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 is 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

All Nippon Airways Major international carrier with an extensive domestic network.

Hokkaidō Air System (HAC; www.hac-air.co.jp) Flies from Sapporo's domestic airport, Okadama, to points in Hokkaidō.

Japan Airlines Major international carrier with an extensive domestic network.

Japan Transocean Air Small plane carrier, part of the JAL group, that mostly services routes in the Southwest Islands. Website in Japanese only; book in English through the JAL site.

New Central Air Service Light-plane flights between Chōfu Airport, outside Tokyo, and the islands of the Izu Archipelago.

Budget Airlines in Japan

Japan has opened up its skies to low-cost carriers and the result is a proliferation of affordable airlines flying to various parts of the archipelago. This has brought previously expensive and distant destinations like Hokkaidō and Okinawa within the reach of budget travellers.

  • Air Do (www.airdo.jp) Connects Hokkaidō's New Chitose Airport with major destinations around Japan.
  • Jetstar (www.jetstar.com) Cheap flights from Tokyo's Narita Airport and Osaka's Kansai International Airport to Okinawa (Naha) and Sapporo (New Chitose).
  • 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) Cheap flights from Tokyo (Narita) to Okinawa (Naha) and Sapporo (New Chitose).

Passes & Discounts

  • 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.
  • 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 over 65 can purchase Senior Sorawari domestic tickets from ¥8000 to ¥16,000 per sector. See www.ana.co.jp/wws/japan/e/local/book-plan/fare/domestic/senior-sorawari.
  • JAL's Okinawa Island Pass (www.churashima.net/jta/company/islandpass_en.html) is good for affordable island hopping; it's only available for foreign visitors and must be purchased abroad.
  • Early morning and late-night flights are usually the cheapest.

Bicycle

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!), the Noto Peninsula 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 need to use a bicycle-carrying bag, available from good bicycle shops.

A useful series of maps is Touring Mapple (Shōbunsha), which is aimed at motorcyclists, but is also very useful for cyclists.

Both KANcycling (www.kancycling.com) and Japan Cycling Navigator (www.japancycling.org) have tutorials on cycling Japan and trip reports.

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 tatami-mat rooms on plastic mats; 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 also by oil price and are updated every three months.

Hokkaidō–Honshū

2nd-Class Fare (¥)

Duration (hr)

Otaru–Maizuru

2nd-Class Fare (¥)

9570-16,350

Duration (hr)

20

Otaru–Niigata

2nd-Class Fare (¥)

6480-10,180

Duration (hr)

18

Tomakomai–Hachinohe

2nd-Class Fare (¥)

5000

Duration (hr)

7-9

Tomakomai–Ōarai

2nd-Class Fare (¥)

8740-14,910

Duration (hr)

17

From Tokyo

2nd-Class Fare (¥)

Duration (hr)

Shinmoji (Kitakyūshū)

2nd-Class Fare (¥)

16,110

Duration (hr)

35

Tokushima (Shikoku)

2nd-Class Fare (¥)

11,690

Duration (hr)

18-19½

From Osaka/Kōbe

2nd-Class Fare (¥)

Duration (hr)

Beppu (Kyūshū)

2nd-Class Fare (¥)

11,200-12,000

Duration (hr)

12

Miyazaki (Kyūshū)

2nd-Class Fare (¥)

9460-10,700

Duration (hr)

12½

Naha (Okinawa)

2nd-Class Fare (¥)

19,330

Duration (hr)

40

Shibushi (Kyūshū)

2nd-Class Fare (¥)

12,880-13,400

Duration (hr)

15

Shinmoji (Kitakyūshū)

2nd-Class Fare (¥)

6170-6480

Duration (hr)

12½

Kyūshū–Okinawa

2nd-Class Fare (¥)

Duration (hr)

Kagoshima–Naha

2nd-Class Fare (¥)

14,610

Duration (hr)

25

Bus

Japan has a comprehensive network of long-distance buses. They're nowhere near as fast as the shinkansen, but a lot 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. You can purchase these tickets from JR train stations.

Cheaper operators with large networks include Willer Express, which offers three-/four-/five-day bus passes. You can book seats on Willer and other buses through the company's Japan Bus Lines service (http://japanbuslines.com).

There are some truly bargain bus deals out there, but note that, while the government has been cracking down, cheaper operators have been known to skirt safety regulations (by overworking their drivers).

