Tokyo outward: the long and short of getting around Japan
Japan by now is firmly established in the minds of many as a notably unique and curious place. The country is a wonderful, whimsical mixture of ancient tradition and technological urban modernity and the result is, well, interesting to be euphemistic.
From ancient shrines in the shadow of snow-capped mountains, cherry blossoms, mystical forests and onsen to robot bars and capsule hotels in buzzing cities, there are tons of things to see and do in every corner of the country. There is so much to do you may find that your biggest challenge is finding out how to get around to see it all and take it all in.
That’s where we come in. With this handy guide, you’ll, in short order, be enlightened about how best to explore Japan - from Tokyo outward.
From Tokyo to other major cities and regions
Perhaps one of the greatest reflections of Japan's ultra-modern, high-tech and fast-paced society is the bullet train or shinkansen. These trains are understandably a tourist attraction in their own right travelling at maximum speeds of up to 320kmh linking all the major urban centres of Japan quickly and in comfort. Though there are cheaper ways to get around, if you are planning on going from city to city or region to region this is the way to do it - especially if your time is limited. The trains service the four main islands of Honshu, Kyushu, Shikoku and Hokkaido.
One way to simplify your travel around the country and between major centres is to invest in a Japan Rail Pass. These passes cost 39 600 YEN for 7 days, 64 120 YEN for 14 days, and 83390 YEN for 21 days (as of November 2019). All pass times are for consecutive travel - and you must have a temporary visa available to be eligible.
The railway in Japan is internationally known for its 20 000 km length servicing the whole country and is renowned for its punctuality and speed. With a Japan Rail Pass, travellers will be able to take full advantage of this extensive rail network and traverse the country, city to city, as they please. No worrying about buying tickets or carrying cash as the Japan Rail Pass is valid on all JR lines (Japan Railways Group - the main government-owned railway service) and covers the shinkansen too. Simply present your pass to the attendant at the turnstiles and board the next available train and be sure to ask for help here should you need it. Alternatively, you can check out this link for some handy tips related to rail travel worth remembering before you land in Japan.
It is important to note that the Japan Rail Pass needs to be purchased outside of Japan. The pass is meant to service travellers with a tourist visa and you can expect your passport to be checked upon activation of the pass. The good news is that in addition to the shinkansen, the Japan Rail Pass also includes the regular trains, plus affiliated buses and ferries so this becomes, in the long run, a really cost-effective and effortless way to get around so you can focus on enjoying your travels.
A slower and less costly alternative to getting around is on the extensive intercity bus network linking the major centres of Japan. Though it might take you up to 5 times as long to get to your destination. Your journey from Tokyo to Osaka might have taken you 2 hours while on the bus you can look forward to staring out of a window for 10 hours. If you're strapped for time you may want to avoid this option altogether but if you've got time but no money - there is almost no way better to get around. Conversely, there are areas that can be accessed by bus that cannot be reached by train such as national parks in Hokkaido and around the smaller islands. Used in conjunction, buses and trains can get you practically anywhere in Japan bar a destination that requires a ferry trip of course. One of the most popular bus service providers is Willer Express offering affordable means to travel the country.
Much like on the intercity trains, luggage space is limited so you will need to plan ahead. On the shinkansen, you're only given the equivalent of an overhead compartment to store your goods which is far from ideal if you're lugging around clothing and supplies for a month-long stay. Do as the Japanese do and make use of takkyubin, or baggage courier service, and send your belongings to your destination ahead of your arrival for a modest fee. For more on this 'hands-free travel', follow this link.
Getting around: Local transport
The cities of Japan are notorious for being packed, buzzing metropolises that can be a stress if you're trying to navigate them by motorcar. For the best possible experience, stay out of the driver's seat and make use of Japan's excellent public transport infrastructure.
The first thing you need to consider is getting an IC or prepaid metro travel card. These contactless cards are loaded with credits or currency beforehand and are then redeemable across train and subway systems in the metros of places like Kobe, Kyoto, Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Sapporo, Fukuoka and Yokohama. Travelling on the subway as the locals do is often the fastest and most deficient way to get around the cities giving you more time to explore. These cards are also redeemable on rams and buses (metro not intercity) and can even be used in different regions wherever IC cards are accepted and used.
However, these IC cards are geared towards longer stays so if you're staying for a day or less it might be a better deal to consider the ichi-nichi-josha-ken which is an unlimited-travel single day ticket.
For an even more intimate look at Japan's cities and regions locally, consider hitting the streets on two wheels and no engine. Pedal and power your way around and see things on the ground from a street-level. When you want to leave the cities, simply pack up your bike and put it on the train or bus and you're off to your next great travel adventure.
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