Surviving Japanese Traffic

When talking about traffic or transportation in Japan images of fully packed subway carts, lightning fast bullet trains and the ever so famous Shibuya crossing probably pop up in most people’s minds. There is much more to it than that but traffic in Japan is definitely fast, modern and in my opinion, a little crazy. At times it can be daunting but knowing some do’s and dont’s of the system can also make your experience here much more enjoyable.

Here I have listed a few flamboyantly random pointers on how to survive in Japanese traffic based on my own experiences.

It is worthy mentioning that Tokyo is a completely different world in its own and due to it being a mega city everything in Tokyo is just much more than anywhere else in Japan.

takeshita street tokyo
It is easy to get lost in Tokyo’s busy streets

Rush hour

First and foremost: do not do it. Especially not in Tokyo. Plan your itinerary so that during morning and afternoon rush hours you are nowhere near busy stations or other hubs as it will get crazy. Tokyo and rush hour are two concepts you do not want to mix. Why? You will simply waste your time, run out of patience and possibly have a panic attack if you are not used to intense crowds invading your personal space.

rush hour
Room for one more? 

Backpacking in Japan or towing luggage? Simply avoid rush hour. Local commuters will give you looks and you will just end up feeling like an inconsiderate chump invading their space.
Or if you are not too bothered about annoying fellow travelers then the sheer volume of people and the slow going will get you.

shibuya xing
It is estimated that 2,500 pedestrians cross the infamous Shibuya crossing in Tokyo every time the signal changes.

Outside Tokyo things are not as terrifying but I would still urge anyone to travel outside rush hour.

Directions

Nowadays most people prefer using Google maps on their phones instead of old fashioned maps. But in Japan public WiFi is not very accessible and some travelers opt to not buy a local SIM card which makes online navigation extremely difficult. As someone who always gets a city map from the information booth at any given city they travel to I usually do not have any trouble navigating. It is also disturbing how often your phone’s GPS has no clue where you are which is why I trust a map. Another great thing about maps is that they never run out of battery.

Personally I recommend getting a map when you hit a new city in Japan. They are in English and often in other languages too, such as Spanish, Russian, German or French. Maps are available not only at information centers in different stations but also in many hotels and hostels, restaurants, cafés, shops, etc.

tokyo subway map
Tokyo Subway Map. Better to have it than to not!

Discount rail travel

Japan has a reputation of being very expensive and when it comes to transportation that is definitely true. If you are planning to travel anywhere in Japan the bullet train, shinkansen, is by far the most convenient option. It is fast, comfortable, convenient and hence quite pricey. But for foreign travelers there are a few discount options.

shinkansen interior
Shinkansen is quiet, fast and convenient. Especially if you pay a little extra and choose first class.

The most popular railway discount option is the JR Pass which is valid throughout Japan and comes in 7, 14 or 21 day options. The 7 day JR Pass costs around 39,000 JPY which is around 360 USD and many travelers consider this expensive. To put the cost of the JR Pass into perspective a one way bullet train ride from Tokyo to Hiroshima is approximately 19,000 JPY. In other words if you stay in Japan for a week and plan to travel outside Tokyo with the intention of returning back then the 7 day pass will have paid itself back.

A great perk of the JR Pass is also the fact that you are allowed to use local trains for free.

jr pass.jpg
JR Passes come with different, beautiful covers that change regularly.

If you know you will not travel all around Japan then getting the JR Pass might be a waste of money. There are plenty of other JR Pass options that are separated into different, much more restricted areas. For example a Kansai Area Pass lets you explore Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Kobe and Himeji area for around 2,000 JPY per day.
A useful website introducing different railway pass options can be found here.

For checking transportation costs in Japan I recommend using www.hyperdia.com/en/ which is a great help for anyone visiting or living in Japan.

Driving a rental

If you plan on driving in Japan you need a Japanese driver’s license or an international driver’s license from your home country before coming to Japan. Many visitors make the mistake of rocking up and thinking renting a car is easy in Japan. And to be fair why would it not be! Except in Japan it is not as easy as walking into a rental car agency. Once you are in Japan it is too late to get a permit to drive – unless of course you are living in Japan.

In general I think renting a car is not necessary in Japan unless you travel somewhere remote. If you stick around cities you are absolutely fine using public transportation. But rural areas do not offer great public transportation systems. I recommend renting a car in areas such as Hokkaido, Shikoku or Kyushu where you will definitely make the most of your time and hard earned cash if you drive.

snow mountain road
Driving in Japan can be an experience itself.

 

A word to the wise: driving in Japan can be very expensive due to the toll roads. If you decide to drive use your GPS to avoid expensive toll roads and use free highways instead. It will take you only marginally longer to reach your destination in most cases.
And of course: avoid rush hour times.

tokyo mario
You do not need an international driver’s license to do Mario Carting in Tokyo!

In this article I did not have time to cover hitch hiking in Japan, inexpensive bus travel or finding local travel deals. If you would be interested in reading about subjects such as those feel free to comment below.


11 thoughts on “Surviving Japanese Traffic

    1. Haha, I hear you! I had the misfortune of taking the last train from Shibuya to my hotel around Tokyo Station.. Have never seen so many drunken Japanese people and I’d like to see I’ve seen plenty! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  1. It was such an experience to be pushed into the car of the train for the first time. The mesh of faces against armpits, against sweaty shirts of salarymen… wow. such an experience indeed

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  2. Great advice!

    I guess the other good tips are :
    – Look out for the second hand ticket shops near major stations. You can often buy discounted tickets to long distance routes.
    – If you’re poor or a student, yakko buses (night buses) are comfy and pretty cheap. They can save you money on accommodation AND travel. 😉
    – The The Seishun Juhachi Kippu is also a really good way to travel on trains cheaply in Japan – you just have to use local trains.

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    1. For discount travel those are good tips!
      Do you find the second hand ticket shops really worthwhile though? I have never seen big discounts. Just seems like a waste of time to go to one only to save a few hundred yen.. Maybe that’s me!
      I’ve never taken a night bus cause I fear that they won’t be comfortable! I need good sleep and crammed into a night bus has turned me off the idea 😀 What companies you recommend?
      With Seishun Kippu I have often thought about getting it but the dates the pass is sold and the usage dates are not always convenient AND what’s more important for me is the time that it takes to travel with local trains. Last time I wanted to visit Beppu I was hell bent on getting Seishun Kippu but realized that instead of a 2 hour Shinkansen trip I’d spend 4+ hours in local trains… Just didn’t seem worth it anymore.
      But I think for students and people who are really on a budget these would be also great advice!
      Perhaps I should write about discount travel especially since that seems to interest quite a few travelers 🙂

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