Getting Around Japan: A Guide

Hello everyone! Those of you who know me, know that I absolutely love Japan. Planning a trip to Japan was time consuming, but a lot of fun. There are so many considerations that need to happen before travelling to Japan, such as what to do, where to go, and most importantly, how to get there. Japan has an amazing transportation system, but it can get tricky for people who aren’t familiar with mass transit (like people who live in the middle of the U.S. and have to rely on cars). I am going to provide you with all of the information that you need for getting around Japan with as little stress and spending as possible.

The Shinkansen (Bullet Train) passing through Odawara Station.

Japan Rail Pass

A Japan Rail Pass is a pass that allows non-Japanese citizens who are visiting Japan for a short time to use most JR trains as frequently as they want during their trip. There are several non-JR trains in Japan that are more local lines. You will likely end up using these, but they are fairly inexpensive. JR lines connect most, if not all, major cities in Japan, and have lines within those major cities.

The Japan Rail Pass, Exchange Order, Intrusctions, and a reserved ticket from Osaka to Kyoto.

Should you Get a Pass?

First thing’s first, if you are not a citizen of Japan and are visiting Japan for a short period of time and plan on moving around a lot, you should get a Japan Rail Pass. The only reason I would not recommend this is if you are only planning on staying in one area for your visit.  You can get a pass for 7, 14, or 21 days, and can also choose between green and standard. Green passes are for superior-class cars and are more expensive than the standard passes. I used a 14-day standard pass while I was in Japan, and it was perfect for me. The JR Pass covers the use of four out of the six Shinkansen train services. It does not include the Nozomi or Mizuho lines. This is important to keep in mind when planning your routes. Go to this site to calculate whether or not a Japan Rail Pass would be a good investment for you.

The view of Hiroshima from the JR Ferry to Miyajima Island.

Will it save you money?

The Japan Rail Pass did save me a lot of money. I was travelling to new cities every few days, and would have been spending hundreds more dollars (or thousands more yen) had I not purchased the pass. My pass costed $404 dollars (this was a year ago, so they are $406 now). A round trip ticket for the Shinkansen between Tokyo and Kyoto is approximately ¥27,000 or $240. I was able to travel between 8 cities in Japan with this pass for only $404. In my case, the Japan Rail Pass was absolutely worth the investment.

The view from the Narita Express, heading back to the airport from Tokyo.

Getting the Pass

Before you Leave

The pass needs to be ordered online before you go to Japan. It is important to plan for because you will receive an exchange order in the mail that will allow you to get your pass once you arrive in Japan. It takes a couple  of weeks for the pass to come to you in the mail. Then you just have to remember to pack it and have it with you upon arrival.

After You Get There

Once you arrive at the airport (I flew into Narita), you will make your way to the JR office. There will likely be a super long line that is not connected to the office. There is actually space for only a small line in the office and a longer roped off area a few feet away from the office. I didn’t notice this in my groggy state and almost cut line. Luckily a nice Japanese woman who worked there directed me to the end of the line(much to my dismay), and I got a nasty look from a man who had probably been waiting for an hour. Sorry man! So I am telling you this now in order to spare you from any embarrassment or dirty looks from other tired travelers.

My brother who flew into Haneda had a much easier experience getting his pass. There was little to no line for him at the JR office, so he was able to get in and out quickly and hop on a train into Tokyo. If you do not want to activate your pass right away, you can simply purchase a ticket and get right on the train and get your ticket later on at Tokyo Station, or another station that will be listed on the instructions that you will receive with your exchange order.

The Narita Express at Shinjuku Station.

Activating Your Pass

Once you have your pass, you can choose to activate it then, or wait. Once it is activated, it is only good for however long you purchased it for. This is something to consider if you will be there for longer than that amount of time, for example, I was there for 15 days and had to purchase my train back to the airport normally. Upon arrival, I went ahead and activated my pass and the attendant printed me a ticket for the Narita Express to Tokyo Station. It is about an hour from the airport, but the train is super nice, with wifi and small TVs showing local and international news. At this point, you can gaze out the window in awe of the beauty of Japan as the countryside turns into the thriving metropolis of Tokyo.

Mt. Fuji from the train heading to Tokyo from Matsumoto.

Using the Pass

Utilizing the pass is really easy. Show the pass to an attendant when you are entering the train station. Make sure that you go to the line to the far left or right of the automated ticketing gates.  I would suggest scheduling your ticket for the Shinkansen at the JR office located in most major train stations that the Shinkansen passes through. Simply wait in line, show your pass and tell them where you want to go. They will print out a ticket telling you which car and seats to sit in. If you are having a hard time figuring out your route, this is also a good reason to speak to a ticketing agent. They will give you tickets with precise times and places, making navigating the stations so much easier!

Sometimes the assigned seats will be full, but there are usually some cars that are for passengers to hop on and off and standing is allowed(they get packed). If you have a green pass, you will be able to sit in the nicer cars, but honestly all of the cars are nice. The worst experience that I had was standing in a car packed with people between Hiroshima and Kyoto (almost three hours). People file off pretty quickly and you will end up with a seat eventually. It wasn’t so bad!

