Thursday, 18 September 2008

How to…travel around Japan

Japan is easy to travel around, thanks to its excellent public transport networks.

Many signs are in English, as well as one of the three Japanese scripts, and staff usually speak some English once they’ve got over their initial shyness.

Still, we found it helpful to get hints and tips from fellow travellers, both before we left and when we were travelling around, which helped us to make the most of it.

The following are a few tips we thought you might find of use. Do let us know if you think we should add any more.

JR Pass

William Morris would approve of the Japan Railways (JR) pass: it is both aesthetically pleasing, with a nice shiny rendition of Hokusai's famous The Great Wave off Kanagawa on the front, and remarkably useful, giving you the freedom to travel Japan’s extensive, efficient rail network at your leisure.

Only available to purchase outside of Japan, the pass is regarded with considerable envy by some Japanese, for the fantastic rail services they enjoy come at quite a high financial cost.

So if you plan to travel around Japan do yourself and your wallet a favour and buy a JR Pass before you leave home. Although it costs a weighty 350 Euros or so the pass is more than likely to pay for itself in just a few journeys.

Armed with one of these beauties you can use local trains, Shinkansen bullet trains (only the super, super fast Nozomi service is out of bounds) and even some ferries.

In addition, with a JR Pass you can cunningly negotiate your way around cities by using their local train services - given the size of a city such as Tokyo this helps you save a tidy sum.

Try and purchase your JR pass in your home country. If you run out of time before you leave , and you are visiting other countries before you reach Japan, then you should be able to purchase a JR Pass in that country. Certainly this should be possible in Europe (we bought ours in Finland).

Full details about the JR Pass are available on the Japan Rail website here.

Train ticket reservations

Trains are rarely completely full. Outside of the big cities in the rush hour, we never encountered trains that were fit to bursting with hundreds of weary passengers hanging onto the handrails.

Still it pays to get to train stations early and reserve seats. Do it ahead of the day you travel and you won’t to arrive early, plus you’ll be able to pick seats with a good view.

For example, on the Shinkansen heading south out of Tokyo try and get a seat on the right hand side - you should get a view of Mount Fuji (cloud / smog permitting).

If you haven’t reserved a ticket, consumed one too many earthenware bowls of sake the night before and overslept don’t fret. There are several carriages on each train for passengers without reservations.

Simply study the map of the train (found on the platform or the entrance to the platform) for the location of unreserved carriages.

Like the civilised people they are, the Japanese rigorously observe the queuing system. These are denoted by tramlines marked on the platform with people standing between them, whilst the smug passengers with reserved seats lean nonchalantly against the counter of the noodle bar, catching up on last night’s baseball match.

One final thing - when on the train, if people suddenly get up and start swinging their seats around 180 degrees don’t call for the authorities, this isn’t a spontaneous act of mass vandalism.

Rather this is another one of these clever Japanese technical gizmos. The train has come to the end of a single-track line and passengers can swivel their seats on an axis in order to allow them to continue facing in the direction of travel.

Be sure to remove your belongings from the pocket in front of your seat if you don’t wish to see it ending up halfway down the carriage.

Train timetable and prices

It helps to go the train station pre-armed with information about train times and prices. This is easy to do thanks to some new-fangled thing called the internet. The JR website’s ‘Hyperdia’ search engine gives you up-to-date train times and prices.


Don’t forget the jolly old two wheelers! Bikes are often a great way to get around cities such as Kyoto, where the sights are quite spread out.

Japan is a comfortable place for cyclists. You see little road rage and many locals use them for zipping down to the shops or speeding up the commute.

Most train stations have secure bike parking facilities and many locals use them. A day’s parking should set you back 200 yen at the most.

Hotels and hostels often lend them to their guests free or for a small charge. Don’t forget to ask when you book a room.


Where the train line stops, the bus route starts.

These proved slightly tricky to understand at first so the following should help:

1) Enter at the back of the bus and exit at the front

2) Take a ticket when you board from the funny little machine at the top of the steps. You pay your fare when you get off

3) Fares are shown on the rather whizzy laser display board-type arrangement at the front above the driver. The number printed on your ticket correlates with that you on the board, with your fare displayed beneath it.

Budget on about 200 yen for a journey across town. There is a change machine incorporated into the ticket machine, located by the driver at the front of the bus. This comes in handy when you only have a 1000 yen note rather than the exact fare you need.

Drivers seem to be incredibly docile, slurring their words over the tannoy, leaving you bewildered about quite where you get off for that temple.

Don’t fret: buses seem to be populated entirely by old people, garbed in sun visors, white gloves and sensible shoes. They are invariably kind and helped us out of several pickles when we hadn’t the foggiest where to get off.

Oh and one more thing regarding buses: this is Japan and people are small. It helps to be the size of an oomph-loompa and carry nothing bigger than a pencil case on these buses.

Or you could measure six foot, and sway about with massive bags the size of sumos thwacking all in your path like us. Your choice.


Some cities, such as Hiroshima have trams or ‘streetcars’. These are a great way of pootling through a city and, from our experience, were easy to use.

Fares are usually clearly displayed and paid on leaving the tram to a nice chap at the door, who has a ticket machine similar to the one on buses.


Dean said...

I'm planning a trip around the world (except I'm starting in America and headed westward), and your blog has pretty much been the backbone of my research. I found you via when I searched for, "plan a trip around the world," and I hadn't thought about trying to do it without flying-- now I can't think about doing it any other way.

Thank you both for sharing your experiences with everybody, they're great fun to read about. I hope that if you make another lap you'll tell us all about it!

If you don't mind, how is it that you obtained passage from Osaka to Shanghai, and how long was the voyage?

Tom said...

Hi Dean,

Thanks for your kind comments. Great to hear that you're going to try your trip without flying - you won't regret it!

Catching a ferry between Japan Osaka and Shanghai was relatively straightforward. There are a number of ferry companies operating out of Osaka for various destinations in China.

We caught the MS Su Zhuo Hao, with the Shanghai Ferry Co ( It was a great voyage and a most enjoyable way of entering China. There's a bit more about it here:

Have a wonderful trip and come and look us up if you pass through the UK.

All the best,