There are a lot of methods of transportation in Japan and they all have their pros and cons. Factors such as how long you’ll be traveling, where you’ll be going, and what your comfort levels are all add into figuring out what way to travel will be most efficient and cost effective for you.
Here is our ultimate guide for choosing your transportation.
Budget airlines like Jetstar, Peach, Skymark, Vanilla Air, etc, all provide discounted domestic flights between major cities. At certain times of the year you can find incredible deals, like a round trip flight from Tokyo to Okinawa for ¥10,000 or less. Averaging a currency exchange of ¥100 = $1.00 for simplicity's sake, that’s $100 or less!
In some cases this may mean booking departing and returning flights on separate airlines. Some budget airlines also do not provide free checked baggage so you’ll have to do your research to determine what works best in your individual situation. But $100 for a flight to the tropical paradise of Okinawa is almost unbeatable!
Let's do some comparisons
But what about travel between cities closer in geography?
If you’re traveling cross country, such as Tokyo to Fukuoka or Tokyo to Sapporo, Hokkaido, plane will likely still be the fastest and cheapest way to travel. From Tokyo to Fukuoka, it can cost ¥23,000 ONE WAY and take 6 hours for the Shinkansen bullet train. Conversely, by plane it's only ¥13,000 round trip for 2-3 hours of flight, at the time of writing this article. Even a trip from Tokyo to Osaka, a distance of only 500km, can be found for ¥9,000 yen round trip with a flight time of 1-2 hours, versus ¥14,450 one way and 3 hours of travel by Shinkansen.
There are other important factors to take into consideration before jumping on those plane tickets. Most airports are located outside of major cities and require anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour + travel time on trains or (so-called) limousine buses to get from the airports to the city centers. When calculating the most efficient method of travel for your particular plans, you need to add in that travel time and train/bus fare.
You also need to arrive at the airport at least an hour in advance to check in and go through security, which is not only a huge hassle but also contributes to your travel time.
So to calculate the true financial and time cost of traveling by plane, use this formula:
Train ride to airport + time at airport + flight + train ride from airport to accommodation So for example, Tokyo to Osaka station again.
The real travel time ends up being triple the flight time, and still significantly longer than Shinkansen. While the overall cost is still cheaper with this budget airline, it does not come with any free checked baggage so if you're taking more than your carry-on you'll end up paying more. With airlines of course you also have to go through the hassle of packing and weighing your bags carefully in advance and making sure you're not carrying anything airport security will take away. The airport to station buses I chose for this example are among the cheapest options available, but if you end up taking the train you can pay up to ¥3,000 one way for transportation to the airport alone.
So while plane is often the cheapest and fastest method for long distance travel, make sure you add in the extra time and fare factors to determine the true cost. Plane ticket prices are also highly variable depending on the airline, season, cost of oil, and temporary discount campaigns, so the price you get now may be very different from the price you’ll get in six months or during holiday weeks.
SHINKANSEN (High Speed Bullet Train)
The Shinkansen is one of the two preferred methods of intercity travel. It's expensive, but it’s fast. If you opt for reserved seating, it’s pretty comfortable as well.
A Shinkansen trip from Tokyo <-> Kyoto is 2 hr 17 min and costs ¥13,710 each way (with reserved seating). That’s nearly $280 round trip which is pretty pricey for a trip of only 500 km, or about 300 miles. That’s just slightly under the distance from San Francisco to Los Angeles. But if time and comfort is more important to you, then it’s worth it. A very common progression I see with foreigners who move to Japan is they often take the highway bus the first year or two to save on money, but the inconvenience almost always causes them to switch to Shinkansen trips after that.
You can get slight discounts on Shinkansen trips if you opt for free seating rather than reserved. Free seating is first come first serve, so if that’s your option I recommend getting in line early to maximize your chances of getting a seat. The positive side of free seating is that you can take just about any Shinkansen (whereas reserved seating is for one train at a specific time only), so if your plans are flexible and you’re not sure when you’re leaving the city it allows you to arrive at the station just about whenever you want. Shinkansen trains are frequent in the big cities so you’ll never have to wait long.
Another option for travelers looking to utilize Shinkansen trains is purchasing a JR pass. A JR pass is expensive but gives you unlimited rides on JR trains (minus the Nozomi and Mizuho Shinkansens--the quicker trains that only stop at main stations) for a certain period of time. Not only Shinkansen trains but also many local trains in cities are run by JR, so you can often get to many locations within cities for free with this pass as well. They come in three lengths—7 days, 14 days, and 21 days. The 7 day JR pass costs ¥29,110 (around $290) so if you’re going to be taking multiple Shinkansen trips within a week then it’ll likely be cost effective for you. There are also localized rail passes that are cheaper than buying the overall country-wide JR pass, so if you'll be spending most your time in specific areas like Hokkaido or Kyushu then check out the links on the JR pass website for more options. The catch is that you can only purchase the JR pass from outside of the country as it’s only available to tourists, and they have to be used within certain periods of time, so make sure to check the rules carefully before purchasing!
