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 (outside Tokyo and serviced by the Narita Express), Haneda (close to Tokyo, but watch out for security queues on departure) or Kansai (Osaka) and getting from the airport to the city is simple in each case 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, Yamato (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.


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. There are also 'third sector' lines which are usually small, local services, often running tourist or speciality tours.
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. In the past, a as well as being super comfortable, a Green pass had another advantage in that it was usually easier to get seats in busy periods which was 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. However, it appears that, post pandemic, the Green seating is limited to half a car on many trains except for the most popular routes and most Standard reserved cars are now in a 2 by 2 seating configuration (like the Green car) with the 3 by 2 configuration limited to unreserved cars. This reduces the beneft of the Green pass somewhat.

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. More recently it has become possible to purchase Rail Passes on-line through the JR website at a premium of about 10% and these are claimed to offer the chance of making reservations ahead of your arrival.

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. no longer provides timetables but is still useful for planning routes, trains and journey times while other options such as Japan Travel by Navitime ( or Jorudan's Japan Transit Planner (at or as an App) provide timetable information. You then take your itinerary to a JR oticket ffice, 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


These work just as well as trains. SUICA and PASMO cards work like Oyster cards in London and make using the networks (including buses) easy. They can easily be topped up at machines found in station concourses and can also be used for other purchases such as admission to some popular sights. The JR pass can also be used on the Tokyo Yamamote line, useful for getting around Tokyo, as well as local JR trains around other cities as alternatives to metro limes.
Trams and buses work well too


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.


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


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. You will need an International Driving Permit (1949 version) though.
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. Note that you can also rent Kei cars like the Pixis pictured above. Kei cars are a Japanese phenonemon with the current generation having 660cc engines (earlier generations were even smaller) and while OK for pottering around town they get a bit breathless when it comes to the hilly bits!

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


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. Most of the 'short hop' ferries (across bays and straits for example) operate on an arrive and go basis with no need to reserve in advance.
The Miyajima passenger ferry


Japan, for all its prowess with modern technology, is still far from a cashless society but fortunately these days it is possible to find ATMs that accept foreign cards. ATMs in 7 Eleven comvenience stores (and branded ones elsewhere) and in Post Offices generally accept foreign cards.


These days many signs, whether at stations, on streets or out on the roads and many machines have at 
least an English translation. People in the big cities or from the younger generation speak a little English but they are universally helpful and familar with various translation devices. Still, it is good to try and speak some Japanese but pronunciation can be a bit tricky. Our rule of thumb is to treat all vowels as short except the final one in a word.


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