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Life in Japan

Life in Japan | Public Transportation: Navigating Trains and Buses

As Japan enters a new fiscal year this spring, here are some basic tips for navigating its ultra-convenient transportation network via trains and buses.



The Chuo-Sobu line running through cherry blossoms.

Starting a new life in any country can be quite stressful. However, knowing how to get around on your own will give you a head start. Japan's major cities are interconnected by a robust transportation network of railways and buses renowned for their punctuality, excellent service, and user-friendliness.

Plan Your Journey

How do I know which bus or train to take?

If you reside in one of the large metropolitan areas, you'll likely find a bus stop or train station within a few minutes' walk. 

It's highly recommended to use a navigation app like Google Maps, Navitime, or Japan Transit Planner. These apps display nearby railway stations, buses, and taxi stands, offering multiple route options with varying travel times and costs. They also provide details on which trains to catch and when, factoring in walking distances between platforms and bus stops. 

However, make sure to check for severe delays (although they are uncommon in Japan) as these apps may not always reflect the latest departure times.

What do I need to ride public transportation?

There are three payment methods for all types of public transportation: mobile IC cards, physical IC cards, and cash. 

You need one of these when boarding a bus or entering the train station gate to the platform.

What's an IC Card?

In Tokyo and other major cities, the predominant payment method is mobile IC cards, which are smartphone versions of rechargeable prepaid cards Suica and PASMO. 

Simply download and set up the app for either card, then use your smartphone to tap in or out at train stations or on buses. The mobile versions are especially recommended because the sale of new physical Suica and PASMO cards has been suspended due to a semiconductor shortage. 


The Welcome Suica is an option for short-term visitors, available at Haneda Airport Terminal 3. It expires after 28 days, but unlike regular IC cards, it does not require a deposit.

IC cards, whether physical or mobile, facilitate seamless transfers between trains and buses with just a single touch. Moreover, they can be used for taxi rides and payments at vending machines, convenience stores, and some restaurants.

What about cash payment?

For trains, cash can be used to buy one-way tickets from ticket machines (or commuting passes at a counter for train lines offering this option). 

Buses generally accept coins, with few accepting bills above ¥1,000 JPY. Carrying a supply of coins, especially a few hundred yen, is advisable. 

To pay by cash on non-fixed rate buses, take a ticket from a small machine near the door when boarding.

In rural areas, cash or local variations of IC cards remain prevalent, with some accepting major city IC cards.

Trains and Buses

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 to ensure quick and easy travel for residents. The most populated areas in the biggest cities, such as Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya, and Hiroshima, are usually connected by several different railway lines. 

Japan's trains can be expected to arrive on time, with rare exceptions arising from unforeseen circumstances like accidents or natural disasters. Subways, being primarily underground, remain unaffected by weather conditions, adding to their reliability.

What are the major train categories?

Trains and subways are categorized based on speed. The following three are the most common:

  • 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 | kyuko): Rapid trains skip some stations but are still fairly slow.
  • 快速急行 (かいそくきゅうこう | kaisoku-kyuko): Express trains skip several stations between major stops and are relatively fast.

Additionally, the high-speed Shinkansen network provides a comfortable and efficient option for long-distance travel, albeit at a higher cost.

Why choose buses?

Buses are a popular alternative, particularly for shorter distances or areas with limited rail coverage. They complement trains and subways in major cities and serve as primary transportation in smaller towns, remote areas, and national parks. Several bus companies offer long-distance highway travel as well. 

Despite being slower, buses are cost-effective and widely used. For budget-conscious travelers, late-night buses offer a more affordable alternative to Shinkansen travel.

Ticket counter of Bus Terminal Tokyo Yaesu (©JAPAN Forward by Hidemitsu Kaito)

How do I get where I'm going?

When boarding buses, check that the route number matches the one in your app, as several buses serving different destinations may stop at the same location. 

Route numbers are displayed above the windshield.

Whether to board at the front or middle of the bus varies by the operating company. In rural areas, some companies charge fares based on distance. This requires you to touch your IC card twice: once when boarding and again when disembarking. In cities, a fixed fare is typical, so you only touch your IC card when boarding.

For trains, the first step is to touch your IC card at the ticket gates, followed by locating the correct platform indicated by signboards. Overhead information boards display departing trains and their platforms, departure times, and categories (speed). These displays often alternate between Japanese, English, and sometimes Korean.

Exiting the vehicle

In urban areas, the upcoming stop is usually announced in both Japanese and English. Most trains feature electronic displays above the doors indicating the next stop. On buses, the display is located at the front.

When you arrive at your train station, exit through the ticket gate by touching your IC card. If you're on the bus, press one of the call buttons near your seat when your stop is announced. This will alert the driver to stop at your destination. If the fare is not fixed, remember to touch your IC card when exiting.

Some Useful Japanese words

  • Train: 電車 (でんしゃ | densha) 
  • Bus: バス (ばす | basu) 
  • Bus stop: バス停 (ばすてい | basutei) 
  • Train or subway station: 駅 (えき | eki) 
  • Subway: 地下鉄 (ちかてつ | chikatetsu) 
  • Bullet train: 新幹線 (しんかんせん | Shinkansen) 
  • Ticket gate: 改札 (かいさつ | kaisatsu)
  • Train platform:ホーム (ほーむ | homu)
  • Exit: 出口 (でぐち | homu)

This is an update of an article published on May 10, 2022.


Author: Shaun Fernando

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