Did you know that in 2018 over 31 million people visited Japan as tourists? In fact, the country is ranked as the best country for travelers in Asia and fourth in the world.
Japan is a country crammed full of adventure. There are so many things to do and see that anyone traveling there wants to know the best ways to take it all in. With the right know-how, you can take advantage of the many different resources Japan offers travelers and enjoy as much of the country as possible.
From maps to hacks you can use, this guide covers the best ways to travel to and within Japan. With these pointers, you can save money, time, and have a more rewarding trip.
Traveling To Japan For The First Time
Whether for business or leisure, your first trip to Japan is an exciting prospect. For Westerners, Japan is a foreign culture ripe for adventure and exploration. Even though you’re surely looking forward to the new experience, it’s natural to be a little anxious. Not only do you want to be prepared for unexpected cultural differences, but you want to maximize your time and get the most out of the country. Even for experienced travelers, there are several unique aspects of Japan that are worth knowing.
Japan is a highly developed country
Many Westerners may have the mistaken idea that the developed, first-world countries are confined to Europe and North America. They may think of Asia and imagine undrinkable water and straw huts. Nothing could be farther from the truth, especially when it comes to Japan.
Japan is a developed nation with the third-largest economy in the world. The infrastructure is some of the best on earth, and in many cases, you’ll find technology even more advanced than what you’re used to. Don’t worry about finding amenities. The water is drinkable, and the streets are clean.
The Japanese speak little English
My first time in Japan, I was very surprised by how little English there was in the country. While workers in the tourist industry and at information desks may have a proficient level of English, most ordinary people don’t speak much at all. Don’t expect to be able to stop anyone and ask for directions.
The Japanese are very helpful, and oftentimes they’ll use translation programs as best they can to communicate with you, but this only goes so far. A better option is to learn some basic Japanese phrases for things you’re certain to need. That includes ordering in restaurants, paying at stores, and asking for facilities like restrooms and bus or train stations. You’re in their country, after all.
As far as reading, don’t expect many English versions either, especially the farther you get from major urban areas like Tokyo and Kyoto. However, it is at least fairly common to find short texts such as those on signs transliterated into the Hepburn adaptation of the Latin alphabet along with the traditional Kanji-Kana Japanese writing system. Again, this means you’ll benefit from learning a few basic words and phrases.
Japan is mostly cash-based
For being as technologically advanced as it is, the Japanese do little of their payments electronically. Large chains and sometimes vending machines accept credit and debit cards, but your average establishment is cash-only. You’ll need to carry plenty of real money around with you.
On top of that, keep in mind that all currency under ¥1,000 (around $10) is in coin, so carrying it can be hard in your typical American wallet. Consider investing in a coin purse. In recent times, Japan has been catching up with the rest of the world in terms of electronic payments, however, it’s a good idea to follow this tip just in case!
How To Get To Japan
Japan is an island nation, so I’m sorry to say you won’t be able to drive there. Still there are a lot of different options for arriving in the country, all of which will depend on where you’re going and what you’re doing.
Both of Japan’s busiest airports are located in Tokyo: Haneda and Narita International Airports. Besides these, Japan has two other international airports: Kansai in Osaka and Chubu near Nagoya.
For those traveling to Japan from the US or Europe, you will most likely want to fly into one of the Tokyo airports. Although Kansai and Chubu have international capabilities, you’ll still likely end up connecting in Tokyo. Flying to Kansai or Chubu will only add considerable time and cost to your trip.
The only exception would be if you’re planning an extended trip to Osaka or Nagoya. If your trip is so long that you’re bringing a lot of luggage, it will be more convenient to fly there directly than to take another means of transportation from Tokyo.
So you can’t drive to Japan per se, but you could theoretically take your car there if you were so inclined. Several mainland countries connect to Japan via ferry, so you can catch one on foot or by car.
South Korea has the most options for ferry service with four different routes. Three begin in Busan, South Korea, and land in Fukuoka, Osaka, and Hitakatsu. There is another between Donghae, South Korea, and Sakaiminato.
Far less frequent routes also operate from Russia and China. From Russia, you can catch a ferry at Vladivostok, a city in the Russian Far East. It’s the east end of the Trans-Siberian railway, so you could take the train from Europe and then board the ferry to Sakaiminato, Japan. From China, you’ll board in Shanghai and travel to Osaka.
