Japan in detail

Getting Around

Train The most popular way to see Japan: trains are fast, efficient, reliable and can get you just about anywhere; discount rail passes make train travel very affordable.

Ferry Good for getting to far-flung islands or for fans of slow travel.

Bus The cheapest way to make long-haul journeys and the only way to get to some mountain and rural destinations.

Car Rental cars are widely available; roads are well-maintained and signposted in English. Especially recommended in Hokkaidō, Kyūshū and Okinawa. Drive on the left.

Air An extensive network of domestic flights and an increased presence of budget carriers makes air travel a good option for long distances or time-pressed itineraries.

Feature: Baggage Forwarding

Baggage courier services (called takkyūbin) are popular in Japan and many domestic tourists use them to forward their bags, golf clubs, surfboards etc ahead to their destination, to avoid having to bring them on public transport. The tourism bureau has been working to open this service up to foreign travellers; see its guide, Hands-Free Travel Japan (www.jnto.go.jp/hands-free-travel), for a list of luggage forwarding counters, mostly at airports, train stations and shopping centres, set up for travellers.

This is a great service except for one caveat: in most cases, your bags won't get there until the following day. (So, for example, if you want to ship your luggage to or from the airport, you'll need a day pack with one night's worth of supplies.) On the other hand, this can free you from large luggage for a one-night detour to an onsen – just send your bags to the following night's destination.

Hotels can also often arrange this service for you (and the couriers will pick up the luggage from the lobby). Costs vary depending on the size and weight of the bag and where it's going, but it's typically around ¥2000.

Air

Air services in Japan are extensive, reliable and safe. Flying is often faster and cheaper than shinkansen (bullet trains) and good for covering long distances or hopping islands.

All local carriers have websites in English on which you can check prices and book tickets.

Airlines in Japan

Japan Airlines, which includes Hokkaidō Air System (HAC) and Okinawa carrier Japan Trans Ocean Air (JTA), has the most extensive domestic network; All Nippon Airways is second.

Both All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Japan Airlines (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.

Budget airlines run between major regional airports, including Narita, Haneda, Kansai, Naha and New Chitose, and offer prices often lower than discounted fares on JAL and ANA for the same routes.

Air Do (www.airdo.jp) Flights from Hokkaidō's New Chitose Airport to Sendai, Haneda, Nagoya (Chubu), Kōbe and to Hokkaidō regional airports.

Jetstar (www.jetstar.com) Destinations from Tokyo's Narita Airport and Osaka's Kansai International Airport include Okinawa (Naha), Sapporo (New Chitose) and Fukuoka.

Peach (www.flypeach.com) Good for flights out of Kansai.

Skymark Airlines (www.skymark.co.jp) Connects many regional airports; Tokyo routes fly in/out of Haneda.

Vanilla Air (www.vanilla-air.com) Destinations from Tokyo (Narita) include Okinawa (Naha) and Sapporo (New Chitose).

Passes & Discounts

  • Foreign travellers can purchase ANA Experience Japan Fare one-way domestic tickets for the flat rate of ¥10,800. For details, see www.ana.co.jp/wws/th/e/wws_common/promotions/share/experience_jp.
  • JAL's Visit Japan Fare offers a similar ¥10,800 flat-rate ticket for domestic routes to foreign travellers flying inbound on any Oneworld carriers. For details, see www.jal.co.jp/yokosojapan.
  • ANA Mileage Club members aged 12 to 25 years or over 65 can purchase discounted 'youth' and 'senior' same-day domestic tickets from ¥8000 (from ¥5200 for youth) to ¥22,000 per sector.
  • JAL's Okinawa Island Pass (www.churashima.net/jta/company/islandpass_en.html) makes island-hopping cheaper; it's only available for foreign visitors and must be purchased abroad.
  • Early morning and late-night flights are usually the cheapest.

Bicycle

A few cities – including Tokyo, Osaka, Kōbe and Sapporo – have cycle-share schemes. They can be a little tricky to use, usually requiring advance registration online; follow the online directions. Many Japanese use bicycles to get around cities; by law bicycles should be ridden on the road but many people use the pavements. Cycle lanes are pretty much nonexistent. Drivers (and pedestrians) are generally courteous. In cities, bicycles should be parked at ports or designated bicycle parking areas.

Many tourist areas have bicycles for hire. These are almost always heavy-framed, single-speed shopping bikes, though some places have electric bicycles; child-sized bicycles are rarely available. They may be free as part of a local tourism initiative; otherwise private businesses, usually in the vicinity of train stations, rent them out for about ¥1000 per day. Ask at the local tourist information centre. Many youth hostels also have bicycles to rent or borrow.

Helmets are mandatory for children 12 years and under. Unless road touring, adults rarely wear them so rental shops don't provide them (unless they offer children's bicycles; then helmets for children will be included in the rental).

It is difficult to rent touring cycles in Japan; Cycle Osaka is one operator that offers them. To take a bicycle on a train, it needs to be broken down and stored in a bike bag.

Boat

Ferries are pretty much never the cheapest way to get anywhere, and are always the least time-efficient, but the boat rides themselves can be fun: long-haul ferries in Japan have communal bathhouses, dining halls and even karaoke rooms.

