Working on weekdays and going out on weekends requires means to get from point A to B – and Japan has lots of them. Especially in the greater Tokyo area, the public transportation network is so dense that many young people never even consider getting a personal car. In this article, we give you an overview of how to get around in Japan.
Prepaid Transportation Cards (IC Cards)
Before going into the details of all the individual transportation options, let’s have a look at a mainstay of the Japanese public transportation system: Prepaid Transportation Cards. In Japanese, these cards are commonly referred to as “IC cards” (IC is short for “Integrated Circuit”).
IC cards are credit-card sized cards that can be charged with money to pay for transportation fares. To pay, you simply hold the card over a terminal and fare is then automatically subtracted from your card balance. In addition to all major local train lines, most city buses and taxis accept payment via IC card.
IC cards are also useful outside of the transportation network. Many shops across Japan, including all major convenience store chains, allow customers to pay with their transportation cards.
Types of IC Cards
The two IC cards with the most widespread use are Suica and PASMO. Originally, Suica was intended for Japan Railways (JR) lines and PASMO for non-JR lines, both in the greater Tokyo area. Now, however, Suica and PASMO are completely interchangeable with one another – getting only one of the two will do.
Suica and PASMO differ slightly in their initial costs.
A Suica card costs 1,500 JPY, out of which 500 JPY is treated as a deposit. The remaining 1,000 JPY can be used for transportation immediately. A PASMO card requires only requires a 500 JPY deposit to be issued – but to use it, you will have to charge it.
Both Suica and PASMO cards can also be used in many areas outside of Tokyo. However, depending on your area of residence, it might be better to get one of the following regional variants instead to ensure full coverage of all the functions. The most notable areas with local IC card options are:
- Kansai (mainly Kyoto and Osaka): ICOCA, PiTaPa
- Tokai (Nagoya area and neighboring prefectures): TOICA, manaca
- Hokkaido: SAPICA, Kitaca, ICAS nimoca
- Kyushu: SUGOCA, nimoca
IC cards also double as commuter passes. Using the terminal at the train station, you can specify an area between two stations and pay a lump sum to travel between those two stations for free for a specified amount of time. Most railway companies offer 1-month, 3-month, 6-month and one-year commuter passes.
If you use the train to get to work, getting a commuter pass is highly recommended. Many companies provide their employees with a commuting allowance that either covers a fixed amount or the exact amount required for your commute (usually limited to the shortest route).
Means of Transportation
Trains and Railway
Trains are the main method of transportation in large cities. Especially in the greater Tokyo area, commuting by train is often the fastest way to get to work.
Instead of checking customer’s tickets on the train, most modern railway lines in Japan use automatic ticket gates, called kaisatsu (改札, かいさつ) in Japanese. To pass them, you either hold your IC card over the built-in terminal or insert a ticket into the gate (it will come out stamped on the other side – be careful not to lose it during your trip).
Hours of operation and arrival intervals
In bigger cities, trains on any given line arrive in very short intervals during daytime. Instead of rushing on a train in the last minute, it’s advisable to just wait for the next train – in most cases, it will arrive in less than 5 minutes. Intervals start getting longer after around 10 PM.
In smaller cities and the countryside, intervals between train arrivals are longer (around 20 – 30 minutes). This is especially important to keep in mind when making trips into less populated areas.
Trains in Japan usually don’t operate around the clock. Usually, the last train of the day (終電, しゅうでん) leaves the station between 0:00 and 01:00 AM. If you miss it, you will have to resort to other options (like using a taxi, which tend to be relatively expensive) or find a way to spend the night.
Crowded trains and delays
Because of high commuter density, trains in Japan get crowded easily. Rush hour in the greater Tokyo roughly falls between 7:00 and 9:00 in the morning and 18:00 and 20:30 in the evening. How crowded the trains cars are varies by the line you are traveling on. Some train lines, like the JR Chuo or Tokyu Denentoshi Line, reach their maximum capacity faster and more often than others.
Japanese trains are known for their punctuality, but delays still happen. In areas with high commuter density and tight trains schedules, even minor accidents that are dealt with in 10 or 15 minutes can lead to considerable delays.
If your train gets delayed on your way to work, the first thing you should do is contact your company. Inform your direct superior about the situation and give an estimate for when you’ll be able to reach the company.
When getting off the train, look for station employees handing out “proof of delay” slips. Companies often require these slips for internal processes. Depending on the train line you’re using, you might be able to download a digital version through the website or proprietary phone app.
Intercity travel and the Shinkansen (Bullet train)
Long trips outside of your local area require intercity travel. The fastest way to cover long distances by rail is the Shinkansen (also known as bullet train). In addition to being a comfortable way to travel, the Shinkansen is also somewhat of a national symbol.
As of 2021, there are 9 active Shinkansen lines:
Tokyo – Osaka
Tokyo – Aomori
Omiya – Niigata
Takasaki – Kanazawa
Fukushima – Shinjo
Morioka – Akita
Osaka – Fukuoka
Fukuoka – Kagoshima
Aomori – Hakodate
A trip from Tokyo to Osaka on the Tokaido Shinkansen takes around 2.5 hours. Aside from the Shinkansen lines, there is also a number of other express lines that cover the areas not served by the Shinkansen.
Travel on the Shinkansen and other express trains is slightly different from that on local railway lines. As a passenger, you get two tickets: The regular ticket (covering the fare for transportation between two stations), and the express ticket (covering the extra fare for taking the fast route).
