Japan is justifiably famous for its extensive, well-organised and efficient transportation network. Schedules are strictly adhered to and late or cancelled services are almost unheard of. All this convenience comes at a price, however, and you’d be well advised to look into money-saving deals whenever possible.
Japan is an island nation and there are a great many ferry services both between islands and between ports on the same island. Ferries can be an excellent way of getting from one place to another and for seeing parts of Japan you might otherwise miss. Taking a ferry between Osaka (Honshū) and Beppu (Kyūshū), for example, is a good way of getting to Kyūshū and – if you choose the right departure time – seeing some of the Inland Sea (Seto-nai-kai) on the way. Likewise, the ferry run up and down the Izu-shotō can be incredibly scenic.
The routes vary widely, from two-hour services between adjacent islands to 1½-day trips in what are in fact small ocean liners. The cheapest fares on the longer trips are in tatami-mat rooms where you simply unroll your futon on the floor and hope, if the ship is crowded, that your fellow passengers aren’t too intent on knocking back the booze all night. In this basic class, fares are usually lower than equivalent land travel, but there are also more expensive private cabins. Bicycles can always be brought along and most ferries also carry cars and motorcycles.
Information on ferry routes, schedules and fares is found in the JR Jikokuhyō and on information sheets from the Japan National Tourist Organisation (JNTO).
Hitching is never entirely safe in any country in the world, and we don’t recommend it. Travellers who decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. In particular, Japan is a very dangerous place for solitary female hitchhikers; there have been countless cases of solitary female hitchers being attacked, molested and raped. People who do choose to hitch will be safer if they travel in pairs and let someone know where they are planning to go.
Provided you understand the risks and take appropriate precautions, Japan can be a good country for hitchhiking. Many hitchhikers have tales of extraordinary kindness from motorists who have picked them up.
The rules for hitchhiking are similar to anywhere else in the world. Dress neatly and look for a good place to hitch – expressway onramps and expressway service areas are probably your best bet.
Truck drivers are particularly good for long-distance travel as they often head out on the expressways at night. If a driver is exiting before your intended destination, try to get dropped off at one of the expressway service areas. The Service Area Parking Area (SAPA) guide maps are excellent for hitchers. They’re available free from expressway service areas and show full details of each interchange (IC) and rest stop. These are important orientation points if you have a limited knowledge of Japanese.
For more on hitching in Japan pick up a copy of the excellent Hitchhiker’s Guide to Japan by Will Ferguson. In addition to lots of general advice, this book details suggested routes and places to stay on the road. All in all, it’s just about invaluable for anyone contemplating a long hitch around Japan.
Japan has a comprehensive network of long-distance buses. These ‘highway buses’ are nowhere near as fast as the shinkansen but the fares are comparable with those of normal futsū trains. The trip between Tokyo and Sendai (Northern Honshū), for example, takes about two hours by shinkansen, four hours by tokkyū and nearly eight hours by bus. Of course, there are also many places in Japan where trains do not run and bus travel is the only public transport option.
Bookings can be made through any travel agency in Japan or at the Green Window in large Japan Rail (JR) stations. The Japan Rail Pass is valid on some highway buses, but in most cases the shinkansen would be far preferable (it’s much faster and more comfortable). Note that the storage racks on most buses are generally too small for large backpacks, but you can usually stow them in the luggage compartment underneath the bus.
Night buses are a good option for those on a tight budget without a Japan Rail Pass. They are relatively cheap, spacious (allowing room to stretch out and get some sleep) and they also save on a night’s accommodation. They typically leave at around 10pm or 11pm and arrive the following day at around 6am or 7am.
Almost every Japanese city has an extensive bus service but it’s usually the most difficult public transport system for foreign travellers to use. The destination names are almost always written in kanji and often there are no numbers to identify which bus you want.
Fares are either paid to the driver on entering or as you leave the bus and usually operate on one of two systems. In Tokyo and some other cities, there’s a flat fare regardless of distance. In the other system, you take a ticket as you board which indicates the zone number at your starting point. When you get off, an electric sign at the front of the bus indicates the fare charged at that point for each starting zone number. You simply pay the driver the fare that matches your zone number. There is often a change machine near the front of the bus that can change ¥100 and ¥500 coins and ¥1000 notes.
