It works.

 

In Japan, getting from point A to point B is easy. Public transport runs like a clockwork, an insanely efficient railway network makes travel between cities and regions a breeze and taxis are absolutely everywhere. And it's all clean, swift and safe. 

 
 

Bullet trains galore.

They're fast, insanely reliable and pretty much always run exactly on time. Shinkansen trains are awesome. But there are other trains, too, and they usually give you a nice, relaxed and punctual journey throughout Japan. It's the way 

 

Green Cars

Green class is the equivalent of first class. Service doesn't differ too much though, you're likely to get a wet towel when boarding and maybe some candy, but that's about it. There's some benefit in having a bit more space, better seat recline and, when travelling long distances, a more relaxed cabin. And I sometimes find it to be easier to get seats in green cars when the regular ones are full during season peaks, but that may only be anecdotal. There's really no need to go Green if you're on a budget.

Non-reserved cars

Here's a smart thing. All trains have non-reserved cars. If you're trying to get a reservation and the train you want is full, you can still buy a non-reserved ticket or simply pass the gate using your Rail Pass. Information displays on the platform will indicate what car nubmers are non-reserved. Line up for any one of them and hope for the best, it's a free seating kind of situation and your best bet is to be there early and, even better, board at the end (uhm, start?) station when all cars are empty. In other words – by planning ahead you have a good chance of getting to where you want to go even if all reserved seats are full.

Those Cars


The way to go

The Rail Pass is the key when travelling between cities and regions. A pass runs for 7, 14 or 21 days in ordinary or green class and you have to buy it before you get to Japan. You'll get a voucher and once in Japan, simply redeem the voucher for a Rail Pass and specify from what date you want the Rail Pass to be valid.

The Rail Pass gets you unlimited travels on all JR railway lines along with JR ferries and the Tokyo Monorail, and that's pretty much everything you need. Almost. The two things you don't get with the Rail Pass are private non-JR railway lines (you'll have to buy regular tickets on those) and Nozomi/Mizuho Shinkansen trains. Those Shinkansen services won't block any of your travel needs, it's just going to take a tiny bit longer.

In general, if you do something akin to a return trip from Tokyo to Kyoto or more, the Rail Pass will get you better value. And it's a brilliant thing being able to criss cross the country using random, slow, tranquility inducing diesel trains. Do it.

 

Links: Rail Pass

Rail Pass


A staff member will go up and down the train with a service cart selling all sorts of things – soda, bento boxes, snacks and more. If you miss it simply wait until it passes again. Sometimes you'll find a menu in the seat pocket.

If you need to call someone, go to the area between cars. Don't talk on the phone when seated.

The flip-down table in front of you often has a map on it explaining where vending machines, restrooms and other things are located relative to your car.

If you're hungry, get a bento box at the station prior to boarding. They come in a million varieties. At major stations, they're often sold in various stores after the ticket gates.

English PA announcements are made prior to and after each station call on the Shinkansen. And most signs and displays on board are in English, too.

To get a ticket, find a ticket office and line up. Show your rail pass and tell them where you want to go and when. Most staff know basic English and it usually works out really well. The more you know, the easier it gets. Ticket machines only work when you're not using a Rail Pass.

 

Good to know

Nozomi and Mizuho trains aren't valid options when you're using a Rail Pass. The ones you can use just takes a tiny bit longer and sometimes require a change of trains, that's all.

Ticket gates are pretty neat. Insert your ticket any way you want – the gate will magically flip it around in a heartbeat and return your ticket right-way-up at the other end of the gate. If your journey has multiple tickets, insert all of them. The gate will keep any used tickets and return the ones you need to keep. But remember...

If you're using a Rail Pass, you need to pass the manual gate and can't use the automatic ones.

Power outlets are common in newer Shinkansen sets and in green cars. When using the Shinkansen Travel Planner, a "100V" tag will display next to trains with outlets.

