GETTING AROUND

Getting around in Japan is an absolute delight because everything works and is clean and comfortable. Public transport is everywhere and it is just about possible to get anywhere in Japan using it although ultimately you may have to resort to hiring a car or using a taxi.

Most foreign visitors arrive and depart from either Narita (Tokyo) or Kansai (Osaka) and getting from the airport to the city is simple in both cases as frequent trains run from the airport terminals to city centres. Bus services are cheaper but take longer and involve a bit more hassle. Taxis are available but an unnecessary expense for most.

One decision visitors need to make is how to carry your belongings with you. There are two main options, both of which work well. If you take suitcases you can have them sent on from one hotel (or from your arrival airport) to your next hotel and the service is almost universal, taking a day in most areas but a couple of days for outlying places or longer distances. One of the most common services (you see their collection points and vans everywhere) has a distinctive cat logo.
 
This van could be carrying your luggage

Alternatively you can carry your luggage around with you which is almost manageable on most trains (see next) but less so on metros and buses. Our preference is to take small lightweight (carry on) suitcases filled with lightweight clothing and a rucksack/messenger bag. Just about every train or bus station has plentiful left luggage lockers so dropping off you bags while making a visit somewhere is an easy option.

TRAINS

Ah, the trains! It is best to start with trains as they are the primary mode of transport in Japan (OK you can take internal flights but why bother with the hassle of airports when the Shinkansens go almost as fast?) and they are arguably the best in the world.

Japan Rail covers most of Japan one way or another although there are a few non JR lines and sections not covered by normal JR tickets where you pay the conductor a small supplement.There are really three sorts of trains beginning with the Shinkansen. These are superfast expresses which make limited stops at the principal cities on a network that currently runs from Kagoshima in southern Kyushu, through southern and eastern Honshu up to Hakodate on Hokkaido. The network also has westward extensions to Kanazawa, Nigata, Yamagata and Akita. Shinkansens run on their own tracks and have their own stations/platforms which are usually, but not always, located adjacent to the other train stations.
 
The latest Series W7 Shinkansen

Next up is the Limited Express which connects cities and towns not on the Shinkansen network and are comparable to most of the better trains found in Europe (TGV excepted).
 
A pair of older limited expresses

Finally there are an enormous number of local trains, either urban commuter ones or cross country ones that seem to stop everywhere as they did in Europe many years ago.
 
A local train

Generally Shinkansens have three classes (Gran, Green and Standard), Limited Expresses two (Green and Standard) and Local just one. All Shinkansen and LE trains have names and numbers. The name signifies the route and stops while the number indicates a particular departure. So a Kodama 669 travels the Tokyo Osaka route leaving at 15:56 stopping at many stations while the Hikari 521 leaving at 16:33 travels the same route 60 mins faster by stopping at fewer stations. Gran and Green are all reserved seating while Standard is a mix of reserved and unreserved with some trains having only a couple of unreserved carriages while others have more. Local trains are all unreserved and are shown in timetables and on noticeboards with the name of the line, the destination and departure time.
 
Green class is very comfortable

Tickets are expensive by European standards so visitors should strongly consider buying a JR Rail Pass. They are such good value that a couple of medium length trips or one long one (Kagoshima to Tokyo) covers almost the entire cost for a 14 day pass. Passes are available for multiples of 7 days and come in either Green or Standard forms with Green costing roughly twice Standard. As well as being super comfortable, a Green pass has one other advantage in that it is usually easier to get seats in busy periods which is particularly useful as you can’t start making reservations until you have picked up your pass in Japan – you can buy a voucher in your country of origin and exchange it for the pass on arrival. You can use the pass on all JR trains and lines (including the Narita express) with the notable exception of three Shinkansens – Nozomi, Hayabusa and Mizuho.