In many tourist towns there are also teiki kankō basu (tour buses), often run from the main railway station. Tours are usually conducted in Japanese but English-language tours are available in popular areas like Kyoto and Tokyo. In places where the attractions are widespread or hard to reach by public transport, tours can be a good bet.
Many cities have tram lines – particularly Nagasaki, Kumamoto and Kagoshima on Kyūshū, Kōchi and Matsuyama on Shikoku, and Hakodate on Hokkaidō. These are excellent ways of getting around as they combine many of the advantages of bus travel (eg good views) with those of subways (it’s easy to work out where you’re going). Fares work on similar systems to bus travel and there are also unlimited-travel day tickets available.
Driving in Japan is quite feasible, even for just the mildly adventurous. The major roads are signposted in English; road rules are generally adhered to and driving is safer than in other Asian countries; and petrol, while expensive, is not prohibitively so. Indeed, in some areas of the country it can prove much more convenient than other forms of travel and, between a group of people, it can also prove quite economical.
The expressway system will get you from one end of the country to another but it is not particularly extensive. Also, since all the expressways charge tolls, it is uniformly expensive – about ¥24.6 per kilometre. Tokyo to Kyoto, for example, will cost about ¥10, 050 in tolls. The speed limit on expressways is 80km/h but seems to be uniformly ignored. At a steady 100km/h, you will still find as many cars overtaking you as you overtake, some of them going very fast indeed.
There are good rest stops and service centres at regular intervals. A prepaid highway card, available from tollbooths or at the service areas, saves you having to carry so much cash and gives you a 4% to 8% discount in the larger card denominations. You can also pay tolls with most major credit cards. Exits are usually fairly well signposted in romaji but make sure you know the name of your exit as it may not necessarily be the same as the city you’re heading towards.
You’ll usually find car-rental agencies clustered around train stations and ferry piers in Japan. Typical hire rates for a small car are ¥6825 to ¥9450 for the first day and ¥5775 to ¥7875 per day thereafter. Move up a bracket and you’re looking at ¥11, 550 to ¥14, 700 for the first day and ¥9450 to ¥11, 550 thereafter. On top of the hire charge, there’s a ¥1000 per day insurance cost.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that car hire costs go up during high seasons – 28 April to 6 May, 20 July to 31 August, and 28 December to 5 January. The increase can make quite a difference to costs. A car that costs ¥8800 a day will usually go up to ¥9700 during any of the peak times.
Communication can be a major problem when hiring a car. Some of the offices will have a rent-a-car phrasebook, with questions you might need to ask in English. Otherwise, just speak as slowly as possible and hope for the best.
Two of the main Japanese car-rental companies and their Tokyo phone numbers are Hertz (0120-489-882) and Toyota Rent-a-Lease (0800-7000-111).
Hiring a motorcycle for long-distance touring is not as easy as hiring a car, although small scooters are available in many places for local sightseeing.
Although Japan is famous for its large-capacity road burners, most bikes on the road are 400cc or less. This is because a special licence is required to ride a bike larger than 400cc, and few Japanese and even fewer foreigners pass the test necessary to get this licence.
The 400cc machines are the most popular large motorcycles in Japan but, for general touring, a 250cc machine is probably the best bet. Apart from being large enough for a compact country like Japan, machines up to 250cc are also exempt from the expensive shaken (inspections).
Smaller machines (those below 125cc) are banned from expressways and are generally less suitable for long-distance touring, but people have ridden from one end of Japan to the other on little 50cc ‘step-thrus’. An advantage of these bikes is that you can ride them with just a regular driving licence, so you won’t need to get a motorcycle licence.
The best place to look for motorcycles in Japan is the Korin-chō motorcycle neighbourhood in Tokyo’s Ueno district. There are over 20 motorcycle shops in the area and some employ foreign salespeople who speak both Japanese and English. For used bikes in Kansai check Kansai Time Out, Kansai Flea Market, or the message board in the Kyoto International Community House.
