This post was last updated on June 9th, 2020 at 07:31 pm
Japan is a huge country which means it’s a good idea to prepare ahead of time for their many different transportation options. Japanese are disciplined, that is reflected everywhere in their daily life and, therefore, also in their transport. On an annual basis, the train has an average delay of 36 seconds, including delays due to typhoons and other natural disasters!
This is the case with every option of transportation in Japan. The subway trains run perfectly on time, planes have virtually no delays and buses always run according to schedule. Where in other countries in Asia you are sometimes stuck halfway through your journey, this is unthinkable in Japan.
Transportation in Japan
Transportation in Japan is probably the last thing you need to worry about. There are few other countries where transportation is as good and efficient as in Japan. There are different options in terms of transportation in Japan. The train is the most used option (the shinkansen), in addition, you have buses, domestic flights, taxis and of course the metro. Below each of these options will be further explained.
Using the Train in Japan
The Japanese train is the most used means of transport. Especially between the larger cities, there is no more efficient means of transport than the train. The network is extensive and the trains always run on time. In 2009, Japan Railways (JR) announced that the average annual delay was 36 seconds. They even promised to have less delay the following year.
There are different trains in Japan. The most famous train is, of course, the Shinkansen, also known as the Bullet Train. This is the fastest train in the world that reaches 240 to 320 kilometers per hour (150 to 200 mph). In addition to the Shinkansen, you also have “normal” trains, intercity trains and night trains.
Trainstation in Japan
Single tickets are pricey, especially for the fastest trains. Fortunately, there are many discounts and passes available. If you plan to travel a lot by train, the various Japan Rail Passes are the best deal. There are also different tour packages offered by the Japanese travel agency Sunrise Tours.
Traveling by Shinkansen or Bullet Train is an attraction in itself. You hardly notice that you reach a speed of 320 km/h (200 mph). They are bizarrely punctual – (if you’re two seconds late on the platform the train will be gone) so you will always be on time at your destination.
There are 6 routes/tracks, the most important of which are the Tokaido-Sanyo line (Tokyo to Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, and Hiroshima, ending in Fukuoka) and the Tohoku line (the main northern route, Sendai – Shin-Aomori).
On the train, there are electronic signs and spoken messages in English that indicate which stations are coming up.
Get to the door on time because you only have a few seconds to get in or out before the train leaves.
In addition to the Shinkansen, the fastest services are limited express (Tokkyu) trains, which make a limited number of stops. Just like the Shinkansen, you have to pay and there are separate classes and reserved and non-reserved seats. Less known are the express (Kyuko) trains, which only stop at the larger stations.
The above trains are all covered by the Japan Rail (JR) services. The train system is quite complicated because some of the tracks were sold by JR to private companies so you still have to pay for part of the track. Fortunately, it is obvious when this is the case.
Sleeper trains, like the ones used in Thailand or Vietnam, are much less common here. The main routes are from Tokyo and Osaka to Aomori and Sapporo. If you have a Japan Rail Pass and you want a bed for the night, you still have to pay for the bed.
Costs for a 4 to 6 person compartment are ¥6,000 to ¥10,000 ($55 to $91), depending on the class of the cabin. A few night trains have adjustable seats, which JR pass holders can use without paying a surcharge. Reservations are required.
Japan Rail Pass
If you plan to make just one long-distance train journey (e.g. from Tokyo to Kyoto) a Japan Rail Pass is not necessary. In all other cases, it is good to have one. Buy your Japan Rail Pass before you arrive, because the full Japan Rail Pass can only be purchased outside of Japan. For good flexibility, the extensive Japan Rail Pass is the best choice; while the regional Japan Rail Passes are good deals if your route is already fixed.
With the traditional Japan Rail Pass, you can travel on all JR routes in almost all of Japan, including buses and ferries. They have different passes.
- 7 days ➜ $261
- 14 days ➜ $414
- 21 days ➜ $529
The most important service for which the pass is not valid is the Nozomi Shinkansen. As with all JR tickets, children between the ages of 6 and 11 pay half the price, while everyone under the age of 6 travels for free.
Shinkansen train in Japan
Buses in Japan
The bus is, certainly among travelers, a popular and great means of transport. Traveling by bus is one of the cheapest ways of transportation in Japan. It is cheaper than the train, but they do take a little longer to get where you want to go. Prices are particularly low between Tokyo and Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe.
Keep in mind that legroom is sometimes a bit tight.
Of course, you have the long-distance buses or Chokyori Basu. There are also night buses (Yako Basu); popular among backpackers. These buses are a cheap alternative to the trains. The night bus is a good alternative, especially for journeys where trains don’t go.