Bus Costs

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

Aomori

Fare (¥)

9000

Duration (hr)

Hakata

Fare (¥)

9000

Duration (hr)

14½

Hiroshima

Fare (¥)

10,230

Duration (hr)

11½

Kōbe

Fare (¥)

5000

Duration (hr)

10

Kyoto

Fare (¥)

5000

Duration (hr)

8

Nagano

Fare (¥)

3200

Duration (hr)

4

Nagoya

Fare (¥)

5250

Duration (hr)

Nara

Fare (¥)

5000

Duration (hr)

Osaka

Fare (¥)

5000

Duration (hr)

Japan Bus Pass

Night buses are a good option for those on a tight budget without a Japan Rail Pass. They are relatively cheap and spacious – depending on how much you are willing to pay – 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.

Car & Motorcycle

Driving in Japan is quite feasible, even for just the mildly adventurous. Most roads are signposted in English and major rental agencies offer cars with English-language navigation systems; roads are in excellent condition; road rules are generally adhered to; 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.

In some parts of Japan (most notably Hokkaidō, the Noto Peninsula, some parts of Kyūshū and the Southwest Islands), driving is really the only efficient way to get around unless you have a good touring bicycle or the patience for long waits for buses each time you need to make a move.

On the other hand, it makes little sense to have a car in the big cities, like Tokyo and Osaka, where traffic is thick, a preponderance of one-way streets makes navigation a challenge and parking is expensive.

Crash helmets are compulsory for motorcyclists in Japan.

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, which has an office in Tokyo.

Car & Motorcycle Hire

  • Typical rates for a small car are ¥5000 to ¥7000 per day, with reductions for rentals of more than one day. On top of the rental charge, there's about a ¥1000-per-day insurance cost. Prices among major agencies are comparable.
  • Car rental agencies are clustered around transit hubs: airports, major train stations and ferry piers. Those at the major international airports (Narita, Haneda, Kansai and New Chitose) are most likely to have English-speaking staff.
  • Toyota Rent-a-Car (https://rent.toyota.co.jp) and Nippon Rent-a-Car (www.nrgroup-global.com) have large rental networks and cars with English navigation systems. Booking in English is possible online.
  • Japanese law requires children under the age of six to ride in a car seat; rental car agencies provide them for a small extra fee.
  • 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.
  • Scooter rentals are common on smaller islands; you'll still need an international licence (though not a motorcycle licence) to rent one of these.
  • 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, as whether or not you have a valid licence will be the shop's primary concern.

Driving Glossary

Japanese drivers are generally safe and courteous, but there are a few quirks to be aware of:

Turn signals Drivers may use turn signals only after stopping at a light, entering an intersection or initiating a lane change.

Headlights Drivers can 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.

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, France and Germany (and others whose countries are not signatories to the Geneva Convention of 1949 concerning international driving licences) are not allowed to drive in Japan on a regular International Driving Permit. Rather, travellers from these countries must have their own licence backed by an authorised translation of the same licence. These translations can be made by their embassy or consulate in Japan or by the JAF. If you are unsure which category your country falls into, contact the nearest JNTO office for more information.

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

Expressways

The expressway system is fast, efficient and growing all the time, though it is not cheap.

  • Tolls are calculated at ¥24.60 per kilometre (plus surcharges for some tunnels). Tokyo to Kyoto, for example, will cost about ¥10,500 in tolls.
  • If you can cut and paste the characters for your starting point and destination, you can calculate fares at www.driveplaza.com. Nexco West (http://global.w-nexco.co.jp), which operates the highways in Western Honshū and Kyūshū, has fare charts in English posted online for its regions.
  • Exits are well signposted in English, 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.
  • 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.
  • National highway toll booths accept credit cards; others will take only cash.

ETC Cards

With an ETC card (www.go-etc.jp/english/guidebook/index.html) you can 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

Several regions offer fixed-fare expressway passes for foreign tourists. 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.

Central Nippon Expressway Pass (http://hayatabi.c-nexco.co.jp/cep)

Hokkaidō Expressway Pass (www.driveplaza.com/trip/drawari/hokkaido_expass)

Kyūshū Expressway Pass (http://global.w-nexco.co.jp/en/kep)

Tōhoku Expressway Pass (www.driveplaza.com/trip/drawari/tep2015)

Fuel

You'll find gasoreen sutando (petrol stations) 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 empty your ashtray, take any garbage you have, wipe your windshield inside and out and then wave you back into the traffic.