The highway bus is the other preferred method of intercity travel. It’s slow, but it’s cheap. Comfort levels are questionable. For the same trip between Tokyo and Kyoto fares vary quite a bit but you can easily find trips under ¥5,000 one way. There are many types of highway buses and seats on the more comfortable ones cost extra, but a hidden benefit is that if you take a night bus (where the bus travels throughout the night), you don’t have to pay for a hotel since you’ll (hopefully) be sleeping on the bus.
The dreaded night bus is almost a rite of passage in Japan and is something that almost all exchange students and English teachers experience at least once, because who can turn down those low, low prices? If you have any trouble sleeping in cars it can turn into a very tiring night, and bus sleep is almost never as restful as sleeping in a hotel. But you’re young and ready for adventure! Right? Some buses come with outlets, and a lucky few with wifi. Not all buses have toilets onboard, but you’ll be stopping at rest stops every hour or so, so you’ll have a chance to use the restroom and pick up some snacks or a quick meal then. You can also bring your big suitcases and extra luggage free of charge. The bus driver will even pack and unpack them from large storage compartments under the bus for you.
Did I mention that the bus from Tokyo to Kyoto takes around 9 hours?
Renting a car is an often forgotten about method of traveling. Upfront costs are high but because you can split the total between travelers, costs per person can potentially be cheaper. It’s also easier to access rural locations that don’t have bus or train stops nearby, like the Fox Village in Miyagi prefecture. Other benefits include being able to depart whenever you want so there’s no waiting for trains or buses, and you can keep all your luggage in the car so you don’t have to drag them through train stations (which inevitably results in bumping into strangers and hunting for sometimes not easily found escalators and elevators).
The downsides are that traffic rules may differ from your country a bit so driving will require paying very close attention, and an accident could land you in serious trouble. If you’re a tourist, the jet lag and constant movement throughout the day can be exhausting and so you might be too tired to drive. Traffic in cities is also very slow going and pedestrians and cyclists are extremely numerous. I definitely recommend car rentals more for rural prefectures, and not between major cities where you could easily take the bus or train.
If you do plan on renting a car, know that all expressways in Japan are tolled and are quite expensive to use. If you’re traveling between major cities it’s necessary to use these expressways since local roads would have too much traffic to feasibly be used for long distance drives. The cost of tolls one way between Tokyo and Kyoto is around ¥10,000, or about $100. You can get discounts on tolls with an ETC card, which can be rented along with your car rental. Also don’t forget to take into account the price of gas, which of course varies but is around ¥120 per liter where we live right now (Aichi, February 2017).
So to recap, here’s an example comparing the methods of transportation between Tokyo and Kyoto, based on current prices.
NOTE: Airline prices include budget airline Jetstar and airport limousine bus transportation from Kyoto/Tokyo station to respective airports, round trip. The bus is from Shinjuku station to Kyoto station. And for the car rental, this assumes a 3 day rental at 30,000 yen total, gas at 120 yen per liter and gas mileage at 15 kilometers per liter (3,760 yen each way), and highway fares of 10,000 yen per way.
This is just an example and you’ll need to do your own individual research for the specific time you’re traveling and the specific places you’ll be traveling between, but this should give you a basic understanding of the major differences between each transportation method. There are even cheaper methods to travel if you have more time to spare, like using the Seishun 18 Kippu or finding special time sales for bus or plane tickets. But since transportation can end up being one of the largest costs of your trip to Japan, it's worth putting checking out several different methods to see what works best for you!
Love the article especially considering that once you leave Tokyo the concept of cost effectiveness and time of travel is reaaaaaaally underappreciated. I've gotten more questions about traveling WHILE in Japan than anything else. This is the perfect article to refer people to.
Ever since I arrived in Tokyo I've been wanting someone to explain the train passes to me, for example in London I could buy a week pass and travel as much as I want between the zones I've payed for, so I'm really excited about any kind of train passes :) One thing I like to add tho is that if you are driving in Japan and don't have international drivers license you risk getting in a ton of trouble in case they catch you, so I'm not sure renting a car should be an option for tourists.
Thanks for all the info! Definitely bookmarking! :D
I used a JR pass for Kyushu when I went to visit my friend in Fukuoka and it saved my butt since we went to Saga and Nagasaki as well as Fukuoka. It's definitely worth the price upfront!
My friends and I just bought 7 day JR passes for our trip next month. We bought ours from http://japan-rail-pass.com and while the price seems to fluctuate by a couple of dollars, each time I look, but it's always right around $250 for 7 days. We paid $250 and that site also came with train maps / timetable and free FedEx shipping. They also have some other items like travel guide books and Wi-Fi hot spots you can consider. If you're traveling as a group you can have one person buy them all that way they stay together.