Welcome back to the next chapter in my Tokyo 2019! pre-travel preparation blogs. If you have not had a chance to read the first blog in the series – Tokyo 2019! How I Plan My Travels – Flights – you can check it out right here. Whilst many of you will have traveled and may find a subject such as ‘flights’ obvious – I am basing this series of blogs based on the most common questions I get from people that want to travel to Japan. And given that in 2018 Japan became the worlds most traveled destination, I think I am in a good place to give some advice.
Today I want to talk about getting around big cities and also traveling across the country. And this is a big one as you need to know the best way to get from the airport to your city. Japan has a truly massive population and an equally impressive transport system to match. Taxis, buses, subways, multiple rail networks, cross country trains and of course the infamous Shinkansen or bullet train. The rail network is huge and at first, appears complex and daunting. But with the right planning and a little confidence, you will be just fine.
Airport to the city
Your first move when arriving in Japan is to get from the airport to your intended big city. By far the easiest and most cost effective is to take the train. Both Narita Airport in Tokyo and Kansai International Airport in Osaka, have specific trains that run a limited express to the big cities. From Kansai to Oaka I took the Haruka Limited Express. Takes about 75 minutes but beware of where you choose to sit as often this train will split into two part way through the journey. If you need more asistance or to purchase tickets, first go to the Kansai Tourist Information Travel Desk at Kansai airport. From Narita to Tokyo, I take the NEX or Narita Express. You have to pick up and purchase your tickets at the ticket office in the airport train station. You can get a return trip ticket at a discounted rate compared to buing two separate tickets and your ticket will have a carriage and seat number. This train travels to and from Shibuya, Shinjuku and Tokyo stations. Be sure to check out the NEX site here. For information about Kansai to Osaka/Kyoto check here.
Complex but efficient
The easiest way to get around any city in Japan is via the rail network. In Tokyo, you have a vast network of destinations and frequently arriving and departing trains. The Japanese rail networks are high precision. They issue apologies if your train arrives 20 seconds late. All of the signs and announcements at stations and on trains are repeated in English. The ticket machines all have an English button so you can easily navigate buying or updating your ticket. In most of the bigger cities there are three main networks you need to be aware of. The subway, the above ground network and the Shinkansen (bullet trains). You can move between the three easily as generally the bigger stations host all three networks and sometimes more. There are often networks other than Japan Rail (JR) running services in a big city. It sounds complex , but just follow the signs and the platform numbers and the exit numbers.
And train stations or subway stations are everywhere. A single station can have multiple subway entrances over a traveled destination away from the actual station. On my 2017 trip to Tokyo, I was staying at a hotel that had an Osaka subway entrance on the lower floor. I could walk completely underground all the way to Shinjuku Station – 1km away. The underground aspects of the stations are huge and often will have underground shopping centers, restaurants and bars. When researching places to go and things to see – keep note of the station exit number they usually recommend in tourist information. This will be critical to not getting too lost. And sometimes it will include a direction – North, South, East or West exit.
To use the subways and local network, the best thing to do is get a Suica (Swee-Ka) card . You can purchase them from the ticket machines at all stations and can easily top them up – remember the ticket machines have an English button. The system is very simple as once topped up you just tap your Suica at the gate to get onto to the train platforms. The Suica system is expanding too. You can use Suica cards on vending machines, in taxis and also at many convenience stores. So keep that in mind if you don’t like carrying too much cash or change. Be sure to check out the Suica website here or at https://www.japan-rail-pass.com/services/suica-card.
JR Rail Pass
The other option, especially if you are traveling between bigger cities or on many different rail networks, is the JR Rail Pass. You will especially use this for Shinkansen travel between big cities. I recommend arriving at the station a little earlier to get a reserved seat. I have found if you are just staying in one city, then you won’t need one. Even taking day trips away from Tokyo for example, you can use your Suica or buy a return trip ticket for a small fare. You can get the JR Rail Pass for a specified number of days and to cover certain areas of Japan – depending on where you intend to travel. These allow you to use all the above ground networks and the shinkansen or super fast trains between cities. You can organize these through a travel agent, or from a JR Rail office at subway entrances airport or traveled destination train station. You must get them validated at such an office before you can use them. Be sure to check out the JR Rail Pass site here or at http://japanrailpass.net/en/.
There is a mobile phone app the I have found to be priceless when travelling around Japan. It is called Hyperdia. With this app, you can enter your current location (nearest station) and your intended destination and it will tell you what trains, platforms, times, etc to take to make your journey. I found this invaluable when I was there – but obviously you need mobile data or a portable wifi device to access it. You can also use the same features on the Hyperdia website here.
Taxis and busses
There are taxis everywhere in Japan. Perhaps they stand out so much as there is not as much traffic of regular cars on the roads. But they are a suitable option for short trips just like in any other city. They are incredibly clean, safe and the drivers always are well dressed and courteous. Beware though as the rear doors of the taxi are opened and closed automatically by the driver. And also the seat covers will resemble something like your grandma’s lounge. The seats are covered in subway entrances doilies. Drivers have easy direction cards so you can point to certain areas that you want to travel to. But they do speak a little English, at least in the big cities. I used my phone to show a map or even an image of a building I wanted to go to. As for the buses, they are just as easy as the train network and also use the same Suica card or JR Rail Pass as the trains. They are more for filling in the gaps between stations especially in urban areas. Clean, safe and reliable.
So for Tokyo 2019, I need to keep in mind a couple of factors and costs. First is that the NEX Narita Express from the airport to Shibuya (where I am spending my first night) is a 4,000 Yen return ticket. Currently, that equates to $51AUD. I already have a Suica with perhaps a few hundred Yen on it. I will top this up when I next use Shibuya station with around 2,000 Yen ($26AUD). I will likely need to top it up again during my trip but this should be a good starting point as most of my trips are only one to two stations away. The other transport cost is my return ticket from Shinjuku to Nikko where I am spending one night. This is a special ticket I have to purchase from Shinjuku station. The Nikko Pass World Heritage Area is a ticket that covers the return rail trip plus unlimited use of the tourist bus that travels from the station up to the world heritage sites in the mountains. This will be a further 2,000 Yen ($26AUD). So at this point, my total travel costs are going to be around 8,000 Yen or $100 AUD. I hope that you have found this guide useful. There are plenty of links throughout to get further information. Happy travels.