My first and most important tip: Pack light! I took an average suitcase and a messenger bag, and still wish I'd packed lighter. With the amount of traveling you'll be doing, you won't want to be lugging around a huge suitcase or over sized backpack. Not only will it cause you hassle, but it will also cause hassle to the Japanese people that are trying to catch the train on their day to day commute by taking up a lot of room. The trains can get pretty crowded during rush hour, so the last thing they want is your chunky bag in their faces.
Japan has the most efficient transportation system I've ever experienced. During my three week stay, I encountered one late bus (late by 10 minutes) and one late train (late by 30 minutes), in all other instances everything was on time.
One of the essential items to take with you, is the Japanese Rail Pass. This pass will allow you unlimited travel on all JR lines, including most Shinkansen. Though be aware the pass is not valid for “NOZOMI” and “MIZUHO” trains on the Tokaido, Sanyo and Kyushu Shinkansen lines, and it also excludes subways. This does not devalue the pass in anyway though, as during our stay we caught the subway approximately 4 times at a cost of roughly ¥250 per trip (Which is around £1.50).
You pay for the JR pass while in your home country, and they will send you a pass receipt. This receipt can be redeemed (when you arrive in Japan) at the JR desk at any of Japan's major airports, where they will ask for your passport, and date of departure. Once they've signed and stamped your pass, you're good to go! Let's jump on a train right away! 行きましょう!
Don't worry, it's not as daunting as it may look. If you've ever navigated your way through London via the Underground, this is no different. There are three major JR lines to keep an eye out for; Yamanote (green), Sobu (yellow), and Chuo (orange). The Yamanote JR line runs in a huge circle around the middle of Tokyo, hitting all the major areas such as Shibuya, Shinjuku, Harajuku, Ueno, and obviously Tokyo. While the Sobu and Chuo lines run right through the middle of that huge circle.
Obviously with these being the most popular lines in Tokyo, they can get pretty crowded. If you suffer from claustrophobia, or don't do well in crowds of people, then perhaps try to avoid traveling during rush hour. Even though a train arrives once every two or three minutes, during rush hour the Sobu line can be at 200% over capacity. If you travel in the morning please be aware that the front carriage on most trains is for ladies only.
Spacious during the evening
The Shinkansen is one of Japan's most famous means of transport, often reaching speeds of 200MPH. With the JR pass you will be able to get around Japan in no time. While you don't have to book tickets for the Shinkansen trains, I would advise it. There is plenty of room in each coach, however the "unreserved" coaches can get a little crowded, especially if you're wanting to sit with your friend.
Booking a seat is easy, simply hunt out the "Shinkansen Ticket" booth in any of the stations, join the queue and then simply ask the assistant: "Watashi wa (place) ni ikitai desu" which is "I'd like to go to (place)" Don't panic if you're worried about speaking Japanese, as most of the assistants speak a little bit of English anyway.
As you may have guessed, the Shinkansen trains are very, very long, often comprising of over 20 coaches. Take a look at this short video of Bob and myself getting onto the Shinkansen platform and then navigating our way to our coach and reserved seat. Just look how long it takes to walk to our coach...
Buses in Japan work slightly differently to those in the west for a number of reasons. Firstly, a lot of the bus stops have live updates of the location of the bus, so you can gauge how long you will be waiting. Secondly, you pay for your ride when you leave the bus, not as you enter it.
Bus stop time table in Kyoto
Try to have the correct change readily available, as while there is a change machine at the front of the bus, you don't want to hold up the people who are trying to get off. The average bus fare is around ¥230, which you simply drop into the driver's coin machine.
The bus entrance doors are on the side, while the exit are the doors at the front, so don't try to barge your way onto the bus via the front door. The seats are fairly narrow (If you're slightly larger than average, you may have a hard time fitting into the seats) and are almost always reserved for priority customers (the disabled, elderly and expectant mothers) so essentially, if there's nothing wrong with your legs, stand up.
Here is another short video to give you an idea of what to expect. Notice a few interesting things;
- The stops are announced in Japanese, and then in English
- The stops are displayed on the monitor in Japanese, and in English
- Customers enter the bus via the side doors, and leave via the front
- Customers pay their fare as they exit the bus
- The seats are single file and fairly narrow
If you have any questions on Japanese transport, or have any comments you'd like to add, please feel free and I'll update this post accordingly.