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Local transport

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.

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).

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.