It’s a well known fact that transport can be a huge expense when travelling around Japan! Being long and thin, there are some decent distances between major cities and you will need to account for this in your budget.
It’s just over 450km from Tokyo to Kyoto and an additional 350km from Kyoto to Hiroshima. If your heading north to Sapporo via road transport, bunker down for a 1,150km trip including a ferry! One way to get around it is to explore single regions rather than travel up and down the country. You could easily spend weeks exploring one region of Japan! This will help lower your cost as you won’t need to use long distance trains or buses. However if you do want to do more long distance travel, there are ways to make it as cheap as possible – you just need to plan ahead and be strategic!
The train is the quickest and easiest way to get around Japan. The Japan rail network appears confusing with the various different names for trains and hundreds of coloured lines when you look at a map, however it is really quite simple.
The best way to navigate the train network is to download an app called “Japan Travel” by Navitime. A desktop version is Hyperdia. You can search your start and end train station and it will give you a range of different train options each with the number of trains, cost and how long it will take to get there. It will also tell you if the trip is covered by a Japan Rail Pass (more on this later). Choose a route and the next screen tells you the exact cost, where and how to get on the train. You can use the app to plan a trip in advance or you can use it to find the next train as you are walking to the station. You do need access to the internet for the app to work, so we recommend getting a Pocket Wifi. See this post for more information on how to get one. Honestly we would have been so lost without this app in Japan, it’s a must have!
Local travel around the city is generally just a few dollars per trip. Different cities do things different ways so it really depends where you are as to what is the best way to travel. Tokyo is primarily a train city with a lot of train and subway lines. These will get you close to anywhere you want to go. Kyoto has a train, subway and bus network. If you are planning to do all the tourist sites around Eastern Kyoto then the bus is the way to go. Getting to further out places like Arishiyama and down to Fushimi Inari Shrine involves a train trip. Hiroshima has trains, buses and streetcars/trams. Due to where we were stayed we found the trams most useful however it will really depend where you stay and where you want to get to. Each city has it’s own passes that help you save money, so where you go and what you want to do will decide which of these are best for you.
Long distance trains
Japan is very well known for its Shinkansen which regularly reach speeds of up 320 km per hour. Whilst in Japan you really should go for a ride on one of these just for the experience (don’t look out the window too much or you’ll feel sick!), however they are expensive! This is where the Japan Rail Pass may come in as a money saver. Tokyo to Nagano (1.5 hours) is minimum ¥7,680/$87AUD and Tokyo to Kyoto (2.5 hours) is minimum ¥13,080/$148AUD. For those longer distances the bullet train is the only realistic train based option – the quickest local train from Tokyo to Kyoto involves around 5 changes, 8 hours of travel and ends up costing roughly ¥10,000/$115AUD and that’s during the day. A similar overnight trip is 12.5 hours and more costly than the bullet train. So it’s doable, more a matter of weighing up if time or money is more important to you.
Japan Rail Pass
The Japan Rail Pass is the top pass international travellers get in order to save money on rail travel in Japan. This pass can be very handy depending on where you are going and what you intend to do. A quick low down on the rail network in Japan – JR stands for Japan Railways and they own about 70% of the rail network. All JR trains will say “JR” in the line name (e.g. JR Yamanote, JR Nara). Private railways own the remaining 30% of the network and will have a range of different names that do not have JR in front of them. A Japan Rail Pass will give you access to pre-paid travel on all JR lines (with a couple of very minor restrictions) and most JR buses.
Once you have a general route planned, put it in to this calculator and it will tell you whether the Japan Rail Pass is worth it for your trip. Keep in mind the days have to be consecutive, i.e. a 7 day pass means 7 days from the day you activate it, not 7 separate days of using the train. I have copied the table from japanrailpass.net below with the prices. There are also passes available for different areas of Japan, so if you are sticking to one area these may be worth checking out. See japanrailpass.net for more information. If your only a few hundred Yen off, it’s probably worth getting to firstly save the hassle of buying a ticket all the time and also due to lots of local train lines being JR – you’ll make your money back by simply using the Tokyo JR Yamanote line a few times (the main Tokyo loop line).
You can now buy the pass in country however for an increased fee. It’s better to buy it before you leave, and give them the full 14 days to process it unlike us who forgot… we managed to get onto an amazing man at Flight Centre who turned it around in 36 hours however that is not a recommended strategy…!
Buses are readily available in Japan and although they take longer, are much cheaper than the train for long distance travel. For example, Tokyo to Kyoto costs around ¥5000/$56AUD and takes about 7 hours compared to the train which is ¥13,080/$148AUD and takes 2.5 hours. You can also do this bus trip overnight which is a great way to save money! We only took a highway bus once so I can testify to it being very clean, very comfortable and having a good driver, however we were only on it for 3 hours so a better source of information is definitely japanguide.com‘s guide to bus travel.
You can book most highway buses online at this english site. There are also multitudes of passes available for bus travel including a similar pass to the Japan Rail Pass called the Japan Bus Pass. This pass entitles you to travel on daytime and overnight Willer Express highway buses for either 3, 5 or 7 days of your choice within two months of purchase. Again I’ve copied the prices from japanguide.com below and more information can be found here.
Hire cars & parking
Of all the transport options mentioned above, hiring a car definitely gives you the most freedom. We hired cars 3 times in our 2 1/2 weeks and loved every second of it. Japanese drivers are significantly better than Australian drivers, are always courteous and the traffic rules and regulations make so much more sense than in Australia. Driving is Japan is just very logical and polite!
We hired all our cars through Toyota Rent-a-car. You need an International Drivers License from your home country in order to hire a car, in Australia you get this from your state’s Royal Auto Club (in Victoria it’s RACV). You must keep your international and home license together to ensure you meet the legalities. You book online here, then turn up to the location you selected to pick up the car at your chosen time. All the places we hired cars from either spoke English or had an iPad with a little course that we went through telling us everything. The cars were always in good condition and they took you around the car to check for any scratches etc before you got in for insurance reasons.
Now to prices – it wasn’t actually as bad as we thought although it wasn’t cheap either. One day in a base model car was $65AUD plus petrol and any tolls we went through. I daresay you would get better deals for hiring it for more than one day at a time, however it’s definitely not the cheapest way to get around. Despite what we were told, parking was easy to find even in Tokyo and wasn’t hugely expensive. ¥600/$7AUD got you overnight parking and it was about ¥200Y/$2 per half hour during the day.
It is really your personal choice as to whether time, money or freedom are most important to you. For budget travellers not concerned about time, bus is definitely the cheapest option and the way to go, however definitely try to get on a bullet train at some point even if it’s just for a quick trip between Kyoto and Osaka! People on a tighter schedule will prefer the train travel and perhaps a Rail Pass to save a bit of money. Hiring a car is a lot of fun to get out into the mountains and is highly recommended, however if your on a strict budget it may blow you out a bit too much.
Have you been to Japan? What was your favourite form of transport? If you have anything to add or any experiences related to this post please let us know in the comments below!
Happy travels 🙂