The Ultimate Guide to Getting around Japan

What will be the preferred method of transport on your Japanese adventure?
What will be the preferred method of transport on your Japanese adventure? | Chris Barbalis / Unsplash
Rebecca Hallett

Freelance writer and editor

Thanks to its excellent public transport system, getting around Japan is no problem for even a first-time visitor. But with trains in Japan run by several companies, transport passes covering different parts of the country, and buses in Japan filling in the gaps in rural areas, figuring out how best to get from A to B can be a little confusing. That’s where our ultimate guide to getting around Japan comes in, explaining everything from bullet trains to taxis.

Public transport in Japan

Japan’s public transport system is renowned worldwide – and for good reason. The ever-expanding shinkansen (bullet train) network connects all the biggest sights at lightning-fast speeds, while luxurious sightseeing trains cover scenic routes. Highway buses and local trains are more budget-friendly options, while domestic flights and ferries provide links to far-flung destinations. On the local level, you’ll have plenty of choices in most cities, from buses and trams to trains, subways and taxis.

If you plan on making multiple trips on the bullet train, Japan Rail Passes could save you a lot of money, while flight passes can make it possible to travel from one end of the country to the other with ease. Alternatively, if you plan on covering a lot of ground, it’s worth looking into car rental; Japan is generally a good country for drivers, aside from the number of toll roads.

Car or bike rental is also a good option in some of the more remote parts of the country. From the southern islands of Okinawa to the wide-open expanses of northern Hokkaido, Japan’s less-touristed regions are well worth visiting, their wilder atmosphere preserved in part by the lack of transport links with more populous and well-known parts of the archipelago.

Trains in Japan

Trains in Japan run the gamut from sleek shinkansen and urban metros to luxury sightseeing services and rural ‘one-man cars’ (tiny, single-carriage trains). There’s an excellent service throughout most of the country, which is punctual to a fault – expect to hear an apology ringing through the station if the train is even one minute behind schedule.

Trains are also a key part of the quintessential Japan experience. Selecting a delicious eki-ben (boxed lunch specifically sold for eating on board), watching Mount Fuji slide past the window of the bullet train, or holding your breath as you’re squeezed into a rush-hour subway car by a white-gloved station attendant – all are classic only-in-Japan moments.

Japan Rail Pass

If you plan on taking more than one or two rides on the bullet train, Japan Rail’s national and regional passes (mostly only available to overseas visitors) are a worthwhile investment. Though some versions can be purchased in Japan, you’ll get the best price by buying one before your trip.

The national pass covers travel on most trains run by the Japan Rail Group, which includes the vast majority of cross-country services. It also covers seat reservations, which usually cost extra on top of the base fare. You can buy the ordinary version or the more expensive Green Car version, the latter giving you access to the first class (or ‘green’) carriages, and JR passes for under-12s cost fifty percent less.

The national JR Pass costs around ¥30,000 for 7 consecutive days’ validity. With just the round trip between Tokyo and Kyoto averaging about ¥28,000, it’s easy to see how quickly the pass can pay for itself. Check if one of the cheaper regional passes will cover your trip for even less, though, before buying one.

Bullet trains in Japan

Super-fast shinkansen connect most of the country’s major cities, from Hakodate (on Hokkaido, the most northerly of Japan’s four main islands) down to Kagoshima (in southern Kyushu). Seats are large and comfortable, whether you ride in an ordinary carriage, a Green Car or in Gran Class (even more luxurious; only available on some routes).

If you have a standard JR Pass you can just walk onto the platform and take any unreserved seat (jiyū-seki), or book a reserved seat (shitei-seki) for free at a ticket office; seat reservations are always required for the Green Car. The fastest types of shinkansen, the Nozomi and Mizuho, aren’t covered by the JR Pass.

If you don’t have a pass, you’ll need to buy your ticket before boarding, paying a supplement for a seat reservation. The cheapest way to travel is with an unreserved seat on one of the slower shinkansen, such as a Kodama or Sakura.