You can use you pass in a couple of ways. The first is to plan your itinerary and decide what journeys you want to make in advance. www.hyperdia.com is you best friend here and is an easy and precise way of using the timetables and includes all trains – even local ones. You then take your itinerary to a JR office, of which there are many, and seem to be open all the time and the ticket clerk will make all of your reservations for you. If you want to change your plans at any time you just take the reservations to the office and they will make the change if seats are available.

The other way of using the Rail Pass is to just turn up and try and get unreserved seats. You can maximise your chances by scanning the departure boards, looking for a train going to your destination with plenty of unreserved carriages and then make sure you are at the front of the queue when the train arrives. Each carriage has a designated queueing point on the platform with lines leading away from it which everyone (with the possible exception of some Gaijin) observes.

Because all trains are so frequent and run to time it quickly becomes second nature to use them quite differently to other countries. You can almost use the Shinkansens like you use the metro in London, Paris or New York but over much greater distances so, for example, you could make a morning trip to somewhere a couple of hundred kilometres away, visit the attraction and return in time for lunch!

Train toilets worldwide range from decent to beyond disgusting. Not surprisingly, Japan's are probably at the top of the list. Clean, spacious and even stylish.
 
The toilet area on a Japanese train

Station concourses are generally very large which isn't surprising as rail is such a common form of transport and there are often dozens of lines passing through carrying a multitude of passengers. Because of this they are not bad places to be when you have the odd half hour to kill while waiting for a train. There are usually scores of shops and restaurants and sometimes even a garden or other quiet are.
 
A small park at Asahikawa station

METRO/TRAM

These work just as well as trains. SUICA and PASMO cards work like Oyster cards in London and make using the networks easy. They can easily be topped up at machines found in station concourses.
 
Trams and buses work well too

BUS

Buses are plentiful and frequent but quite expensive. Suburban buses have huge display in the front of the bus works like a taxi meter so you can see the cost mounting up from the stop you got on at up to the one where you get off. Long distance coach services are also plentiful and quite easy to arrange.

TAXI

Taxis are plentiful and always metered. Up until recently they were nearly always old but fantastically maintained Toyota Crowns (or occasionally the Nissan equivalent) driven by smart and polite drivers wearing peaked caps and white gloves and with seats covered with anti macassars. Nowadays, in the larger cities, the Crowns are being replaced with Prius or Black Cab lookalikes (from Toyota) although the other aspects continue. They are quite expensive and not really necessary unless you have a phobia of public transport. Not sure if Uber/Lyft have made much impact in Japan yet.
 
The widely used Toyota Crown


HIRE CAR

The Japanese approach to hiring cars isn’t quite the same as in the West. Essentially you hire a car for as many hours as you need the car for and then drop it off either at the ‘shop’ you picked it up at or at another – one way fees are quite reasonable. Shops are everywhere particularly at stations with the larger stations having shops from the same company at N, S E and W exits! Toyota and Nissan run their own rental operations and are probably the largest. Again the booking process is somewhat different – you simply reserve a car and give your email and ‘phone number. You pay when you pick up the car and there is no hard sell for upgrades or insurances. It is worth paying a few hundred Yen for an ETC card which allows you to use toll roads much more easily than by paying at barriers and you pay the tolls when you drop the car off – it only takes a couple of minutes.
 
The Toyota Pixis is ideal for Japanese roads

Driving around is very easy. Japanese drive very defensively and, with very low speed limits, everything proceeds in a serene manner, if a bit slowly. OK, I wouldn’t really want to drive in the Centre of Tokyo or Osaka but then again why would I? Smaller cities present no problems.

Parking can be a bit of a challenge but most hotels either have or can arrange parking – often in one of the high rise garages which whisks your car away on an automated platform. Elsewhere parking sites can be found everywhere using either pay and display, tickets and barriers or some more sophisticated electro/mechanical systems – best avoided!
 
You need to be careful using these parking lots

FERRIES

Passenger and car ferries work just the same way as they do the world over and in some cases (like the Miyajima ferry) your JR Rail Pass can be used.
 
The Miyajima passenger ferry

 
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