There were a lot of things I wished I knew ahead of time when I was first planing my trip to Japan. I didn’t go to a travel agency because I wanted to customize my trip to my liking, and also because I didn’t want to spend the extra money. Of course you are able to scour the internet for blogs that can help you plan what locations to visit (including mine) but I want this post to specifically be about the different tips, suggestions, and need to know for anyone planning their first trip to Japan. Some of this information I found from the internet, and most I had to figure out while in Japan. I want to provide something that consolidated as many helpful tips as possible. This post in particular will cover public transportation. i.e Plans, Trains and Automobiles.

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Flights: Honestly, this and hotels will probably the most expensive thing you purchase for the trip. I booked my flight around 4-5 months before my trip, and people have told me it is best to book at least 6 months in advance to get the best prices. The trip can take anywhere from 12-16+ hours depending on if you have any layovers.

Hotels: Hotels may get a bit expensive, but I would suggest that unless you plan on renting a car over there, in which you  need to get a temporary international driver’s license, try to stay anywhere close to a train station. It doesn’t have to be a major train station such as Tokyo Station or Kyoto Station, but one that can get to it in a short amount of time would be easiest. It would make traveling around a lot easier.Usually

There are many types of hotels ranging from Western Style hotels with western beds and accommodations, Japanese style where you sleep on a folded mattress that you unroll onto the floor, or a bathhouse style hotel. In my honest opinion, the floor mattresses were not that bad, but if you have back problems, then maybe you should look for a hotel that has a bed. For my trip, I used the website Airbnb to book my places to stay. If you are unfamiliar with Airbnb, people post up rooms for travelers to come rent. The rooms can range from spare rooms in people’s houses, guest houses, to small hotels/motels. Best of all the rooms range from all prices so you can find any type of room that fits your budget.

I was fortunate enough to stay at small hotels and a bed-and-breakfast guesthouse on a small beach through AirBnb. I found that I paid great rates for all of my stays. However I did also had a friend who specifically tried to find places with western beds, but felt they were too hard, the locations were too sketchy, and some of the places he stayed at had no internet access. Though he paid a very cheap price for the places he stayed at. So depending on your budget, you can end up staying at nice, or not so nice places. Just be sure to read the reviews of the AirBnb locations, and look at the pictures so you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. Although if you are already spending the money for a trip to the country, I would personally suggest that you might as well spend a bit more for a nicer place to stay at. A personal motto of mine is “I’m didn’t go on vacation to save money.”

Traveling around Japan

Traveling can get tricky, but here’s a few helpful pointers that can make your trip to a foreign country a bit easier.

If you have TMobile as your phone provider, you are able to use Data in Japan no problem, and google maps works as well. I have found it a great life saver for me, and surprisingly, even in remote rural areas of Japan, I was able to get great reception and coverage.

For all of these modes of transportation, depending on the time of day that you take it, things can get very crowded. Think packed like sardines in a can. Just be mindful if people are trying to exit and for people trying to squeeze in. What I found amazing about the Japanese and the trains is that everyone will line up in front of the doors and wait for people to exit the trains before entering. I know that isn’t the case with other places such as the subways in New York where entering and exiting feels like a free for all. So even if you are used to crowding around an entrance way, please be mindful of the Japanese culture and follow their lead.

The busiest times for the trains that I have experienced were between the hours of 7-9am, and around 5-7pm. Pretty much the morning rush hour and the even rush hours. So I do recommend that if you are planning on a day outing somewhere, going as early as possible, say around 7:30 is good just so you don’t have to worry about the crowd. Otherwise, just having a quiet morning and enjoy breakfast, then head out around 9:30-10am. That will allow time for the crowd to die down a bit. Although even if you did, there is usually a particular stop where most of the working Japanese people exit, so you would only need to put up with the crowd until that stop. Note, this will all depend on where you are staying and which direction you are traveling. For example, when I stayed at the Tokyo Bay and wanted to travel to Tokyo Station, I found that my train was really crowded until we reached the Kobe station, 3-4 stops away from Tokyo Station. After that, things were fine. Also take note that this time schedule is for the weekdays. The weekends are a bit of a hit or miss depending on the direction you’re traveling to. I would still suggest that the earlier you head out, the better.

Also please turn your phones to silent, or use earphones. The Japanese people believe that your phone making noises, or talking on your phone while around other people is rude, and there will be signs everywhere requesting that you turn your phone on silent. People also generally don’t talk too much, or at least not loudly to each other on the trains, buses, or subways either.