When you own a car, it is necessary to get compulsory third-party insurance (jidosha songai baishō sekinin hoken). This is paid when your car undergoes the compulsory inspection (shaken). It is also recommended that you get comprehensive vehicle insurance (jidosha hoken) to cover any expenses that aren’t covered by the compulsory third-party insurance.
Get yourself a copy of the Road Atlas Japan (Shōbunsha, ¥2999). It’s all in romaji with enough names in kanji to make navigation possible even off the major roads. If you’re really intent on making your way through the back blocks, a Japanese map will prove useful even if your knowledge of kanji is nil. The best Japanese road atlases by far are the Super Mapple series (Shōbunsha), which are available in bookshops and some convenience stores.
There is a reasonable amount of signposting in romaji so getting around isn’t all that difficult, especially in developed areas. If you are attempting tricky navigation, use your maps imaginatively – watch out for the railway line, the rivers, the landmarks. They’re all useful ways of locating yourself when you can’t read the signs. A compass will also come in handy when navigating.
These days, many rental cars come equipped with satellite car navigation systems, which can make navigation a snap, provided you can figure out how to work the system (ask the person at the rental agency to explain it and be sure to take notes). With most of these systems, you can input the phone number of your destination, which is easy, or its address, which is just about impossible if you don’t read Japanese (although you can always ask for help here, too).
For citizens of most countries, your overseas licence and an International Driving Permit are all you need to ride a motorcycle in Japan. Crash helmets are compulsory and you should also ensure your riding gear is adequate to cope with the weather, particularly rain. For much of the year the climate is ideal for motorcycle touring, but when it rains it really rains.
Touring equipment – panniers, carrier racks, straps and the like – is readily available from dealers. Remember to pack clothing in plastic bags to ensure it stays dry, even if you don’t. An adequate supply of tools and a puncture repair kit can prove invaluable.
Riding in Japan is no more dangerous than anywhere else in the world, which is to say it is not very safe and great care should be taken at all times. Japan has the full range of motorcycle hazards from single-minded taxi drivers to unexpected changes in road surface, heedless car-door openers to runaway dogs.
Japanese rail services are among the best in the world: they are fast, frequent, clean and comfortable. The services range from small local lines to the shinkansen super-expresses or ‘bullet trains’ which have become a symbol of modern Japan.
The ‘national’ railway is Japan Railways (JR; www.japanrail.com), which is actually a number of separate private rail systems providing one linked service. The JR system covers the country from one end to the other and also provides local services around major cities like Tokyo and Osaka. There is more than 20, 000km of railway line and about 20, 000 services daily. JR operates the shinkansen network throughout Japan. Shinkansen lines are totally separate from the regular railways and, in some places, the shinkansen stations are a fair distance from the main JR station (as is the case in Osaka). JR also operates buses and ferries, and ticketing can combine more than one form of transport.
In addition to JR services, there is a huge network of private railways in Japan. Each large city usually has at least one private train line that services that city and the surrounding area, or connects that city to nearby cities.
Several cities, especially Osaka and Tokyo, have mass transit rail systems comprising a loop line around the city centre and radial lines into the central stations and the subway system. Subway systems operate in Fukuoka, Kōbe, Kyoto, Nagoya, Osaka, Sapporo, Sendai, Tokyo and Yokohama. They are usually the fastest and most convenient way to get around the city.
For subways and local trains you’ll most likely have to buy your ticket from a machine. They’re pretty easy to understand even if you can’t read kanji as there is a diagram explaining the routes; from this you can find out what your fare should be. If you can’t work the fare out, a solution is to buy a ticket for the lowest fare. When you finish your trip, go to the fare adjustment machine (seisan-ki) or counter before you reach the exit gate and pay the excess. JR train stations and most subway stations not only have their names posted above the platform in kanji and romaji but also the names of the preceding and following stations.
