Traveling Around Japan

With its vast array of islands, bustling cities, stunning landscapes, and impressive national parks, Japan may seem overwhelming to navigate initially. However, upon closer inspection, you’ll discover that traveling around this Asian powerhouse is actually quite enjoyable. Whether you choose to explore by train, ferry, or with a rented vehicle, we’ve put together a guide to help you get around Japan.

For intercity travel, take the train

Trains are the preferred and highly recommended mode of transportation for travelers exploring Japan. Renowned for their speed, efficiency, and reliability, trains offer a stress-free way to navigate the country, despite not being the most budget-friendly option (with a JR Pass price increase scheduled for October 2023).

Japan Railways (JR) is the primary operator and encompasses multiple rail systems that provide seamless connectivity across the nation. JR operates the iconic shinkansen, or bullet train, which reaches impressive speeds of nearly 320 km/h (200 mph) as it connects major cities. In addition to JR services, Japan boasts an extensive network of private railways, with each major city typically served by at least one private train line that extends to its surrounding areas. There are also a few remaining sleeper train services.

Major stations in Japan feature English signage, and announcements on long-haul trains are made in both Japanese and English. Navigating the larger stations, with their numerous routes, can be a bit challenging. It is advisable to allocate sufficient time to find your way to the desired platform.

Overall, trains in Japan offer unparalleled convenience and accessibility, making them an excellent choice for getting around the country.

How to buy train tickets in Japan

To purchase train tickets in Japan, there are several options available. Touch screen vending machines, commonly found in major train stations, offer ticket sales with an English language function. For shinkansen journeys, these machines also accept credit cards. Another option is the midori-no-madoguchi, which serves as JR’s in-house travel agency and can be found at major JR stations. Additionally, travel agencies within train stations, such as the Japan Travel Bureau (JTB), also sell train tickets.

Ticket prices for train travel in Japan are comparable to fares in Western Europe. Faster services, such as the shinkansen, typically have higher fares than slower trains.

Seat reservations can only be made for shinkansen services and certain tokkyū (limited express) lines, where they are mandatory. Reserved-seat tickets can be purchased anytime from one month in advance up to the day of departure. Otherwise, tickets are unreserved, meaning there is no allocated seat. While unreserved tickets won’t sell out, it’s possible that you may have to stand if all seats are occupied.

Many visitors to Japan opt for rail passes, which can provide cost savings for multiple train trips during their stay. The Japan Rail Pass is a popular choice, offering unlimited rides on all JR services for 7, 14, or 21 days. There are also region-specific passes available, such as the Tōhoku Area Pass or Tokyo Wide Pass, which cater to travelers focusing on specific areas of the country. Information about these passes can be found on the respective JR Railways websites, including JR Central, JR East, and JR West. It’s worth noting that there are also passes available outside the JR network.

Bus travel is the best budget option

Japan boasts an extensive network of long-distance buses that connect the islands of Honshū, Shikoku, and Kyūshū. While they may not be as fast as the shinkansen, they offer a more affordable alternative. Additionally, buses travel routes that are not covered by trains, providing greater flexibility in transportation.

Japan Railways (JR) operates the largest highway bus network in the country. Although it may be slightly pricier compared to other operators, JR buses are known for their reliability, and they typically depart from and arrive at train stations, making them convenient for travelers.

There are also budget-friendly operators like Willer Express that have extensive bus networks. Reserving seats on Willer and other reputable operators can be done through services such as Japan Bus Lines.

Many long-haul routes offer night bus options, which can be a cost-effective choice. Premium coaches often feature spacious seats that recline significantly, providing a comfortable experience. While these premium services may be priced higher than ordinary coaches, they still offer savings compared to accommodation costs. It’s worth noting that most buses are equipped with onboard toilets for convenience.

Hiring a car or motorcycle gives the most flexibility

When it comes to exploring rural areas in Japan, renting a car is often the best mode of transportation, particularly for groups of two or more people. There are numerous regions that are ideal for car exploration, including Hokkaidō, Tōhoku, Hida, Shirakawa-gō, the Japan Alps, the Noto Peninsula (Central Honshū), the San-in Coast (Western Honshū), Shikoku, Kyūshū, and Okinawa.

Driving in Japan has become more convenient thanks to navigation systems. However, it’s important to note that in remote mountainous areas, these systems may not always be foolproof. It is advisable to allocate ample time to reach your destination when traveling in such areas.

Car rental prices are generally similar across different agencies, typically starting from around ¥7,000 per day (approximately US$50) for a compact car. Discounts may be available for rentals spanning multiple days. Nippon and Toyota are prominent rental companies in Japan, offering vehicles equipped with English-language navigation systems. Online bookings can be made in English through their websites.

Renting a motorcycle for long-distance touring is not as readily available as car rentals. Rental 819 is one of the few agencies that allows English bookings for motorcycles. However, scooter rentals are more common on smaller islands. Keep in mind that an international license (not necessarily a motorcycle license) is required to rent a scooter. It is mandatory for motorcyclists in Japan to wear helmets while riding.