On overnight ferries, 2nd-class travel means sleeping in common rooms on plastic mats or the floor; however, you can pay a little extra to upgrade to a dorm room (or a lot extra for a suite).

Most major ferry companies have English websites for booking tickets; otherwise book through a travel agency like JTB (www.jtb.co.jp).

Ferry Fares & Durations

Ferry fares fluctuate by season and by oil price; they change every three months.

Route2nd-Class Fare (¥)Duration (Hr)
Honshū–Hokkaidō
Hachinohe–Tomakomai50007-9
Maizuru–Otaru9570-16,35020
Niigata–Otaru6480-10,18018
Ōarai–Tomakomai8740-14,91017
From Tokyo
Shinmoji (Kitakyūshū)16,11035
Tokushima (Shikoku)11,69018-19½
From Osaka/Kōbe
Beppu (Kyūshū)11,200-12,00012
Miyazaki (Kyūshū)9460-10,70012½
Naha (Okinawa)19,33040
Shibushi (Kyūshū)12,880-13,40015
Shinmoji (Kitakyūshū)6170-648012½
Kyūshū–Okinawa
Kagoshima–Naha14,61025

Bus

Japan has a comprehensive network of long-distance buses, connecting the islands of Honshū, Shikoku and Kyūshū. They're nowhere near as fast as the shinkansen, but they're significantly cheaper. Buses also travel routes that trains don't.

Japan Railways (JR) operates the largest network of highway buses in Japan; it tends to be a little pricier than other operators, but is reliable and buses tend to depart and arrive at train stations rather than bus stops elsewhere in the city.

Cheaper operators with large networks include Willer Express. You can book seats on Willer and other reputable operators through the company's Japan Bus Lines service (http://japanbuslines.com).

Most long-haul routes have a night bus option. Premium coaches have quite roomy seats that recline significantly; these can cost almost twice as much as ordinary coaches, but you're still saving on accommodation. They tend to arrive very early, around 6am or 7am. All buses have toilets on the bus.

Bus Costs

Typical long-distance one-way fares and travel times out of Tokyo include the following. Early booking often means discounts; prices usually rise on weekends.

DestinationFare (¥)Duration (hr)
Aomori700011
Hiroshima860012
Kanazawa55008
Kōbe540010
Kyoto54008
Nagano3200
Nagoya4100
Nara5980
Osaka5400

Japan Bus Pass

Foreign travellers can purchase a Japan Bus Pass (http://willerexpress.com/st/3/en/pc/buspass), good for travel on non-consecutive days within two months. Only certain routes apply; make sure your itinerary doesn't involve having to double back to one of the hub cities.

Duration (days)Mon-Thu (¥)All days (¥)
310,00012,500
512,50015,000
715,000-

Car & Motorcycle

For travel to rural areas a car is the best way to get around, especially for two or more people. Areas that are great for exploration by car include: Hokkaidō; Tōhoku; Hida, Shirakawa-gō, the Japan Alps and the Noto Peninsula (Central Honshū), the San-in Coast (Western Honshū); Shikoku; Kyūshū; and Okinawa.

Navigation systems have made driving in Japan much easier than it used to be. In remote mountain areas, however, these are not fool-proof; be sure to give yourself plenty of time to find your destination.

For intercity travel, it's hard to compete with the trains – after taking into account expressway tolls, city traffic and parking.

Automobile Associations

If you're a member of an automobile association in your home country, you're eligible for reciprocal rights with the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF; www.jaf.or.jp)

Car & Motorcycle Hire

Prices are largely comparable among all agencies: from around ¥7000 per day for a compact car, with reductions for rentals of more than one day.

The following rental agencies have large networks around Japan; vehicles with English-language navigation systems; and ETC cards for rent. Bookings can be completed online in English.

  • Nippon (www.nrgroup-global.com)
  • Toyota (https://rent.toyota.co.jp)

Agencies located at major international airports are most likely to have English-speaking staff. If you walk into a rental shop where the staff don't speak English, the best thing to do is first show them your international licence: whether or not you have a valid licence will be the primary concern.

Hiring a motorcycle for long-distance touring is not as easy as hiring a car. Rental 819 (www.rental819.com) is one of the few agencies that makes it possible to book in English. Crash helmets are compulsory for motorcyclists in Japan.

Scooter rentals are common on smaller islands; you'll still need an international licence (though not a motorcycle licence) to rent one of these.

Driving Glossary

EnglishPronunciationScript
credit cardkaadoカード
cashgenkin現金
expresswayjidōshadō自動車道
full tankmantan満タン
high-octane gashai-okuハイオク
roadside stationmichi-no-eki道の駅
one-way streetippō tsūkō一方通行
petrol standgasorin sutandoガソリンスタンド
regular gasregyuraaレギュラー
road closedtsūkōdome通行止
self-serviceserufuセルフ

Driving Licences

Travellers from most nations are able to drive (both cars and motorcycles) in Japan with an International Driving Permit backed up by their own regular licence. The International Driving Permit is issued by your national automobile association. Make sure it is endorsed for cars and motorcycles if you're licensed for both.