The slowest trains stopping at all stations are called futsū or kaku-eki-teisha. A step up from this is the kyūkō (ordinary express), which stops at only a limited number of stations. A variation on the kyūkō trains is the kaisoku (rapid) service. Finally, the fastest regular (non-shinkansen) trains are the tokkyū services, which are sometimes known as shin-kaisoku.
The fastest and best-known train services in Japan are JR’s shinkansen. The shinkansen reach speeds of up to 300km/h and some experimental models have gone significantly faster. In addition to being incredibly fast, shinkansen are also incredibly safe: in more than 30 years of operation, there has never been a fatality.
The service efficiency starts even before you board the train. Your ticket indicates your carriage and seat number, and platform signs indicate where you should stand for that carriage entrance. The train pulls in precisely to the scheduled minute and, sure enough, the carriage door you want is right beside where you’re standing.
On most shinkansen routes, there are two or three types of service: faster express services stopping at a limited number of stations, and slower local services stopping at all shinkansen stations. There is no difference in fare with the exception of the super-express Nozomi service on the Tōkaidō/San-yō shinkansen line. There are, however, regular and Green Car (1st-class) carriages.
There are a limited number of kin’en-sha (nonsmoking carriages); request one when booking or ask on the platform for the kin’en-sha-jiyū-seki (unreserved nonsmoking cars). Unreserved carriages are available on all but the super-express Nozomi service, but at peak holiday periods they can be very crowded and you may have to stand for the entire trip.
For prices on specific shinkansen routes, see below.
Various surcharges may be added to the basic fare. These include reserved seat, Green Car, express service and shinkansen surcharges. You may also have to pay a surcharge for special trains to resort areas or for a seat in an observation car. The express surcharges (but not the shinkansen super-express surcharge) can be paid to the train conductor on board the train.
Some of the fare surcharges are slightly higher (5% to 10%) during peak travel seasons. This applies mainly to reserved seat tickets. High-season dates are 21 March to 5 April, 28 April to 6 May, 21 July to 31 August, and 25 December to 10 January.
Further surcharges apply for overnight sleepers, and these vary with the berth type, from approximately ¥9800 for various types of two-tier bunks, and ¥20, 000 for a standard or ‘royal’ compartment. Note that there are no sleepers on the shinkansen services as none of these run overnight. Japan Rail Pass users must still pay the sleeper surcharge (for more on the Japan Rail Pass, see below). Sleeper services mainly operate on trains from Tokyo or Osaka to destinations in Western Honshū and Kyūshū.
The Nozomi super express has higher surcharges than other shinkansen services and cannot be used with a Japan Rail Pass. As a guideline, the Nozomi surcharge for Tokyo–Kyoto is ¥300; for Tokyo–Hakata it’s ¥600 (seat reserve fee).
If you plan to do any extended travel in Japan, a Japan Rail Pass is almost essential. Not only will it save you lots of money, it will also spare you the hassle of buying tickets each time you want to board a train.
In addition to the Japan Rail Pass, there are various discount tickets and special fares available. The most basic is the return fare discount: if you buy a return ticket for a trip which is more than 600km each way, you qualify for a 10% discount on the return leg.
One of Japan’s few real travel bargains is the Japan Rail Pass, which must be purchased outside Japan. It is available to foreign tourists and Japanese overseas residents (but not foreign residents of Japan). The pass lets you use any JR service for seven days for ¥28, 300, 14 days for ¥45, 100 or 21 days for ¥57, 700. Green Car passes are ¥37, 800, ¥61, 200 and ¥79, 600, respectively. The pass cannot be used for the super express Nozomi shinkansen service, but is OK for everything else (including other shinkansen services).
The only surcharge levied on the Japan Rail Pass is for overnight sleepers. Since a one-way reserved seat Tokyo–Kyoto shinkansen ticket costs ¥13, 220, you only have to travel Tokyo–Kyoto–Tokyo to make a seven-day pass come close to paying off. Note that the pass is valid only on JR services; you will still have to pay for private train services.
