How to utilize Japan’s Public Transport like a boss?

enoden train passing between pacific ocean and road is a main public transport mode in japan

Out of thousand reasons why I fell in love with Japan, their public Transport system comes as the first explanation. They are super efficient and highly networked with metropolitan cities and rural areas. The punctuality, ease of using it, and cleanliness maintained despite millions of Japanese using it make me wonder if such an excellent system can exist. I proudly tell everyone that we used 99.9% of public transport during our 19 days of travel in Japan.

We are here to show you how to use Japan’s Public Transport wisely – because it may only be economical if you know how to use it cleverly.

View of Japan's Nagano station from terrace with buses as public transport

Index

FAQ

famous kanazawa station during winter with tourists waiting

We have tried to answer some of the most commonly asked questions on public forums about Japan’s public Transport system here-

What is the cheapest way to get around Japan?

Yellow colour taxi parked infront of imperial palace hotel

It is by public transport. Because taxis are freaking expensive, for a 10km ride, you will pay more than 6000 yen.

Does Japan have good public transportation?

Yes (repeat/read this a thousand times). It isn’t just bullet trains that make Japan’s public transport good. But also, various types of buses in smaller villages add beauty to Japan’s transport system.

screenshot of jorudan transit planner whcih is used as japan public transport planner

In addition, apps like Jordudan Transit planner make it easier to use buses/trains or a combination of both to commute between places.

aerial view of Shibuya crossing with various modes of japan public transport at night

Can tourists take public transport in Japan?

Yes! There are certain bus routes and train routes designed to connect places of tourists interests. For example, the Sky Hop bus in Tokyo and Omnibuses in the Fuji area is super convenient for tourists. In addition, the Metros and subway lines in cities like Hiroshima and Nagoya make navigating much easier.

Is it easy to live in Japan without a car?

car parked in Japan covered with snow

We were just tourists using public transport in Japan for 19 days. But we are sure it is easy and better to live without a car in Japan for various reasons. Firstly, when public transport is so efficient, you want to avoid adding to the carbon footprint by not using mass transport. Secondly, Japan’s cities have too many people. There won’t be hour-long traffic jams. But using car journeys takes longer.

Lastly, while buying a car in Japan, the dealer asks for proof of a parking lot, which you either own or rent and has to be within a 2km radius from where you live. The scarcity of places creates a shortage of parking spaces. Even business hotels own limited car parking spaces.

Can you talk on the phone on a bus in Japan?

people in japan public transport watching their phones

Japanese don’t talk over the phone while using public transport. Japanese manners extend beyond what you can think of and expect 100% silence in most metros.

Do Japan cities have 24/7 public transport?

Unfortunately no! It starts at 5.30AM in every city. Tokyo’s metro bus services stop by 12. In other cities like Kyoto and Hiroshima’s local network stops by 10.30PM. Your only option post this hour is taxis, for which you must sell your kidney to afford a ride.

Do you have to pay for public transportation in Japan?

Yes! Japan’s public transport isn’t free. But, unlike in Austria, you will always be checked if you have a valid ticket. It is rare people get caught without a ticket. But officers /drivers check each one’s ticket.

How do you pay for transportation in Japan?

japan public transport ticket

I read everywhere that Japan is a cash-based country despite their technological advancements. But, I found it partially true. Of course, you can use IC cards (more on that below) to pay for the tickets at all train stations and buses. But, it is good to keep some cash (especially 100s and 10s coins) handy while travelling in rural areas.

What is Japan’s main transportation?

Japan’s train network is spread as wide as veins in human bodies. Their railways go beyond bullet trains. So if you are a train enthusiast, you can go on the “Explore train system of Japan” themed holiday – Because they have that much variety.

Thomas and friends themed train as japan public transport

The regular metros and subways are one. Then there are character-themed trains! They may look like toy trains, but they are the actual trains.

Buses are rural and nature-sensitive areas’ lifeline. The highway buses connect these villages to cities.

Is taking a bullet train necessary in Japan?

Bullet trains are good for covering long journeys at the quickest speed if you are in Japan for a shorter duration. Or the night buses and regular trains can still take you places with nurturing your wallet if you have more time to spare on journeys.

What pass should I get in Japan?

man walking on thick snow infront of sloped roof gusho houses at shirakwago with umbrealla as it is snowing

No pass in Japan is fit for all modes of public transport in every Japanese city. Because Japan’s transport system is not just handled by the state but also by many private companies. So, you must research well before buying any pass in Japan and choosing the right one.