Travellers from Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium, Slovenia, Monaco, Estonia and Taiwan need to get an authorised translation of their licence (be sure to carry the original with you too). JAF branches do same-day translations for ¥3000.

Foreign licences and International Driving Permits are only valid in Japan for one year. If you are staying longer, you will have to get a Japanese licence from the local department of motor vehicles.

Expressways

Japan has an extensive, well-maintained expressway system. Expressways are numbered as well as named (the numbers are new and most locals know the roads only by name). Interchanges and exits are signposted in English, but make sure you know the name of your exit as it may not necessarily be the same as your destination.

Tolls are calculated at ¥24.60 per kilometre (plus a base fare and surcharges for some tunnels). Tokyo to Kyoto, for example, will cost about ¥10,500 in tolls. It adds up quickly: if you are going to be covering a lot of ground, it makes sense to get one of the expressway passes offered to foreign tourists.

Expressway toll booths accept credit cards; others will take only cash. Staffed toll booths will be marked in green with the characters 一般 (ippan) for drivers without ETC cards; automated ETC booths are marked ETC.

ETC Cards

ETC cards (www.go-etc.jp), fitted into a reader inside the car, allow drivers to pass through the automated toll booths at 20km/h without stopping. The cards also save money: tolls for ETC users can be up to 30% less than standard tolls (depending on the time of day and distance travelled).

Rental cars have ETC card readers and major agencies will rent the cards for a small fee; you'll be presented with a bill for your tolls when you return the car.

Expressway Passes

These can save money if you plan to cover a lot of ground in a short time by relying on expressways to get around; they're less useful if you prefer to take more scenic roads.

Japan Expressway Pass (https://global.w-nexco.co.jp/en/jep) Seven-/14-day ¥20,000/34,000; covers the whole expressway system except for Hokkaidō, the Tokyo and Osaka metro areas and the bridges between Honshū and Shikoku.

Hokkaidō Expressway Pass (www.driveplaza.com/trip/drawari/hokkaido_expass/en.html) Available from two-day (¥3600) to 14-day (¥11,300); good for all Hokkaidō expressways.

Kyūshū Expressway Pass (http://global.w-nexco.co.jp/en/kep) Available from two-day (¥3500) to 10-day (¥11,500); good for all Kyūshū expressways.

Fuel

Petrol stations can be found in almost every town and in service stations along the expressways. Petrol usually costs around ¥130 per litre for regular grade. Credit cards are accepted everywhere.

While self-serve petrol stations are increasing in number, full-service stations are still the most common.

To say 'fill ’er up' in Japanese, it's mantan (full tank). You will likely be asked how you intend to pay: Oshiharai ha dono yō ni saremasu ka? (How would you like to pay?) The two possible answers are genkin (cash) or kaado (credit card). Full service costs slightly more, but the service is excellent: staff will take any garbage you have, wipe your windshield inside and out and then wave you back into the traffic.

If you use a self service pump: the red pump is regular, the yellow is high-octane, and green is diesel.

Insurance

Mandatory coverage is included in the cost of the rental car and usually comes with a deductible fee of around ¥50,000. For an extra fee (about ¥1000 per day) you can add on extra coverage that includes the cost of the deductible as well.

Maps & Navigation

Kodansha's Japan Atlas: A Bilingual Guide has maps labelled in English and kanji.

Feature: Using Car Navigation Systems

Rental cars come equipped with satellite navigation systems that are generally very reliable; major agencies offer ones that have an English function. Japanese addresses can be confusing, so the best way to set your destination is to input the phone number. Many tourist organisations now also provide pamphlets with 'map codes' for major destinations, which you can use in car navigation systems.

Parking

In larger cities (like Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto) parking is expensive and largely confined to car parks where you might pay anywhere from ¥300 to ¥600 per hour; metered street parking is rare in Japan. Car parks are easy to spot, as signs sport a big 'P' on them. Not all big city hotels have car parks; when they do, expect to pay from ¥500 to ¥1500 per night (the larger the city, the higher the cost).

In smaller cities and in the countryside, where locals rely on cars, parking is generally plentiful and free. Some sights will still charge for parking, often about ¥500 per day.

Rest Stops

There are regular service areas (SA) and parking areas (PA) along national expressways; the former usually have more amenities, including petrol, restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops. Only some are open 24 hours, but even those that aren't will always have a clean, well-lit restroom open for travellers.

Country roads have their own rest stops, called michi-no-eki (道の駅; road stations). In addition to toilets, these have restaurants or cafes run by community members and sometimes local produce and crafts for sale (but no petrol). For a list, see www.michi-no-eki.jp.

Road Conditions

Japanese roads are generally in excellent condition. You're far more likely to encounter roadworks in progress than a road in need of repair. Bear in mind that mountain roads tend to be narrow, as are many in the cities (where you'll also have to contend with one-way streets).

Winter driving in Japan can be treacherous if you don't have experience with snow and ice. Snow is possible in higher elevations as early as November (October in Hokkaidō) and may keep mountain passes closed as late as April, and while roads are signposted in English, weather warnings and road closures typically aren't. If you're driving through the mountains in winter, have someone (perhaps at your accommodation) check your route to make sure it's feasible under current conditions.

