So, I wrote a little bit about transit in Japan in my last post, but I wanted to delve a little deeper into the subject. I was really impressed by public transportation in Japan. It was fast, efficient, and easy to use. I wanted to write a post for you guys on everything I learned about the transit systems while I was over there so it might help some of you who are planning on visiting Japan.
The JR Rail Pass
If you are planning on visiting Japan and moving around the country at all, I highly recommend you get one of these babies. It's only available to non Japanese citizens and can only be purchased outside of Japan prior to travel. It allows you to ride the Shinkansen (bullet train) around the country as well as some local trains and subway lines that are owned by the JR Rail company. While pricey, it is worthwhile if you are going to do Tokyo to Kyoto round trip on Shinkansen. It was easy to use and reserve seats, and having the pass allowed us to do some amazing day trips to Hakone and Hiroshima as well as lots of local trains around town. I highly recommend you get this pass prior to your Japan adventure! I'll be writing a blog post about transportation in Japan at some point but in the meantime i just wanted to give you this tip. Feel free to ask me questions about it! #Shinkansen #jrrailpass #jrrail #travel #Japan #Tokyo #kyoto
If you’re planning on moving around the country at all, this pass is well worth it. You can only buy it in durations of 7, 14, or 21 days, but you can buy multiple passes if your trip is longer than that (lucky you!) as long as you’re a temporary visitor on a tourist visa to Japan.
You should also know that the JR Rail pass can only be purchased outside of Japan. You purchase it and they send you a voucher in the mail. When you arrive in Japan, you show the voucher along with your passport in exchange for the pass.
Another thing I should note is that there are different rail passes on offer, depending on where you are going to visit. There are regional passes and a pass that is for all of Japan, so get the one that pertains best to your travel plans.
Using the pass is easy. You just show it on the way in and out to the staff member on duty as you pass through the ticket gate instead of putting a ticket through the machine. They will wave you through.
Learn more about the pass here.
Getting around in Tokyo
Tokyo’s public transportation is quite good, but there are some things you should know about it. Let’s start with the subway lines.
There are actually two different subway systems in Japan…the metro lines and the subway owned and operated by JR Rail. I used both while I was in Tokyo. The JR Rail pass covers your transit on the Tokyo JR Rail lines, so use them whenever you can! The Yamanote Loop Line was a really convenient line that stopped at many of the major train stations around Japan, so we used this a lot to get around. There are several other JR Rail lines within Tokyo that were quite convenient for us as well, so if you’ve got the rail pass you’ll be able to use it to get around much of Tokyo. If you don’t have the rail pass, not to worry…you’ll just need to buy tickets.
The Tokyo Metro system goes pretty much anywhere in Tokyo you might want to go, so if you can’t use the JR Lines, just get a metro ticket and head out! You can also purchase a day pass for the metro, so if you’ll be riding it a lot in a given day, this is an economical option for you. You can learn more about the Tokyo metro here.
Another line I found to be useful was the Tokyo Monorail, which takes you to/from Haneda Airport into the city, where you can then transfer to JR and Metro lines to get anywhere you want to go. I should also note that the JR Rail pass is good on the Monorail, so don’t buy a ticket if you don’t need to!
The other thing I should mention is how frequently trains of all kinds run in Tokyo. You never need to worry about missing your train because there will be another one along in just a few minutes. Seriously.
The other thing you should know as an English speaker (at least I’m assuming you’re an English speaker since you’re reading this blog) is that it’s really easy to navigate the stations in Tokyo (and all over Japan, for that matter) because they have signage in both Japanese and English. The trains make announcements in both Japanese and English as well, so you don’t need to worry about being confused. If you do happen to get lost, which isn’t that easy to do, there is always somebody willing to help you out. Most train stations have information desks where they at least speak a little English as well, so no worries.
There are also buses (which I didn’t take because the trains were so good) and taxis in Tokyo. Taking a taxi is really easy…just either go to the taxi area at any train station or popular attraction and get into a waiting taxi, or wave one down on the street and they will pull over for you. It’s good to have cash on hand to pay the taxi driver (no tipping…it costs what it costs). Also I should note that many Japanese taxi drivers don’t speak English, but I had no issues getting around. I had my Airbnb host give me the address in Japanese which I showed to the taxi driver upon arrival. Other than that I took taxis on occasion to big attractions (or back to the train stations when my feet hurt) and showing them either the location on the map or a photo of the train station name was sufficient to let them know where I was going. Easy peasy!
