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[How to Start Life in Japan] Getting Around on Japan’s Public Transportation

Haven’t heard of Japan’s amazing transportation system? Here are some tips on taking trains and buses, whether commuting or moving around Japan.

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Moving to Japan and starting a new life can be very stressful. However, knowing how to get around on your own can make it easier from the start. In this series, written by some people who have lived in Japan for several years – your senpai – we aim to make your transition to Japan as smooth as possible.

Japan’s major cities are connected by railways and buses, both of which are known for their punctuality, superior service, and consumer-friendly operation. They are economical and convenient, too. 

In this part of our series, we will focus on buses and trains, including subways and monorails. Keep reading for a few recommendations to help as you set out to experience Japan’s public transportation. 

How do I decide which one to take?

If you’re living in one of the large metropolitan areas you’ll be able to find a bus stop or a train station within a few minutes walk. 

A navigation app is highly recommended. One such as Google maps or Navitime shows you nearby railway stations, buses, and taxi stands. These also give you multiple route options to choose from, travel time and cost, with precise directions to your destination.

What do I need to ride public transportation?

There are two types of payment methods for all types of public transportation: Prepaid IC cards and cash-based tickets. 

You need one of these before you board a bus or enter the gate to the train platform.

What’s an IC Card?

The most common payment method in Tokyo and major cities is prepaid IC cards. 

IC cards are rechargeable prepaid cards that you can use over and over. The most popular ones are Suica and Pasmo, and they are compatible with each other. 

Purchase and Recharging: Buy and recharge IC cards at train station ticket machines or manned ticket counters. A deposit of ¥500 JPY (about $4 USD) will be charged on your first purchase. 

Changing Trains: The IC cards also make changing trains ー and between buses and trains ー easy. One-touch is all it takes.

Other uses: IC cards can be used for many taxis, vending machines, convenience stores, takeout, and small food shops. They even work in some restaurants. 

What about paying by cash?

Cash-based tickets: Cash can be used to purchase IC cards or to buy one-way tickets from ticket machines (or commuting passes at a counter for train lines offering this option). 

Buses take coins (and IC cards in cities). Generally they do not accept bills above ¥1,000 yen, so carrying a few hundred yen in coins is recommended.

Outside of big cities, cash, or local variations on IC cards still dominate transportation. Some, not all, will take big-city IC cards.

Why choose trains?

Trains, including subways, are by far the most popular method of getting around. There are countless rail routes connecting every corner of Japan except Okinawa. 

Rail transport in Okinawa is limited to the Okinawa Urban Monorail, the only rail line in the prefecture.

All major cities of Japan have made great investments in creating efficient train and subway systems so that their citizens can reach their destinations quickly and easily. The most populated areas in the biggest cities, such as Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya, and Hiroshima, are usually connected by several different railway lines. You will find many options for routes to choose from.

Japan’s trains can be expected to arrive on time. The exceptions are when unusual circumstances come up, such as accidents, railway construction, or problems caused by natural disasters.

Subways are found throughout big cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, and Hiroshima. Their extensive coverage includes shopping areas, business districts, and popular tourist attractions.

Japanese subways generally run on schedule without delay, just like trains. A major advantage is that subways are not affected by weather conditions, since they are primarily underground. 

Why choose buses?

Buses are also popular. Depending on your starting and ending point, they might even be your best choice. They complement the trains and subways in Tokyo, Osaka, and other large cities. 

Cities with less dense rail networks rely mostly on buses for public transportation. Additionally, buses provide primary service in smaller towns, remote locations, and national parks.

Several bus companies offer long distance highway travel as well. Despite being slower, they are generally very popular – and inexpensive. If the Shinkansen is too expensive, consider getting on a late night bus and arriving at your destination early the next morning.

Look for buses ー especially when traveling far from the urban areas.

What are the major train categories?

Trains and subways are divided according to how quickly they’ll get you to your destination. Three common types are:

  • 各駅停車 (かくえきていしゃ | kakuekiteisha) local trains that stop at every station.
  • 急行 (きゅうこう | kyukou) rapid trains skip some stations but are still fairly slow.
  • 快速急行 (かいそくきゅうこう | kaisoku-kyukou) express trains skip several stations between major stops and are relatively fast.

When traveling long distances, the Shinkansen, although expensive, is a great option. It’s very comfortable, fast and efficient.

The high-speed Shinkansen network conveniently covers most parts of the country. It is widely recognized as a symbolic means of traveling in Japan. 

How do I get where I’m going?

For Buses: Check the route number on the front of the bus against the number in your app before boarding. Buses for different destinations use the same bus stop. 

Whether you board at the front or the middle of the bus varies, depending on the bus company. Outside of city centers, many companies charge by distance, so you have to touch your IC card twice: once when you get on, and then again when you get off. 

In cities, a fixed fare is common, so you only pay (or touch your IC card) when you enter. 

For Trains: The first thing you have to do is touch your IC card to the sensors of the ticket gates at the station, then pass through.

Look for Signboards: Once through the ticket gate, you’ll need to find the correct platform. 

Look for information boards overhead just inside the gates displaying which trains are departing from each track, their time of departure, and their category. Often these displays rotate between Japanese and English, and sometimes Korean.

At small stations, there may only be one or two platforms. But at larger stations such as Shinjuku, there are many. The options can be intimidating, but not if you’re prepared.

Google Maps: You can also use Google maps to guide you to your platform.

The software locates nearby railway stations and bus stands along with departing time and walking distance between platforms in English. 

Watching and listening for your stop.

Whether you’re on a bus or train, it’s important to know when you’ve arrived at your stop.

In urban areas, announcements about upcoming stops are often made in Japanese and English. 

In trains many doors have electronic displays above them showing the next stop. On buses, you can find the display at the front of the bus, above the windshield.

Exiting the vehicle.

Trains: When you arrive at your station, exit from the appropriate ticket gate by touching your IC card.

Buses: When your stop is announced, press one of the call buttons near your seat to get off at your destination.

*If it’s not a fixed fare, remember to touch your IC card at the exit.

What are some useful expressions to know?

電車 (でんしゃ | densha) train

バス (ばす | basu) bus

バス停 (ばすてい | basutei) bus stop

駅 (えき | eki) railway station

地下鉄 (ちかてつ | chikatetsu) subway

新幹線 (しんかんせん | Shinkansen) bullet train

改札 (かいさつ | kaisatsu) ticket gate

ホーム (ほーむ | homu) railway platform

各駅停車 (かくえきていしゃ | kakuekiteisha) local train

急行 (きゅうこう | kyukou) rapid train

快速急行 (かいそくきゅうこう | kaisoku-kyukou) express train

特急 (とっきゅう | tokkyu) special express train

準特急 (じゅんとっきゅう| jun-tokkyu) semi special express train

チャージ (ちゃーじ | chaaji) IC card recharge option

券売機 (けんばいき | kenbaiki) ticket vending machine

目的地 (もくてきち | mokutekichi) destination

Find other pieces on [How to Start Life in Japan] on JAPAN Forward.

Author: Shaun Fernando