Is luggage allowed on Shinkansen?

woman wearing a backpack standing inside japan's famous public transport bullet train

Yes and No. Their website says – “Passengers are allowed to carry two pieces of baggage weighing less than 30kg and with dimensions of less than 250cm and a maximum height of 200cm.” To carry this, you need to reserve a seat prior so that you get a seat in the coach, where there is a luggage storage option. To avoid the hassle, use the forward luggage service in Japan to travel on Shinkansen and buses free of luggage.

passengers inside japan public transport carrying funny suitcases

How does Luggage Forward work?

This is the smartest and most budget-friendly way to get rid of your suitcases in Japan.

snow capped mountain Fuji in the background of kawaguchiko transit hub

Luggage forwarding is a type of delivery service. Instead of carrying your luggage with you on Japan’s public transport or shinkansen trains, you can often have it delivered directly to your destination. Most accommodations can help you with luggage forward booking service. Otherwise, you can check with any 7-eleven nearby. First, you must fill out the form with your name and destination address.

Yamato is the most common service everyone uses. You can track the status of your luggage here by entering the order number specified on your receipt.

Yamato luggage forward service van parked in historic area of miyajima

How do you use Japan train system?

The Japan Railways (JR) Group operates 70 per cent of the rail lines across Japan. In addition to bullet trains, there are shorter local lines, limited express trains, subways, mountain trains, scenic trains, cog railways and trams. Shockingly, there is even a bullet train with hot springs!

japan's main public transport train on tracks during snowfall

Are trains easy to use in Japan?

Since passenger steam engines came to Japan in 1872, train culture has become an integral part of Japan. However, Japan’s rail network is as complicated as it is efficient. So it can be intimidating if you wake up in Japan one day and decide to travel by train without doing research in advance. But don’t worry -Approach station managers when in doubt; using Japan’s train network won’t be like solving a calculus problem( I struggle with calculus).

unique ceiling design at Shibuya station

Japanese have mastered the art of displaying information and infographics precisely at the most needed spots. Therefore, you will likely understand everything through their infographics. Furthermore, the Japanese are one of the most helpful humans on earth. Even though language can be a barrier between you and them, they go beyond directing you to make your travel easy.

Is it easy to buy train tickets in Japan?

moving train with snow capped mount fuji in the background

There are usually two classes in Japan Trains. The prices vary drastically between the two.

  • Regular class – comfortable seats that need no seat reservation; hence cheaper. These trains never get overcrowded. Even if it does, you have the option to stand and travel. 
  • First-class – called the Green Cars, marked by bright four-leaf green, need a prior reservation; hence more expensive. If you are on a budget trip to Japan, forget this class.

How do you pay for trains in Japan?

japan public transport ticket for trains

Don’t bother to pre-book tickets online. You can purchase tickets for all classes at all station counters or touch-screen kiosks with cash or credit cards. Apart from bullet trains, you can use your IC cards as a tap card on the ticket gate detector.

With your ticket, if the ticket barriers don’t open, approach officials who sit in a small office right next to the gateways. If you tell them the problem, they will adjust the fare if you have overpaid or underpaid.

passengers passingthrough japan public transport ticket gateways

Limited express trains require you to pay two fees. First, you must buy a ticket at the platform kiosk and pay extra fare while exiting your destination.

Do I need to book Shinkansen in advance?

Yes and No Both – No, because the frequency of bullet trains is a minimum of one/hour for every route. Some famous routes have three trains per hour.

view of japan's famous public transport mode bullet train from a castle terrace

You must book in advance if you travel on a bullet train with luggage because large trolly suitcases can’t fit in the overhead cabinets! So you need to inform officers before boarding, and they assign your seat in the coach where there is oversized baggage storage.

Shinkansen have two classes divided among three types of coaches. The regular class will have reserved and non-reserved categories. You can only sit in a reserved regular class with a reservation ticket.

What is Japan Rail Pass?

cyan colour bullet train reservation ticket

JR Pass’s official website says, “The JAPAN RAIL PASS, a joint collaboration with six companies comprising the Japan Railways Group (JR Group), is an economical and convenient way of travelling throughout Japan by rail.”

They are right, but there are many untold facts behind this!

Is JR Pass needed?

Having a JR Pass gave us a lot of flexibility. You can choose to change your plans. Because, with already a JR Pass, you don’t need to pay extra. But JR Pass doesn’t cover every train!

What does the JR Pass not cover?

bus moving on think layer of snow at Nagano

You must know that around 140+ different private companies run trains in Japan along with Japan government. In addition, there are both public-owned and privately owned buses. So, the JR Pass doesn’t let you travel on every train, and only a few buses are included in the JR Pass. The JR Pass is valid on all Shinkansen lines except for the Nozomi and Mizuho services.