Car rental agencies rent vehicles with chains and snow tyres or four-wheel drive. Petrol stations in mountain areas will usually put the chains on for a charge (¥1000 to ¥2000). There may be police stops in these areas to make sure that cars have chains.

Road Rules

  • Driving is on the left.
  • There are no unusual rules, or interpretations of them, and most signposts follow international conventions.
  • Stop signs are inverted red triangles.
  • JAF publishes a Rules of the Road guide (digital/print ¥864/1404) in English, which is handy; it also has some useful information online.
  • Speed limits tend to be low, though many local drivers ignore them (at their peril: patrol cars are often lurking).
  • Japan takes a very hard line against drunk driving: a blood alcohol content of 0.03% can land you – and your passengers – a citation with a hefty fee.
  • The law requires children under the age of six years to ride in a car seat; rental car agencies provide them for a small extra fee.
  • Japanese drivers are generally safe and courteous. Be aware that they may use turn signals only after entering an intersection or initiating a lane change; they may also be slow to turn their lights on at dusk or in inclement weather (an issue mainly because the vast majority of cars in Japan are white, grey or black).

Hitching

Hitching is never entirely safe, and we don't recommend it. Travellers who decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk.

Hitchhikers are a rare sight in Japan, but the practice is not illegal (so long as you don't stop traffic). Some hitchhikers have tales of extraordinary kindness from motorists who have picked them up.

The best places to look for rides are convenience stores and expressway service areas. At any service area look for a free map that shows all the interchanges (IC) and rest stops on the expressway network – important orientation points if you have a limited knowledge of Japanese.

Local Transport

Japan's larger cities are serviced by subways or trams, buses and taxis; indeed, many locals rely entirely on public transport.

Bus

All cities have public bus systems but it is unlikely that you will find yourself riding them often; Kyoto is the big exception. Smaller cities that don't have subway or tram services usually have a tourist bus that does a loop to the main sights starting and ending at the main train station. City buses typically have a flat fare; day passes are often the most economical way to get around.

Buses that head out of cities or traverse rural areas calculate fares based on distance. When you board (from the rear door most likely), pick up a paper ticket marked with a zone number from the dispenser; when you get off, match your zone number to the electric signboard in the front of the bus and put the posted fare and ticket into the fare box, or show the driver your ticket and a handful of coins and have him or her pick out the required fare; they're used to this.

All buses have change machines near the front door that can exchange ¥100 and ¥500 coins and ¥1000 notes.

Taxi

  • Taxis are ubiquitous in big cities; they can be found in smaller cities and even on tiny islands, too, though usually just at transport hubs (train and bus stations and ferry ports) – otherwise you'll need to have one called.
  • Transit stations and hotels have taxi stands where you are expected to queue. In the absence of a stand, you can hail a cab from the street, by standing on the curb and sticking your arm out.
  • Use the JapanTaxi app to book taxis – including fixed fare ones to the airport. (In rural areas you're probably still better off having a local call a taxi for you.)
  • Fares are fairly uniform throughout the country and all cabs run by the meter.
  • Flagfall (posted on the taxi windows) is around ¥600 for the first 2km, after which it's around ¥100 for each 350m (approximately). Flagfall in Tokyo and Kyoto is ¥410 for the first 1km. There's also a time charge if the speed drops below 10km/h and a 20% surcharge between 10pm and 5am.
  • Payment by credit card is usually accepted.
  • A red light means the taxi is free and a green light means it's taken.
  • The driver opens and closes the doors remotely – full service indeed!
  • Drivers rarely speak English, though fortunately most taxis now have navigation systems. It’s a good idea to have your destination written down in Japanese, or better yet, a business card with an address.

Ride Sharing Apps

Ride-sharing apps are regulated in Japan. A commercial licence is required to qualify as a driver, so an app like Uber will connect you with a private town car (and probably cost more than a taxi).

Train & Subway

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. The Tokyo metro area and Kansai metro area are further linked by a network of JR and private rail lines. Stops and line names are posted in English. Rides cost from ¥160 to ¥200.

If you plan to zip around a city in a day, an unlimited-travel day ticket (called ichi-nichi-jōsha-ken) is a good deal; most cities offer them and they can be purchased at station windows. If you plan to spend more than a day or two, then getting a prepaid IC card is highly recommended.

Tram

Smaller cities have tram lines. These include Nagasaki, Kumamoto and Kagoshima on Kyūshū; Hiroshima on Honshū; Kōchi and Matsuyama on Shikoku; and Hakodate on Hokkaidō. These usually offer unlimited-travel day tickets.

Feature: IC Cards

IC cards are prepaid travel cards with chips that work on subways, trams and buses in the Tokyo, Kansai, Sapporo, Niigata, Nagoya, Okayama, Hiroshima and Fukuoka metro areas. Each region has its own card, but they can be used interchangeably in any region where IC cards are used; however, they cannot be used for intercity travel.

The two most frequently used IC cards are Suica from JR East and Icoca from JR West; purchase them at JR travel counters at Narita and Haneda or Kansai airports, respectively. Cards can also be purchased and topped up from ticket vending machines in any of the cities that support them. A ¥500 deposit is required to purchase a card; you can get the deposit back by returning the card to a JR ticket window.

