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