The days of traveling by ocean liner may be over, but it’s still possible to get to Japan by ship. Several pleasure cruises will take you from the North American west coast to Japan, some stopping in Tokyo, others in other Asian cities. These routes are operated by Holland America Line, and push off from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Vancouver. It takes about 14 days to cross the Pacific.
If you’re already in Asia, there are a number of cruises to choose from. Depending on where you want to start, you can search for lines that will take you from Hong Kong, South Korea, the Philippines, or Malaysia to many different ports around Japan.
With an active imagination, there’s no end to the ways and means with which you can get yourself to Japan. Take a hot air balloon like in Around the World in 80 Days or test your endurance by rowing across the Korea Strait.
One popular way world nomads get around is by hitching rides with private yachts. After a few certification courses in sailing, you’ll be qualified to join the crew. Then you can head down to the docks and try to find a captain willing to give you a room, board, and a wage to work on the boat. You may even be able to find yachts going directly from west-coast cities to Japan, or you can island hop, working on one boat then another until you arrive at your destination.
Similarly, you can try to travel by cargo ship. Although these ships usually only carry professional crews, when they have extra rooms, they may rent them for a low price. You’ll have to contact shipping companies in advance to see what ships have openings and where.
As with all extraordinary means of travel, check laws and visa requirements and know your safety limits before doing anything too adventurous.
The Cheapest Ways To Travel Japan
Most major cities in Japan have airports, but that’s really not the best way to get around. No, it’s not by car either. In fact, you’ll see a surprisingly small number of vehicles on the roads and highways when you visit the country. In Japan, trains are by far the preferred method of transportation.
The Japanese railway system
Japan’s train system is extensive. For cross-country trips, the shinkansen bullet trains offer speedy but comfortable transportation. For example, if you want to drive from Tokyo to Kyoto, it takes you nearly six hours. However, a trip on the shinkansen is just a bit over two hours. Not only that, but as long as you have a seat reservation, you can recline and relax in a comfy seat without having to worry about controlling the car.
The shinkansen trains connect most major cities, and within cities, they usually stop at all the major train stations. From there, if you want to get to suburban areas or smaller towns, you can catch regional trains and metro lines to get anywhere you need to go. In most cases, you’ll be able to get within walking distance of your destination by train.
Japan Rail Pass
For those wanting to see a large part of Japan while on a tourist visa, the Japan Rail Pass offers incredible value. With a JR Pass, you have unlimited access to any transportation provided by the Japan Rail Group, a group of seven JR companies that operate around the country.
Most beneficially, this covers the majority of Shinkansen lines. With time periods of seven, 14, or 21 days, you can use the pass to travel around the entire country. On my first seven-day Japan trip, I saw Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Nara, and Nagano as well as other small towns. For reference, a seven-day standard pass costs around ¥30,000, a price that quickly pays for itself if you’re using the Shinkansen.
In addition to the Shinkansen, though, the JR Pass gives you access to regional trains, metros, and even buses, as long as they’re operated by JR. For instance, in Tokyo this lets you use some of the metro lines including the main JR Yamanote loop. This can save you money when going around the city. Just keep in mind that it doesn’t allow you to use other private lines.
The most important thing to know about the JR Pass is the buying process. The best way to get one is to purchase in advance through an authorized agent in your home country. You’ll then receive an exchange voucher that you can go pick up in person or have shipped to your house. Once in Japan, you’ll trade this voucher in for the pass.
Alternatively, you can buy the pass directly when you get to Japan. This is, however, just a trial by Japan Rail and is set to end in March 2021. Plus, doing it this way is more expensive, takes longer when you arrive, and is possible at fewer locations. It’s a better idea to do it ahead of time. You can find the authorized agents here.
Train and metro cards
One confusing thing about the Tokyo train network is that it’s operated by a number of private companies. For instance, in Tokyo, besides the JR metro lines, there are also lines run by Toei Subways and Tokyo Metro, two separate companies. Generally speaking, you need separate tickets for each one, and the JR Pass does not work on the other companies.
For getting bulk discount tickets, you simply have to do this through each company separately. For example, you can get a one-month all-line pass for the Tokyo Metro for ¥17,300. However, there is a convenient way to use all the rail companies without having to buy a different ticket each time. The Suica card is a rechargeable smart card that you can just use at the automated turnstiles at train stations or on the bus. In addition to transportation, it’s often even accepted by vending machines and parking garages.