In order to get a pass, you must first purchase an ‘exchange order’ outside Japan at JAL and ANA offices and major travel agencies. Once you arrive in Japan, you must bring this exchange order to a JR Travel Service Centre (these can be found in most major JR stations and at Narita and Kansai airports). When you validate your pass, you’ll have to show your passport. The pass can only be used by those with a temporary visitor visa, which means it cannot be used by foreign residents of Japan (those on any visa other than the temporary visitor visa).
For more information on the pass and overseas purchase locations, visit the JR website’s Japan Rail Pass section (www.japanrailpass.net/eng/en001.html).
This is a great deal for those who only want to travel in eastern Japan. The passes are good on all JR lines in eastern Japan (including Tōhoku, Yamagata, Akita, Jōetsu and Nagano shinkansen, but not including the Tōkaidō shinkansen). This includes the area around Tokyo and everything north of Tokyo to the tip of Honshū, but doesn’t include Hokkaidō.
Prices for five-day passes are ¥20, 000/16, 000/10, 000 for adults over 26/youths 12 to 25/children aged six to 11. Ten-day passes are ¥32, 000/25, 000/16, 000 for the same age groups. Four-day ‘flexible’ passes are also available which allow travel on any four consecutive or non-consecutive days within any one-month period. These cost ¥20, 000/16, 000/10, 000 for the same age groups. Green Car passes are available for higher prices.
As with the Japan Rail Pass, this can only be purchased outside Japan (in the same locations as the Japan Rail Pass) and can only be used by those with temporary visitor visas (you’ll need to show your passport). See the preceding Japan Rail Pass section for more details on purchase places and validation procedures.
For more information on the JR East Pass, visit the website’s JR East Pass section (www.jreast.co.jp/e/eastpass/top.html).
Similar to the JR East Pass, this pass allows unlimited travel on the San-yō shinkansen line (including the Nozomi super express) between Osaka and Hakata, as well as local trains running between the same cities. A four-day pass costs ¥20, 000 and an eight-day pass costs ¥30, 000 (children’s passes are half-price). These can be purchased both inside Japan (at major train stations, travel agencies and Kansai airport) and outside Japan (same locations as the Japan Rail Pass) but can only be used by those with a temporary visitor visa. The pass also entitles you to discounts on hiring cars at station rent-a-car offices. For more information on this pass, see the JR West website’s San-yo Area Pass section (www.westjr.co.jp/english/global.html).
A great deal for those who only want to explore the Kansai area, this pass covers unlimited travel on JR lines between most major Kansai cities, such as Himeji, Kōbe, Osaka, Kyoto and Nara. It also covers JR trains to/from Kansai airport but does not cover any shinkansen lines. One-/two-/three-/four-day passes cost ¥2000/4000/5000/6000 (children’s passes are half-price). These can be purchased at the same places as the San-yō area rail pass (both inside and outside Japan) and also entitle you to discounts on station hire-car offices. Like the San-yō Area Pass, this pass can only be used by those with a temporary visitor visa. For more information, see the JR West website’s Kansai Area Pass section (www.westjr.co.jp/english/global.html).
This pass is valid on all JR lines in Kyūshū with the exception of the shinkansen line. A five-day pass (the only option) costs ¥16, 000 (children’s passes are half-price). It can be purchased both inside Japan, at Joyroad Travel Agencies in major train stations in Kyūshū, and outside Japan, at the same locations as the Japan Rail Pass. It can only be used by those on a temporary visitor visa. If you purchase an exchange order overseas, you can pick up your pass at major train stations in Kyūshū. For more information, visit the website of JR Kyūshū (www.jrkyushu.co.jp/english/kyushu_railpass.html).
If you don’t have a Japan Rail Pass, one of the best deals going is a five-day Seishun Jūhachi Kippu (literally a ‘Youth 18 Ticket’). Despite its name, it can be used by anyone of any age. Basically, for ¥11, 500 you get five one-day tickets valid for travel anywhere in Japan on JR lines. The only catches are that you can’t travel on tokkyū or shinkansen trains and each ticket must be used within 24 hours. However, even if you only have to make a return trip, say, between Tokyo and Kyoto, you’ll be saving a lot of money. Seishun Jūhachi Kippu can be purchased at most JR stations in Japan.