Luggage space is limited with overhead racks being the only option. If you have a large bag, here's what you do. Line up for the rear door of your car, and when the Shinkansen train arrives, board, then place your bag upright on the floor immediately behind the last row of seats (the first row you encounter when boarding from the rear door). Shove your bag towards the window and flip down the bulkhead table between the aisle and your bag. Works great on pretty much all Shinkansen and most regular trains.

 

 

JR ticket gates, Akihabara Station, Tokyo


Schedlues & Routes

Google Maps does a fairly good job of handling train routes and schedules across Japan, but if you want to dig deeper, use these tools:

  • Travel Planner, Shinkansen – Make sure to select the option not to use Nozomi/Mizuho services if you're using a Rail Pass.
  • Train Route Finder – Crappy interface, useful service. Will get you details on local and non-JR services. Great when planning obscure countryside railway travels.
  • JR Kyushu Time Tables – Great place to go when planning funky trips around and across Kyushu. Lots of nice, slow, relaxing train services.

It's awesome.

 

Japan does quite a few things really well, but public transport and trains are a notch above. It's all run with spectacular precision and care. It's just great in so many ways. Maybe with the sole exception of limited underground cell coverage, but hey, you can't get everything.

 

 

Yurikamome Line, Shiodome, Tokyo

Akihabara Station, Tokyo


Good to know

Use an IC card to get around. Get the local variety – in Tokyo it's Pasmo – from a ticket machine in most train or subway stations and charge it with cash (you can't use credit cards). Then simply blip your way through the gates.

Signs and maps are omnipresent. It's easy to get lost in the big stations but don't worry, just follow the signs and it'll work out.

Use Google maps for public transport planning, real time data and station maps. It's just brilliant. If you don't do roaming, get a pocket wifi thingy but be aware that subway coverage is limited.

Don't eat or talk on the phone while on the train or subway.

Suica cards work across most of the country. A Pasmo card will get you through the Nagoya subway system, and a Manaca card works brilliantly when paying for a snack at a Kagoshima convenience store.

When exiting a station gate you either blip your card or insert your ticket, so be sure to keep them throughout the journey.

Buses are special. Refer to the section below.

Restrooms are everywhere, too. In most stations they tend to be on the inside of things, after the ticket gate. Signs and directions are abundant.


Going on a bus

Ah yes, those buses

Buses are a bit tricky at times. First off, you enter through the rear doors – unless you're in tokyo, because then you enter through the front door. And if you're paying for a single ticket the system can be confusing at first. Here's how:

Paying for a single public transport bus journey

  1. Enter through the rear doors (unless you're in Tokyo where you're supposed to enter through the front door).
  2. Grab the small slip dispensed by a machine next to the door. This slip has a number on it.
  3. Ride along. There's a display up front with a bunch of numbers and fares. Look for your number in the list. The fare displayed next to your number is what you'd have to pay if you got of at the next stop.
  4. When your stop is up, make a mental note of the amount next to your number and proceed to where the driver is.
  5. Hand over the slip, pay the relevant amount and...
  6. ...exit through the front door.

Not too bad, really. And if you're using a suica card, then just blip it when entering and exiting the bus. Easy.

Tenmonkan, Kagoshima

Automatic doors, yes.

In Japan, taxis are absolutely everywhere – Tokyo alone has over 50,000 of them and most drivers use a very specific car, the Toyota Comfort. Taxi rides aren't super cheap but do provide an efficient and simple way to get to wherever you need to go, especially when you're hauling large bags around.


Good to know

Somewhat confusingly, taxis have a sign in the front window displaying 空車 in red if they're available, and 賃走 in green if they're occupied.

You can flag down a taxi pretty much everywhere. Right in the middle of a busy intersection? Not a problem.

Many taxis will accept credit cards and suica cards, especially in urban areas, but not all do. Check for card logos prior to entering the car if you're out of cash.

No need to tip, anytime. If you leave change and exit the car, the driver will run after you to deliver the money left behind.

The left-hand side door is opened automatically by the driver. Nice.

