Japan is an island nation that is easy both to reach and to navigate once you get there. Most travelers arrive by air, though there is also limited ferry service from Japan’s neighbors to the west. The country’s transportation infrastructure is sophisticated and extensive, so no matter where you land you’ll find it easy to travel onward to your destination, whether it’s bustling Tokyo or the tropical paradise of Okinawa.
Japan, which stretches about 1,800 miles from end to end, offers a wide variety of transportation options at all price levels, from planes and trains to ferries and buses. Although flying is the quickest way to cover long distances, trains are the most popular form of travel in Japan. Buses serve areas not covered by trains, such as national parks in Hokkaido and around smaller islands, but are also used by commuters and for long-distance travel by those on a budget. Ferries, which are often the only way to reach some islands, can be a leisurely way to see Japan’s coastal areas.
Read on to learn about your Japan transportation options.
Flying to and Around Japan
Flights from North America take as little as 10 hours from Los Angeles and 13 from New York. Flight times from Sydney and London are about 10 and 12 hours, respectively. All the major U.S. carriers fly to Japan, including United, American and Delta, many of them as codeshare flights with Japan’s two national carriers, Japan Airlines (JAL) and All Nippon Airways (ANA). Other airlines serving Japan include Air Canada, Air New Zealand, Qantas, Jetstar, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Air China, Lufthansa and British Airways.
The two major international gateways are Narita International Airport outside Tokyo and Kansai International Airport near Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto. Closer to Tokyo’s downtown is Haneda Airport, officially called Tokyo International Airport. Although it offers fewer international flights, its role as the capital’s domestic airport makes it convenient for connecting flights. Central Japan International Airport, outside Nagoya, is used mostly by airlines originating in Asia.
Because of long distances between, say, Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu and Sapporo on Hokkaido, flying is often the fastest way to travel, with both JAL and ANA providing the most extensive coverage. Smaller domestic airlines with more competitive rates include Skymark, Solaseed Air and Jetstar Japan.
Tip: Overseas visitors can save money on domestic flights by purchasing tickets in conjunction with their international flight. Both JAL and ANA offer cheaper domestic fares for passengers flying international routes to Japan with them or any partner airline (such as ANA’s Star Alliance partner, United), with slightly more expensive fares available for non-partner airlines. Several restrictions apply, such as blackout dates, and tickets must be purchased outside of Japan after buying the international fare.
Japan by Train
Train travel is the most popular and efficient form of transportation on the four main islands — Honshu, Kyushu, Shikoku and Hokkaido. Not only do trains deliver you to the heart of cities and villages, but they’re also dependable, clean and punctual, whether it’s the legendary high-speed Shinkansen bullet train traveling up to 200 miles an hour or a local commuter chugging its way through mountain-rimmed valleys. Train stations and most long-distance trains even offer ekiben, lunch boxes filled with specialties of the very region you’re traveling through.
Most passenger trains are operated by the Japan Railways Group, though there are also regional private companies such as Odakyu Electric Railway, which serves the Hakone area.
Dedicated sightseeing trains that take in spectacular scenery are very popular with vacationing Japanese. The Resort Shirakami train, traveling between Akita and Aomori in Tohoku, passes through the Shirakami Range World Heritage natural site, while Kyushu’s Isaburo-Shinpei travels from Hitoyoshi to Yoshimatsu, making several switchbacks and stops at rural stations along the way. The most luxurious sightseeing train is the Seven Stars of Kyushu, a deluxe line that takes passengers around Kyushu in the comfort of luxurious quarters reminiscent of exotic passenger trains of yore.
Information on JR trains, fares and schedules is available at Travel Service Centers at major JR stations throughout Japan. Your best bet for personal consulting on routes and sightseeing is at the JR East Travel Service Center in the Tokyo Station, which also offers tourist information and other conveniences like currency exchange and free Wi-Fi.
Tip: You can save money with a variety of passes available only to foreign visitors. The Japan Rail Pass is the most popular, allowing travel on all JR trains and buses with only a few exceptions (like certain Shinkansen trains). The pass includes free seat reservations and even discounts on more than 50 hotels belonging to the JR Hotel Group. Passes are available for 7, 14 or 21 days, and must be purchased before arriving in Japan. There are also regional JR passes covering areas like Kyushu or Hokkaido that overseas visitors can buy in Japan by showing their passports. Private railway companies also offer passes, like Odakyu’s Hakone Freepass.
Japan by Bus
Buses are used extensively throughout the country, both as low-cost alternatives to trains and to reach areas not served by rail, including more remote areas and Japan’s many islands. Dedicated sightseeing buses are also a good way to see Japan’s spectacular scenery, like the Chuo Bus tour from Sapporo to Shikotsu and Toya Lakes. Otherwise, in addition to metropolitan buses used by local commuters, long-distance buses travel between major cities, such as Tokyo and Kyoto, for much cheaper than trains. Some are rather luxurious, with reclining seats for overnight trips and even salons.
Although JR operates along some routes, private companies such as Willer Express manage most long-distance routes. Note that some long-distance buses have restricted space for luggage and allow only carry-on baggage, but most have designated compartments for suitcases.
Ferries to and Within Japan
Limited international ferry service is available from China and Korea. The Shanghai Ferry Company, for example, travels between Shanghai and Osaka in two days, while the JR Kyushu Beetle hydrofoil takes less than three hours from Busan, Korea, to Fukuoka in Kyushu.
Within Japan, ferries are a major form of transportation to Japan’s many islands. Most smaller islands, like Naoshima in the island-studded Seto Inland Sea, can be reached only by ferry, but long-distance ferries can also provide a more relaxing and cheaper alternative to planes, such as boats that travel from Tokyo, Osaka and Kagoshima to Okinawa’s main island. Ferries are also useful for traveling among Japan’s four major islands, like those that connect Matsuyama on Shikoku with Oita on Kyushu. Unfortunately, information in English on ferry routes, schedules and fares is limited.
Renting a Car in Japan
With such an excellent public transportation system available in Japan, most overseas visitors don’t rent cars due to expensive highway tolls, limited English signage in remote areas and the British style of driving on the left side of the road. Still, cars can be convenient for some areas like Tohoku, Hokkaido and Okinawa. You’ll need an international driver’s license and a good bilingual map. Rental companies include Toyota Rent-A-Car, Nippon Rent-A-Car Service and Avis; if possible, rent a car offering GPS with English voice guidance.
–written by Beth Reiber