Generally speaking, transport in Japan is efficient and regular. It does tend to be on the expensive side but airfares, for example, have been falling in recent years due to increased competition. For the short-term visitor, it is definitely a good idea to arrange domestic flights or buy a Japan Rail Pass before coming. The latter is particularly good value and convenient if you plan to travel around different parts of the country.
Use the Japan Rail Pass to travel by shinkansen past Mt Fuji
Japan Rail Pass
There are 7, 14 and 21-day versions of the Japan Rail pass available in two types, Green (1st class) and Ordinary. This pass covers travel over the whole Japanese archipelago and will be the one you want to get if you plan to visit both east (eg. Tokyo) and west (eg. Kyoto) Japan, as they are covered by 2 different companies. Adult prices vary from 29,110 yen for a 7-day Ordinary pass to 81,870 yen for a 21-day Green pass. There is a 50 percent discount for children under 12. An exchange voucher for the pass has to be bought outside Japan so the exact price in your currency depends on the exchange rate.
If you're planning a trip with more limited travel, there is a variety of other 1 to 7-day passes, covering areas such as Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures, extending from Tokyo into southern Hokkaido, or from Kansai to Hiroshima, etc.
Introduced at the time of the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, the shinkansen 'bullet trains' are one Japan's most famous symbols. They're also a great way to get around the country. The fact that there has never been a fatal shinkansen accident is also reassuring. All are operated by JR (Japan Railways), which is divided into two main companies, JR East and JR West.
Until recently, there were three routes across the country from Tokyo: the Tokaido line to Osaka, which continues as the San-yo line to Hakata in Kyushu; the Tohoku line to Morioka and the Joetsu line to Niigata. JR East added the Yamagata, Akita and Nagano shinkansens during the 1990's. The former two are extensions of the Tohoku route and the latter branches off the Joetsu route. In 2016, the Tohoku route was finally extended to Hakodate in Hokkaido, by way of the Seikan Tunnel.
The Tokaido route provides the best scenery, including a great view of Mt. Fuji. It is named after a road that for centuries was the main transport artery between Edo (now Tokyo) and Kyoto.
The following table shows the typical shinkansen travel time and fare from Tokyo to some of the major cities. Travel time will vary depending on the train model, some being faster, making fewer stops, etc. The fares are subject to seasonal surcharges of up to 500 yen. The faster Nozomi shinkansen on the Tokaido/San-yo route, for example, is up to 2,000 yen more expensive.
|From Tokyo to:||Time||One-way Fare (yen)|
1 hour 35 mins
Several types of trains run on each of the routes. The names indicate the type of train and the number of stops it makes. The trains also have varying numbers of carriages so, even though the carriage numbers are indicated on the platforms, it can be a bit confusing to work out exactly where to board your train. Platform and onboard announcements are made in English as well as Japanese.
When you travel by shinkansen, you actually have to pay for the ticket and a surcharge, usually meaning that you have two 'tickets'. The surcharge is higher if you go for a shitei-seki (reserved seat) as opposed to a jiyu-seki (unreserved seat). As the trains sometimes run at over 200 percent of capacity, the shitei-seki is a good idea if you can afford it.
If you have a Rail Pass, you just have to get a ticket to confirm your seat reservation. The Green Rail Pass also entitles you to a seat in the Green Car, a kind of first-class section. All train reservations can be made at JR Travel Centers or at any station where you see the Midori no Mado-guchi (Green Window) sign. Tickets are available one month before the departure date.
If you're looking to save on transport costs and aren't pressed for time, local trains can be a cheap alternative for longer trips. JR has several types of dicount and excursion tickets. For example, seishun-juhachi is a set of five one-day tickets which allow unlimited travel on non-express trains, and waido shuyu-ken is a ticket to one of the main islands (Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku), which includes unlimited travel on the island for up to 20 days. The main drawback with these tickets is that they are seasonal and so not always available.
Japan has several international airports. The main ones are Tokyo International Airport, usually referred to by its location in Narita and Kansai International Airport in Osaka. The latter is an ideal point of arrival for visitors to Kyoto. There are other airports in such cities as Naha, Kagoshima, Nagasaki, Fukuoka, Nagoya, Niigata and Sapporo which serve mostly domestic traffic.
Skymark welcomes new recruits in 2018
Tokyo's second airport, at Haneda is a conveniently located domestic hub, with some international flights. It also serves the Taiwanese China Airlines, which did not want to use the same airport as Air China when Narita Airport was opened.
The main domestic airlines, JAL (Japan Airlines), ANA (All Nippon Airways) and JAS (Japan Air Systems) were joined by low-cost operators like Skymark and Air Do in the late 1990's.
Skymark was the first airline to enter the domestic market in 35 years. Air Do offered significantly lower prices for its limited number of domestic flights, mainly to and from Hokkaido. The major airlines fought back with price reductions of their own and the result was more affordable airfares.
The main factor in pricing is still timing. There is a huge difference between peak times, such as at New Year or during the summer Bon holiday, and off-peak. Savings can be made by buying tickets at discount outlets, which also sell shinkansen and other tickets and coupons. There are also fly-drive packages and even ones for groups of three or more women and middle-aged couples, for example. Check with travel agencies for the latest deals.
The ferry to Sado Island takes about 2 and a half hours from the mainland
Japan is an archipaelago made up of four main islands and thousands of smaller ones. The main islands are all connected by bridges or tunnels these days. But most of the smaller islands are only accessible by air or by ferry. Ferry is the cheaper, and often more pleasant, option. Travel between the southern island of Kyushu and Osaka, which can be done by road or train if you're in a hurry, is better enjoyed as an 11-hour cruise through the Inland Sea National Park. Sado, the biggest of Japan's 'other' islands, can be reached from the mainland in 2 hours by ferry or just one hour by jetfoil.
There is an extensive bus network throughout the country. The Rail Pass is valid on the express busses which use highways for the major routes but they are quite a bit slower than the shinkansen (8 rather than 2 hours between Tokyo and Sendai, for example). If you don't have the Rail Pass, busses do offer a cheap alternative, costing about the same as the regular trains. Local bus networks tend to have all signs in Japanese only.
Public transport is good in the cities and long distances are best covered by air or train. Car rental is quite expensive so it is best kept for travel to remote or rural areas. Combined deals, where the car is picked up at a distant airport or train station, are a good option. The major Western rental companies, such as Hertz (who have a tie-up with Toyota Rent-a-car) and Avis, operate in Japan alongside local companies like Orix, Budget and Japaren.