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Tips For Getting Around Japan

Inside Tokyo Station, commuters waiting as the train interiors are cleaned up before they're allowed to board. There are markings on the ground showing where to line up.

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). 
  1. Rail passes: To get or not to get? 
  2. Reserving train seats
  3. Some other train tips: Ekiben and elevators
  4. IC cards
  5. Day passes: Are they worth it? 
  6. How to ride a bus or tram 

Travelling between cities via train

Rail passes

If you plan to ride the rails a lot, chances are there's a rail pass that can help you save. While the Japan Rail Pass may be the most famous, there are plenty of other passes that are cheaper because they cover a smaller area. If you have a general idea of where you want to go, check out what companies cover the rails in that area and see what passes they have. These passes are great if you plan to take a lot of day trips or even just one or two far day trips: they usually allow for unlimited trips within a certain period (e.g. 5 consecutive days), which means it covers round trips (or multiple trips, for that matter). You might be surprised to find that a single day trip (roundtrip, 2 to 3+ hours each way) may cover or even exceed the cost of a 5-day rail pass. 
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.

Reserving seats

A great site for figuring out train trips and schedules is HYPERDIA, where you can put in your start and end train stations, the date and time you would like to depart, and the site will display what times are available, usually in order of what is closest to your desired start time and fastest train. You can even change the search settings to include or not include JR or private rail trains, or specific high-speed JR trains that sometimes aren't included in rail passes.
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.
The train station in Noboribetsu, Hokkaido. Not too busy, but still very clean and easy to navigate!

Other train tips

If you're on a long enough train trip (and can eat on trains), check out what bentos are being sold at the station! Train bentos, or ekiben, are considered a quintessential part of travelling by train, usually featuring local specialties artfully arranged in a little box. Stations will sell them before and after you pass through the gates with some shops being right on the platform.
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!
Ekiben for sale right outside the train, in case you were rushing before you realized you're actually a few minutes early.

Travelling within cities in Japan

The SUICA I used in Tokyo: to get around, to buy snacks at combini, to buy coffee at Mr. Donut, to buy drinks at vending machines...
IC cards 

Most major cities have their own form of a smart card, and very conveniently these cards can be used fairly widely across Japan: while the SUICA card can only bought in Tokyo, it can still be used in places like Osaka and Kyoto. It gets a bit tricker when it comes to smaller towns which may only accept the local smart card, but if you're only planning on visiting major cities that shouldn't be an issue. The cards themselves are incredibly handy, allowing you to zip in and out of train stations (and trams, and buses) without needing to figure out exact change as long as they have money loaded, and they're also usable at lots of shops and at vending machines: great for making little purchases without needing to dig around for change. I highly recommend them especially for trips that are at least a week (or even shorter, if you plan to go around a lot)!
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! 

Day passes

Lots of cities offer day passes (or multiple day passes) with some specially for tourists. Some are better deals than others and some have limited use, so it helps to carefully read what is and isn't included. In some major cities that have several companies running different trams and subways, day passes may only include a few lines by certain companies, which can make it very confusing: one day pass may include only JR lines, another may only include the city and private companies but not JR. My advice would be to check what an average one-way trip would cost and compare it to the price of a pass. If it seems unlikely you'll make the pass worth it and/or it's too confusing to bother with, an IC card is likely your best bet. 

How to ride a bus/tram without an IC card

Subways and trains are nice because even if you don't get an IC card it's easy to buy a ticket (as I described above). Buses and trams are a bit different since there aren't any English instructions around and you pay while you're getting off the bus, but they're still easy to use! 
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. 

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10 comments

Thank you! Love this! I forgot about the IC cards. I have all my research compiled somewhere haha!

*saved* thank you!

Thank you! Great help for my upcoming trip to Japan :D

very useful, thks

Fantastic article! It is really important to plan each of your major train trips in advance if you're travelling throughout Japan. Think about how much individual tickets would cost and if it would be worth the money to buy a rail pass. One thing to note, when you get to some cities, the bus system uses a different card than the trains. For example, your Suika Card will work for the subway, but not the bus! Be careful and make sure to ask at the tourist information centre when you arrive.

Wow, this was such a great article. Thank you. It looks like you travel in Japan a lot!

For anyone who needs it here are two site for getting tourist rail passes.

http://www.japanrailpass.net/en/
http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/arrange/transportation/discount/railways.html

Thank you for posting this article, it's super helpful. I going to Japan in two weeks, and this article answer a lot of my concerns about public transits.

This Article was super useful!

Super comprehensive! I learned a lot from this article.

Very useful article! :D