There are some gaps in the network, such as the entirety of Shikoku island and most of Hokkaido, but new sections are constantly being added. By 2024 Tsuruga (between the historic cities of Kyoto and Kanazawa) will be added to the network, and Sapporo (the capital of Hokkaido) is due to be connected by 2031.

Of course, the technology is also always improving, with maglev (magnetic levitation) trains the latest innovation. They’ll first be available to the public in 2027, if all goes to plan, whisking you from Tokyo to Nagoya in just 40 minutes – almost an hour less than the Nozomi.

Cost of trains in Japan

Local trains in Japan are often quite cheap, with Tokyo Metro fares starting at just ¥170, and one-day passes at ¥600. You can also save some yen with a prepaid IC card, such as a Suica, Pasmo or Icoca. There are several available, and as most can be used throughout the country it doesn’t particularly matter which you choose.

You may accidentally end up paying more if your route includes multiple train companies; Japan’s rail network is not nationalised, and different operators often have completely different fare structures. Even just the local train system in Tokyo is run by around a dozen different operators, and you’ll frequently find multiple companies in a single station.

Cross-country trains are of course more expensive, but they’re generally comfortable and always punctual. Bullet trains cost the most, so for shorter journeys it’s worth looking into slower, cheaper options. For example, the shinkansen between Tokyo and Odawara (for the hot-spring resort of Hakone) is around ¥3300 (35min), while the local line is just ¥1500 (1hr 20min), and the scenic Romancecar train from Shinjuku is about ¥1900 (1hr 15min).

The Japan Rail Pass cost is often quite reasonable if you’re planning to use the bullet train or other long-distance services a lot, but there are other discounts and passes worth considering too. With the Platt Kodama Economy Plan, for instance, the Tokyo–Kyoto shinkansen can be as little as ¥10,600. The Seishun 18 Ticket covers five days’ travel on JR local and rapid services for around ¥12,000, though it’s only available seasonally.

Buses in Japan

Aside from trains, buses are Japan’s main mode of public transport. Most large towns and cities have bus networks – in some, like Kyoto, they’re the easiest way to get around – while highway buses run up and down the country day and night.

You board most local buses via the rear door, tap your IC card on the sensor, press the stop button shortly before you want to disembark, then tap your card again at the front while exiting. If you’re using cash instead, take a ticket when you board, then when disembarking drop the ticket and exact fare in the box by the driver. Use the change machine to get the correct coins if needed. The fare for each numbered ticket will be shown on a screen at the front of the bus.

There are some exceptions to this system, of course. In Tokyo and Kyoto a flat fare system usually applies, so you don’t need a numbered ticket; in Tokyo you also enter through the front door and pay when boarding.

For highway buses, it’s best to book in advance. The comfort level varies widely, from the very basic on the cheapest routes up to plush reclining seats with hoods to block out the light on the more expensive overnight buses. Though there are numerous highway bus companies, the most useful are Willer Express and JR Buses.

There are several ways to book highway bus tickets. For JR services, you can go to Japan Rail ticket counters in most stations, and tickets for a variety of companies will be available at bus stations’ own ticket counters. There are unfortunately few English websites through which you can make reservations, but Willer Express has one (also selling tickets for some other companies), while Japan Bus Online and Japan Expressway Busnet cover some common routes.

Cost of buses in Japan

City buses are generally cheap, and most destinations offer day passes. In Kyoto, for instance, all bus rides in the flat fare zone are ¥230, while a one-day bus pass costs ¥700.

Highway buses vary much more in price, depending on route and level of comfort, with round-trip tickets usually slightly better value than one-way tickets. Though the journey times will be longer you’re all but guaranteed significant savings compared to rail travel, especially bullet trains. Also, travelling overnight can save you the cost of accommodation, making it worthwhile to splash out on one of the more luxurious sleeper buses.

If you plan to use buses a lot, consider getting a highway bus pass. Of the many options available, the Japan Bus Pass from Willer Express is the best value if you plan to travel widely, starting at ¥10,200 for a three-day pass.

Prices for children under 12 are usually fifty percent of the adult fare, for tickets and passes.