The tickets are intended to be used during Japanese university holidays. There are three periods of sale and validity: spring – which is from 20 February to 31 March and valid for use between 1 March and 10 April; summer – from 1 July to 31 August and valid for use between 20 July and 10 September; and winter – from 1 December to 10 January and valid for use between 10 December and 20 January. Note that these periods are subject to change. For more information, ask at any JR ticket window.
If you don’t want to buy the whole book of five tickets, you can sometimes purchase separate tickets at the discount ticket shops around train stations.
For more on the Seishun Jūhachi Kippu, see the JR East website’s Seishun Jūhachi Kippu section (www.jreast.co.jp/e/pass/seishun18.html).
There are a number of excursion tickets, known as shūyū-ken or furii kippu (furii is Japanese for ‘free’). These tickets include the return fare to your destination and give you unlimited JR local travel within the destination area. There are shūyū-ken available to travel from Tokyo to Hokkaidō and then around Hokkaidō for up to seven days. A Kyūshū or Shikoku shūyū-ken gets you to and from either island and gives you four or five days of travel around them. You can even go to Kyūshū one way by rail and one way by ferry. These tickets are available at major JR stations in Japan. For more information on these and other special ticket deals, see the JR East website’s Useful Tickets and Rail Passes for Visitors to East Japan section (www.jreast.co.jp/e/pass/index.html).
Discount ticket shops are known as kakuyasu-kippu-uriba in Japanese. These stores deal in discounted tickets for trains, buses, domestic plane flights, ferries, and a host of other things like cut-rate stamps and phone cards. You can typically save between 5% and 10% on shinkansen tickets. Discount ticket agencies are found around train stations in medium and large cities. The best way to find one is to ask at the kōban (police box) outside the station.
The most complete timetables can be found in the JR Jikokuhyō (book of timetables; available at all Japanese bookstores; written in Japanese). The JNTO, however, produces a handy English-language Railway Timetable booklet which explains a great deal about the services in Japan and gives timetables for the shinkansen services, JR tokkyū (limited express services) and major private lines. If your visit to Japan is a short one and you will not be straying far from the major tourist destinations, this booklet may well be all you need.
Major train stations all have information counters, and you can usually get your point across in simplified English.
If you need to know anything about JR, such as schedules, fares, fastest routes, lost baggage, discounts on rail travel, hotels and car hire, call the JR East Infoline (050-2016-1603; www.jreast.co.jp/e/info/index.html; 10am-6pm, closed during the year-end/new-year period). Information is available in English, Korean and Chinese. More information can be found on the website.
Tickets for most journeys can be bought from vending machines or ticket counters/reservation offices. For reservations of complicated tickets, larger train stations have midori-no-madoguchi (green counters) – look for the counter with the green band across the glass. Major travel agencies in Japan also sell reserved-seat tickets, and you can buy shinkansen tickets through JAL offices overseas if you will be flying JAL to Japan.
On futsū services, there are no reserved seats. On the faster tokkyū and shinkansen services you can choose to travel reserved or unreserved. However, if you travel unreserved, there’s always the risk of not getting a seat and having to stand, possibly for the entire trip. This is a particular danger at weekends, peak travel seasons and on holidays. Reserved-seat tickets can be bought any time from a month in advance to the day of departure.
Information and tickets can be obtained from travel agencies, of which there are a great number in Japan. Nearly every railway station of any size will have at least one travel agency in the station building to handle all sorts of bookings in addition to train services. JTB (Japan Travel Bureau) is the big daddy of Japanese travel agencies. However, for most train tickets and long-distance bus reservations, you don’t need a travel agency – just go to the ticket counters or midori-no-madoguchi (green counters) of any major train station.
All the major cities offer a wide variety of public transport. In many cities you can get day passes for unlimited travel on bus, tram or subway systems. Such passes are usually called an ichi-nichi-jōsha-ken. If you’re staying for an extended period in one city, commuter passes are available for regular travel.