To use the card, simply swipe it over the reader at the ticket gates or near the doors on trams and buses. They can also be used to pay at some convenience stores and vending machines.

Train

Japanese rail services are fast, frequent, clean and comfortable. Major stations are sign-posted in English and stops on long-haul trains are announced in English. The most challenging aspect of riding trains in Japan is navigating the sometimes enormous stations with their multiple routes. Give yourself plenty of time.

The predominant operator is Japan Railways, commonly known as 'JR', which is actually a number of distinct rail systems providing one linked service throughout the country. JR runs the shinkansen (bullet train) routes. A variety of rail pass schemes make the network very affordable.

In addition to JR services, there is a huge network of private railways. Each large city usually has at least one private train line that services it and the surrounding area, or connects it to nearby cities. These are often a bit cheaper than equivalent JR services.

Intercity routes typically run local (called futsū or kaku-eki-teisha), express (called kyūkō or kaisoku) and limited express trains (called tokkyū). Most limited express trains, especially those travelling to resort areas, require seat reservations and a surcharge; in this case the trains will have comfortable reclining seats and toilets. All trains, save for a few shinkansen cars, are nonsmoking.

Intercity JR trains, including the shinkansen, have 'green car' carriages, which are akin to business class. Seats are a little more spacious and the carriages tend to be quieter and less crowded.

Shinkansen

Japan's shinkansen (bullet trains), which run at a maximum speed of 320km/h, connect almost every major city in the country. In some places, the shinkansen station is a fair distance from the main JR station (as is the case in Osaka and Hakodate), and a transfer is required to get into the city centre.

Some trains are faster than others, depending on how many stops they make en route. For example, the journey from Tokyo to Shin-Osaka on the Tōkaidō line takes 2½ hours on the Nozomi train, three hours on the Hikari train and nearly four hours on the Kodama train. There is no difference in fare.

Shinkansen passengers have the option of buying reserved seat or nonreserved seat tickets. Fares for reserved seats cost ¥320 to ¥720 more than nonreserved seats, depending on the time of year. If you purchase a non-reserved seat ticket and there are no seats in the allotted carriages, you will have to stand. JR Rail pass holders can reserve seats at no extra charge.

Travellers are allowed two pieces of luggage, but note that you'll have to put them up on the overhead racks.

Shinkansen Routes

ShinkansenRouteKey StopsTrain Names
TōkaidōTokyo–Shin-OsakaShinagawa, Shin-Yokohama, Odawara (Kodama only), Atami (Kodama only) Nagoya, KyotoKodama, Hikari, Nozomi
San'yōShin-Osaka–HakataShin-Kōbe, Himeji, Okayama, Hiroshima, Shin-ShimonosekiKodama, Hikari (to Okayama), Nozomi, Mizuho, Sakura
KyūshūHakata–KagoshimaKumamotoMizuho, Sakura, Tsubame
HokurikuTokyo–KanazawaTakasaki, Karuizawa, NaganoKagayaki, Asama (Tokyo–Nagano), Hakutaka (Nagano–Kanazawa)
JōetsuTokyo–NiigataTakasaki, Echigo-YuzawaToki; Tanigawa (Tokyo–Echigo-Yuzawa)
TōhokuTokyo–Shin-AomoriUtsunomiya, Fukushima, Sendai, MoriokaHayate, Yamabiko (Tokyo–Sendai)
YamagataTokyo–ShinjōFukushima, YamagataTsubasa
AkitaTokyo–AkitaUtsunomiya, Fukushima, Morioka, Tazawa-ko, KakunodateKomachi
HokkaidōTokyo–Shin-Hakodate-HokutoUtsunomiya, Fukushima, Sendai, Morioka, Shin-AomoriHayate, Hayabusa

Overnight Trains

Sunrise Seto/Izumo Runs between Tokyo and Okayama before splitting in two directions – one for Takamatsu on Shikoku (Sunrise Seto; from ¥15,750) and one for Izumo (Sunrise Izumo; from ¥15,070). Trains have private compartments and nobi nobi berths (partitioned person-sized patches of carpet); the latter are free of charge for Japan Rail Pass holders, while the former require a surcharge.

Tickets can be purchased one month in advance at 10am from JR midori-no-madoguchi ticket counters; the nobi nobi berths, in particular, sell out fast.

Train Glossary

PronunciationScriptEnglish
futsū普通local
green-shaグリーン車business-class car
jiyū-seki自由席unreserved seat
kaisoku快速JR rapid or express
kaku-eki-teisha各駅停車local
katamichi片道one way
kin'en-sha禁煙車nonsmoking car
kitsuen-sha喫煙車smoking car
kyūkō急行ordinary express
ōfuku往復round trip
shin-kaisoku新快速JR special rapid train
shinkansen新幹線bullet train
shitei-seki指定席reserved seat
tokkyū特急limited express

Ticketing

Tickets can be purchased from touch-screen vending machines in major train stations; most have an English function and those for shinkansen journeys accept credit cards.

