West Meets East: An American in Japan | All Blogs


By Josiah Lebowitz

So, no sooner do I announce my new schedule than I make my first mistake. It’s kind of easy to get your days mixed up when living on the other side of the international date line… Anyway, I’ve got everything straightened out now so it’s time for a travel and sightseeing related post.

Tokyo Station

For the most part, getting around in Japan is remarkably easy, though it’s done a bit differently than in the US. Here’s a look at Japan’s major types of transportation.

1. Planes
Japan’s main international airport is Narita Airport, which is around 40 minutes outside of Tokyo. If you’re flying from the US to Japan, it’s your most likely destination (though not the only one). Within Japan, most major cities and many popular tourist destinations across the country have airports. In Tokyo, for example, most local flights are handled at Heneda airport. Tickets for domestic flights often cost somewhere around 30,000 – 40,000 Yen (around $350 - $450 at the current exchange rate) though you can often get them for as low as 130,000 if you book far enough in advance via the Japan Airlines website (www.JAL.com). However, as Japan is a much smaller country than the US, there’s rarely a need to travel by plane unless you’re in a hurry or traveling between the extreme north and extreme south of the country.

2. Trains & Subways

Train Station Platform

These days in the US, trains are mostly used for hauling stuff across country. While passenger trains still exist, flying and driving are by far the more popular ways to get to where ever you're going. In Japan, on the other hand, trains are the preferred method of travel for a very large portion of the population. And despite the millions of people using them every day, the trains in Japan are perfectly safe, very clean, and almost always on time.

Japan has an extensive train system which covers most of the country. Unless you're in a town that's really really small and/or very hard to reach there's bound to be at least one train station and cities will often have at least several spread across their main areas.

Subways are similar to trains except that they’re only found in big cities and tend to offer much more comprehensive coverage than the local trains do. You’ll also find the odd monorail, cable car, and other railed vehicles, but they all operate in pretty much the same way.

3. Buses
For places that aren’t near train or subway stations, you have buses. As with trains, Japanese buses are safe, clean, and surprisingly punctual. Unfortunately, they tend to be the least English friendly form of public transportation in Japan so you really need to pay attention when place names are announced if you don’t want to miss your stop. Unless you’re moderately skilled at Japanese or have rode enough buses in Japan to get used to how they work, I recommend you only do so when you have very specific instructions on which bus to get on at which stop and where to get off.

Unless someone is waiting to be picked up, buses don’t stop at every station unless someone wants to get off there. To indicate where you want to get off, wait until your station is announced (meaning that it’s the next one) then push one of the many buttons scattered about the bus. It will ding and light up to let the driver and other passengers know that someone wants off.

Like trains, bus fares are often based on distance traveled. When you get on the bus, you grab a ticket from a machine that has the station number where you got on. Up front there will be an electronic board listing station numbers and prices. When you reach your destination, look at the price listed by your station number, that’s what you pay. Just put your ticket and the appropriate fare in the machine at the front of the bus when you exit. Not that bus fare machines don’t give change, though they do have a slot that can be used to change 1000 Yen bills into a good selection of coins. To make things simpler, some cities have flat rate buses that charge the same amount no matter how far you ride and/or sell unlimited bus passes that typically last for anywhere between one day and a week or so.

4. Taxis
Taxies work much the same way as they do in the US (though they’re cleaner and more professional looking than many of the ones at home). The only things to be away of is that drivers often have a button that automatically opens the door for you and that, as with everything in Japan, you don’t tip.

5. Cars

Old Cars

No, normal Japanese cars don’t look like the ones in the picture. But between bikes and Japan’s excellent public transportation, many people have no need of cars of any kind. Combine that with the lengthy and expensive process required for Japanese people to get a driver’s license and it’s no surprise that many of them simple don’t drive at all.

If you’re interested in renting a car, be aware that Japanese drive on the left side of the road like England and Australia do. Also watch out for the narrow roads, very tight parking spaces, and toll roads (which there are a lot of when driving cross country). If you still want to give it a try, Japan accepts international driver’s licenses (available for a small fee at AAA). Though if you plan to stay in Japan for a long time, you’ll have to get a Japanese license (a process that deserves an entire post of its own sometime) after one year.

6. Bikes

Bike Shop

For people who don’t live right by the store, school, or train station, there’s bikes. Japanese bikes are usually single speed street bikes, often with baskets, lights, and bells (which are rarely used). Note that bikers usually ride on the sidewalk so try to stay on one side or the other to leave them room to pass.

And that covers the main ways to get around in Japan (though you will find a few out of the way areas that use a lot of boats). If you’re going on vacation, I’d recommend sticking with the public transportation (especially the trains and subways) unless you’re going to somewhere why out in the middle of nowhere. Save planes for long trips where time is of the essence and don’t worry about cars and bikes unless you plan to live in Japan.


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