The Best Ways to Get Around in Japan

The Best Ways to Get Around in Japan

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Best ways to get around Japan
Pictures: Canva
You're coming to Japan! But how do you get from point A to point B? Here's a guide to the best ways to get around the country.

There’s a lot to do and explore in Japan. The first step to enjoying it is deciding how to reach your destination. In this article, I round up some of the best ways to get around Japan – whether it’s from the airport to your hotel or to another part of the country entirely.

Note: In this article, I’ll recommend a couple of services from our partners at Inbound Platform that might help you. We earn a commission at no expense to you if you use them. I’ll also offer alternatives to Inbound Platform’s services when they make sense or could save you money if you’re on a tight budget.

Getting out of the airports

Narita Airport, Chiba
“One time, I had to go to Tokyo via Narita.” “That’s rough, buddy.” (Picture: キャプテンフック / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

If you fly into Tokyo, you’ll face different choices depending on where you land: Haneda or Narita.

If you land in Haneda – congratulations! Haneda is closer to the city center, which means you can grab a cab without much fanfare and not too much expense. You have a couple of options for grabbing a taxi:

  • Go to a taxi stand and grab one.
  • Use Uber, which will call a licensed taxi to the designated pickup area.
  • Use the luxury taxi service provided by our friends at Inbound Platform. They’ll meet you at airport reception and give you white-glove, door-to-door service. Service is available for Haneda, Narita, and Kansai Airports from between 14,700 yen for Haneda ($92) and 22,790 yen for Osaka ($143). While that makes it the most expensive option here, it’s also the least time-consuming and most hassle-free.

If you don’t have much luggage, you can save some money and grab a subway. If you don’t have an IC transportation card already, go to the Welcome Suica vending machine in Haneda’s Terminal 3 and pick one up. Welcome Suica is a bus pass sponsored by Japan Railways East specifically meant for short-term travelers. In almost all cases, train travel will cost you well under USD $10/person.

(You can also put a Suica pass on your phone. More about that below in “Getting around the city.”)

Another option is the Limousine Bus. The bus, which serves both Narita and Haneda, departs regularly from the airports and drops passengers off in every major area of the Tokyo metropolis. For Haneda, tickets are a mere 2,100 yen (USD $13.15) per adult and 1,050 yen ($6.58) per child. The only downside is that it takes longer to get to your destination via bus than via taxi, as the bus makes multiple stops.

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Similar options exist for Kansai-area airports, including Kansai International (KIX). You can also easily take a subway to many Osaka-based destinations out of KIX.

What about Narita?

For Narita, you can take a subway. However, for most travelers going to Tokyo midtown locations, this will take well over an hour or longer. You can use the luxury taxi service from Inbound Platform for a comfortable, direct trip. Cheaper options include:

  • Limousine Bus, at 4,000 yen ($25) per adult and 2,000 yen ($12.50) per child.
  • The Narita Express (NEX), a fast express train from Narita to major Tokyo-area destinations, including Tokyo, Shinagawa, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Yokohama, Ofuna, and many points in between. At 5,000 yen ($31) for adults and 2,500 yen ($15) for kids, NEX is the best combination of speed and price.

Getting around the city

Suica card
Picture: jovannig / Depositphotos

If you’re in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, or a similar large-ish city, getting around will likely mean a combination of walking and subways.

For Tokyo, as mentioned, Welcome Suica is an easy way to pay for subways, buses, and taxis. The only problems with the Welcome Suica card are (1) it’s a physical card you can lose and (2) it expires in 30 days, after which you lose any balance.

A superior option, in my opinion, is to add a Suica, PASMO, or ICOCA (Kansai area) card directly to your phone. This works even for non-Japanese iPhone and Android devices, as the major phone manufacturers have supported the technology behind Japan IC transportation cards for years.

Apple has solid instructions for adding a Suica, PASMO, or ICOCA card to your wallet. Note that all three cards are part of a national transportation network in Japan, which means you can use them practically anywhere in Japan that accepts IC cards. Additionally, the card doesn’t expire like the tourist-centered Welcome Suica does.

You can also use your IC card as a form of cashless payment at most combini, restaurants, and many stores around Japan. The only limitation is an IC card can usually only have a 20,000 yen (USD $125) balance, which means you’ll need to recharge it frequently.

Subway gotchas

Japan’s subways are generally convenient and easy to use. However, there are a few gotchas to watch out for.

The major gotcha is that there is no single subway company. The subway system in any given city is an interconnected network of privately and publicly run lines. This means you have to pay careful attention to which subway entrance gate you use.

Suibway companies often share a station. However, they usually have separate gates – and sometimes, the gate is in a totally separate, nearby station. So if you’re riding, say, the Yamanote line in Tokyo, you’ll want to make sure you’re entering a JR gate. If you’re riding the Marunouchi line, you need to use a Tokyo Metro gate (and so on).

You don’t need to know which company operates which line. However, you do need to pay attention to make sure the gate you’re entering services the line you need. Make sure to look up at the signs hung above the gate before entering.

The second detail to pay attention to is the platform, or ホーム (houmu) in Japanese. A line operates in two directions, either serviced by the same sides of one platform or on different platforms. Make sure to get on the one going in the direction you need. Google Maps and other map applications will list which platform number you need for your destination.

Bikes and scooters

As I discussed in my previous article on bicycling in Japan, it’s pretty easy to rent electric bikes and scooters here. Both Docomo and Luup provide services to foreigners in multiple languages for renting scooters and bikes for short trips.

Taxi services

There are also times you’ll want to catch a taxi home. This is especially true if you stay out partying past the time the last train runs.

Besides hailing a taxi, foreigners can also use their own phone numbers to register for the Go taxi app and call a ride. This door-to-door service will generally cost a bit more than hailing a taxi but can be a more reliable option during busy periods.

Getting around Japan

Nozomi service shinkansen bullet train on the Tokaido line zooms past Mt. Fuji, with pink flowers in the foreground.

Do you want to explore areas beyond the Big Three cities of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka? Of course you do! With overtourism plaguing the major cities, you’re bound to have a less crowded and more relaxing experience visiting other locations such as Sapporo, Morioka, and Kanazawa.

Additionally, going to other areas of Japan often means using the Shinkansen. Japan’s famous bullet train system criss-crosses the country, its lines whisking passengers to popular destinations as they enjoy a meal, a drink, and some beautiful scenery. Riding the Shinkansen at least once is almost a must on your visit to Japan.

Unfortunately, buying Shinkansen tickets when you get to Japan can be a pain. Additionally, the online ticket services sponsored by Japan Railways are often hard to understand and use.

For this, I recommend leveraging the Shinkansen booking service from our friends at Inbound Platform. You can order tickets online anytime and receive them as a QR code on your phone. An additional benefit of using Inbound Platform is that they provide excellent customer service by phone in English between 8am and 11pm JST daily.

Sadly, Shinkansen lines don’t cover every area of the country. For example, if you want to visit the beautiful Izumo and see wonders such as Izumo Taisha, you’ll need to book plane tickets. At these times, your best option is to book a ticket on one of Japan’s major domestic carriers, such as Japan Airlines (JAL) or All Nippon Airways (ANA).

Finding your way around in Japan

When researching the best way to get around Japan, you’ll want to look up directions to see what your options are. Fortunately, this is easy, as Google Maps is fully supported and will present you with all possible options (including Shinkansen routes).

Google Maps is a reliable way to figure out how to get around within a city. Just make sure you have a reliable Internet connection. You can get either a pocket wifi or an eSim from our friends at Inbound Platform to stay connected wherever you travel in Japan.

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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