If you are booking a series of journeys, have questions or just want the reassurance of buying a ticket from a person, major JR stations have what are called midori-no-madoguchi, which function as JR's in-house travel agency; there are also locations at Narita and Kansai airports where staff speak good English. Private line trains will have their own ticket windows.

Tickets can also be purchased from travel agencies in Japan, which can also often be found within train stations. Japan Travel Bureau (JTB; www.jtb.co.jp) has branches everywhere.

Seat reservations can only be made for shinkansen services and certain limited express (tokkyū) lines (in which case they are required). Reserved-seat tickets can be bought any time from a month in advance to the day of departure.

Advance Reservations

  • Reservations are a good idea on weekends and all but necessary over long holiday weekends and during peak travel seasons – such as Golden Week (late April to early May), O-Bon (mid-August) and the New Year period.
  • If you have a firm itinerary, you can reserve all your long-haul JR train tickets at once at a midori-no-madoguchi.
  • JR East allows travellers (with or without rail passes) to make some reservations online via its website (www.jreast.co.jp/e/index.html), though only for lines within its network. Read the fine print and be sure to pick up your tickets the day before your planned journey begins.
  • Tickets can be purchased for Tōkaidō and San'yō shinkansen journeys at a small discount through the app, Smart EX (https://smart-ex.jp/en); note that this service is not for rail pass holders.
  • JR allows reservations to be changed once free of charge up to the time of departure; unused tickets can be refunded, minus a handling fee. Private lines have their own policies.

Discounted Tickets

Platt Kodama (www.jrtours.co.jp/kodama) This is a discounted ticket (20% to 23% off) for the journey between Tokyo and Osaka (via Nagoya and Kyoto) on Kodama trains. These are the slowest trains on this shinkansen line, and make many stops. Tickets must be purchased at least one day before departure and are nonrefundable.

Seishun Jūhachi Kippu

With time, a sense of adventure and an affinity for slow travel, the Seishun Jūhachi Kippu (www.jreast.co.jp/e/pass/seishun18.html) is the best deal around and can be a really fun way to see the country. It literally means 'Youth 18 Ticket' and is designed for students to travel cheaply, but there are no actual age restrictions.

For ¥11,850 you get five one-day tickets valid for 24 hours each (starting at midnight) for travel anywhere in Japan on JR lines, which can also be shared. The only catch is that you can't travel on tokkyū (limited express) or shinkansen trains.

Purchase tickets at any JR ticket counter (midori-no-madoguchi). As they're geared for students, travel time is limited to school holiday periods. Sale and validity periods are outlined in the following table:

SeasonSales PeriodValidity Period
Spring20 Feb–31 Mar1 Mar–10 Apr
Summer1 Jul–31 Aug20 Jul–10 Sep
Winter1–31 Dec10 Dec–10 Jan

Note that these periods are subject to change, so check online for the latest information.

Student Discounts

Students enrolled in Japanese universities (including foreign exchange students with a student ID issued by a Japanese university) can obtain 20% discount vouchers for shinkansen, JR limited express trains and some ferries from their university; unfortunately students enrolled in universities abroad are not able to obtain the vouchers.

Sample Train Fares

JR fares are made up of the basic fare – what it would cost to take a local or express train on an ordinary trunk line – plus surcharges for limited express, shinkansen and sleeper trains.

The following are some typical fares from Tokyo (prices given for shinkansen are the total price of reserved seat ticket during mid-season, excluding Nozomi and Hayabusa trains).

DestinationBasic (¥)Shinkansen (¥)
Hakata13,82022,330
Hiroshima11,66018,560
Kanazawa734014,120
Kyoto821013,600
Nagoya626010,800
Niigata562010,570
Okayama10,48016,820
Sendai594010,890
Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto11,56022,180
Shin-Osaka875014,140

Rail Passes

Rail passes are excellent value if you plan ahead. There is a huge variety on offer, from the classic, country-wide Japan Rail Pass to a growing number of passes that zero in on specific regions. In addition to train travel, some passes also cover bus and ferry routes that may be useful.

Unless noted otherwise, these passes are only available to foreign passport holders entering Japan on a tourist visa (station staff will check). Children between the ages of six and 11 qualify for child fares, while those under six ride for free.

Currently all passes can be purchased after arriving in Japan; as this may be subject to change, check the websites before you depart. Certain passes, including the Japan Rail Pass, are cheaper if purchased in advance of arrival.

Note that JR passes are valid only on JR services; you will still have to pay for private-train services. However, as the JR network is the country's largest, the coverage is good. The value is in getting to ride shinkansen and limited express (tokkyū) trains, though of course you can use the passes on ordinary express and local trains, too.

Holders of the some JR passes are eligible for a 10% discount off car rentals through JR's Ekiren agency, which has outlets inside or in front of many train stations. For details and promo codes, see www.ekiren.co.jp/phpapp/en/jr_pass.

For all passes, be sure to read the fine print as service exclusions may apply.

Japan Rail Pass

The Japan Rail Pass (www.japanrailpass.net) is perfect for first-time visitors who want to zip around to see the highlights. It covers travel on all shinkansen trains except for the very fastest ones: the Nozomi and Mizuho trains on the Tōkaidō, San-yō and Kyūshū lines. A 'green' pass is good for rides in business-class 'green' train cars.