Flying in Japan

Most parts of Japan are accessible by rail or road, but as the archipelago stretches over 3,000km (1,900 miles) north to south, air travel can be essential for visiting the farther-flung regions.

Alongside the JAL and ANA (Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways) groups, which cover most routes, Japan has several regional and domestic airlines. Among these, Skymark and Jetstar have the most extensive networks, while Peach (Japan’s first low-cost carrier) and Spring cover some useful routes and link to a few Asian destinations such as China and Korea.

Japan has a large number of regional airports, from Hokkaido all the way down to Okinawa, and even allowing time for airport transfers and security checks, they often provide the quickest access to the country’s more remote corners. Travel is often routed via a hub airport such as Haneda (Tokyo), Kansai (Osaka) or Centrair (Nagoya).

Tickets can usually be booked online in English directly from the airline, or through a travel agency.

Cost of flying in Japan

Depending on how far you’re going, passes and discount fares available to overseas visitors can make flying cheaper than taking the bullet train. Among the best options are the JAL Japan Explorer Pass and the ANA Experience Japan Fare, both of which offer domestic flights from around ¥6000 with a wide range of eligible routes and generous baggage allowances. Many discount passes don’t apply during peak periods such as New Year, or the school holidays in spring and summer.

If you’re not able to use a pass while you’re travelling, look into advance purchase or last-minute discounts. These apply to a small number of bookings made either a month or two ahead of travelling, or within the week before your flight.

Low-cost carriers including Peach, AirAsia and Jetstar offer some of the cheapest base fares, but as with any budget airline, be careful about hidden fees. You’ll have to pay extra for checked luggage, and food and drink on board are not included.

An average fare from Tokyo to Okinawa is about ¥45,000 with JAL or ANA, though this could drop to ¥20,000 with a discount fare or ¥11,000 with a pass. Low-cost carrier fares on the same route average ¥9000, while budget airlines such as Skymark are closer to ¥12,000.

Ferries in Japan

Japan is made up of over 6,800 islands, more than 400 of them inhabited, so it’s no surprise that to reach some of them you’ll need to take a boat. Though the four main islands are connected by road and rail bridges and tunnels, there are several major tourist sights which are only accessible by water, among them Miyajima near Hiroshima, the Art Islands of the Seto Inland Sea, Sado Island, and several islands in Okinawa.

The longer routes – for example the 24-hour journey from Tokyo to the Ogasawara islands, or the 12-hour Osaka to Beppu trip – tend to have more extensive on-board facilities. You’ll find shops and a dining area, and often showers or even spas, plus observation decks, children’s play areas and more.

Most ferries have three classes on board: second, first and special. Second class will cover either large carpet or tatami-mat areas on which to sleep, or dorm beds. First class tickets give you a bed in a smaller room, usually sleeping two to four people. The most expensive option, special class, usually covers twin berths or suites.

It’s cheap to bring bicycles onto the ferry, but you’ll need to request it when booking your ticket. Car ferries are quite common in Japan, though not cheap, and you’ll need to reserve a spot for your vehicle in advance.

Some ferry companies have English-language online booking facilities, or are listed on sites such as Direct Ferries.

Cost of ferries in Japan

Overnight ferries can be a good, economical option if you’re travelling a long way, saving a night’s accommodation and usually getting you to your destination bright and early. However, over shorter distances boat travel in Japan is rarely the cheapest option.

The one-way trip from Tokyo to the Ogasawara Islands starts around ¥30,000 and takes 24 hours, while the 12-hour Osaka to Beppu route costs from ¥8000. Shorter routes are of course cheaper, with Zamami Island in Okinawa costing around ¥3200 for the hour-long trip by high-speed boat from Naha, or ¥2200 for the slower 2-hour car ferry.

Car rental in Japan

If you’re travelling in a group, or plan to spend a lot of time in rural areas, it’s worth looking into car rental. You’ll need to be at least 18 years old, and have an International Driving Permit or Japanese driver’s licence.

