Tips For Getting Around Japan
- In: General
- Tags: trains,train travel
Japan's rail system and public transit systems are generally pretty easy to use and navigate, especially in larger cities or even places that aren't so big but get a good number of foreign tourists. They're a great way to get around, so here are my tips for using trains to go from city to city and also public transportation generally. In this article I'll talk about travelling between cities (1-3) and within cities (4-6).
- Rail passes: To get or not to get?
- Reserving train seats
- Some other train tips: Ekiben and elevators
- IC cards
- Day passes: Are they worth it?
- How to ride a bus or tram
Travelling between cities via train
If you find a pass that covers the cities you want and it's cheaper than paying upfront for the tickets, make sure to check what is and isn't covered! Some passes don't include reserved seats or the faster bullet trains. It might seem a bit tedious to calculate out the costs of all the tickets to compare to the cost of a rail pass, but it really can help save a lot of money. A lot of these passes are for those with foreign passports only, so be sure to have it with you while buying/picking up.
Especially if you're travelling with a group, or if it's a long ride, or it's high season, reserving seats early may help save you a lot of trouble. Some trains are also reserved-seat only, so if that's the case be sure to reserve! If you can, search up what train you want on HYPERDIA, then write down the details in clear printing on a piece of paper to bring to the reservation office; something along the lines of "11/29 - 13:05 HIROSHIMA -> OSAKA, SAKURA 529" will be enough for them. If you don't speak much Japanese and are making reservations in a small town where the staff don't speak much English, this makes it much easier for you and for them.
If you don't have a reserved ticket and it's a train that has non-reserved cars, be sure to go to one of the non-reserved cars. During the train ride a conductor will go around to make sure all the right seats are filled, and that seats that shouldn't be filled are empty. Most if not all trains cars will have a sign outside facing the platform if they're reserved or non-reserved, and often the signs displaying what trains are coming next will also display that information, all in English.
Other train tips
Also note that if you're travelling with lots of luggage, train stations in smaller towns may not have elevators or escalators. If possible, pack light!
Travelling within cities in Japan
A quick note about IC cards: generally when you buy them the cost includes a deposit (500 yen) plus the actual money loaded into the card. If you plan to return the card at the end of your trip, they'll return that 500 yen to you, plus any money that's still remaining on the card minus a handling fee (around 200 yen). If you have less than 200 yen remaining on the card, they'll just return 500 yen deposit to you, even if you only have 1 yen left on it - that 1 yen is considered the handling fee. So if possible, use up as much of the money on the card before you return it to minimize the handling fee.
Not in Japan long enough to feel the IC card is worth the hassle? Buying tickets for the trains is easy too. Ticket machines (which have an option to display instructions in English) will be available before the gates, most likely underneath or next to a gigantic map of the subway system. Locate where you want to go, buy the right fare for your destination, and then head off. Make sure to hold onto your ticket until you exit at your destination!
How to ride a bus/tram without an IC card
Passengers get on at the back, where there will be a machine (or two). Most big city buses have a place for people to tap their IC cards, and then when they get off through the front they just tap their card again and the change is deducted. In smaller cities (or if you don't have an IC card), you might instead find a machine with a button that, when pressed, will print out a small ticket. That ticket indicates where you got on the bus/tram, so when you get off the bus and give the ticket to the driver, he knows how much your fare is (since fares are usually distance-based). If you don't have change, don't fear: even in small towns the buses are equipped with change machines at the front, so when the bus is stopped at a red light just head forward and use it to exchange for some 100 yen and 10 yen coins. The bus driver will not give you change, so you are expected to have exact change when you pay him. Or, if you have a day pass that covers buses, just show the pass to the driver when you get off the bus.
Most buses will also have a screen at the front displaying the fares. Names may not be listed in English (especially in smaller towns), but if you can recognize where you got on that should be enough. The display will show the names of stops that they have passed, and a fare underneath: your fare is based on wherever you got on.