Japanese taxis are safe and reliable. You won't need to figure out what companies are decent, just get in any cab and you're good.

Drivers don't speek much english, typically. Have the address or a map good to go on your smartphone, that usually does the trick.

Blip. Blip.

IC cards are everywhere. And they're great. You charge up your card with money and use it to ride along public transport, purchase hot green team from vending machines or to buy an umbrella at Family Mart. Good stuff. Most of the cards used for public transport are all interchangeable these days, allowing you to use a Tokyo Pasmo card in Fukuoka and a Nagoya Manaca card in Osaka. They even have pretty awesome names – the JR East (a railway company) one is called SUICA, short for Super Urban Intelligent Card. Yes.

The easiest way to get hold of one of these cards is to use a ticket machine in a train or subway station. The machines are actually a pretty good representative of Japanese thechnology in public settings. It's kind of like the original Star Wars. The tech is crazy futuristic but it's been around forever with heavy signs of being used, the plastic is turning yellow and everything has this simple, grungy look to it. Lovely.

Getting hold of a card

[work in progress] Go to the train or subway station of your choice, and find one of these: // Photo: pasmo machine //

Here's a video I stumbled across on youtube explaining everything in a crystal clear kind of way.

Different places, different cards

Tokyo – Pasmo

Nagoya – Manaca

Kyushu – Sugoca

JR East – Suica

 

Boarding done right

[work in progress]

Touchdown. Now what.

A few short notes on how to get yourself from the Tokyo airports, and a few others I've used, to where you want to be. It's not too complicated really. Just make sure to keep track of what airport you're leaving from. The Osaka/Kansai mixup is a classic and you don't want to find out when it's too late.


Arriving, Tokyo

NARITA AIRPORT – NRT

If you have a Rail Pass voucher and want to activate your pass right away, do so before leaving the airport and have the staff book a seat for you on the Narita Express. Trains don't run too often so you might want to plan ahead using the time table. If you don't have a voucher, or don't want to activate it yet, simply buy a ticket for the Narita Express. You typically want to go to either Tokyo Station, Shibuya or Shinjuku depending on where your lodging happens to be.

(There is a fast and futuristic option too, the Keisei Skyliner train. It orients every seat automatically, looks great, but only gets you to Ueno Station, so you won't be using that unless you are going to someplace close to Ueno.)

 

HANEDA AIRPORT – HND

If your inbound flight touches down at Haneda, you're basically already in Tokyo. A good way to get to where you need to be is to board the monorail to Hamamatsucho station and get a cab from there. Rail Passes are valid on the monorail and vouchers can be redeemed at the airport (as of early 2016, the relevant JR East counter closes at 18:45).


OSAKA – KIX

Flying into Osaka is a decent option if you want to kick things off with a tour of central or southern Japan. A variety of railway lines will get you straight to downtown Osaka, Kobe or Kyoto and rail pass vouchers can be redeemed at the airport. If the goal is to get yourself to Namba Station, use the Rapi:t line. But be aware that you can't use the rail pass on that line.

Note: If you end up departing from Osaka, be sure to keep track of what airport you're actually going to be using. The super-confusingly named Osaka International Airport (ITM) only serves domestic routes so if you're going overseas, the one you want is the Kansai International Airport (KIX).

 

FUKUOKA – FUK

The airport is pretty much right in the middle of Fukuoka and transports are easy. Taxis are a good option if you're staying in downtown Fukuoka. And there's a subway station underneath the domestic terminal. If you touch down at the international one and want to use the subway, simply jump on the free and frequent shuttle service connecting the terminals.

 

KAGOSHIMA – KOJ

Going from the airport to downtown Kagoshima takes about 45 minutes, either by taxi (JPY 10,000-ish) or one of the two Bus services. I no longer use the Kagoshima airport since it's a bit of a hassle. These days I fly into Fukuoka, jump on the Shinkansen serivce down to Kagoshima and boom, done.

Arriving, Elsewhere