You can arrange your rental in advance, but so long as you have the right documentation, you can also do so in Japan. When it comes to car rental Japan has a few dominant companies – Orix Rentacar, Toyota Rentacar, Ekiren, Times Car Rental and Nissan Rentacar – which have branches in all major towns and cities. Most companies have English-language websites, or are on sites such as Tocoo.

Depending on the vehicle and time of year, you’re likely to pay between ¥5500 and ¥20,000 per day for car hire. You may be able to return the car to a different location, but unless it’s close to the pick-up point you’ll likely be charged an additional fee, which can get expensive quickly.

Driving in Japan

Cars in Japan drive on the left side of the road. Road signs follow the international standard, and display the speed limit in km/h. There’s a fair number of toll roads, but most are on major expressways or scenic roads, so it’s often possible to avoid them if you don’t mind extending your journey slightly.

The roads in Japan are generally safe and well maintained, though you’ll likely encounter some people speeding or cutting red lights, and a few careless cyclists. Petrol stations are often full service, though the number of self-service options is increasing. In both cases it’s useful to know some basic Japanese, such as which type of fuel you need.

Note that having a car can be more of a hindrance than a help in large cities, where you’re much better off using public transport to avoid convoluted road networks and expensive, inconvenient parking. However, it’s also in major cities that you may see a typically Japanese space-saving innovation – elevator parking lots, which store your car inside a windowless tower and automatically retrieve it for you.

Taxis and Uber in Japan

Taxis are common in Japan, especially in large cities, and are particularly handy when the trains and buses stop running at night. You can book a taxi over the phone or via an app such as JapanTaxi, by going to a taxi stand, or simply by hailing one in the street; those with a red sign on the dashboard (空車) are available, while those with a green sign (賃走) are booked. When the cab you’ve hailed pulls over, the back left passenger door will almost always open automatically.

There may be a language barrier with your driver, but it’s easily overcome. Make sure you know the name of the place you’re heading in Japanese, or if it’s not a major tourist spot or hotel, show the driver the address written out in Japanese or indicate it on a map.

Depending on the area, the starting fare will be ¥400–800, increasing by around ¥90 for every 400 or so metres travelled after the first two kilometres. Fares are usually higher at night, by up to twenty percent. While taxis in rural areas may only accept cash payment, an increasing number in towns and cities are equipped to take credit or IC cards. As is usually the case in Japan, you should not tip your driver.

Ride-sharing apps are not widely used in Japan, though some such as Uber and DiDi are available in some areas (mostly larger cities). Generally you’ll be better off just hailing a cab, but it’s worth noting that Uber doesn’t charge extra at night in Tokyo, while regular taxis do.

Best apps for getting around in Japan

The best apps for route planning in Japan are Jorudan and Navitime, both of which enable quick English-language searches with different filters (for example, only showing routes covered by the JR Pass).

Within the capital, Citymapper is useful for getting to grips with the city’s complex public transport, providing maps, route planning and even advice on which exit is best for which sights.

Both Google Maps and Maps.me help with larger-scale navigation and planning; though Maps.me has better offline capability than Google Maps, it doesn’t have as many points of interest included.

JapanTaxi is the best English-language app for booking cabs. Ride-sharing apps including Uber are also a possibility, especially in larger cities such as Tokyo.

Popular travel routes in Japan

The vast majority of overseas visitors to Japan build their trip around a loop from the modern metropolis of Tokyo, via elegant Kyoto and lively Osaka – the “Golden Route”. You can of course make a number of additions to this basic trip, such as a stay in the spa town of Hakone, hiking in the Fuji Five Lakes region, or visiting the ancient capital of Nara, but generally each of these will start at one of the three main stops. There are many different ways to make this journey, the best of which we’ve outlined below.

Travelling between Tokyo and Kyoto

The most common option for travelling from Tokyo to Kyoto (or Kyoto to Tokyo) is the Tokaido shinkansen line. If you have a JR Pass, either the national version or one of several regional passes, you can take any Kodama or Hikari bullet train along this Tokyo to Kyoto shinkansen line.