In general, Shinkansen tickets have to be bought at the train station. To use your IC card to get on the Shinkansen without using a ticket machine, you have to sign up with area-specific services like JR Easts Eki-Net or JR Central and JR Wests Smart-EX. Be aware that not all websites for these services are available in English.
Most Shinkansen trains offer two classes: Regular cards and green cars. Green cars are comparable to business class on planes, offering the passengers a bit more room. The regular train cars are further divided into cars with seat reservation (指定席, していせき) and those without (自由席, じゆうせき). A seat reservation costs between 400 and 700 JPY, depending on the season.
Train schedule apps
Searching on your phone’s app store, you will find a great variety of apps designed for checking train routes and schedules by searching for the term 乗り換え案内 (のりかえあんない). There are both universal versions and apps proprietary to certain train lines. Downloading at least one of them will spare you a great amount of trouble searching for the fastest or cheapest route to your destination. Most of them also contain a one-click option to display the last train for the day.
Most Japanese cities operate municipal bus lines. In Japan, passengers pay when getting off the bus. As with many other means of public transportation, the easiest and most stress-free method of payment is via IC card. Simply hold the card over the terminal, and you’re good to go.
When paying with cash, make sure to have some spare change ready. Fare machines that only accept the exact amount are not a rare sight. Many buses have a small built-in money changer that allows you to break down 1000 JPY banknotes into coins. However, most of them don’t accept 2000, 5000, or 10000 JPY notes.
In cases where you have to use the money changer, you should let other passengers get off the bus first. That way, you prevent making others wait while you break down your money and save yourself the pressure of having to do everything right on the first try.
Highway buses (高速バス, こうそくバス) are an economical alternative to intercity rail and domestic flights. They are best suited for mid-distance trips between two greater areas. One major perk of highway buses is that they (unlike trains) operate around the clock. Using a so-called night bus (夜行バス, やこうバス), you can conserve precious daytime hours for sightseeing.
Highway buses typically leave from bus terminals at central stations. You can buy tickets in English online on sites such as highwaybus.com or kosokbus.com.
Taxis are relatively expensive but a good option for when you want to get somewhere quick on the shortest route. In bigger cities, other transportation options are plentiful enough that using a taxi isn’t necessary very often. The exception is the time between 0:30 and 4:30, when most trains aren’t running.
Licensed taxis are identifiable by their dark green license plates with white writing on them. Licensed taxis in Japan are very trustworthy – you don’t have to worry about getting short-changed.
Japanese taxis have a little display in the front that tells you the car’s current status:
- 空車 (くうしゃ) = Vacant
- 割増 (わりまし) = Vacant, but costs are higher than usual (20%)
- 賃走 (ちんそう) = Occupied
- 支払 (しはらい) = The previous customer is paying
- 回送 (かいそう) = Currently not in service
When getting on a taxi, the driver will open the door for you. Taxi drivers tend to be middle-aged and older, and only a minority of them are fluent in English and other foreign languages. It’s best to prepare a memo in Japanese or show your desired destination on your phone.
Most taxis allow you to pay via IC card, credit card, or with cash. Fares vary from region to region and are quite detailed when broken down, but here are some general pointers:
In central Tokyo, taking a taxi costs 420 JPY for (roughly) the first kilometer. Every 233 meters after that add 80 JPY to your total. Between 10 PM and 5 AM, costs are increased by 20%. You also have to pay for any fees that arise when taking the expressway.
From cool Hokkaido to subtropical Okinawa, the Japanese archipelago covers a lot of ground. As such, domestic flights are a popular (and often cheaper than expected) option for covering long distances.
In terms of travel time, domestic flights tend to be the best option for distances longer than one single Shinkansen connection.
For example, traveling from Tokyo to Osaka on the Shinkansen takes 2.5 hours while a domestic flight requires around three (including getting to the airport etc.). On the other hand, a Shinkansen trip from Tokyo to Fukuoka takes around 5 hours whereas a domestic flight only takes around 3 to 4.
Being able to drive a car in Japan is beneficial in that it provides more means of transportation and a wider range of activities. You can avoid the crowded commuter trains, and you can also enjoy driving on your days off. There are three ways for foreigners to drive a car in Japan.
Switching a driver’s license obtained overseas
You can drive a car in japan by converting a driver’s license obtained in a foreign country or region to a Japanese license. You can apply for this at a driver’s license center, but you must meet five conditions in order to switch.
- Having a valid driver’s license
- Having stayed in the country where you obtained your driver’s license for a total of at least three months
- Having a residence record in Japan
- Having a valid Visa
- The applicant must apply in person
If the applicant is found to have no difficulty in driving, he/she will be exempted from a part of the test (the academic and skills tests).
Holding an international driver’s license
Foreigners who have an international driver’s license based on the Convention on Road Traffic (Geneva Convention) may drive a car in Japan.
In addition, even if a foreigner from a country or region that does not issue international driver’s licenses has a licensing system recognized as being of a level equivalent to that of Japan, he/she may drive a car in Japan as long as it is accompanied by a Japanese translation prepared by a person designated by a Cabinet Order.
The countries and regions currently covered by this system are Estonia, Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium, Monaco, and Taiwan.
Obtaining a new driver’s license in Japan
Foreigners living in Japan with a visa can obtain a new driver’s license in Japan. Like most Japanese, they need to attend a driving school to acquire driving knowledge and skills, and then take the final test at a license center.
In recent years, there are driving schools and training camps that offer classes in foreign languages.
You can get more information about Foreign Driver’s Licenses and International Driving Permits from this site: Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department