Air services in Japan are extensive, reliable and safe. In many cases, flying is much faster than even shinkansen (bullet trains) and not that much more expensive. Flying is also an efficient way to travel from the main islands to the many small islands around Japan.
Japan Airlines (JAL; 03-5460-0522, 0120-255-971; www.jal.co.jp/en) is the major international carrier and also has a domestic network linking the major cities. All Nippon Airways (ANA; 03-3490-8800, 0120-029-709; www.ana.co.jp/eng) is the second largest international carrier and operates a more extensive domestic system. Japan Trans Ocean Air (JTA; 03-5460-0522, 0120-255-97; www.jal.co.jp/jta in Japanese) is a smaller domestic carrier that mostly services routes in Okinawa and the Southwest Islands.
In addition to these, Skymark Airlines (SKY; 03-3433-7670; www.skymark.co.jp/en) is a recent start-up budget airline and Shinchūō Kōkū (0422-31-4191; www.central-air.co.jp in Japanese) has light-plane flights between Chōfu Airport, outside Tokyo, and the islands of Izu-shotō.
The Domestic Air Fares map shows some of the major connections and one-way fares. Note that return fares are usually around 10% cheaper than buying two one-way tickets. The airlines also have some weird and wonderful discounts if you know what to ask for. The most useful of these are the advance-purchase reductions: both ANA and JAL offer discounts of up to 50% if you purchase your ticket a month or more in advance, with smaller discounts for purchases made one to three weeks in advance. Seniors over 65 also qualify for discounts on most Japanese airlines, but these are sometimes only available if you fly on weekdays.
ANA also offers the Star Alliance Japan Airpass for foreign travellers on ANA or Star Alliance network airlines. Provided you reside outside Japan, purchase your tickets outside Japan and carry a valid international ticket on any airline, you can fly up to five times within 60 days on any ANA domestic route for only ¥11, 550 per flight (a huge saving on some routes). Visit www.ana.co.jp/wws/us/e/travelservice/reservations/special/airpass.html for more details.
Japan is a good country for bicycle touring and several thousand cyclists, both Japanese and foreign, traverse the country every year. Favourite bike touring areas include Kyūshū, Shikoku, the Japan Alps (if you like steep hills!), Noto-hantō and Hokkaidō.
There’s no point in fighting your way out of big cities by bicycle. Put your bike on the train or bus and get out to the country before you start pedalling. To take a bicycle on a train you may need to use a bicycle carrying bag, available from good bicycle shops.
In addition to the maps mentioned in that section, a useful series of maps is the Touring Mapple (Shobunsha) series, which is aimed at motorcyclists, but is also very useful for cyclists.
For more information on cycling in Japan, you can check out the excellent website of KANcycling website (www.kancycling.com).
You will find bicycle rental shops outside the train or bus stations in most of Japan’s popular tourist areas, as well as near the ferry piers on many of the country’s smaller islands. Typical charges are around ¥200/1000 per hour/day. Kyoto, for example, is ideally suited to bicycle exploration and there are plenty of cheap hire shops to choose from.
Note that the bicycles for rent are not usually performance vehicles. More commonly they’re what the Japanese call mama chari (literally ‘mama’s bicycles’) : one- or three-speed shopping bikes that are murder on hills of any size. They’re also usually too small for anyone over 180cm in height.
Many youth hostels also have bicycles to rent – there’s a symbol identifying them in the Japan Youth Hostel Handbook. ‘Cycling terminals’ found in various locations around the country also rent out bicycles.
In Japan, prices for used bikes range from a few thousand yen for an old shopping bike to several tens of thousands of yen for good mountain bikes. New bikes range anywhere from about ¥10, 000 for a shopping bike to ¥100, 000 for a flash mountain or road bike.
Touring cycles are available in Japan but prices tend to be significantly higher than you’d pay back home. If you’re tall, you may not find any suitably sized bikes in stock. One solution for tall riders, or anyone who wants to save money, is to buy a used bike; in Tokyo check the English-language publications and in Kansai check Kansai Time Out.