If you don’t have a JR Pass, the most economical way to use the shinkansen is the Platt Kodama Economy Plan. It gets you a reserved seat and free drink on any Kodama bullet train (the slowest type) between Tokyo and Kyoto, starting at ¥10,600 and taking 3 hours 30 minutes. Travel on the faster Hikari or Nozomi services takes 2 hours 30 minutes or 2 hours 15 minutes respectively, and costs from ¥13,300 without a JR Pass.

Taking a regular Tokyo to Kyoto train is cheaper, but you’ll need to transfer several times and the journey takes an average of 9 hours. You can do the trip for around ¥8500, but with a discount ticket like the seasonal Seishun 18 Ticket you could get this to under ¥2500.

Highway buses are another budget option. Willer Express and JR Buses both run frequent services between the cities, offering comfortable day and overnight buses from around ¥3500 – less if you have a Japan Bus Pass – and taking around 8 hours.

If you plan on driving from Tokyo to Kyoto or vice versa, expect to pay ¥10,000 in tolls along the expressways. The trip will take about 6 hours.

Travelling between Tokyo and Osaka

The Tokyo to Osaka (or Osaka to Tokyo) route is quite similar to the one between the capital and Kyoto, also using the Tokaido bullet train line. Again, all but the fastest shinkansen model is covered by the national JR Pass and several regional ones, with the Platt Kodama the cheapest alternative (from ¥10,800). The Kodama takes around 4 hours, the Hikari 3 hours, and the Nozomi 2 hours 45 minutes, with the two faster shinkansen services costing from ¥13,900 without a JR Pass. Note that the Tokyo to Osaka bullet train arrives not at Osaka Station, but at Shin-Osaka.

The Tokyo to Osaka train route isn’t the most practical budget option, as it requires multiple transfers and could take 10 hours. However, if you have the Seishun 18 Ticket it can cost just ¥2500, making it the cheapest option. If not, it’ll be closer to ¥9000.

Willer Express and JR Buses connect Tokyo and Osaka, offering day and overnight buses from around ¥3500, or less with a Japan Bus Pass. The route takes around 8 hours. Driving yourself will take around 6 hours by expressway, with tolls amounting to ¥13,500.

Flying is another option, costing as little as ¥8000 from Tokyo (Haneda or Narita airports) to Osaka (Kansai or Itami airports) if you have a JAL Explorer Pass or ANA Experience Japan Fare. However, allowing for transport to and from the airport, this is unlikely to be the cheapest or most convenient option.

Travelling between Kyoto and Osaka

Given their proximity, it’s very easy to travel from Kyoto to Osaka, with your choice of route depending mostly on which parts of the cities you want to visit and whether you’re using a pass.

If you have a JR Pass, you can take the quickest route, the shinkansen between Kyoto and Shin-Osaka stations. Without a pass an unreserved seat costs under ¥1500, and the journey takes around 15 minutes. The Nozomi bullet train is not covered by the JR Pass, but over such a short distance even the slower models take about the same amount of time.

If you want to take a regular Osaka to Kyoto train, you have three main options: JR, Hankyu or Keihan railways. The Kansai Thru Pass (from ¥4400 for two days) covers both non-JR lines plus several others, while the national and several regional JR passes cover all Japan Rail services.

JR limited express and special rapid services from Kyoto to Osaka Station both take about 30 minutes, but the special rapid is much cheaper at around ¥600 rather than ¥1200–2000. As such, the limited express is only worth taking if you have a JR Pass and want a quieter journey.

Keihan Railways are more useful if you’re based away from Kyoto Station, linking several other stations (Demachiyanagi, Sanjo and Tofukuji) with a few central stations in Osaka (Kyobashi, Yodoyabashi and Nakanoshima). The trip should take less than an hour, and cost under ¥600.

Hankyu services link Arashiyama in western Kyoto and Karasuma and Kawaramachi in central Kyoto with Umeda Station (connected to JR Osaka Station). The journey takes around 45 minutes, and costs roughly ¥400.

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