Getting Around Japan
All Nippon Airways (www.ana.co.jp) and Japan Airlines (www.jal.co.jp) maintain an extensive network of flights covering all of Japan and its islands. There are a few budget airlines too, such as Skymark (www.skymark.co.jp), Air Do (www.airdo.jp), Solaseed Air (www.solaseedair.jp), IBEX Airways (www.ibexair.co.jp), Peach (www.flypeach.com) and Starflyer (www.starflyer.jp). Tokyo is serviced by two airports; Haneda (HND) (www.tokyo-airport-bldg.co.jp) which has both domestic and international flights, and Narita (NRT) (www.narita-airport.jp) for international flights.
A monorail service runs from Hamamatsu-cho to Haneda while both JR and Keisei trains connect Narita with Tokyo (fastest train - 1 hour). Other major airports with international connections include Kansai International Airport (www.kansai-airport.or.jp) near Osaka, Fukuoka (www.fuk-ab.co.jp), Centrair (www.centrair.jp) near Nagoya, and New Chitose Airport (www.new-chitose-airport.jp) near Sapporo.
From Tokyo to Sapporo is 90 minutes, from Osaka is 1 hour 50 minutes. From Tokyo to Fukuoka is 1 hour 50 minutes, from Osaka is 1 hour 15 minutes.
Japan has a network of well-connected expressways linking major regions. However, expressway tolls are very high and there is major congestion during peak holiday seasons. Driving is convenient if you are planning to travel outside the major cities to the more remote and scenic regions. It’s important to be aware of weather conditions – heavy rain and snow can force road closures.
International visitors must have an international licence in order to hire and drive a car in Japan. The minimum driving age is 18, and it is advisable to take out car insurance. Speed limits vary considerably so pay attention to signs.
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Roads are well maintained and increasingly well signposted in both Japanese and English on major routes.
The Keiyo Expressway, Meishin Expressway, Tohoku Expressway and the Tomei Expressway link Japan's major Pacific coastal cities.
There are numerous car hire companies operating in Japan. One of the biggest is Nippon Rent-A-Car (tel: +81 3 6859 6234; www.nipponrentacar.co.jp). You can also get discounts with car hire and train fare package deals by booking at JR Eki Rent A Car; just look for the travel centres in every JR station (www.ekiren.co.jp). All foreign visitors need an International Driving Permit in order to hire a car. The minimum age for driving in Japan is 18 years old.
These can be expensive, particularly in rush hour (0730-0930 and 1700-1800) when traffic can be very slow.
Taxi drivers are very professional, but tend not to speak English, so it is advisable to have your destination written out in Japanese, together with the name of some nearby landmark. A map may also help, as Japanese streets can be complicated and some taxi drivers may get confused. Hotels can provide this service.
A peculiarity of all Japanese taxis is that the rear doors are operated automatically by the driver - you shouldn't try to open or close the doors yourself. Tipping is not customary and could offend.
Cycling is a pleasant way to enjoy exploring Japan, and often faster than using public transport. Bicycle rental is available in all major cities, especially those with major sightseeing attractions such as Tokyo, Kamakura, Kyoto, Nara and Hiroshima. Local tourist information centres can provide details.
There are regular long-distance bus services running between all the major regions and cities in Japan. Both daytime and overnight buses are available. It’s a cheap way to travel and sightseeing time during the day can be maximised by travelling at night.
JR Bus Kanto (tel: +81 3 3844 1950; www.jrbuskanto.co.jp) operates regular coach services between Osaka and Tokyo. JR Tokai (tel: +81 52 563 0489; www.jrtbinm.co.jp) runs coach services between Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya and several other cities. JR Chugoku (tel: +81 82 261 5489; www.chugoku-jrbus.co.jp) operates services from Hiroshima and Okayama to Osaka. Willer Express (tel: +81 50 5805 0383; www.willerexpress.com/e) has direct coaches from Osaka to Sendai in northern Japan, as well as Hiroshima in the west and Nagasaki in the south.
Seat belts are compulsory and the speed limit on expressways is up to 100kph (62mph) although many drivers exceed this. In cities the speed limit is 40kph (25mph). The use of mobile phones is illegal when driving.
The Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) (tel: +81 570 008 139; www.jaf.or.jp/e) provides an English-language ‘Rules of the Road' booklet and JAF Road Service offers 24-hour breakdown assistance for both members and non-members (tel: #8139, in Japan only). In the case of an accident, you must inform the police (tel: 110).
An International Driving Permit is required. It’s also advisable to have your passport on hand for additional identification. Foreign drivers can use an international licence for up to one year, but if staying longer you are required to transfer to a local Japanese licence.
Traffic in cities is often congested, and extremely narrow roads can be found in both urban and rural areas.