Does JR Pass include the subway?

tokyo metro train with netflix logo all over

JR Pass covers subways and local trains run by JR Company only. Examples-

To get to Haneda airport from Hamamatsucho station, you can take the monorail covered under JR Pass. Or the Keikyu line that is not covered under JR Pass, costing you 300 yen.

The Kintetsu line is the fastest way to get to Nara from Kyoto. However, this is operated by a private company and isn’t covered by JR Pass. On the other hand, the JR Nara line from Kyoto, operated by West Japan Railway Company, is covered by JR Pass.

When is the Japan Rail Pass worth it?

beautiful bridge on lake kawaguchiko in Japan and fishermen on boat under the bridge

Flashing a JR pass every time you board a train sounds simple. But it’s not that hard or expensive to buy train tickets as you go. This is especially true on short-distance routes, including some of the most popular tourist destinations, Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara. However, moreover, JR Passes aren’t that economical to buy. So you can go for regional passes OR individual tickets instead when you are not hauling long distances.

How do I know if my JR Pass is worth it?

If you are travelling in Japan for 21 days, you will likely not need 21 days JR Pass. Use the JR Fare calculator to see how much your Japan Rail trip would cost and how much you can save with the Japan Rail Pass.

screenshot of Japan Rail pass calculator

The below screenshot of our map. With 7 day JR pass, we made the following journeys and saved up to 36000 yen for one person. This is because we planned to make long journeys by train where JR Pass is allowed on consecutive days. If we had opted for 21 days JR Pass, the savings could have been much lesser.

Things to know before booking a JR Pass in Japan

  •  The JR Pass is only available to foreign nationals visiting Japan under “Temporary visitor” status.
  •  You get these for 7/14/21 days (Mind that it isn’t 24hr*7/14/21). If you activate and use the 7-day JR Pass on January 1 at 3PM, it expires on January 7 at midnight and not on 3PM OF January 8.
  • It is cheaper to buy JR Pass from your country than buy one once you land in Japan – Strange! But true.
JR Ticket office with passengers waiting in line to collect JR pass
  • When you purchase it online, you don’t receive JR Pass. But something called “Exchange Order.” You must have the physical exchange order before leaving for Japan. 
  • Hence, booking well in advance is best to avoid the last-minute “I didn’t receive the package” drama.
  • While booking, ensure your names are entered as mentioned in your passport without spelling mistakes.
  • You can purchase it from their official website, but prices are higher. So it is best to buy from other agencies where you can purchase the exchange order.

Where to buy JR Pass for a lower price?

We browsed at least ten agencies and found JR PASS- Freedom to explore Japan” most efficient for several reasons. Online reviews for them were good. Plus, they ship your order to your accommodation in Japan. They also offer Cancellation Protection for $30.00

screenshot of price list of JR Pass

What do you need to exchange for JR Rail Pass?

indian woman holding nature themed JR Pass exchange orden

To make the exchange, all passengers must go to a JR office in person, along with their passport and JR Pass Exchange Order. So once the officials verify your passport and tourist visa names, they hand over the JR Pass. We expected it to be a sturdy, cute card of credit card size. But, instead, it is just a hard paper cyan, coloured boring piece of paper- Which you should always keep and can’t be replaced no matter what!

Should I get an IC card in Japan?

woman operating SUICA machine at Japan's tokyo

Japan’s IC cards are godsend plastic cards which act like prepaid and rechargeable debit cards. These cards are widely accepted almost all over Japan. Remember, these cards neither give you discounts nor act as public transportation passes. But buying this resolves all your issues of dealing with Japanese yen coins. Plus, these cards can be tapped on buses and trains. So you need not approach the ticket office at all! Therefore, we highly recommend you buy this.

What can people do with IC cards?

  • You can tap them and use them for – vending machines/metro tickets/ bus tickets in most of Japan’s cities.
  • Some food joints like Starbucks, Lottera and a few restaurants also accept IC Cards.
  • IC Cards can be used for shopping in many shops, including 7-eleven and airport souvenir shops.

Which IC card is best in Japan?

You find wide varieties in Japan’s IC card. Of which Suica and Pasmo are the most popular. We recommend SUICA as it is accepted more than Pasmo in Japan.

Which is better, Suica or JR Pass?

Suica and JR Pass are not comparable and are used for two different purposes. First, Suica acts like your debit card that can be used for shopping. While JR passes are meant for transportation access only.

How do I get a Suica card?

To get a Suica card, YOU MUST HAVE YENS. Then head to any metro/railway station. You find IC recharge machines. Choose the language of your preference – English / Japanese / Mandarin / French, and a few others.

  • Click on” buy new IC Card.”
  • The screen displays two options- A card with or without a name. If your card with your name is lost, you can get another card back with the same money. The name need not be an official passport name. For example, I chose a name that is a combo of what my parents call my husband’s second name.

