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Getting around in Japan

Navigate Nihon by speedy train or scenic route.

Updated

There’s no doubt getting around Japan — which comprises 6,852 islands — requires some advance planning for foreign visitors. Still, public transportation in Japan lends access to its most bustling cities and sought-after sites.

Travel from city to city

Cross-country transport in Japan is generally considered punctual and efficient. Though subway “pushers” fit passengers onto trains within larger cities, you can likely evade being crammed in by avoiding rush hour altogether.

Train

Japan Railways (JR) runs the nation’s most extensive public train system: from Hokkaido to Kyushu, connecting all major cities in between. JR also owns the famous bullet trains, called shinkansen. You can buy a one-week pass for about $269 (standard) or $360 (first class).

Consider using the Odakyo Railway to reach Enoshima, Kamakura, Hakone, Lake Kawaguchi (at the base of Mount Fuji) or the Izu Peninsula. You can find special day pass deals, like a round-trip ticket from Kamakura to Enoshima for just $13.58.

Bus

Japan’s buses can transport you to spots unreachable by train, and tend to be cheaper for city-to-city travel. JR’s highway buses are a dependable option, though trips on Willer Express, a smaller operator, can be cheaper. You can buy a three-day Japan Bus Pass with Willer for as little as $92.

Ferry

Since Japan is comprised of four main islands and thousands of little ones, a ferry can take you to far-off reaches quickly and cheaply. Popular lines include Osaka (Kobe) to Beppu (Oita), and Niigata to Sado Island.

Airplane

You have your pick of several major airports to fly out of. Domestic carriers include JAL Group — which contains Japan Airlines — All Nippon Airways, Skymark Airlines, Peach Aviation, Vanilla Air and more.

Taking the subway in Japan

The subway system in Japan is extensive, and usually the speediest way around the city. Stations operate in Fukuoka, Kōbe, Kyoto, Nagoya, Osaka, Sapporo, Tokyo and Yokohama for fast travel between Japanese cities. The Tokyo and Kansai metro areas are even linked through JR and private rail lines, with signs and names posted in English..

Taxis, rideshares and tours

Taxi

All cabs run by the meter in Japan. Fares are fairly uniform with a flat fee for the first mile or two. In Tokyo, use the S.Ride mobile app to hail cars from five major taxi companies throughout the city.

Rideshare

Uber is available in Japan, but it’s not as popular as it is in the US since the taxi service is so convenient.

Coach

Taking a coach, or charter bus, in Japan is an option if you can’t get to your destination by bus or train. Some travelers enjoy sightseeing tours via coach with a local guide. But these can be quite expensive — a chartered tour of Mount Fuji for a party of six is around $739 plus tax.

Bicycle

Cycling through Japan is rather popular, both on old-school bicycles and new e-bikes. Community Cycle and CogiCogi, two popular e-bike sharing services, have docking ports throughout Tokyo.

Rickshaw

Though rickshaws originated in the late 1800s, tourists can still catch a ride via manpower through Tokyo’s historic Asakusa quarter. Kyoto, Nara and Kamakura all have rickshaw lines. On average, a 30-minute rickshaw tour for two is about 9,000 yen, or $83.

Car rentals in Tokyo

Renting a car can be a wonderful way to see rural Japan, where public transportation may fall short. But keep in mind that a rental car can be inconvenient in major cities, where bus and train routes are plentiful.

Japan’s major car rental companies include:

  • Toyota Rentacar
  • Nippon Rentacar
  • Orix Rentacar
  • Times Car Rental
  • Nissan Rentacar
  • Ekiren
  • Hertz
  • Budget

Expect to pay about $46 to rent a car per day in Tokyo. To get the best prices on car rental, book your ride at least one week before your trip.

Driving in Japan

  • Traffic laws. Similar to most European countries, cars drive on the left side of the road in Japan (and steering wheels are planted on the right.) Most road signs are posted in English as well as Japanese.
  • Tolls. Most Japanese roads are toll-free, except for the expressways and certain scenic routes. For example, tolls between Tokyo and Kagoshima on the Tokyo Expressway cost about 27,500 yen — that’s $254.
  • Driving requirements. In order to rent or drive a car in Japan, you must have either an International Driving Permit (IDP) or Japanese driver’s license. The IDP must be obtained in your home country in advance. Apply at your local AAA branch.
  • Parking. While parking in the countryside and small towns is usually free, expect to pay hundreds of yen per hour in major cities. National parks and tourist attractions generally charge a flat fee for parking, as do hotels. But again, this might cost hundreds per night.
  • Gas stations. You’ll find both self-service and full-service gas stations in Japan. If you stop at a full-service spot, tell the attendant which kind of gas you need (futsu no for “regular”), how much you want and how you’re planning to pay.

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Airport transfers

Though there are over 90 airports in Japan, international travelers will want to consider its four main international hubs:

  • Haneda Airport (HND).
  • As Japan’s biggest domestic hub (and the second largest airport in all of Asia), Haneda is just 11 miles south of Tokyo. Hop on the Tokyo Monorail, which’ll take you to Tokyo in less than a half-hour.

  • Narita International Airport (NRT).
  • Japan’s largest international airport is about 40 miles east of Tokyo. The JR Narita Express train will get you to central Tokyo in about an hour, though you could also take a bus, taxi or Uber.

  • Kansai International Airport (KIX).
  • Kansai is closest to Kyoto and Osaka, which you can reach in an hour or two on an express train.

  • Chubu Centrair International Airport (NGO).
  • Chubu refers to central Japan. Travelers can expect easy access to manufacturing and shipping hub Nagoya. Limited express lines will get you to the city in 40 to 50 minutes.

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Bottom line

While you’re better off navigating big cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto on foot or via public transportation, Japan’s picturesque countryside offers roadtrippers breathtaking views of natural splendors. Consider reserving a car in advance to get the best deal.

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