Frommers also has a wealth of information on getting around in Tokyo, so I’ll link to that here.
A note on Shinjuku Station.
I wanted to write a special note about Shinjuku station, which I got to experience quite a bit during my trip because my Airbnb was in Shinjuku. Some fast facts on Shinjuku station for you…
- It services over 3.64 million people per day, making it the world’s busiest transit hub (and actually holds the Guinness world record for this).
- The station has 36 platforms, but is also connected to nearby bus lines, taxi stands, a mall, other nearby transit stations, an arcade, a food hall, and so much more. Another 17 platforms can be accessed through hallways to 5 other directly connected stations.
- There are over 200 exits in Shinjuku station, which spit you out all over the area. It’s really, really easy to get lost there.
- They tell me not to worry too much about getting lost there, because even Japanese people who go through the station all the time occasionally get lost there. It’s just a big, confusing place.
- It is possible to walk a really long distance entirely underground and still be in Shinjuku station. If you’re going there, it’s best to double check if you’re going the right direction before heading off somewhere, or you’ll backtrack for quite a while!
Shinjuku station is a world all it’s own. I went through this station nearly every day I was in Tokyo, and I nearly always got lost there. It’s a hectic, crazy place and I swear every time I ended up there I would be in an entirely new area I hadn’t seen before. Leaving out of Shinjuku wasn’t so much a problem as going somewhere else in the city and then arriving back in Shinjuku only to come out from underground, look around, and go, Now where the hell am I NOW?
That being said, it was all part of the adventure! If you’re in Tokyo, Shinjuku station needs to be experienced to believed. You will get lost, but you’ll eventually find your way. Workers in the station are all extremely helpful (as are police officers and people who worked at shops in the station…I asked them all for directions). Don’t try to stop other passengers in the station though…they are all in a huge hurry! Don’t try to stop in the middle of the station to look for directions. Try finding an opportunity to pull over to next to a wall somewhere and then look. Navigating the station is often like a game of frogger. You have to find the gaps and jump through the rushing people to find your way.
Despite it being big, hectic, and confusing, it was a lot of fun navigating Shinjuku station. Making memories!!
In case you’re interested in learning more about Shinjuku Station, click here.
You absolutely must ride the Shinkansen when you go to Japan. This is Japan’s famous bullet train, and it is a great way to travel! Plus, the trains themselves are just really, really cool. Tickets to the Shinkansen are expensive, but they are covered by the JR Rail pass (except for a few of the trains, but you can get anywhere you want to go). If you’re going to be traveling between cities a lot, the pass is well worth the cost. We took the Shinkansen round trip between Tokyo and Kyoto. We also did a day trip to Hakone from Tokyo (part of which was done on the Shinkansen) as well as a day trip to Hiroshima from Kyoto. All in all we saved money by getting the JR Pass and it was nice to be able to just ride the Shinkansen whenever we wanted. There are a lot of trains going everywhere all day long, so all you need to do is show up at the station, go to the ticket window, show your pass (or buy a ticket if you don’t have the pass), and you’ll be booked on the next train out. I rarely waited more than 30 minutes for the next train.
The Shinkansen is quiet, comfortable, and exhilarating to ride! There are areas up top to put your luggage and the seats are quite comfortable. They also had little snack carts on board, and the bathrooms were clean (not at all horrible like you would expect on a train). I wish we had these trains in the U.S.! (Rumor has it we’re building a bullet train between LA and SF here in California…but who knows how long that will take or if bureaucracy will ever allow it to happen).
If you’re going to do the trip between Tokyo and Kyoto, I have a tip for you…when booking your seat, ask if there are any on the side with the view of Mt. Fuji available. You’ll pass right by the mountain and the view from the train is great! If you can’t get a seat on the side with the Mt. Fuji view, not to worry…you can get up from your seat and go take a look at it from the little windows in between the cars as well.
Here is more information on the Shinkansen in case you’re interested: click here.
