Japan’s public transport system is so efficient that the majority of people go to school or work by train. Therefore, driving is seen as something of a weekend hobby, rather than a necessity.
For those who wish to drive, Japan has a well-maintained network of expressways (which incur toll fees) and smaller dual carriageways connecting major cities and towns. Vehicles drive on the left hand side of the road in Japan and have right-hand drive controls. The national speed limits are 100 km/h (60mph) on expressways and 30-40km/h (20-25mph) in urban areas. Drink driving and talking on a mobile phone carries harsh penalties in Japan. Foreigners wishing to drive in Japan must apply for an International Driving Permit (IDP). Fuel is widely available, usually served by an attendant who will also hand you a towel for your dashboard and take your rubbish away.
Taxis are viewed by many Japanese people as a very expensive alternative to public transport. However, taxis can be useful after midnight, when most public transport stops operating. Taxis are generally hailed from the street rather than booked ahead and can be recognised by their distinctive red and yellow or green and black colours, according to the city or town. Fare calculation is by meter and Japanese taxi drivers rarely take advantage of their passengers.
Buses and Coaches
Bus travel is the second most popular way of getting around in Japan, after trains. Buses are punctual and run to a highly organised timetable. Using a bus in Japan can be intimidating for foreigners as most information - including the destinations - are displayed in Japanese characters. On boarding a bus it’s helpful to remember to take a ticket from the machine and pay your fare to the driver when you get off (except in Tokyo, where you pay when you get on) Further information about bus travel can be found here.
For longer distances, there are plenty ‘highway buses’ (coaches) which link all the major cities. The largest coach companies are Willer Express and JR Buses which are run by the Japan Railways Group.
Japan’s main four islands are covered by an extensive and highly efficient rail network. The iconic high speed ‘bullet’ trains (shinkansen), which can reach speeds of up to 320km/h (198mph) whisk travellers between all the major cities in comfort and style. Shinkansen are punctual almost to the second and most include a buffet service and reclining seats. The majority of Japanese cities have a metro/subway network and the intricate Tokyo Metro - carrying 3.334 billion people each year - is the busiest underground railway system in the world.
The rail network is managed by Japan Railways (JR) which also runs bus and ferry services. The JR Rail Pass offers an economical way to travel and can be purchased prior to travelling to Japan. There are also a number of sections of track which are owned by private rail companies, some which are not covered by the JR Rail Pass.
Trams and light rail
Much of Japan’s tram (streetcar) network has now been replaced by subway/metro systems, however the cities of Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hiroshima all have one or two lines still in operation. The cities of Hiroshima and Toyama both have efficient Light Rail Transit (LRT) networks, which offer a cheap and environmentally-friendly way to travel.
There are 97 airports in Japan which serve domestic and international destinations. Tokyo’s Narita Airport is the largest and busiest, followed by Osaka International Airport. The dominant airlines are Japan Airlines (JAL) and All Nippon Airports (ANA), but there are also some budget carriers serving domestic and international destination such as Fly Peach and Jetstar Japan.
Other ways to get around
Japan’s main four islands are connected by a series of tunnels and bridges, but the many other thousands of smaller islands can only be reached by ferry. Japan has an efficient ferry network which is relied upon by island residents as their only way of reaching the mainland. Ferries carry people, vehicles and cargo, and some are luxuriously equipped with cabins, or more basic dormitories. Ferry tickets can be booked through aferry.com.
Bicycles are widely used in Japan by people of all ages. You can rent a bicycle from most train stations and cycle lanes, both on the pavements and roads, are clearly marked.