The view from the train heading to Matsumoto from Nagoya.

Navigating the Stations

It is worth noting that Japan hosts some of the largest train stations in the world. The overwhelm is real. Once you catch on to the flow of things it gets must easier. Follow the flow of foot traffic. Stand to the side on escalators or you risk being run over by a business person or student who is late. Which side of the escalator to stand on differs in certain parts of the country, so just do as the locals do. It was seriously great, though, because there was never anyone standing in your way when you where running down or up the stairs to catch your train!

Line up for your train in an orderly fashion (the ground is marked), and allow the passengers leaving the train to get off before you rush on. If you ever get lost, just ask an attendant and they will help you. They saved us many times. Oh, this is important: Trains in Japan are always on time. They will leave you if you are even a minute late. It’s really impressive actually, and makes you wonder why things aren’t like this everywhere.

If you are using a line that is not JR, you will need to purchase a ticket. You can go to the counter and speak to a ticketing agent, or you can use automated ticketing machines to purchase your ticket. The machines are much faster because there are more of them. They pretty much all give you an option to choose your language, so they are simple to use.

While in Japan, we used google maps and the HyperDia app to look at train schedules. HyperDia is an app that is designed specifically to find routes and timetables for trains in Japan. You can use it to look specifically for JR trains, or to look at all trains. It can also be used for highway buses and aviation within Japan. Make sure that you have this downloaded for your trip!

The Cable Car between Koyasan and Gokurakubashi Station.

Other Means of Transportation

Streetcars

We used the streetcars in the inner city of Hiroshima. You will need to have some yen with you for this or you will need a IC card with money loaded onto it. You can also purchase a day pass for ¥600. Otherwise, there is a flat fare of ¥160 for adults and ¥80 for children. If you don’t have exact change, there is a change machine on the streetcar. Just make sure that you are using the change machine and not dropping your money into the fare slot. Read about the Hiroshima Electric Railway here.

Buses

We took the bus some within Kyoto, which saved use quite a bit on train fare to the areas without JR lines. Like the streetcars, buses also have coin changers. You can also use a IC card with money loaded onto it. Buses can be a great way to save money on transportation in Japan. You could forgo the Japan Rail Pass and stick to buses if you wanted to. The decision really lies with how much time you have to spend in Japan. A bus ride takes much longer than a train, but a bus is cheaper. To learn more about buses in Japan, see this website.

Ferry

The ferry took us to Miyajima Island from Hiroshima, and was covered by the JR Pass. Otherwise, the price one-way is ¥180. It is a lot of fun, and I would recommend this as a day trip! This was my only experience taking a ferry in Japan, but I know that there are others. Some are short rides, and others are large and equipped for longer routes. It is certainly a fun way to travel, so I would look into it more if you are planning on venturing to some of Japan’s many islands.

Cable Car and Ropeways

We did have to pay for some of the cable cars and ropeways that took us up into the mountains and more remote areas of Japan. You have to take a cable car to get to Koyasan, or Mt. Koya. We took a ropeway in Hakone and on Miyajima Island. The ropeway in Hakone is included as a part of the Hakone Day Pass. I would recommend looking into all travel options, because there are a lot of little ways that you can save yourself money and time in Japan.

How the coin changers on Buses and Streetcars work

Keep it Clean and Be Respectful

Japan is one of the cleanest countries I have ever visited, and that includes the train stations. I was surprised by this, because there are not that many trash cans around Japan (whereas in the U.S. we have trash cans everywhere and still litter?). People will hold on to their trash until they get home or find a trash can or a place to recycle. You should do this too! We all need to learn this from the Japanese people. It is not the job of a few people to keep things clean, but rather, we all have a responsibility to clean up after ourselves.

In addition to cleanliness, make sure that you are respecting the other passengers. Be aware of your bulky bags or suitcases. If you sit in a handicap seat or a seat designated for pregnant women or the elderly, make sure that you give that seat to them when you see them board the train. It is fine to sit there as long as you follow this rule.

Grab a bento box before a long train ride.

Enjoy the Experience

Riding a train through any country is so much fun. You get to see all of the different cities and towns and landscapes as you whip by as a passenger. I loved how the train personnel would pass through each car and bow before leaving to go to the next one. The amount of respect in Japan is inspiring. Whether you are grabbing a quick train to hop from one part of the city to the next, or you are jumping on the Shinkansen to travel across the country in record time, once you figure out the trains in Japan, you will absolutely love them.

My own route in Japan was Tokyo-Odawara-Hiroshima-Miyajima-Kyoto-Koyasan-Osaka-Nagoya-Matsumoto-Tokyo, with some local trains and buses within each city. We definitely got our moneys worth on the Japan Rail Pass! We also used the local lines in the bigger cities, which didn’t add too much to our overall transportation costs. I highly recommend using trains to get around Japan. If you are feeling overwhelmed, feel free to contact me, and I can walk you through it in even more detail.

Please like, share, and comment if you found this post to be useful! Look forward to future posts about all of my adventures in Japan!

This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through those links I will make a small commission at no extra cost to you. I only recommend products that I have personally used and loved. 

 

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