A lot of the customs in the public transportation is to be mindful of others and the people around you. As long as you keep that in mind, then you will be fine. Although if you end up breaking one of these rules, the people may look at you funny, but will often understand that you are a foreigner and come from a different country with different traditions. And of course, you will see some people not always following some of these customs, which are usually from the younger kids to drunk adults late at night. Although the lining up at the train stations wand waiting for people to exit, everyone does. No one breaks those rules, so I would suggest  you don’t either.

Trains:

The main mode of transportation in Japan, and Japans railway system is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Very punctual and on time, and covers so many areas of Japan that it is possible to get to almost anywhere in Japan using only the railway systems. There are multiple trains running throughout the day, and some of them only stop at particular stations and not at every stop. So be sure to know which line you need to take to reach your destination. The trains operate at around 5am in the morning until around 1am at night. So if you want to hang out late, be sure to not stay out later than that otherwise you’d have to take a taxi or walk back to your room.

JR Railway Pass

What is recommended for people who are staying in Japan for a long period of time, lets say a week or more, is to get something called a JR Pass. JR is one of the few railway companies that owns a majority of the railway lines in Japan. The pass is only sold to foreigners, but you have to purchase one from a Japanese travel agency. The price will vary depending on how many days your pass is good for, either 7, 14 or 21 days long. What the pass offers is access to any JR line trains without paying any additional fees.  You can also purchase the pass to be good to a certain area of Japan, such as North, West or South. So if you’re planning on only staying in a certain area, that may save you some money. I purchased a pass that was good for all of Japan since I was traveling to multiple areas. The Pass does not cover every rail line, and doesn’t cover metros, so those you will still have to pay separately. If you are someone who has traveled to Japan often, then I’m sure you are able to calculate whether it is cheaper to just pay per use of the railways vs the pass, however if it is your first time, I recommend the pass for it’s convenience and also to give you one less thing to worry about.

How the JR pass works is when you purchase your pass at the agency, they will give you a voucher for the pass in which you bring with you to Japan. I recommend doing this when you first arrive at your airport, look for a JR store, present your voucher and passport, and the clerk will give you your pass that is good for however many days you purchased it for from the time that you redeemed your voucher. Now, whenever you enter/exit a train station, look for the window with a personnel. This is usually on the far left, or right side of the exit/entry stalls. Show them just your pass and they’ll let you through. There is no need to show your passport either.
You are able to find train times using a website called http://www.hyperdia.com/en/
that can help you navigate which station to take and exit to reach your destination.
If you have TMobile for your phone services, you can use your google maps to figure this out as well.

Pre-paid Cards

Another option for the passes is to get a prepaid card. There are a few types of pre-paid ic cards such as Suica where you can load it with money so that when you enter/leave a train station, you can just bring the card up to the scanner, which charges your card, and then you can enter/leave the station. Although you have to pay a 500 yen fee to get the card, which you can get at any of their corresponding machines that you can find at most major stations, it is a very fast and convenient way to pay for your train tickets.

Ticket Machines

If you prefer not to get either the pass or ic card, you can also pay for your ticket at each station. There will be a map of your location and all stations nearby. All you need to do is look for the station you want to head to and there will be a price listed of how much your ticket will cost. You just need to go to a ticket machine, some will have English options, select the ticket price you are purchasing, insert your money (it takes both coin yens and bills) and a ticket will pop out. You do not buy the tickets by selecting the station you are exiting, all you just need the correct amount. When entering the station, you look for a stall that has a small ticket reader, insert your ticket and your ticket will pop out from the other side of the stall, usually with a hole punch to indicate that your ticket is validated. When leaving, your repeat the same process only this time, your ticket will not be given back. Pay attention to the stalls. Some of them have both a ticket inserter and a IC card reader, but some will only be good for the IC cards. It may seem intimidating or confusing at first, but it is actually pretty easy once you try it a few times. If you have any questions or complications, look for the personnel window and someone there can help you. From my experience, most of them know a little English.
Some train stations will have multiple types of ticket machines, often color coded. All this means is that some of the machines are for particular train lines with correct prices for that particular line. So you will have to make sure you are purchasing the correct machine for your line.