Insurance

Many tourist areas have bicycles for hire. 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. Check with the local tourist information centre for info. Many youth hostels also have bicycles to rent or borrow.

Note that the bicycles for rent are almost always what the Japanese call mama chari (literally 'mama's bicycles'): one- or three-speed shopping bikes that are often too small for anyone more than 180cm in height.

Maps & Navigation

  • Kodansha's Japan Atlas: A Bilingual Guide has maps labelled in English and kanji, though the road maps are not terribly detailed.
  • The best Japanese road atlases are the Super Mapple series (Shōbunsha), which are available in bookshops and some convenience stores. Though lacking English, they have a high level of detail (and many routes do have numbers).

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. As Japanese addresses can be confusing, the best way to set your destination is by inputting the phone number. Many tourist organisations now also provide pamphlets with 'map codes' for major destinations, which you can input into 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. Most urban hotels have car parks, which can cost anywhere 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.

Rest Stops

There are regular service areas (SA) and parking areas (PA) along national expressways; the former usually have more amenities, including 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), which have toilets and coffee (and sometimes even local farm stands), but no petrol.

Road Conditions

Prices for used bicycles range from a few thousand yen for an old shopping bike to several tens of thousands of yen for good mountain and road bikes. Prices for new bikes will likely be more than what you'd pay at home, starting at around ¥10,000 for a shopping bike and easily rising above ¥100,000 for a flash mountain or road bike.

There's a fairly large turnover of bicycles within the expat community – especially good for tall riders. The odds are you'll find one listed in the classifieds section of magazines like Tokyo's Metropolis (http://metropolisjapan.com) or Kansai Scene (www.kansaiscene.com), or on the bulletin board of the Kyoto International Community House (www.kcif.or.jp).

Winter Driving Warning

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 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. JAF publishes a Rules of the Road guide (digital/print ¥864/1404) in English, which is handy.

Speed limits tend to be low, though many local drivers ignore them (at their peril: patrol cars are often lurking).

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.

In particular, Japan can be a dangerous place for solitary female hitchhikers; there have been cases of lone 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 is known as 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 those anywhere else in the world. Dress neatly and look for a good place to hitch – expressway on-ramps and expressway service areas are probably your best bets.

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 hitchhikers. 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.

Local Transport

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

Bus

Almost every Japanese city has a bus network, although, with the exception of heavily touristed areas like Tokyo and Kyoto, the stops are often announced only in Japanese. City buses often have a flat fare.

Buses can be confusing: in Tokyo you board from the front door and pay the driver upfront, either by scanning an IC card or depositing coins in the fare box, and disembark from the rear door; in Kyoto, it's the opposite.

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 get someone to call one for you.
  • 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.
  • Fares are fairly uniform throughout the country and all cabs run by the meter.
  • Flagfall (posted on the taxi windows) is around ¥600 to ¥710 for the first 2km, after which it's around ¥100 for each 350m (approximately). There's also a time charge if the speed drops below 10km/h and a 20% surcharge between 10pm and 5am.
  • 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

For all its constraints, the Tokugawa period had a considerable dynamism. Japan's cities grew enormously during this period: Edo's population topped one million in the early 1700s, dwarfing much older London and Paris. Kyoto, which evolved into a production centre for luxury goods, and Osaka, a centre for trade, each hovered around 400,000 for much of the period.

Despite the best efforts of rulers to limit the growing merchant class, it prospered greatly from the services and goods required for daimyō processions to and from Edo. And so costly were these processions that daimyō had to convert much of their domain's produce into cash. This boosted the economy in general.

A new culture that thumbed its nose at social hardships and the strictures of the shogunate began to flourish. Increasingly wealthy merchants patronised the kabuki theatre, sumo tournaments and the pleasure quarters – generally enjoying a joie de vivre that the dour lords of Edo castle frowned upon. Central to this pleasure-oriented culture was the concept of ukiyo – ‘floating world’ – a term derived (or perhaps corrupted) from a Buddhist metaphor for life’s fleeting joys. Today, the best glimpses we have into that time come from ukiyo-e (woodblock prints).

The samurai, meanwhile, had no major military engagements. Well educated, most ended up fighting paper wars as administrators and managers.

Train & Subway

Subway systems operate in Fukuoka, Kōbe, Kyoto, Nagoya, Osaka, Sapporo, 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.

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 (www.jreast.co.jp/e/pass/suica.html) from JR East and Icoca (www.westjr.co.jp/global/en/ticket/icoca-haruka) 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.