Most buses leave next to or near the central station. For journeys of more than two hours, there is at least one break.
TIP – Willer Express is one of the largest long-distance bus companies and offers a large number of good deals. Check the prices on their website or below.
A seven-hour night bus from Tokyo to Kyoto costs “only” ¥3,500 ($32). The same ride with the Shinkansen, which takes 2.5 hours, costs you ¥12,710 ($116). There are hundreds of small bus companies operating on different routes.
All details, timetables, and costs can be found at the station or the local tourist offices.
Buses work best in the more rural parts of Japan, where there are few or no trains. Buying tickets in advance is not necessary; you can pay on the bus.
There are a number of peaks in the season. In addition to the high season (April, May, and August) you have to take into account crowds around New Year, the Golden Week (late April/early May) and Obon (early August). During these days it seems like the whole population of Japan is outside. Trains, planes, ferries, and buses fill up quickly and the roads are extremely busy.
Book well in advance and expect higher rates for flights, as all discounts are suspended during peak periods.
Domestic Flights in Japan
Japan consists of more than 6,800 islands that are not all inhabited. But you can also take a plane around the largest and most famous islands (including a number of tropical ones). Also in the vast Hokkaido, where there are no train connections, flying is a solution.
For travelers who have less time but a slightly larger budget, domestic flights are a great option. Such a flight does not have to be expensive at all, especially if you know that a train ticket for the Bullet Train can cost just over $110.
You can also fly for that money. The best-known airlines are All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines.
TIP – Find the cheapest domestic flights in Japan at Skyscanner.com. You can also look at local airlines such as Japan Airlines.
Boat or Ferry in Japan
With 6,825 islands, boats are indispensable. It is one of the most pleasant ways of traveling in Japan. With the ferry, you can see very different things from the landscape than you would with the train or bus. The routes (at night) between Honshu and Hokkaido in the north and Kyushu and Shikoku in the south are very special.
It is not the fastest way to travel, but one of the nicest. You don’t have the time? Then try a short route.
The overnight ferries have the cheapest rates. A place in a sleeping room on the floor of a large room with up to a hundred other passengers can be a bargain compared to fares for trains and airplanes.
The night boat from Oarai, two hours north of Tokyo, to Tomakomai will cost you ¥8,500 ($77).
Even if you book an extra bed it is cheaper than the train and you get a very comfortable cruise in return. More info can be found here.
Car Rental in Japan
Renting a car and driving yourself around the big cities may be a bit too much for inexperienced drivers, but renting a car is often the best way to go off-the-beaten-track.
The Japanese roads are of a very high standard, with a vast majority of the signs on the main routes being in English.
Although you have to pay a toll to drive on the highways (count on around ¥30 per kilometer), there are plenty of perfect roads for free. Regular petrol will cost you around ¥105 per liter. For a group of people, renting a car is much cheaper than taking the bus or train.
It is also possible to rent cars for less than a day, great for short trips.
Renting a Car
There are car rental companies at all major airports and train stations. The main Japanese companies include Mazda Rent-a-car, Nippon Rent-a-car, Nissan Rent-a-car, and Toyota Rent-a-car. International rental companies such as Hertz and National also have branches throughout Japan.
TIP – To rent a car you must have a valid international driving license. You must always have this with you.
Prices differ little between the different companies and you usually have unlimited kilometers. Prices start from around ¥6,500 ($59) for the first 24 hours for the smallest type of car (four people), plus ¥1,000 ($9) insurance.
During the peak seasons like Golden Week and New Year, it is very common that the rates for all cars go up.
It is fairly busy on the roads in the cities of Japan. In the countryside, it is very peaceful!
Taxi in Japan
The taxi is actually only used in the city and in particular to come and go from the airport or train station, for example. It is a pricey means of transportation in Japan compared to the bus or metro. The advantage of using a taxi is that you can find them nearly everywhere so you don’t have to make an effort to find one.
The only drawback is that not all taxi drivers speak English. Therefore have the people in your hotel or hostel write down your destination in Japanese. After stopping a taxi, show them the Japanese address where you want to go.
Metro in Japan
The metro is just as efficient as the trains. The metro is the best means of transport in the cities. It is not expensive and you can go everywhere as the metro network is very extensive. With the help of a map of the metro lines and stations, you can easily find your way.
Just like the train, you can buy a ticket that allows you to use all the lines. The metro in Japan is very efficient and also remarkably clean. People wait neatly in rows until passengers board, so there is no urgency.
However, it can be very busy during peak hours. So try to avoid those times.