Photo:Japan' Famous Bullet Train - The Shinkansen

A Traveller's Guide to Transportation in Japan

Japan is deservedly famous for its efficient transportation network. The Shinkansen was the world’s first bullet train, and it now connects the country from Kyushu in the south to Hokkaido in the north. However, this speedy travel option comes with a price, as tickets are often equivalent or more than what a plane ticket costs to cover the same distance. For those traveling on a budget, this is prohibitively expensive, so this article introduces more budget friendly ways to explore this beautiful land.

A typical Tokyo train platform

Trains are ubiquitous in Japan, and no company has a broader reach than Japan Railways (JR). The company is divided into East, which covers from Hokkaido to Nagoya, and West, which covers from Nagoya to Kyushu. This is the company that operates the Shinkansen, but it is often the sole operator of small lines in rural areas. For travellers coming from abroad, the Japan Rail Pass is an excellent investment as it allows the holder to ride Shinkansen and other JR trains for free once they enter the country for a set period of time. For those living in Japan, JR offers several discount tickets, such as the Seishun Jyuhasai Ticket, which allows unlimited access to local and express trains for five days. Discount tickets for specific areas can also be purchased.

A JR Seishun Jyuhasai Kippu that allows for five days of travel

While JR is the largest rail company, several smaller railway companies have regional operations, and these companies offer discount tickets as well. The Kintetsu Line, for example, operates in Kansai and connects many of of Japan’s most famous locations such as Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, Kobe, and Nagoya. The company offers a Kintetsu Rail Pass, a Weekend Pass, and other options. The Keihan, Nankai, Meitetsu, and other railway companies also exist, and they have discount tickets as well. Not to be forgotten in this discussion of national and regional railways are city subway systems. Kyoto has a discount pass that can work on both its subways and buses, and Osaka offers a city wide ticket that offers free subway rides as well as admission to 28 museums, historical sites, and other attractions. Thrifty travelers would do well to investigate discount options in the regions they will be visiting.

ICOCA and other chargeable cards allow users to ride most trains and subways, as well as some city buses, with just a tap of the card to the ticket gate and can be recharged as needed

Trains are usually the most convenient way to travel, but buses are also an option. For those who need to get between major population centers, buses offer a cheap, if time consuming, alternative to trains. These buses are divided into day and night routes, and a traveler can get between Nagoya and Tokyo in six to eight hours depending on the bus. The cost can range from ¥2,000 to ¥10,000 depending on amenities and size of the seat, but tall or large passengers will want to avoid the cheapest options. Tickets can be booked through various travel websites such as Rakuten and Jalan, many of which now have English versions. In addition to these long haul buses, Japan’s cities, especially Kyoto, have extensive bus networks that make getting around convenient. As stated above, many cities will offer discount tickets for both subway and bus fares, so be sure to check out those options.

Low Cost Carriers often skip amenities, but are budget friendly

Airfare in Japan was extremely expensive in the past, but the recent proliferation of low cost carrier (LCC) airlines such as Peach, Jet Star, and Skymark have changed this dramatically. While not as cheap as buses, flying between destinations is now often the same price or cheaper than taking the Shinkansen, and in many instances it is the faster option. Security for domestic travel tends to be more relaxed, so the airport experience can be less of a hassle than in other areas of the world. The same travel websites used to reserve bus tickets can also be used to book plane tickets, and many of these have point systems that reward repeated business with discounts. For those visiting Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Okinawa, flying is often the most attractive option.

Cars in Japan can be useful, and, for those visiting Okinawa and other rural areas, perhaps even necessary, but they often do not factor in for people visiting as trains, buses, and airplanes are readily available and much more convenient in most tourist destinations. That being said, cars can be rented from national car rental companies which are often run by car manufacturers. Renting cars is often expensive, however, and parking can be difficult to find in Japan’s densely populated areas. Japan does have an extensive highway system, but these roads have tolls based on how far people drive, which further increases the cost of driving. Taxis can be a convenient option, but travelers should be aware that fares are based on distance and can run up fast. It is often best to get as close to your destination as possible before hailing a taxi.

Japan's ubiquitous “mamachari” bicycle

Bicycles, while not motorized, are an excellent way to explore Japan. Many areas offer daily bike rental programs that allow people to break free from the tyranny of set bus and train schedules. Renting bikes is not just available to visitors to Kyoto and other famous locations, but to people who venture to lesser known locations such as Asuka in Nara Prefecture, which encourages visitors to rent bikes. This is a slower way to get around, but oftentimes this more leisurely pace allows travellers to see and appreciate things they would otherwise have missed while zipping by on a bus.

Japan has a transportation network that extends from the heights of its famed Shinkansen bullet trains down to bicycles. While the cost of traveling long distances can appear expensive at first, thrifty travellers can find a variety of discounts to make trips more affordable. Be sure to explore your options thoroughly to find what's best for your budget.

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