Public transportation in Japan (especially in Tokyo) can be very intimidating, and for good reason! The largest city in the world, plus the language barrier makes for a pretty daunting situation. But despite this, traveling via shinkansen, subway, train, and bus is pretty easy as long as you know some crucial things. Here’s my advice for navigating public transportation in Japan.
First, let’s talk about the JR Pass and traveling by shinkansen…
1. If you plan on traveling beyond Tokyo to Kyoto or Osaka, you might want to buy a JR Pass.
But make sure you use the JR Calculator tool to make sure it’s worth it. You can buy either a 7, 14, or 21 day pass. With the pass, you will be able to take as many shinkansen (bullet trains) and even local trains as necessary during the period for which you paid.
2. You can only purchase your JR Pass in advance of your trip.
An exchange voucher will be mailed to your home address. You have 90 days to exchange the voucher for the actual rail pass in Japan, so you can buy well in advance in order to spread expenses out or just be safe in ordering early.
3. When you go to exchange your voucher for the pass, go early and to a less busy JR station if possible.
Here is a list of all the JR locations at which you do the exchange to get your pass. We made the mistake of trying to exchange our vouchers for passes at Tokyo Station at about 10am, and ending up waiting in line for an hour. By the time we were able to get our passes, we had to wait in another line to reserve shinkansen tickets, and when we were finally called to the counter the next available train wasn’t for another hour and a half. We wasted upwards of three hours in the whole ordeal, which threw our entire day off. So yes, go early and go somewhere not as high traffic as Tokyo station.
4. With the JR Pass, you will not be able to reserve shinkansen tickets with the self-service machines, you will have to wait in line at the ticketing offices to be helped by a JR employee.
This could slow down some of your plans since these ticket office lines can be lengthy, so plan ahead and budget your time for this.
5. During busy travel times, you may not be able to get seats next to your travel partner(s) on the shinkansen.
In our journeys from Tokyo to Kyoto and back, Matt and I were never assigned seats next to each other. The ticketing agents tried to get us as close together as possible, and we were always in adjacent rows, but seats together were not an option. On one trip, from Tokyo to Odawara, the man next to me was kind enough to offer to switch seats with Matt so we could sit together.
6. Shinkansen may sell out, BUT you can still travel in the unreserved cars!
We had a slight panic attack when, on the last day of our JR Pass, we were told all shinkansen from Kyoto to Tokyo were sold out. But then I remembered the unreserved cars. The ticketing agent wasn’t very helpful because he didn’t mention this until I asked. Basically, the first few cars (usually ranging from three to five per shinkansen) are unreserved, meaning as long as you have a JR Pass you can get on and find seating in a first come first serve manner. We were lucky to get on the shinkansen as early as we did at Kyoto, since it was the second or third stop on the line. We boarded quickly and grabbed the first two seats together we spotted in unreserved car #5. Many more people boarded at stops after us and stood since there were no seats available. So, if you’re told all shinkansens are sold out, don’t panic! If worst comes to worst, standing room in the unreserved cars is always an option!
7. Don’t forget to grab a bento box for your shinkansen trip!
Most of the larger stations from which the shinkansen depart will have huge selections of food for your trip. You can buy anything from a traditional bento box to sushi or ramen, even pizza! And while eating on the trains and subway are not appropriate, eating on the shinkansen is commonplace! The cars even have trash receptacles and bathrooms so you can through your food waste away, and wash your hands before and after your meal.
And second, let’s talk about other forms of public transportation…
8. Buy a Suica card at the first opportunity you get! It is the best way to pay for transport.
Instead of buying individual tickets for each train, subway, or bus, you can just load money on this prepaid card, swipe, and go! There are several different companies who operate trains, subways, and buses around Tokyo and even around Japan, but Suica works for pretty much all of them! In our extensive adventures around Tokyo, we never encountered a line for which our card was not valid payment.
We purchased our cards at the first train station we traveled through at an automated machine. Every station has a machine with which you can reload money onto your card, making it extremely easy and convenient.
9. Pocket WiFi and Google Maps will be your best friends.
I took one look at the railway network map and laughed. Without our pocket WiFi and Google Maps, we would have been so lost. With them, navigating Tokyo by subway, train, and bus was a breeze! We rented our pocket WiFi through Japan Wireless and were very happy with it. I submitted the order about a week and a half before our arrival in Japan, picked it up at the airport terminal, and dropped it off in the post box in front of security on our way out. The battery usually lasted all day, but they included an external battery charger with the WiFi unit just in case!
10. Taxis are not affordable transportation options.
They are also not regarded as very reliable in Tokyo since the city is so big and confusing, and most of the drivers don’t have intimate knowledge of the city’s geography. And most drivers don’t speak English. Taxis are usually a last resort for tourists, so don’t depend on them.
11. Buses are convenient and efficient ways to get around, but they’re harder to navigate because their stops are listed in Kanji.
Unlike the trains, the stops don’t have names that are easily recognizable. When we were traveling via bus we really just had to look at the overhead information screen to see the stop name, then we’d match the Kanji with the stops listed on our Google Maps directions. The buses are definitely more confusing than the trains, but still a great way to get around!
12. There are luggage lockers at all the stations.
If you need a place to store your bags before check in or anything like that, you can rent a large locker for 600 yen. All stations have at least one set of lockers available to travelers.
13. Bring lots of hand sanitizer with you.
There are so many people who pass through public transportation in one day, and lots of them are ill and coughing all over the place. I’m not a germophobe, but yuck. Matt and I both got sick during our time in Japan, and I’m pretty sure we picked something up from people on the trains.
If you have any additional questions, please feel free to comment below or contact me!
To find more of my content on Japan, visit my Japan Index page for a directory of posts.