To use the card, simply swipe it over the reader at the ticket gates or near the doors on trams and buses.

Train

Japanese rail services are among the best in the world: they are fast, frequent, clean and comfortable.

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 that city and the surrounding area, or connects that city to nearby cities. These are often a bit cheaper than equivalent JR services.

Shinkansen

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

Even the bullet train has local and express routes; however, there is no difference in fare. Luggage storage is limited to an overhead shelf, which can hold a bag similar in size to what would fit in the overhead bin on an airplane.

Shinkansen Routes

Most long-haul routes run local (called futsū or kaku-eki-teisha), express (called kyūkō or kaisoku) and limited express trains (called tokkyū). Limited express trains have reserved seats, with comfortable reclining chairs, and toilets. All trains, save for a few shinkansen cars, are nonsmoking. Many different trains run on the same platforms, so be mindful of the signboards that note the schedule of departures.

Many long-haul trains 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; they're also usually the last to sell out.

Overnight Trains

Japan used to have a number of overnight services, but these have been retired as the shinkansen network grows and cheap buses and flights have become more popular. As of 2016 only one remained, Sunrise Seto/Izumo, which 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

futsū

Script

普通

English

local

green-sha

Script

グリーン車

English

1st-class car

jiyū-seki

Script

自由席

English

unreserved seat

kaisoku

Script

快速

English

JR rapid or express

kaku-eki-teisha

Script

各駅停車

English

local

katamichi

Script

片道

English

one way

kin'en-sha

Script

禁煙車

English

nonsmoking car

kitsuen-sha

Script

喫煙車

English

smoking car

kyūkō

Script

急行

English

ordinary express

ōfuku

Script

往復

English

round trip

shin-kaisoku

Script

新快速

English

JR special rapid train

shinkansen

Script

新幹線

English

bullet train

shitei-seki

Script

指定席

English

reserved seat

tokkyū

Script

特急

English

limited express

wanman-kā

Script

ワンマンカー

English

conductorless train (driver only)

Ticketing

Tickets can be purchased from touch-screen vending machines in major train stations; most have an English function and those for shinkansen journeys often 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 inhouse travel agency; these days most staff speak enough English to answer basic questions. 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.

Reservations can only be made for limited express (tokkyū) liners and shinkansen services. There are also unreserved shinkansen seats; the policy on limited express trains varies by route and operator (some are all-reserved; others are not).

It is generally not necessary to make reservations in advance except on weekends and national holidays and during peak travel seasons – such as Golden Week (late April to early May), Obon (mid-August) and the New Year period.

Reserved-seat tickets can be bought any time from a month in advance to the day of departure.

Advance Reservations

  • There isn't really a system in place for making train reservations from abroad. 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 many useful lines are ineligible for this service.
  • There are online travel agencies that will buy tickets for you, but at a heavy mark-up.
  • Note that if you have a Japan Rail Pass, you will not be able to reserve through a travel agent outside Japan, as you must activate the pass in Japan and show the pass when you make reservations.
  • If you have a firm itinerary, you can reserve all your long-haul train tickets at once immediately upon arrrival at the nearest major JR train station.
  • Reservations can be changed once free of charge up to the time of departure.

Discounted Tickets

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

Discount shops Called kakuyasu-kippu-uriba (格安切符売り場) or kinken shoppu (金券ショップ) in Japanese, these shops deal in discounted tickets for trains, buses, domestic flights, ferries and a host of other things such as cut-rate stamps and phonecards. Savings aren't dramatic, maybe 5% (or at best 10%) on shinkansen tickets. They're usually small kiosks plastered in signs located in the vicinity of train stations; your lodgings might know where to find one.

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 travel anywhere in Japan on JR lines. The only catches are that you can't travel on tokkyū (limited express) or shinkansen trains and each ticket must be used within 24 hours.

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:

Summer

Sales Period

1 Jul–31 Aug

Validity Period

20 Jul–10 Sep

Winter

Sales Period

1 Dec–31 Dec

Validity Period

10 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) are eligible for 20% discount vouchers for shinkansen and JR limited express trains and some ferries; unfortunately students enrolled in universities abroad are not able to obtain the vouchers.

Sample Train Fares

JR fares are calculated on the basis of futsū-unchin (basic fare), tokkyū-ryōkin (an express surcharge levied only on express services) and shinkansen-ryōkin (a special charge for shinkansen services). Note that if you buy a return ticket for a trip that is more than 600km each way, you qualify for a 10% discount on the return leg (within a limited period of time).

