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Japan has an efficient public transportation network, especially within metropolitan areas and between the large cities. Japanese public transportation is characterized by its punctuality, superb service, and the large numbers of people using it.
Most visitors arrive in Japan by airplane, landing in one of four international airports—Narita or Haneda in Tokyo, Central Japan in Nagoya, and Kansai in Osaka. Over 50 domestic airports connect all of Japan’s islands and offer a fast and efficient way to cover great distances quickly. Thanks to the deregulation of Japan’s airline industry and increasing competition from discount airlines, domestic airfares have dropped dramatically in recent years, and flying can sometimes be a cheaper alternative to the shinkansen (bullet train) on some routes. Discount air passes are available for exclusive use by foreign tourists, which enable pass holders to use domestic flights at a fixed cost of slightly above 10,000 yen (around $90) per flight.
Japan’s four major islands—Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku—are covered by an extensive and reliable network of railways. Trains are a very convenient way for visitors to travel around Japan, especially in conjunction with the Japan Rail Pass (several options are available). About 70 percent of Japan’s railway network is owned and operated by the Japan Railways (JR), while the remaining 30 percent belongs to dozens of other private railway companies, especially in and around metropolitan areas. Japan’s high-speed trains (bullet trains) are called shinkansen and are operated by Japan Railways.
Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Sendai, Sapporo, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, and Fukuoka have city subway networks, linked to other rail systems including the JR Yamanote Line in Tokyo, the JR Loop Line in Osaka ,and JR Shinkansen lines. Most subway systems in Japan start at around 5am and the last trains depart at around midnight. Services are less frequent on weekends and public holidays. Subway announcements are generally in Japanese, but English announcements are not uncommon. The next station is often displayed on electronic boards in the carriages in both Japanese and English. Some subway lines have women-only carriages running in the rush hour period—look out for the pink sign on the platform.
Unless you’re only in the country for a day or two, you’ll really benefit from grabbing a stored value card. You can buy a PASMO card from a machine or the station office and then reload it when you need to. You may also purchase online one, two, or three day passes; these offer unlimited use on the Tokyo subway system. Please observe the rules of no food or drink, no loud conversations, no bags or feet on the seats, and make as much room for others as possible.
In Tokyo, Osaka, and some other large cities, buses serve as a secondary means of public transportation, complementing the train and subway networks. In cities with less dense train networks like Kyoto, buses are the main means of public transportation. Buses also serve smaller towns, the countryside, and national parks. Using buses in Japan can be intimidating to foreign tourists (and even Japanese people), because there are different ticketing systems depending on the company, and recognizing the stop where you need to get off can be challenging. While some bus companies do a good job at providing English signage, timetables, and announcements, many buses lack any English information, altogether.
Consisting of several thousand islands, Japan is naturally home to an extensive network of ferry routes. Japan’s four main islands (Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku) are connected by bridges and tunnels, but many smaller islands can only be reached by ship.
Renting a car is an option worth considering if you plan to explore rural Japan where public transportation can be both inconvenient and infrequent. A rental car can also be an economical alternative when traveling in groups, or can make traveling with a lot of luggage easier. On the other hand, a car is usually unnecessary or even burdensome for exploring Japan’s big cities, where it is not recommended. Traffic in large cities tends to be heavy, orientation difficult, and parking inconvenient and expensive. Public transportation is generally a better choice when exploring metropolitan areas.
In Japan’s large cities, taxis are an expensive and unnecessary alternative to the efficient public transportation system. However, taxis are often the only way of getting around once trains and buses stop operating around midnight; this results in a sudden increase in their demand, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, when long lines and waiting times at taxi stands at train stations are not uncommon. In smaller cities, the countryside, and in Kyoto, public transportation tends to be less convenient, thus taking a taxi from the nearest train station to your destination can be a good alternative. If you travel in groups of three or more people, taxis can also be an economical option if you are traveling a short distance.
When you board a taxi, note that the vehicle’s left rear door is opened and closed remotely by the driver. You are not supposed to open or close the door yourself, except when using a different door. If you do not speak Japanese or if your destination is not well-known, it is recommended to give your driver the address of your destination on a piece of paper or, point it out on a map, since the Japanese address system can be confusing even to local taxi drivers.
Many taxis accept payment by credit card. Stickers on the door often indicate accepted payment methods. When paying in cash, try to avoid paying small amounts with large bills. Tipping is not necessary in Japan.
Bicycles are widely used in Japan by people of all age groups and social standings. Visitors will find rental bicycles available in many tourist destinations as an alternative means of getting around. They can be an inexpensive and convenient way to explore relatively compact cities or towns, where distances between attractions are slightly too far to cover on foot. Rental shops can usually be found at train stations.