  • Once you choose the name, it gives you a few options for loading money. 100,2000,5000,10000 and 20000. Start with 5000 yen if you are in Japan for two weeks.
  • After selecting the amount, you can insert either 1000 or 5000 currency to add up the specified amount. If you choose 2000 and insert 5000, the machine recharges for 2000 and gives you back the change.

That is it! You don’t have to go to a bank or ask anyone for help. Getting an IC card is that straightforward. So keep tapping and drinking hot coffee or lick icecreams that you bought from vending machines using your SUICA Card.

How to use buses in Japan.

Japan buses are equally good as their trains. So expecting subways and trains to be on time is common. But 99% of the time, Japan’s buses are on time, just like their trains.

How much is the bus fare in Japan?

The price for highway buses varies with the region and company that runs it.
But city buses called “Flat or fixed-price buses” charge you anywhere between 200 to 230 yen for one ride, irrespective of where you embark and disembark. So, for example, a 2km ride and a 0.5km ride cost you the same amount of 230 yen.

What are Highway buses in Japan?

These buses connect two different cities. Several companies operate these buses and are route/region specific. When compared to bullet trains, highway buses are cheaper. Long-haul night journey buses sometimes have sleeper coaches with bathrooms. Mind that these are more expensive than the regular night buses with reclining seats.

Different Highway buses we came across in Japan are –

  • Tokyo- Kawaguchiko / Kawaguchiko-Kyoto / Mishima Fujikyuko bus
  • Nagoya – Shirakawago: Gifu bus
  • Kanazawa/Takaoka/Takayama-Shirakwago : Nohi bus

Heads Up – Japan Highway bus pass may be economical for those who don’t buy JR Pass. However, these passes need not be used on consecutive days.

How to buy bus tickets in Japan

You can buy the tickets a day before the intended journey date at the kiosk. Mind that each company will have one or two stalls in a city. And they don’t issue tickets for the other lines.

For example, at Kanazawa, they give tickets Kanazawa-Shirakawago (to and fro if you need them) only. Even though the same company operates on the line Shirakwago-Takaoka, they don’t issue that tickets at Kanazawa.

In city buses, get into the bus from the middle door. While you are near the stop, press the bell switch that is fixed on the poles. You can tap your IC card or pay in exact cash to the drivers while getting out – The driver says thanks to every passenger when they get off. So, it is better to reciprocate the same with “Arigato.”

During peak season and weekends, reservation is a must. Japan Bus line website is where you book these tickets online if your cards get through.

Useful City passes in Japan.

Some of these tickets can be brought online, and a QR code is enough. However, buying bus passes on the spot in the cities is better.

For Tokyo

  • One-day Sky Hop bus in Tokyo lets you see the most beautiful parts of Tokyo from the open double-decker bus.
  • Tokyo Subway Ticket – 24/48/72-hour passes are available and must be used on consecutive days. Plan and choose the most suitable one. Example. If you are in Tokyo for 3 days and planning to go on a day trip to Kamakura, buy a 48hr pass. And head to Kamakura on the third day.

For the Fujikyu lake area

There are various passes available to explore the fuji five lake area. Take your time and pick the right one for you. We didn’t find the ropeway and boat ride in Kawaguchiko exciting. So we bought a 2-day unlimited pass that allowed us to take all three lines of omnibuses.

For Kyoto

Kyoto one-day bus pass: Kyoto city buses charge flat rates. You hardly need to use the subway to reach any tourist attraction. So, bus passes are the best.

For Osaka

Osaka 1-Day Pass (800 yen) – Buy this only if you travel around Tokyo. For example, don’t buy this pass the day you travel to the Universal studio. It cost 135 yen one way. So spending 800 yen for a ride that costs 270 without a pass is impractical.

For Hiroshima

Most tourist attractions in Hiroshima are within walking distance, except for Miyajima island. So calculate before you buy a 1/2/3 Day Economical Hiroshima ticket pass.

For Nagoya

Nagoya City Bus 1-Day Ticket is most useful as the city is big. We never used the subway, and this pass connected all places we visited except for Kiyosu castle.

For Nagano

Nagano Snow Monkey pass for two days -Admission to the Jigokudani Monkey Park, 2-day unlimited use of the Garden limited express trains and buses in the region.

Found our guide to using Japan’s public transport guide useful? Let s know in the comment section below.

Heads up – we are very honest and keep it no secret.

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. If you buy or book something with our links, we’ll get a small commission at no extra cost to you. Think of it as a way of saying thanks for helping you plan better! Don’t fear – We only recommend something if we use it for ourselves. The hard-earned money and time should always be well-spent.

Published by Sahana Kulur

Traveller | Blogger | Architecture and history

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