Fares for reserved seats cost, on average, ¥520 more than unreserved seats. The rate is calculated by the distance of the journey and the time of year (more for high season, less for low season). JR Rail pass holders can reserve seats at no extra charge; however, they must pay extra for a private berth in a sleeper car.

The following are some typical fares from Tokyo (prices given for shinkansen are the total price of the ticket).

Hakata

Basic (¥)

13,820

Shinkansen (¥)

22,950

Hiroshima

Basic (¥)

11,660

Shinkansen (¥)

19,080

Kanazawa

Basic (¥)

7340

Shinkansen (¥)

14,120

Kyoto

Basic (¥)

8210

Shinkansen (¥)

13,910

Morioka

Basic (¥)

8420

Shinkansen (¥)

14,740

Nagoya

Basic (¥)

6260

Shinkansen (¥)

10,880

Niigata

Basic (¥)

5620

Shinkansen (¥)

10,570

Okayama

Basic (¥)

10,480

Shinkansen (¥)

17,340

Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto

Basic (¥)

11,560

Shinkansen (¥)

22,690

Shin-Osaka

Basic (¥)

8750

Shinkansen (¥)

14,450

Shin-Shimonoseki

Basic (¥)

13,180

Shinkansen (¥)

21,470

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, many passes also cover bus and ferry routes that may be useful.

The country-wide Japan Rail Pass must be purchased outside of Japan; others can be purchased in Japan after arrival, but they will cost slightly more than if bought abroad.

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.

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 Japan Rail Pass, JR Hokkaidō Rail Pass and any JR East rail passes are eligible for a 30% 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.

New passes are being created all the time (and unpopular ones retired), so check websites for the latest information. Some passes carry restrictions about which trains, buses and ferries can be used, so read the fine print.

Japan Rail Pass

The Japan Rail Pass (www.japanrailpass.net) is a must for anyone planning to do extensive train travel within Japan; it's 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 Tokaidō, San-yō and Kyūshū lines. A 'green' pass is good for rides in 1st-class 'green' train cars.

A one-way reserved-seat Tokyo–Kyoto shinkansen ticket costs ¥13,910, 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).

7 days

Regular (adult/child)

¥29,110/14,550

Green (adult/ child)

¥38,880/19,440

14 days

Regular (adult/child)

¥46,390/23,190

Green (adult/ child)

¥62,950/31,470

21 days

Regular (adult/child)

¥59,350/29,670

Green (adult/ child)

¥81,870/40,930

The Japan Rail Pass must be purchased outside Japan. In order to get a pass, you must first purchase an 'exchange order' outside Japan at a JAL or ANA office or a major travel agency. Once you arrive in Japan, you must bring this order to a JR Travel Service Centre (in most major JR stations and at Narita, Haneda and Kansai international airports). When you validate your pass, you'll have to show your passport in addition to the exchange order.

When you validate the pass, 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 ¥24,000/12,000) 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.

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, and Tōhoku (Northern Honshū).

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).

  • Nagano & Niigata Area Pass (adult/child ¥18,000/9000) Flexible use for five days within 14 days; covers travel on the Jōetsu Shinkansen between Tokyo and Niigata and the Hokuriku Shinkansen between Tokyo and Jōetsu-Myōkō. As these are mountain areas, this pass is good for skiers and hikers.
  • South Hokkaidō Rail Pass (adult/child ¥26,000/13,000) Flexible use for six days within 14 days; covers travel on the Tōhoku and Hokkaidō shinkansen between Tokyo and Hakodate. While only slightly cheaper than the country-wide JR pass, the flexibility here is a bonus.
  • Tōhoku Area Pass (adult/child ¥22,000/11,000) Flexible use for five days within 14 days; covers travel on the Tōhoku Shinkansen between Tokyo and Aomori (on the northern tip of Honshū) 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/shinkansen/value/index.html) has a few passes, the most useful of which is the Takayama-Hokuriku Area Pass (adult/child ¥14,000/7000). Valid for five consecutive days, it covers travel on limited express trains that link Kansai International Airport, Osaka, Kyoto, Kanazawa, Takayama, Gero Onsen and Nagoya – a loop that takes in many major sights plus mountain towns and onsen.

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 following, all Kansai area passes cover transport on JR lines to/from Kansai International Airport to Kyoto and Osaka.

