Japan has a well connected , efficient transport network and visitor information centers to help you easily navigate from one place to another. However, it is always a good idea to have some information beforehand in order to save time and energy. With this guide to transportation in Japan, I hope to share what I learned to make commuting easier for you.
For long distances, you can travel by air, by buses or by trains.
1) By air: Sometimes this option is cheaper as opposed to traveling by train, specially if you don’t have a JR Pass. I traveled to Sapporo from Tokyo by flight as the air ticket was cheaper.
2) By train: This can be a more expensive but a more convenient option. Based on your itinerary, you can choose buying a Japan Rail Pass or the JR pass.
3) By Bus: I did not try traveling through the bus but there are buses that ply between cities. You can take one of the overnight buses and save on accommodation for the night.
JR pass major points
The first question to ask yourself is if you would be able to make full use of JR pass. In the following sections, I would try to address this issue. But before I do that, here are some major points that you need to know about it.
1) Discounted JR Pass for non-Japanese tourists and can only be purchased online outside of Japan. Once you enter Japan, you will end up paying a lot more.
2)Exchange the voucher that you purchase with the pass once you are in Japan. You can choose the date you want to start using the pass within the next month. Once stamped, the date cannot be changed.
3) The pass must be stamped within 3 months of purchase.
4) Seat reservation is free and is not mandatory for most trains. On some lines, you may have to make a reservation beforehand, which is free, unlike EU rail pass.
5) The pass is non-transferable.
6)It can only be used on JR trains running on JR lines and not on trains of other companies.
My experience of traveling for 15 days without a JR Pass
I traveled for 15 days without a pass and on doing the math, I realized that JR pass would have actually helped me save money and would have made commuting easier. Here’s hoping that you can learn from my mistakes and this guide to transportation in Japan.
I reached Kansai International Airport, Osaka and went to Kyoto.
Osaka to Kyoto one day JR pass: ¥ 2300
Platt Kodama Shinkansen from Kyoto to Tokyo: ¥ 11800
(Platt Kodama are cheaper and slightly slower than other Shinkansen)
Day trip from Tokyo to Nikko: ¥ 2400 approximately
Day trip from Tokyo to Kawaguchiko: ¥ 2400 approximately
(I could not use the JR lines in Tokyo and had to use alternative, longer routes.)
I booked a flight from Tokyo to Sapporo and from Sapporo to Osaka.
With a JR rail pass, I could have just used the train.
Train from Sapporo to Daisetsuzan National park and back: ¥ 5000
I used the JR trains many times apart from the above mentioned incidents. On adding it all up, I ended up spending a lot more than the cost of a 14 consecutive day JR pass. A 7 consecutive days pass would have sufficed just as well.
Should you buy a JR pass?
Now if you are travelling to just one or two cities and making some day trips, it might not be a good idea to purchase the pass. You can calculate the cost in the cost calculator provided in this link to the official website of JR Pass.
If, however, you are traveling to multiple cities and plan on taking multiple day trips, I highly recommend buying a JR pass. It can be purchased for lesser from outside Japan. If you purchase it once you are already there, it would be more expensive.
JR pass can also be used for commuting in Tokyo as there are JR lines running in the city. Apart from this guide to transportation in Japan, you can watch this YouTube video for more clarity on JR Pass here.
This guide to transportation in Japan will not be complete without mentioning local transportation. I traveled to Kyoto, Tokyo, Sapporo, Osaka and Nara.
There are cards that you can buy when traveling in certain regions. You can read about them here.
Day passes or Individual tickets
One Day Pass
If you are going to take more than four bus or subway rides, which iyou will if you are sight seeing, purchase a one day pass. It can be bought from any convenience store near you. You can also buy multiple day passes beforehand.
To use them, just punch them once before getting on the bus or metro so that the date is printed on the pass and for all your journeys on that day, show your card to the bus driver while entering or subway inspector while exiting.
If you have to buy individual tickets, make sure you have the exact change. Otherwise you can get change by putting it in a box at the front of the bus which accepts currency notes of some denominations. If there is no change, you may not get change back. Bus drivers find this annoying as it is time consuming. If you have to take fewer trips, use this method, just make sure you put in the exact change to avoid complications.
Sapporo: I mostly walked around the city and was not there for a long time and bought individual tickets. However I could have purchased a one day pass instead because I took a tram going the wrong way and so ended up paying twice.
Osaka: I purchased individual tickets to destinations but I am sure you can purchase a one day pass or top up your IC card if you have one. I used the subway system to go to Nara.