A one-way reserved-seat Tokyo–Kyoto shinkansen ticket costs ¥13,600, so you only need make one round trip between Tokyo and Kyoto on the shinkansen to make a seven-day pass come close to paying off (add a round trip between Narita Airport and Tokyo and you're already saving money).

DurationRegular (¥, adult/child)Green (¥, adult/ child)
7 days29,110/14,55038,880/19,440
14 days46,390/23,19062,950/31,470
21 days59,350/29,67081,870/40,930

Until recently, the country-wide Japan Rail Pass needed to be purchased outside of Japan prior to arrival through an authorised travel agency; it is currently available for purchase in country, but at a mark-up (a seven-day pass, for example, would cost ¥33,000). Note that the ability to purchase the pass within Japan is subject to change, so check online in advance.

If you purchase a pass outside of Japan, you will get an 'exchange order' that you should bring along with your passport to a JR Travel Service Centre (located at Narita, Haneda and Kansai international airports and at major train stations) to receive your pass.

When you validate the pass (at the same office), you select the date on which you want the pass to become valid. You can choose to make it valid immediately or on a later date. So, if you just plan to spend a few days in Kyoto or Tokyo before setting out to explore the country by rail, set the validity date to the day you start your journey outside the city.

Once you've validated your pass, you can make seat reservations from any midori-no-madoguchi ('green window' ticket counters) at JR train stations. You can also just show your pass at the ticket gates and hop on any unreserved train car (though you'd be wise to book ahead during peak travel times).

For more information on the pass and overseas purchase locations, visit the Japan Rail Pass website.

Hokuriku Arch Pass

Slightly cheaper than the Japan Rail Pass, the Hokuriku Arch Pass (adult/child ¥25,000/12,500; http://hokuriku-arch-pass.com/en) is valid for seven consecutive days and covers travel on the Hokuriku Shinkansen, which connects Tokyo to Kanazawa (via Nagano) and the Sea of Japan coast, and JR limited express trains that run from Kanazawa to and around the Kansai metro area (for Kyoto, Osaka, Nara and Kōbe).

Express train travel to and from Narita and Kansai airports is also included (but not direct shinkansen travel between Tokyo and Kansai), so this pass works well if you are flying into one airport and out the other and want to do a classic itinerary in a fixed amount of time. Purchased online for a ¥1000 discount.

JR East Rail Passes

JR East (www.jreast.co.jp) offers a few different rail passes that cover travel in different areas within eastern Honshū – a region that encompasses the Tokyo metro area, the Izu Peninsula, Nagano and the Japan Alps – Tōhoku (Northern Honshū) and southern Hokkaidō (up to Sapporo).

In addition to the routes outlined below, all of the following passes cover travel on JR limited express trains between Tokyo, Nikkō, Kofu (near Mt Fuji), Shimoda (at the tip of the Izu Peninsula) and Narita Airport.

The Tokyo Wide Pass is the only rail pass that can be used by foreign passport holders who are not on a tourist visa (foreign residents of Japan, for example). With the exception of the Tokyo Wide Pass, the following can be purchased online ahead of time for a ¥1000 discount.

  • Nagano & Niigata Area Pass (adult/child ¥18,000/9000) Flexible use for five days within 14 days; covers travel on the Jōetsu Shinkansen and the Hokuriku Shinkansen between Tokyo and Jōetsu-Myōkō (including Nagano). As these are mountain areas, this pass is good for skiers and hikers.
  • South Hokkaidō Rail Pass (adult/child ¥27,000/13,500) Flexible use for six days within 14 days; covers travel on the Tōhoku and Hokkaidō shinkansen lines. While only slightly cheaper than the country-wide JR pass, the flexibility here is a bonus.
  • Tōhoku Area Pass (adult/child ¥20,000/10,000) Flexible use for five days within 14 days; covers travel on the Tōhoku, Akita and Yamagata shinkansen lines and on the Jōetsu Shinkansen between Tokyo and ski resort Gala Yuzawa. Good for a tour of the rustic north (and some skiing).
  • Tokyo Wide Pass (adult/child ¥10,000/5000) Valid for three consecutive days for travel on the Jōetsu Shinkansen between Tokyo, Gala Yuzawa and Karuizawa. Good for sightseers with limited time.

JR Central Rail Passes

JR Central (http://english.jr-central.co.jp) has a few passes that are good for tackling mountain areas, including Takayama, Shirakawa-go, the Kiso Valley and the Kii Peninsula, without a car. Purchase online ahead of time for a ¥1000 discount. For more pass details, see http://touristpass.jp/en.

  • Takayama-Hokuriku Pass (adult/child ¥15,000/7500) Valid for five consecutive days; covers travel on JR trains between Kansai International Airport, Osaka, Kyoto, Kanazawa, Takayama, Gero Onsen and Nagoya, plus buses around Shirakawa-go.
  • Alpine-Takayama-Matsumoto Pass (adult/child ¥18,500/9250) Valid for five consecutive days; covers travel on JR trains between Nagoya, the Kiso Valley, Matsumoto, Toyama and Takayama, including the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route.
  • Ise-Kumano-Wakayama Pass (adult/child ¥12,000/6000) Valid for five consecutive days; covers travel on JR trains between Kansai Airport, Osaka, Nara, Ise-Shima and around the Kii Peninsula, as well as local buses connecting towns along the Kumano Kodō.