Here are a few websites for some references if you would like to know more about the JR passes and IC cards.

http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2359_003.html

http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2359.html

Be sure you are boarding the right train on the right platform. Websites such as Hyperdia or Google Maps work wonders because they tell you which platform to board and it’s destination, so use that to double check that you are on the right train. There are some trains that will skip some exits and only stop at popular exits, so if you end up on the wrong train, you could still reach your destination, but it might take you longer to do so because your train had more stops.

High Speed Bullet Trains/Shinkasens

One of the best things about the JR Pass is that it also includes the bullet trains. This will help you get to locations such as from Tokyo to Kyoto, Kyoto to Hiroshima, and so fourth. Making long travels last as little as 2-3 hours. Trust me, it’s a lot shorter than the regular trains.

There are 2 types of train carts for the bullet trains: Reserved and Non-Reserved carts. Reserved means that you bought your train ticket at the station and it will specifically tell you which cart and seat you are in, as well as what particular time your train is leaving. If you own a JR Pass, you don’t have to pay for this, you just have to wait in line to purchase the ticket, show your pass and tell the worker which train and time you want. If you don’t purchase this, then you just have to make sure you are entering one of the carts that says “non-reserved”. Often it will end up being the first few or last few train carts. All this means is that the seats are first come first served. You can find out which carts are unreserved by looking at the electronic platform sign, which will tell you which train is at which location and which carts are non-reserved. Also, sometimes on the floor, near each train carts exit/entrance, will be painted signs indicating if that cart is a reserved or non-reserved cart. You can also ask a conductor or personnel for which carts are non-reserved as well.

Wide View Nanki – if you find yourself traveling to south of Japan, towards Owase, Kii-Katsuura region, most likely you will be taking this train down there. Because this train uses part of a railway that isn’t owned by JR, those who ride the trains with the JR Pass do have to pay an additional fee of around 800 yen to use it. The easy part is you just have to board the train and sit. When a conductor walks around to check everyone’s tickets, show him your pass, and you can pay either with a credit card or yen.

Subways:

Subways operate just like the train stations in terms of purchasing tickets and entering the stations.The tricky part will be knowing where to exit, as most subway stations are linked to multiple platforms that exit to different streets. Often there is a map that shows you which exit is located at which location that is categorized by letters ranging A-Z. So if you see for example that you need to exit off a particular street that is in the A section, just walk and look on the roof for sights of the letter A, and you’ll find your way.

Color Coded Lines and Stations. 

One of the best things about Japan’s train and subway lines are that most of them are color coded. Meaning, when you look at maps, each line is given a specific color such as red, purple, yellow, green, blue, ect. Google maps shows the same thing as well, so this makes finding your right train/subway very easy and convenient.

Buses: 

Some of the buses operates differently from each other. For some, you enter the bus from the bus stop,  there will be an electronic guide that tells you how much you need to pay to exit at a particular stop, or when you reach your stop, it will tell you how much you need to pay according to which bus stop you entered from.
If you use google maps, it can tell you this fee as well.
When you are approaching your stop, there is a button you can press to signal to the driver that you want to get off at the next exit.
You usually have to pay with exact change, so I would recommend having the bus fees ready ahead of time, or there’s a change machine that can break down your yen bills.
Some of the buses, you pay when you enter the bus, letting the driver know which exit you want to take and pay the driver before entering. There was one bus I took where I paid the driver at the end of the trip.
Be sure to double check to make sure you are taking the correct bus. I took a wrong bus on my trip once; my bus was supposed to arrive at 1pm, but this bus came at around 12:50. I thought my bus just came a bit early, but it turns out it was a different bus all together. From what I have seen, Japansese transportation prides themselves on their punctuality, so it is usually rare for something to arrive early or late. So be sure to double check you are taking the correct line.

Automobiles: 

I personally did not use any taxis on my trip. I was able to get to everywhere I needed using only buses and trains. Mainly trains and then walking to my destination. Although I am not sure of the average rate for the taxis, you do see a lot of them around train stations, so they will be easy to find. I did read somewhere that some taxis can take credit cards as payment, but I will say make sure you have cash too just in case. Similar to restaurants, you do not need to tip the taxi driver. It is unnecessary, and also not wanted either.

To drive in Japan, from what I red online, you will first need to obtain a foreign drivers license. For that you have to get either at your DMV or some DMV style location in your home country, then you can rent a car in Japan to drive around. You can not rent one otherwise. I would recommend googling this, I am not too familiar with this process, but as I stated before, I was able to get around using only trains, buses, and walking so I didn’t do a lot of research into driving.

 

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