Within cities, rental bicycles are a fun, inexpensive, and a healthy way to get around. Instead of missing everything underground in the subway, you can get some fresh air and experience the beauty of each city block in between sights.
Many common tourist destinations have racks of bikes where you can pick up or drop off your rental. Different companies have different rates, but they can cost as little as ¥100 (about $1) per hour. Most are the kind of bicycle referred to as mamachari, or “mom’s bicycle,” that are fixed gear and have a basket in case you go souvenir shopping. You can also find models with multiple gears and electric motors, but these are usually more expensive.
Useful Maps Of Japan
With this map, you can trace all the various Shinkansen bullet train lines as of 2017 and where they stop. A couple of things are important to note.
One, the map is color-coded by JR company. Japan Rail is actually a group of five separate companies that operate in different parts of the country. The standard JR Pass covers all of them, but if you only need the lines of one company, you can get a pass that only covers that area.
Two, as the magnified bubble in Tokyo shows, JR East and JR Central meet at Tokyo Station. This means you can go either direction from Tokyo Station, but as you can see, the Ueno station will only give you access to the JR East Tohoku Shinkansen, and the Shinagawa station will only give you access to the JR Central Tokaido Shinkansen.
Regions and prefectures
In this map, you can see how Japan is divided up into eight regions further divided into 47 prefectures. These are administrative areas usually with their own particular cultures.
Access to Narita International Airport
While Haneda Airport is easily accessible by Tokyo subway lines, Narita Airport is much farther outside of the city and harder to get to and from. This map shows you which trains you can take. If you have a JR Pass, an agreement with Japan Rail allows you to use the Narita Express for free.
Tokyo subway lines
This map includes the subway lines for the two main metro companies in Tokyo: Tokyo Metro and Toei Lines. The black circle also designates the JR Yamanote Line, which, unlike the others, can be accessed with the JR Pass.
More Japan Travel Hacks
Capsule hotels are especially convenient if you’re traveling alone. These tiny, human-sized hotel rooms are basically just a bed. While cutting down on space will definitely save you money, the real hack is taking advantage of incremental reservations. At capsule hotels, you don’t have to pay for a full night. Rather, you can book as little as an hour. Traveling can be stressful, so don’t hesitate to grab a nap when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
Capsule hotels usually have different floors for each gender, and they’re designed for one person anyway, so it’s not a couple’s retreat. Still, you could each enjoy it separately if you really want.
Since Japan is a mostly cash-based society, it’s always good to have some on you. Of course, with exchange rates and foreign transaction fees, this can be a frustrating maze of getting nickel and dimed. Luckily in Japan, it’s pretty easy.
Japanese ATMs accept most foreign debit cards and oftentimes even credit cards. 7/11 ATMs are one of the best options because they don’t charge a fee and are open 24 hours. Whenever I travel to Japan, this is what I do. Since my American bank doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, it ends up being a completely free withdrawal. The only thing to take into account is the exchange rate.
While banks and especially airport exchange counters will take a lot of your money in fees and poor exchange rates, using an ATM like this will keep cash in your wallet.
Foreign travelers in Japan on the 90-day tourist visa are eligible for tax-free shopping. This means that whenever you spend ¥5,000 (around $50) or more on most general goods and many consumable goods, you don’t have to pay Japan’s usual 10% consumption tax.
At many stores, there are actual cashier counters where you can show your foreign passport and tourist visa and then only pay the tax-free price. Otherwise, you can bring your goods and receipts to officials at the airport to receive a refund. For a full breakdown of what goods are eligible and what the rebates and discounts are, visit Japan’s Ministry of Finance website.
Train stations and often department stores have their walls covered with coin lockers. You can pay for the key, usually in an automated machine, and then store your luggage for various amounts of time. The best way to take advantage of this is the day you check out of your hotel.
For example, I had to check out of my hotel in Kyoto in the morning, but I wanted to spend the day in Hiroshima before going to Tokyo in the evening. Unfortunately, those are each in opposite directions. Well, I just left all my luggage in a coin locker at the Kyoto train station. Then, when I came back from Hiroshima, I grabbed it and immediately boarded the train for Tokyo. Coin lockers make train travel even more convenient than it already is.
Leave your comfort zone
Want to know the ultimate travel hack? Applicable to anywhere in the world but especially true in Japan, don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. Whether that means sleeping on the floor, eating strange food, or trying to speak in Japanese, it’s these little adventures that make life-long memories. Bring out the fearless traveler within.