Public transport is well developed, clean and efficient yet crowded during rush hours. The underground systems and suburban rail services, which serve all the main cities, are very convenient. Tokyo and Osaka both have loop lines, which make navigating the major areas of the city a little less confusing. Tokyo also has one working tram - the Toden-Arakawa line running 12km (7.5 miles) from Waseda via Ikebukuro to Minowa-bashi in northeast Tokyo.
Bus: Because of a general lack of English signs, these can be confusing and are best used with someone who knows the system. Otherwise you should get exact details of your destination from your hotel. Fares systems are highly automated, and passes are usually available. In Tokyo (www.tokyobus.or.jp) you pay a flat fare on entering a bus, but elsewhere - especially if you're travelling over a distance in the countryside and suburbs - you pay on exiting the bus, depending on the distance you have travelled. This is indicated by a fare board at the front of the bus.
Metro: All of Japan's largest cities have subway systems. Tokyo has two underground systems: the Tokyo Metro system (www.tokyometro.jp/en) and the Toei (www.kotsu.metro.tokyo.jp). Tickets for Toei lines are not valid for the Tokyo Metro and vice versa, so you must buy a transfer ticket. A variety of tickets are available including a monthly open pass, one-day open ticket, 14 tickets for the price of 10 and a Tokyo Combination ticket. The most convenient passes are the PASMO (www.pasmo.co.jp) and Suica (www.jreast.co.jp/e/pass/suica.html) stored-value cards that can be used on all subway lines as well as JR and private railway lines and buses in the Tokyo area.
Kyoto also has its own subway system (www.city.kyoto.jp/koho/eng/access/subway.html) as do Osaka (www.kotsu.city.osaka.lg.jp/foreign/english), Nagoya (www.kotsu.city.nagoya.jp/en/pc), Fukuoka (subway.city.fukuoka.lg.jp/eng)and Sapporo (www.welcome.city.sapporo.jp).
The Japan Railways Group (JR) runs one of the best rail networks in the world. Kyuko (Express) and Tokkyu (the faster Limited Express) trains are best for travelling within and between major urban areas, with frequent services on the main routes. Shinkansen, the 'bullet trains', are the fastest and most convenient for intercity travel, with compartments for wheelchair passengers, and refreshments for sale on board.
Supplements are payable on the three classes of express train and in 'Green' (first-class) cars of principal trains, for which reservations must be made. Other types of train include Kaisoku (Rapid Train) and Futsu (Local Train). For short-distance trains, tickets can be bought at vending machines outside train stations.
There are also two ultra-luxururious train services. Train Suite Shiki-Shirma (www.jreast.co.jp/shiki-shima/en) offers 1-3 night itineraries around northeastern Japan, and include destinations such as Naruko Hot Springs, Nikko Toshugo Shrine and Hirosaki Castle. Twilight Express Mizukaze (www.twilightexpress-mizukaze.jp) has a choice of five itineraries in western Japan, and includes stops in Kyoto, Osaka and the Sea of Japan. The impressive interiors showcase Japanese design and craftsmanship and prices are correspondingly steep.
The Japan Rail Pass (www.japanrailpass.net) is an economical pass for foreign tourists that must be purchased before arrival in Japan. It is valid for seven, 14 or 21 days and can be used on all JR trains (except the super express Nozomi services on the Shinkansen lines), and also on JR buses and JR ferries. For travellers with a JR Pass, there are various other discounts in operation including a 10% discount at any JR Group Hotel and economical car rental packages.
Other JR rail passes include the JR East Pass (www.jreast.co.jp), the Kansai Area Pass and the San'yo Area Pass from JR West (www.westjr.co.jp/global/en), the JR Kyushu Rail Pass (www.jrkyushu.co.jp/english), and the Hokkaido Rail Pass (www2.jrhokkaido.co.jp/global/english/railpass/rail.html), which is more localised and therefore slightly cheaper than the JR Pass.
The seasonal Seishun 18 Ticket (www.jreast.co.jp/e/pass/seishun18.html) is a cheap way to travel on JR trains nationwide. It allows five individual days of unlimited travel during certain periods on local and rapid trains. The pace is leisurely but it’s a great way to see the countryside. International visitors can buy the ticket from JR stations after arriving in Japan.
There are domestic ferry connections between the four main islands of Japan and their major ports, as well as the thousands of smaller islands. Major sea routes from Tokyo are to Kitakyushu (Fukuoka) via Tokushima on Shikoku, and Tomakomai on Hokkaido. Other routes include Maizuru to Otaru, Aomori to Hakodate, Kobe to Takamatsu and Kagoshima to Naha. Bullet train services travel frequently to ports. Ferry companies include Shin Nihonkai Ferry (www.snf.jp) and Ocean Tokyu Ferry (www.otf.jp).