Ever had a stranger use your shoulder as a pillow? No? Well if you’re going to be using a local train in Japan don’t be surprised if this happens. Luckily, travelling in Japan isn’t always so awkward.
Most visitors’ to Japan will be familiar with Narita International Airport but there are many smaller airports dotted around the country. Depending on the season and availability, travelling across Japan via domestic flights can work out cheaper, and faster, than going by an other method.
One thing I’ve observed about travelling in Japan is that the systems in place are primarily geared towards Japanese people travelling around their own country. This is especially evident when looking at the price of flights out of Japan. Even going to nearby countries can be super pricey. However some of the smaller airports have more reasonable ticket prices for flights to nearby coasts. For example, I once flew from the northern prefecture of Akita to Seoul in South Korea and back for around £200.
And believe me, that was a good price!
The Shinkansen (or Bullet Train) is possibly the most famous train system in the world and a big part of travelling in Japan. There are multiple types, some of which travel on the same lines but have different schedules. The services I often use in the Tohoku region are the Hayabusa, Hayate, and Yamabiko. Prices can be pretty high but it makes for a fantastic ride with cleanliness equal to air travel but better leg-room and punctuality. When buying a ticket it’s worth trying to get a non-reserved ticket as reservations cost extra, just be aware that some services are reservation only (notably the Hayabusa and the Hayate).
Local trains are generally pretty clean and have the nice feature of heated seats during the winter (the down side of which is when they put them on too early in the year and slow roast your buns on a long journey). They serve the smaller stations that Shinkansens do not. There are also express services available in some areas that stop fewer times. Tickets for these trains are not too expensive by comparison and can be bought at touch-screen ticket machines. Despite the fact that there are no “return” tickets, you can sometimes buy two individual tickets to and from your destination.
My last point about the Choo-Choos is to mention the ワンマン (One Man) cars. These services do not unlock all of their doors at every station. They’ll only do so at the larger stations. At small stops the train will only unlock the doors at the front of the train. It’s easy to forget when on one of these trains; I’ve seen plenty of locals dashing past me on late night stops.
The way I get around (as you may have guessed) is the same as most adults outside of the big cities; by car. Most cars here have automatic transmissions which took me a little getting used to as I learned to drive (poorly) in a manual car. Luckily, they drive on the left side out here – same as the UK. Around the Tohoku area I’ve found road quality to be spotty; pot holes, disrepair, lack of salt for gritting when the ice comes. Speed limits are lower than in the UK with 50 or 60km/h (~31-37mph) being the highest and the lowest being 30km/h on side streets. However it’s generally accepted (even expected) that everyone drives at +10km/h.
If you want to get up to a decent speed you’ll need to make use of the motorways, dubbed Expressways here. Unfortunately most of them have tolls and long distance journeys can get quite pricey. The price means better driving conditions (noticeably so in winter) and higher speed limits. Anyone who plans on using the Expressways regularly would do well to invest in an ETC card and reader for their car. This offers reduced rates and debits your credit card automatically when passing through toll booths.
Clearly anyone planning on driving in a foreign country would do well to check out the local laws before coming. Which is something I did. I definitely did that. Yes … >achem<. The road system is pretty similar to the UK’s, except no roundabouts; traffic flow is controlled solely by lights. Also, be aware of this street sign, which means “STOP”:
I don’t use local buses. Actually I don’t really like using buses in the UK either. This is largely because I get paranoid about getting off at the right stop, which means I’m constantly bobbing my head up and down trying to figure out where we are like a caffeine addicted Meerkat. (Also, some British buses smell like pee …)
So for more info on using local buses in Japan I think it’s worth taking a look over here.
The type of bus I do have experience with is the Night Bus. They’re a great way to save a bit of cash when travelling in Japan, and there are multiple providers (for example). For me to go to Tokyo from where I live the Night Bus costs half what it does to take a Shinkansen. Plus, they’re way more comfortable than any coach I’ve used in the UK. The seats recline really far, there’s more leg-room, and they give you a blanket. A blanket, I say!
Travelling in Japan
Research is key when travelling in Japan. It may be that flying is faster, but the Shinkansen is cheaper, but the bus gets you closer. There are certain travel cards and passes (such as the awesome tourist-only rail pass) that will help with the costs and the decision making.
Wherever your Japanese journey may take you, be it a quick jet to another prefecture, a shiny Shink’ down South, a bumpy road trip, or an over-night snore-fest, I’m sure you’ll have a travelicious time.
How do you find travelling in Japan? What’s your favourite form of transportation?
For more tales of travelling in Japan, click here.