JR West Rail Passes

JR West (www.westjr.co.jp) offers several different rail passes that cover travel in different areas within Western Honshū – a region that encompasses the Kansai metro area (Kyoto, Osaka, Kōbe and Nara), the Hokuriku area (Kanazawa and the Sea of Japan coast), the Okayama area (for Himeji and Kurashiki) and the Hiroshima area. Some also include Takamatsu (the northern gateway for Shikoku) and Hakata (the northern gateway for Kyūshū).

In addition to the routes outlined here, all Kansai area passes cover transport on JR lines to/from Kansai International Airport to Kyoto and Osaka. Pass holders can rent bicycles free of charge at Ekirin rental shops located at train stations covered within the scope of each pass.

Purchase online ahead of time for a ¥1000 discount. For a full list of currently available passes see: www.westjr.co.jp/global/en/ticket/pass

  • Kansai Wide Area Pass (adult/child ¥10,000/5000) Valid for five consecutive days; covers travel on JR intercity trains (excluding the shinkansen) between Osaka, Kyoto and Nara, plus travel on the San-yō Shinkansen between Osaka and Okayama (via Kōbe and Himeji) and limited express trains going north to the Sea of Japan coast (including Kinosaki Onsen) and south to the Kii Peninsula. Good for exploring the Kansai region in depth.
  • Kansai–Hiroshima Area Pass (adult/child ¥14,500/7250) Valid for five consecutive days; covers all JR limited express trains in Kansai, as well as the San-yō Shinkansen between Osaka and Hiroshima (via the castle town Himeji) and the ferry to Miyajima. Perfect for covering the highlights of Kansai and Western Honshū.
  • Kansai–Hokuriku Area Pass (adult/child ¥16,000/8000) Valid for seven consecutive days; covers all JR limited express trains in Kansai and Kanazawa (on the Sea of Japan coast), as well as the San-yō Shinkansen between Osaka and Okayama and the Hokuriku Shinkansen between Kanazawa and Jōetsu-Myōkō (in Niigata; good for skiing). The pass covers a good spread of well-travelled and less-travelled destinations.
  • San-yō-San'in Area Pass (adult/child ¥19,000/9500) Valid for seven consecutive days; covers all JR limited express trains in and around Kansai and to Takamatsu (Shikoku), as well as the San-yō Shinkansen between Osaka and Hakata in Kyūshū, via Okayama and Hiroshima. If you're skipping Tokyo and points east, this pass covers a good spread for significantly less than the classic JR Pass.

Kansai Thru Pass

The Kansai Thru Pass (www.surutto.com/tickets/kansai_thru_english.html) is the best deal for hitting the highlights of the Kansai region. Good for two (adult/child ¥4000/2000) or three (adult/child ¥5200/2600) days, it covers city subways and buses and private railways (excluding JR lines) that connect Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, Kōbe, Himeji and the Kii Peninsula (including Kōya-san). It also entitles you to discounts at many attractions in the Kansai area.

Purchase it at Kansai International Airport or at any tourist information centre in the Kansai area.

JR Kyūshū Rail Passes

JR Kyūshū's (www.jrkyushu.co.jp) All Kyūshū Area Pass (three-day adult/child ¥15,000/7500; five-day adult/child ¥18,000/9000) covers travel on the Kyūshū shinkansen between Hakata and Kagoshima (via Kumamoto) and limited express trains around the island, including routes to Nagasaki and the onsen towns of Beppu, Yufuin and Ibusuki. There are also cheaper passes covering just the northern or just the southern half of the island.

Shikoku Rail Pass

The All Shikoku Pass (http://shikoku-railwaytrip.com/railpass.html) covers unlimited travel on the Shikoku intercity train network, including non-JR lines and scenic trains, and the ferry to Shodoshima.

DurationRegular (¥, adult/child)
3 days¥9500/4750
4 days¥10,500/5250
5 days¥11,500/5750
7 days¥12,500/6250

JR Hokkaidō Rail Pass

The Hokkaidō Rail Pass (www2.jrhokkaido.co.jp/global/english/ticket/railpass/index.html) covers all JR limited express trains on Hokkaidō (but not travel on the Hokkaidō shinkansen).

DurationRegular (¥, adult/child)
3 days¥16,500/8250
4 days flexible¥22,000/11,000
5 days¥22,000/11,000
7 days¥24,000/12,000

The four-day flexible pass is valid for 10 days.

Schedules & Information

Japan's extensive rail network is run by multiple operators (with their own websites), which makes searching timetables a chore. Train stations will have them posted for the lines running in and out of that particular station. You can also use the website HyperDia (www.hyperdia.com) to search routes and times in English.

For enquiries relating to JR, such as schedules, fares, fastest routes, lost baggage, discounts on rail travel, hotels and car hire, contact the JR East Infoline. Information is available in English, Korean and Chinese.