Japan has one of the best transportation networks in the world which has become renowned for its efficiency and punctuality. You can travel to almost any corner of Japan with relative ease on the countries clean and reliable transportation network which is why Japan has become such a popular destination for travellers in recent years.
On a recent trip to Japan, we travelled from Busan in South Korea over to Fukuoka in Japan by boat. Once we explored Fukuoka, we then activated our almighty JR Rail Pass which allowed us to travel Japan’s main islands Kyushu, Shikoku and Honshu with the exception of Hokkaido. Below we will look at all of the common ways you can travel around during your stay in Japan.
Japan JR Rail Pass
First lets talk about the Japan Rail Pass, which will prove to be your biggest ally during your stay in Japan. The JR Rail Pass is essentially a travel card for oversea’s travellers which provides you with unlimited access across Japan Rail’s train network.
The JR Rail Pass however may not be for everyone. If you are planning to stay inside Tokyo then you may not find value in the JR Rail Pass. Where the pass really comes to shine is when you plan to use it to travel to multiple prefectures around Japan. You can purchase a JR Rail Pass that is valid for either 7, 14 or 21 days. If you are planning to stay in Japan longer, then you can purchase an additional Japan Rail Pass from your home country and activate it once your original pass has expired.
The JR Rail Pass needs to be purchased outside of Japan where the vendor will then provide you with a ticket which can then be exchanged for the JR Rail Pass at any major Japan Rail Station Ticket Office.
The JR Rail Pass is mainly used for Japan’s high speed rail service – the Shinkansen, with the exception of it’s fastest train the Nozomi, however keep your eye open for other JR services where the pass is valid. In Hiroshima for example, you can use the JR Rail Pass on the JR boat service to Miyajima island.
When the rest of the world was investing in air travel, Japan doubled down on it’s train network which is why the country has a transport network that it can be proud of.
JR local services are available across all of Japan and also can be used with your JR Rail Pass. Trains run like clockwork in Japan so make sure you check the timetable well in advance either by asking one of the very friendly and knowledgable staff at a JR station or by checking either Google or Apple Maps.
If you are traveling Tokyo, be sure to ride the popular Yamanote Line as this line is a railway loop that will stop off close to Tokyo’s main attractions that you may wish to visit on your first visit to Japan.
Shinkansen (Bullet train)
Japan has been revered all over the world for its high speed rail network – the Shinkansen. The Shinkansen is the gold standard of travel with perhaps the most spacious and comfortable seating on any form of travel in the world. The Shinkansen travels at speeds of up to 320 km/h and to this day maintains a 100% safety record.
It is fair to say Japan has perfected the modern train and provided a template for the rest of the world to follow. China and India have followed suit and have set upon building their high speed ‘Shinkansen style’ train networks which will hopefully oneway inspire the USA an UK to play catchup!
Japan is very proud of its Shinkansen fleet as it has every right to be. The fleet is updated every few years and when a new Shinkansen model is presented or an old model is retired, this is considered to be something of a national event in Japan. Toys of new and retired Shinkansen models are available to purchase from major Shinkansen stations for children, big children and collectors alike.
Shinkansen’s are best for city to city travel in Japan and for us travellers, they are the perfect choice if you have the JR Rail Pass as they can be quite expensive when purchasing a single ticket.
The most common route for overseas travellers is Tokyo to Shin-Osaka. Shin-Osaka is a new station built in Osaka primarily for the Shinkansen service. From Shin-Osaka, you can take a quick local train to either Osaka Station or Kyoto Station as you will most likely be staying closer to one of these two stations.
In smaller cities across Japan, buses are typically used as the locals main form of transportation. However in larger cities such as Tokyo, buses are mainly used for shorter distances as the majority of people will opt for the speedier train service.
It is safe to say Japan’s bus network can be some what confusing for someone visiting Japan for the first time. The most important thing you need to know about travelling on bus in Japan is that you pay when you leave the bus, not when you first board like in other countries. This may seem counter intuitive at first however it does actually make sense for you to pay for something after you have used the service.
The only problem with this system is that in Japan you board on the back of the bus and get off at the front where you then pay the driver. It can be quite difficult getting off the bus at the front when the bus is busy so we recommend that you strategically try to stay close to the front.
You may find that many buses in Japan have an IC card reader however the driver may tell you that they can only accept payment by cash for reasons unknown! For this reason always keep cash on you during your stay in Japan! There is often a change machine next to the driver where you can change notes into coins however when you are on a packed bus this may be the last thing you want to do!
There are many major airports across Japan which can be used for both international and domestic travel. If you are travelling to Tokyo then you will be travelling to either Haneda or Narita airport.
Haneda is Tokyo’s biggest airport and you can easily travel from the airport to inside the city by using Tokyo’s Monorail service. Narita airport has the JR Narita Express service (NEX) which can get you from the airport to direct to many major stations in Tokyo.
Many Japanese people use domestic air travel when travelling within Japan over larger distances such as when travelling up to Hokkaido and even for shorter trips as these can sometimes be cheaper than the Shinkansen service.
Ferries are a very pleasant way to travel in Japan. There are countless short ferry services which can be used to travel from city hubs to smaller islands around Japan. The ferry services are very reliable and are often inexpensive which is an added bonus.
Ferries can also be used to travel larger distances across Japan’s main islands. Most of the ferries that travel over longer distances come with a choice of three classes which range from options with or without a bed, with a dormitory where you share with others and options with a private room.
When it comes to travel in Japan, you can take comfort in the fact that you are in safe hands. Reliability, quality service and cleanliness are all priorities across Japan’s transportation network.
Which ever transportation option you choose during your stay in Japan, be sure to plan ahead before setting off on your journey. If in doubt, head to a help desk where there will often be a member of staff who can help you pick the best route to your destination.