Transportation in Japan: How to Get Around

Last updated: 2023-01-17 | Published: 2019-04-12
Written by: Alan

You have tickets for your favorite artist’s concert tour, and now you are trying to figure out the best option to get from city to city?

This article will show you the most popular and convenient transportation options, but we will also talk about costs and other important “details”.

Domestic Flights in Japan

If you are traveling to Japan from abroad, chances are you will arrive at one of the international airports in Tokyo or Osaka. Covering the long distances to some of the smaller cities could take quite some time and money. Why not use a faster method and spend more time doing on sightseeing and eating sushi?

If time is an issue, it could be better to fly to less-than-central places such as Sapporo, Fukuoka or Iwate. Low-cost carriers such as PeachSkymark or Jetstar Japan can be incredibly cheap. One-way flights can sometimes even below 5,000 yen (approx. 35 USD).

The major two airlines, Japan Airlines and ANA, are usually more expensive but might be the only option for certain local airports.

To check prices but also which airport is closes to where you want to go, I can’t recommend Google Flights enough. If you are not sure which airport is closest to any given venue, just enter the location, and it can even show you the airports closest to it.

Railways in Japan

My favorite transportation method in Japan is definitely by train. Their railway system is not just very extensive, but their service is the most reliable in the world.

Bullet trains take you from one part of the country to another in high-speed, and even the most rural village seems to have a train station. “Convenient”, “safe” and “clean”, but also “expensive” are often-used attributes when speaking about Japanese trains.

If you are planning to cover large distances by bullet train (Shinkansen), purchasing a JR Rail Pass before traveling to Japan might be a good idea. There are many regional passes that can save you some bucks if you are staying in certain regions for longer than just a couple of days.

We found Klook to be a good place to purchase JR Rail Passes online.

Another travel budget hack is to purchase train tickets from Kinken shops.

To check railway schedules and travel times, head over to Hyperdia which is searchable in English (and Chinese). I recommend this search site for JR pass holders specifically, since it allows you to limit your search to JR trains.

Rental Cars in Japan

Renting a car gives you more freedom and might be cheaper than other means of transport. That is especially the case if you travel in a group and avoid expensive toll roads. However, there are a couple of things you have to keep in mind when deciding to drive in Japan, such as local regulations and requirements.

Also be prepared to drive slower than in your country (speed limit of 100 km/h on highways) as well as driving on the left side (like in the UK or New Zealand).

Rental Cars in Japan
One of the main rental car companies. Image credit: Tzuhsun Hsu used under CC

Requirements for Renting a Car in Japan

To drive in Japan as a tourist with a foreign license, you need to be 18 or older and have an International Driving Permit (IDP).

However, this does not apply to everyone, so I recommend double-checking with the Japanese embassy in your country. For example, this does not apply to holders of licenses from Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Monaco, Switzerland, Slovenia, or Taiwan. They need an official Japanese translation of their license instead.

Such a translation can sometimes be obtained from the Japanese embassy in your country, the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF), or with the help of some online service providers such as Japan Experience.

Note, however, that you have to obtain it before going to Japan, even if you plan to get it from JAF. This may take several weeks, so if you are a last minute person, you might be out of luck.

Also be aware that some countries (which haven’t signed the Geneva convention) don’t issue valid International Driving Permits (IDP) so it is best to make 100% sure by talking to an expert in your country.

Car Rental Rates

Daily rates start from around 6000 yen (approx. 55 USD) for the smaller cars and can be up to double that for fancier cars.

All rental contracts in Japan come with a basic insurance, but this cover 100% of the damage in case of an accident. If you want to minimize the cost you might be liable for, look to add collision damage waiver (CDW) and non-operation charge (NOC).

Another important thing to keep in mind: you will definitely need a credit card to rent a ride in Japan.

Car Rental Companies

Choosing from the many offers available online can be difficult. You might be tempted to go for a well-known international rental car companies such as Avis, Budget or Hertz.

However, their prices are higher than average because they cooperate with the local rental companies that dominate the market: Toyota Rentacar, Nippon Rentacar, Orix Rentacar, Times Car Rental, Nissan Rentacar and Ekiren. Most of these companies have English customer service and websites.

There are also a bunch of independent reservation sites for foreign tourists, such as ToCoo! TravelRentalcars.comWeb-Rentacar, or the above-mentioned Japan Experience.

Be careful, however: at least one rental company (NicoNico) seems not to accept International Driver Permits.

Highway Buses in Japan

If you are on a budget but still need to travel hundreds of km/miles from A to B, there’s probably nothing better than taking a long distance highway bus.

Some people love night buses since you save accommodation expenses at the same time (though some of those savings will certainly be spent on coffee or energy drinks, the next day). There even is a bus pass for tourists by Willer Express.

Highway Night Bus in Japan
Highway Night Busses. Image credit: tsuda, used under CC

Personally, I don’t mind an occasional night bus ride, but it can take a toll on your energy the next day.

To check prices and availability, as well as reserving tickets for Highway Buses in Japan, go to JapanBusOnline.

Taxis and Car Sharing in Japan

Driving in Japanese cities can be a drag.

So if you are planning to spend a lot of time in one place, it’s better to get acquainted with the subway/tram system and the taxi ride-hailing app Japan Taxi (use coupon code 8DA253 to get 1,000 yen discount).

Uber is not well-established in Japan, which means it’s actually more expensive and much scarcer than regular taxis. Also, it is only available in Tokyo. Lyft or other ride-sharing companies are not active in Japan, at the time of writing this.

Top image credit: Emran Kassim, under CC license