Transportation in Japan: How to Get Around

Japanese Bullet Train

Shinkansen bullet train | Photo by Los Paseos used under CC

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

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 sight-seeing 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 Peach, Skymark or Vanilla Air can be incredibly cheap. One-way flights can sometimes even below 5,000 yen (approx. 45 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 cant 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.

Example (screenshot):

Google Flights shows you the closest airports and best fares

Railway

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 Voyagin 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 Car

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 100km/h on highways) as well as driving on the left side (like in the UK or New Zealand).

Rental Cards in Japan

One of the main rental car companies | Photo by Tzuhsun Hsu used under CC

Requirements

To drive in Japan as a tourist with 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 to double-check 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.

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.

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 is also a bunch of independent reservation sites for foreign tourists such as ToCoo! Travel, Rentalcars.com, Web-Rentacar, or the above mentioned Japan Experience.

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

Highway Busses

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 Busses |  Photo by tsuda used under CC

Personally, I don’t mind a night bus ride every now and then, but I can only recommend to still get a good nights sleep in a proper bed every now and then.

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

Taxis and Car Sharing

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-stablished 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.