive. That being said though, it is a unique experience to take a taxi in Japan. Its all about that service. Taxis in Japan go above and beyond. The doors are automated to let you in and out, the drivers will maintain an impeccably clean car for your ride, and of course they help you with your luggage too. It's nice to try at least once. Did we mention it can get expensive?
End of Part One
Hopefully you are a little more familiar with the public transportation options in Japan as well as with how to use them. If you have any questions or would like to see more information about anything we covered, then please feel free to ask. It is our goal to make your travels in Japan just a bit easier and take away any worries you might have. Be sure to watch out for part two where we will talk about things like driving, car and bike rentals, The Japan Rail Pass, app suggestions and more that will make navigating Japan easier.