Public transport in Japan is a magical thing. The trains are punctual. They’re spacious, clean, organised, and signposted. There’s a system, and everyone follows the system because it’s respectful and it makes SENSE.
Here are a few more simple tips to help you find your way around the public transport in Japan.
PS. I have no photos of trains (because LOL they all move too fast and literally every single shot I took was blurry), but I do have photos of bicycles. And that’s… kind of the same thing, right?
THE JR PASS
Ok, so first things first. If you’re travelling to several cities across Japan, I would 100% recommend buying a JR Pass*.
You can buy 7, 14, and 21 day passes, and these are only available to tourists, not locals. They also offer specific regional passes (Hokkaido, Kansai, Kyoshu, Shikoku…)
The main pass will give you access to: cross-country shinkansen (bullet) trains, non-bullet JR trains (but NOT all of them, so make sure you check the fine print and the departure boards, so you know which lines you can and cannot use), the metro in Tokyo, and the ferry between Hiroshima and Miyajima.
The passes seem pricey, but they can save you an absolute fortune in the long run. Erica and I got the shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka on our last day and our single ticket cost £90 each. Your 7-day pass is unlimited travel and costs £193. You do the maths.
We were very kindly given complimentary 7-day passes in exchange for a review, so here’s my review: YOU. NEED. ONE. If you’re travelling to multiple cities, a JR Pass is essential.
Note: You can have the passes sent straight to your home before you travel, but make sure you double-check how to activate them, as you’ll need to get it signed and stamped at a JR Office in Japan before you can actually use it!
DOWNLOAD A PUBLIC TRANSPORT APP
Next on the list: download Hyperdia.
It’s a timetable app which will really help in planning out your individual journeys during your trip.
Honestly, it’s 100% the best way of figuring out which trains/subways you need to get where you’re going. The app will tell you the stations, train lines, colours of the subway line, whether you can use your JR Pass, how much a ticket will cost if you can’t use your JR Pass…
We found it completely invaluable, and I would recommend it to everyone travelling through Japan.
SHINKANSEN BULLET TRAINS
Japan’s bullet trains are famous the world over, and for bloody good reason. You can travel by train from Osaka to Tokyo in just two and a half hours. To put that into perspective, that’s like going from London to Inverness in Scotland. In under three hours. By train.
Plus the seats are comfy, the carriages are roomy, you can swivel seats round to face your friends behind you, and they have both lots of luggage storage space, and lots of plugs for charging phones etc.
If you want to reserve seats on a shinkansen, and you have a JR Pass, you’ll have to do this in person before your trip. There are non-reserved seats, but these are restricted to a specific (and limited) Unreserved Carriage, and it works on a first-come first-serve basis.
If you don’t have a JR Pass, you’ll have to pay a bit extra for a reserved seat. Erica and I travelled on a public holiday and were very worried we wouldn’t get a seat in the unreserved carriage (we couldn’t afford a reserved seat) but actually there was PLENTY of room. So it’s up to you if you want to take the risk.
Needless to say: be on time. Shinkansen trains wait for no man, and if you’re even twenty seconds late arriving, you’ll have missed it.
OK so first of all: if you’re travelling on the metro, make sure you carry cash with you. Your JR Pass will cover the metro in Tokyo, but not in other cities.
Second of all, the ticketing system for the subways across Japan is mental. Each city has their own types of machine, their own way of doing things, and if you’re moving around from one city to the next, you will get confused. It’s inevitable.
HOWEVER. Every single electronic ticket stand we used in Japan, from Tokyo to Fuji and everywhere in between, had an English translation option. So it’s not quite bad as you imagine. And you’ll start to get the hang of it after just a couple of days.
We bought all our metro tickets as singles, as we did more walking than anything, but it’s worth researching each city’s options for daily tickets, as some will be better price deals if you’re planning on visiting multiple areas on each day.
Another fabbbbbb thing about the Japanese subway system: women’s only carriages.
I know, I know… it’s sexist and outdated and why the hell should women have to be separated for their safety? Well, as far as I’m concerned, it’s not about safety, it’s about comfort. Japanese public transport is awesome enough anyway, but clear out half the people, the creepy looks, and the manspreading, and it’s just… brilliant.
If my London commute were even half as pleasant as that, I would be one happy bunny!
This is one of the BEST things we did on our trip: a direct luggage transfer.
For just £8.50 each, we were able to send our huge travel backpacks from Osaka, straight to our hotel in Tokyo. We re-arranged our bags, so that for our 6 days in Kyoto and Fuji, we only had to carry our hand-luggage cases and day rucksacks.
All we did was ask our hotel receptionist about it in Osaka, fill in some forms with our address and date of arrival in Tokyo, and then they attached a couple of labels, and BOOM. We arrived in Tokyo on the 4th of October to find all our luggage waiting for us there.
Not staying in a hotel? No problem. There are DOZENS of companies in every city that offer this service. Do some research before you go, make sure you have a good solid luggage lock (better safe than sorry), and then go for it.
It made jumping on and off trains so much easier, and I’m so grateful we found out about it while we were in Osaka. Worth every single penny!
*As mentioned, we were each gifted a 7-day JR Pass.