What to expect on the road

Japanese roads are generally well-maintained and in excellent condition. It is more common to come across ongoing roadworks than to encounter roads in need of repair. It’s important to note that mountain roads and many urban streets can be narrow, and you may also encounter one-way streets in cities.

Driving in winter can be challenging, especially if you lack experience with snow and ice. Higher elevations can experience snowfall as early as November (October in Hokkaidō), and mountain passes may remain closed due to snow until April. While road signs are often in English, weather warnings and road closures may not be readily available. If you plan to drive through mountainous areas during winter, it is advisable to have someone, such as your accommodation provider, check the feasibility of your route based on current weather conditions.

Domestic flights are quick and cheap

Japan boasts an extensive, reliable, and safe air service network. While flying within the country can be faster and occasionally cheaper than taking the shinkansen (bullet train), it is important to note that flying has a higher environmental impact and provides fewer opportunities to appreciate the beautiful Japanese scenery up-close.

Japan Airlines, which includes Hokkaidō Air System (HAC) and Okinawa carrier Japan Trans Ocean Air (JTA), operates the most comprehensive domestic network, followed by All Nippon Airways (ANA). Domestic airports are available in most cities across Japan.

Both ANA and JAL offer attractive discounts of up to 50% for tickets purchased a month or more in advance, with smaller discounts available for purchases made one to three weeks ahead of the travel date.

Some cities operate bike-share schemes  

Some cities in Japan, such as Tokyo, Osaka, Kōbe, and Sapporo, have cycle-share schemes available. However, using these schemes can be a bit challenging as they usually require advance registration online. It’s important to follow the instructions provided on the website. In Japan, many locals use bicycles as a means of transportation within cities. While the law states that bicycles should be ridden on the road, it’s common to see people using the pavements. It’s worth noting that dedicated cycle lanes are not widely available. Fortunately, drivers and pedestrians in Japan are generally considerate and respectful.

In tourist areas, you can often find bicycles available for rent. These rental bicycles are typically heavy-framed, single-speed shopping bikes, though some places offer electric bicycles. Child-sized bicycles are not commonly available. Some local tourism initiatives may provide bicycles for free, while private businesses near train stations usually rent them out for around ¥1000 (US$7) per day. For rental information, it’s recommended to inquire at the local tourist information center or check with youth hostels, as they may also have bicycles available for rent or borrow.

Please note that helmets are required for children aged 12 and under, but adults rarely wear them, and rental shops usually do not provide helmets for adults unless they offer bicycles for children. Touring bicycles can be difficult to rent in Japan, but operators like Cycle Osaka offer them. If you plan to take a bicycle on a train, it must be disassembled and stored in a bike bag.

Boat and ferry rides can be slow but memorable

While ferries in Japan are not typically the most cost-effective or time-efficient mode of transportation, they offer a unique and memorable experience. Long-haul ferries often provide amenities such as communal bathhouses, dining halls, and even karaoke rooms.

For overnight ferry journeys, second-class accommodations usually involve sleeping in shared rooms on plastic mats or the floor. However, it is possible to pay an additional fee to upgrade to a dorm room or even a suite, depending on your preferences and budget. Many of the major ferry companies in Japan have English websites where you can book tickets directly. Alternatively, you can make your reservations through a travel agency like JTB.

While ferries may not be the most practical option for getting around quickly or inexpensively, they can offer a unique and enjoyable experience, particularly for those seeking a more leisurely mode of travel or looking to explore Japan’s coastal regions by sea.

Accessible transportation in Japan is mixed

Japan’s accessibility, known as “bariafurī” in Japanese, receives mixed reviews. While most service staff are generally helpful, even if they have limited English skills, the level of accessibility can vary.

In cities, train stations typically have elevators, and station staff are often available to assist passengers with temporary slopes for boarding and disembarking trains. However, rural stations may present more challenges in terms of accessibility.

Newer buildings in Japan tend to have ramps and wheelchair-accessible toilets. Even major attractions often have accessible options, such as shrines and temples with back entrances equipped with ramps. However, it’s important to note that what may be considered “accessible” at some sights could still involve steep slopes or long gravel paths.

Certain hotels, particularly those in the higher midrange to upscale categories, offer barrier-free rooms, although availability may be limited, so booking in advance is advisable. It’s important to carefully review the details of what “barrier-free” entails, as the definition can vary.

If you find that a wheelchair (車いす; kuruma isu) would be beneficial upon arrival, hotel staff can assist you in renting one. However, it’s worth noting that some neighborhoods in Japanese cities may lack sidewalks, and many restaurants may have limited space to accommodate wheelchair users. Look for shōtengai (商店街; market streets), which are often pedestrian-only areas with covered arcades, as they tend to be more accessible. These can be found in most cities.

For more detailed information and resources on accessibility in Japan, Accessible Japan is a valuable resource that offers an ebook with extensive information. Additionally, you can download Lonely Planet’s free Accessible Travel guide for further guidance.