  • Kansai Area Pass (one-/two-/three-/four-day pass ¥2200/4300/5300/6300, children half-price) Unlimited travel on all JR lines – except shinkansen lines – between major Kansai cities, including Himeji, Kōbe, Osaka, Kyoto and Nara. Perfect for exploring the Kansai region in depth. See www.westjr.co.jp/global/en/travel-information/pass/kansai/ for more.
  • Kansai Wide Area Pass (adult/child ¥8500/4250) Valid for five consecutive days; covers the same destinations as the Kansai Area Pass plus travel on the San-yō Shinkansen between Osaka and Okayama and JR limited express trains going as far as Kinosaki in the north and Shingū in the south. Good for Kansai and detours to Himeji (en route to Okayama) and the onsen of Kinosaki.
  • Kansai–Hiroshima Area Pass (adult/child ¥13,000/6500) 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). Perfect for covering the highlights of Kansai and Western Honshū.
  • Kansai–Hokuriku Area Pass (adult/child ¥15,000/7500) 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.
  • Hiroshima–Yamaguchi Area Pass (adult/child ¥11,000/5500) Valid for five consecutive days; covers travel on the San-yō Shinkansen between Mihara (east of Hiroshima) and Hakata (Kyūshū), via Miyajima. Good for an in-depth journey through the less-explored areas of Western Honshū, and then onward travel to Kyūshū.
  • Hokuriku Area Pass (adult/child ¥5000/2500) Valid for four consecutive days; covers JR limited express trains running along the Sea of Japan coast in the Hokuriku region of Central Honshū, as well as the Hokuriku Shinkansen between Kanazawa and Kurobe-Unazuki Onsen. This pass can be combined with the Kansai Area Pass for slight savings and more flexible travel times.
  • 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 not a JR pass and is a good alternative to the Kansai Area Pass. Good for two (adult/child ¥4000/2000) or three (adult/child ¥5200/2600) days, it covers city subways and buses and private railways that connect Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, Kōbe, Himeji and Wakayama (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 centres in the Kansai area.

JR Kyūshū Rail Passes

JR Kyūshū (www.jrkyushu.co.jp) offers two passes, which are good for a deep dive into this often overlooked region.

The Northern Kyūshū Area Pass covers travel on the Kyūshū shinkansen between Hakata and Kumamoto and on JR limited express trains between Nagasaki, Aso, Beppu and Yufuin. The All Kyūshū Area Pass covers the same area as the Northern Kyūshū Area Pass plus travel on the Kyūshū shinkansen all the way to Kagoshima (via Kumamoto) and limited express trains to Miyazaki and Ibusuki.

3 days

All Kyūshū Area (adult/child)

¥15,000/7500

Northern Kyūshū Area (adult/child)

¥8500/4250

5 days

All Kyūshū Area (adult/child)

¥18,000/9000

Northern Kyūshū Area (adult/child)

¥10,000/5000

Shikoku Rail Pass

Largely untouristed Shikoku doesn't have shinkansen lines, but the reasonably priced All Shikoku Pass (http://shikoku-railwaytrip.com/railpass.html) allows unlimited travel on the island's express train network, including non-JR lines and scenic trains.

2 days

Regular (adult/child)

¥7400/3700

3 days

Regular (adult/child)

¥8500/4250

4 days

Regular (adult/child)

¥9400/4700

5 days

Regular (adult/child)

¥10,000/5000

JR Hokkaidō Rail Pass

The Hokkaidō Rail Pass (www2.jrhokkaido.co.jp/global/english/railpass/rail.html) covers all JR limited express trains on Hokkaidō (but not travel on the Hokkaidō shinkansen). As pass holders are entitled to 30% off car rentals through JR's Ekiren agency, if you're strategic and want to cover a lot of Hokkaidō, this pass is good value.

3 days

Regular (adult/child)

¥16,500/8250

4 days flexible

Regular (adult/child)

¥22,000/11,000

5 days

Regular (adult/child)

¥22,000/11,000

7 days

Regular (adult/child)

¥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.

Other Features

Addresses in Japan

In Japan, finding a place from its address can be difficult, even for locals. Addresses are not designated by streets, but rather by concentric areas and blocks and then a building number, which may or may not be consecutive with the ones around it. Smartphones with navigation apps have been a real boon for travellers – probably the biggest reason to want a stable, consistent wi-fi connection at all times. In cities, ubiquitous kōban (police boxes) have maps, and officers are always happy to help with directions (though few speak English).