Kyoto Public Transit
Public transit in Kyoto was a little different than Tokyo. While there were some subway lines and JR lines that we took to get around town, they didn’t go everywhere. The bus system in Kyoto, however, does go pretty much anywhere you might want to go. It’s pretty easy to navigate and if you go to one of the tourist information centers around town (particularly at major train stations) they will give you a map and explain how it all works. For 500 yen (about $5) you can buy a day pass to the bus, which allows you to ride as much as you want all day long, so that’s a pretty economical option if you want to get around town. The bus passes can be purchased either at the tourist information centers or on the bus itself, purchased directly from the driver (bring exact change). As buses normally are, if you’re not doing the day pass, you’ll need to have exact change for the fare so definitely make sure you’ve got that before you get on the bus. I found the daily pass more than paid for itself when moving around town, so it’s probably best to just get that.
There are also taxis in abundance in Kyoto. While they are much more expensive than the bus system, there is nothing like getting in a car and being taken directly to your destination. We took a few taxis while in town and it was luxurious. Most of the drivers didn’t speak English but I just showed them the Google Maps pin for the location I wanted and we had no problems at all getting around town in taxis. Make sure you have plenty of cash on hand if you’re taking taxis because I don’t think they take credit cards.
Here is some more information on transit in Kyoto.
The Hakone Day Trip
When we were in Tokyo, we took a day trip to Hakone to catch a view of Mt. Fuji. This day trip ended up with us riding every conceivable mode of transportation. We first hopped on the Shinkansen out of Tokyo, which took us as far as Odawara, where we got off. From there, we purchased a pass that allowed us to ride all of the following forms of transit:
A train. Another train. Then a cable car. Then a bus. Then a gondola. Then a boat (a pirate ship, to be exact). Then a bus that took us to the train that took us back to Odawara, where we got back on the Shinkansen to Tokyo.
So…it was a long day and we spent most of the day riding transit. Still, the views of Mt. Fuji were pretty incredible. I might add that we didn’t have much time to do anything other than look at stuff because the last pirate ship left at 4:30pm and we needed to get on that to complete our journey. If you want to actually relax and enjoy the area, I suggest spending one night there. Still, it can be seen in a day as we discovered, so do what is best for you. I would have liked to relax in the Hakone hot springs, but cest la vie.
This site also explains Hakone transit pretty well in case you want some more information.
The bloggers over at Two Aussie Travelers documented the day trip to Hakone pretty well in case you’re interested in more information.
We were only in Hiroshima for a day, but I wanted to give you the scoop on what I learned about getting around in that area in case you are headed in that direction. We did a day trip to Hiroshima from Kyoto. It was a long day, but absolutely do-able in a day trip if you want to, and I think it was really worthwhile to take the trip. I’ll write about my experiences in Hiroshima in a later post, I promise, but for now we’re just focusing on the transit. We arrived at Hiroshima station via Shinkansen, and it was about a two hour journey from Kyoto. If you’re staying in Kyoto or Osaka and you want to head to Hiroshima on a day trip, I suggest taking an early train so you can get the most out of your day when you arrive.
Anyway, once you arrive at Hiroshima station you’ll have a couple different options available to you. If you have a JR Rail pass, there is actually a tourist bus that leaves from the station, accepts the JR Rail pass, and stops at all the biggest points of interest in town, so this would definitely be the most economical option for JR Rail pass holders.
My husband, on the other hand, was opposed to taking the bus because, and I quote, he “hates buses”, so we went with option B. If you walk to the streetcar line at the station, you can actually buy a day pass that is good for the streetcar as well as one that’s good for both the streetcar and the ferry to Miyajima if you’re planning on heading over there as well. We bought the combination ticket but never made it to Miyajima because we ran out of time (hence the whole get there early warning). There are a couple other passes you can get as well if you want to ride more than just the streetcar and ferry (see this link for all details.) Once you’ve got the ticket, which you can buy at the streetcar ticket window, it’s pretty easy. You just hop on the streetcar and it will take you around town. It stops directly in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome, and from there you can explore the peace park and museums easily on foot.
Have you been to Japan? Anything to add about public transit that I might have missed? Are you planning on going to Japan and have a question I might be able to answer for you? Let’s hear it in the comments!