Public transportation in Japan
How to use the public transportation in Japan
The public transportation in Japan is very effective, though if it’s your first time, it might be a bit confusing. First, I would recommend using Google Maps, which shows few options for the route, the price and the exact time of departure (the trains in Japan always arrive at time!).
Let’s explain also that Japan has many train companies. The main one is previously government-owned “JR” (Japan Railway), which nowadays is run by few private companies, but they work as one. There’re also many private railways with their own names and sometimes they have similar route as JR, but faster and cheaper. Many of them have discounted passes, so before buying the first one you saw, check other passes too. I’ll remind that Google Maps helps a lot with all these trains.
Before getting on a train you have to know how much your journey costs, which you can easily know using Google Maps or using the map with prices over the ticket machines. You should buy the ticket at the ticket machine (only for some passes you have to ask at the desk). If you need a help, you can always ask the station master. Don’t lose your ticket, as you’ll need it when leaving the station.
At some big stations, there’re separated queues for different trains. If you look at the information screen you’ll see not only the type of the train (express, local, etc.), departure time and destination of the trains, but also a triangle or circle, which means you have to wait your train at the queue marked on the ground with triangle or circle. The numbers later ("1-8", "2-4") show how many carriages the train is composed of, or better to say where at the platform it'll stop.
In the very deep countryside, there’re stations with neither a staff, nor a stile (a machine to put the ticket). At such stations usually you have to pay to the driver (or machine similar to the one in the busses).
For some limited express trains there’s additional fee, so be careful which train and which wagon you get in.
In only few cities in Japan, like Tokyo and Kyoto, the price is fixed (Tokyo – 210 yen, Kyoto – 230 yen). You enter the bus from the front door and put the money at the machine next to the driver. If you don’t have the exact amount, you can use the machine to convert a coin or a bill to smaller coins. When you want to get off the bus, push the red button (they’re at each seat), that gives signal to the driver and use the rear door. If you’re sitting, it’s supposed that you have to wait until the bus stops completely and only after that you can stand up and get off.
But in almost all of the cities in Japan the price depends on the distance, which means you get into the bus from the back door and take a small adjustment paper (with a number that shows the area you got into the bus). In the front of the bus you’ll see a screen that displays the prices according to the area. When leaving the bus, push the red button and use the front door. Put the needed amount of money (together with the adjustment paper) at the machine next to the driver. If you don’t have the exact amount, you can use the machine to convert a coin or a bill to smaller coins. Usually the price of the city busses varies between 200 and 300 yen. But if it’s interurban bus, the price might go up to 1,000 or 2,000 yen.
Fare usually starts around 400-700 yen and often includes first 2km. After that each kilometer is about 300-350 yen (in central Tokyo the base fare is 410 yen, including 1km, and 80 yen per each 237 meters). Tipping is not a custom. The door of the taxi is always opened automatically by the driver.
The domestic flights are good option, especially if you want to visit Hokkaido or Kyushu. There’s a low cost airline company called “Peach” based is Osaka, so from here you can find cheap flights to any region in Japan at prices about 3,000-10,000 yen. Check the routes and tickets at the official site (www.flypeach.com) Another Japanese low cost company is Vanilla Air with head office in Tokyo (www.vanilla-air.com). JetStar is another low-coster offering some domestic flights (www.jetstar.com). If you're destination is a small airport in the countryside, JAL and ANA will bring you there. The above low-cost airlines, plus AirAsia, can offer cheap international flights too.
If you’re traveling on a budget, you might consider night busses. Tokyo – Osaka is only 2,000 yen (weekdays), but many of the bus companies don’t have sites in English. If you understand some Japanese check www.travel.rakuten.co.jp/bus/ or in English you can use a bit more expensive www.willerexpress.com/en/
JR pass and other options
JR Pass for 1 week (29,110 yen), 2 weeks (46,390 yen) or 3 weeks (59,350 yen) is very popular and officially recommended, though if you’re traveling on a budget, I would not recommend it. It’s worth the money if you want to ride Shinkansen (bullet trains) or if you plan to travel from Tokyo to, let’s say, Nagasaki in a week. Don’t think that you’ll use much the pass in the city (Tokyo or Osaka) – subway or private railways are much better option (faster and easier to get the right one). Also the ticket between Osaka and Kyoto is only 400 yen, the same price to Nara or Kobe, or between Tokyo and Yokohama, so you won’t save money on these short routes if using JR Pass.
Usually when I go to Tokyo from Osaka, I just book a night bus for 2,000 yen one way. The overage price for a flight would be 7,000 yen. Shinkansen (bullet train) costs about 14,000 yen.
If you’re in Japan during winter vacation (December 10 to January 10), spring vacation (March 1 to April 10) or summer (July 20 to September 10) you can take the advantage of Seishun18kippu – it’s a 5 one day passes for the whole JR network (excluding limited express trains), costs 11,850 yen (2,370 yen per day), can be purchased at any JR station, but in certain period. Check more about the pass here (www.japanrailpass.net/en/). The pass can be used, for example, by 1 person in 5 different days (not necessary in succession), or 5 people in 1 day, or any other combination. If you’re interested in using Seishun18kippu, read some of my adventures by train in Japan.