In this installment of my “Travels in Japan 2015” series I’d like to talk about our experience with various means of transportation we used to move throughout the country, including trains and taxis.
We began our trip at the Miami International Airport in Florida and landed in Japan’s Narita airport (成田空港) with a flight transfer in Houston, Texas. The total flight time was around 15 hours with a price of around $800 per person which we purchased a few months in advance. We had been investigating ticket prices for some time and were discouraged by prices of $1400 and upwards when we stumbled on this amazing deal for nearly half the cost. I’m not sure if it was a limited time sale or a long-term price adjustment, but the lesson here is to buy tickets in advance and start checking prices as soon as possible once you’ve decided when you want to go.
The international portion of the flight was on ANA (“All Nippon Airways”, often pronounced just with the initials as “エイ・エヌ・エイ”) which generally has great service, good meals, and nice in-flight entertainment. Most of the stewardesses were reasonably bilingual which is very convenient, although this means that if you are a foreigner they will probably speak to you in English even if you know some Japanese unless you are aggressive about showing you know the language. There is also nice Japanese touches like passing out shibori (warm wet towels used for hand wiping) before meals.
When entering the Japan you’ll have to provide information about yourself and your trip to the Japanese customs area in the airport. This consists of basic information like your name, passport number, date of birth, plus some information about where you will be staying (hotel name and address, etc.). These forms are typically passed out on the plane before you land, but if you forget you can get one at the airport right before you need to present it. You’ll need one form per person, including any children you have with you.
I’m not sure about other countries, but when arriving back into the US you’ll need to fill out a simpler form about what sort of things you are carrying that you bought in Japan. For example if you buy a camera in Japan you’ll have to report that along with the price. There are restrictions on things like bringing animals, certain plants or fruits, and large amounts of cash, but for the average person this shouldn’t be a problem.
If you are coming from the US you have to deal with at least a 10 hour time difference, and the jet lag experienced from that is usually pretty rough. For me it takes a few days for my internal clock to get reset. On the plane the cabin will be darkened in accordance with the time zone of the destination, so it’s best to try and sleep when the lights are off to help you get synced to the new time zone. One of my friends said that if does some vigorous exercise (for example, jog a few miles) after landing he is able to accommodate to the new time zone pretty quickly, though I haven’t tried that myself.
Japan has an extremely extensive system of trains, both above and underground, which allows you to travel through the country relatively inexpensively. Minimum fair from one station to the next nearest starts around $1-$2. In some ways it is similar to the train systems of major American cities like New York, though it is generally much cleaner and well lit in Japan.
Riding trains in Japan does take some getting used to, especially if you have no prior train experience before. The most basic way to purchase fair is to go to an automated ticket machine (きっぷうりば) where you purchase a ticket for the total amount of your trip from start to destination. You can calculate this price by using one of the large maps that is typically above the bulky ATM-like machines. This includes train transfers (乗り換え, norikae), which are one of the tricker things to master. The most important thing is to make sure you verify both the direction you are going as well as the train. If you happen to hop on the wrong train, it may not stop at the station you want, in which case you’ll have to get off at later station and see how to get back on track. Besides the normal trains which stop at many of the stations there are faster ones that go only to a few stops, such as the 特急 (tokkyuu) or the Narita express train, the latter which goes to the Narita airport much faster than the normal trains. (See the next section for the information about the Shinkansen).
Once you buy your ticket, you’ll need to insert it into the machines at the gate (改札, kaisatsu), where it will get spit out at the far side. Make sure you grab it there and keep it safe since you’ll need it when you leave the gate at your final destination (but not for intermediate transfers). If you want to avoid having to buy tickets each time you travel you can look into getting a Suica card, which is sort of a debit card for train fare, and can be used for other things like certain buses and vending machines. There may be other special deals as well, check the website for the train company you will be riding on.
Like many places in Japan, paying with cash (現金, genkin) is sometimes the only option at stations, though if you go to the attendant you may be able to purchase tickets directly from them using major credit cards.
If you are confused on how to get from point A to point B, you can ask a station attendant (駅員, ekiin) for help. We spoke with them in Japanese, but they should have basic English skills as well, so feel free to try asking them. As with other Japanese employees that interact with the public, they are generally extremely polite and eager to help.
Depending on your destination, you may have to switch to another train company of even a bus, and these things are not usually listed on the main train maps. Attendants may be able to help you with this situation as well, and we were given help once when we had to change to an underground subway train midway through. It’s a good idea to plan our your train routes before you get to the station, with either a special purpose mobile app or a map search site, like Google maps, which will tell you which transfers you need to make and how much the total cost will be.
If you are traveling with a stroller or have difficulties with steps, many of the stations have escalators or elevators. Sometimes the elevators they are not in the most obvious places, so feel free to ask an attendant. You can use a simple phrase like “エレベータはどこですか？” for this purpose. When riding on an elevator it’s best to stand on the left side unless you are in a hurry in which case you can progress up the right side. This makes sense once you remember cars in Japan drive on the left side of the road.
There was at least one station we were in that had only steps, and traversing those with several large suitcases was an experience I’d like to quickly forget. So if you are carrying any heavy bags, I’d recommend taking a taxi when you first arrive to your hotel, and then after that you can canvas the nearby stations (with a lighter load) to see if they have escalators or stairs.
Some of the bigger stations have large shopping areas, with many restaurants and shops. These are usually away from the tracks on a higher floor, but I found one station that had a few small restaurants right next to the tracks on the train platform (ホーム).
Trains can get pretty busy during rush hours in the morning and evening, especially between high-traffic stops, and in some cases I’ve seen attendants actually pushing groups of people into trains in order for the doors to close. This can be described by the expression “ぎゅうぎゅう詰め” (gyuu gyuu zume) which means something like “packed like sardines in a can”.
Trains and stations are generally non-smoking, though there are special smoking rooms in many stations for smokers to light up. There are also special cars just for women (these apply only to certain routes and times), and also priority seats for pregnant mothers, the elderly, or the injured.
Fortunately, nearly all place signs are shown in both Japanese and English (ex: 東京 / Tokyo), and often in Hiragana (とうきょう) as well. The in-train announcements may be repeated in English, Chinese, and other languages, depending on the train.
The Shinkansen (新幹線) or “bullet-train” is a faster version of the 特急 that goes up to 200 miles an hour and can save you a lot of time depending the distance you are traveling, in some cases an hour or more. It has an amazing smooth ride and I highly recommend riding it at least once, though it’s a bit expensive. Our ride from Tokyo to Sendai on the Shinkansen was over $100 a person.
Other advantages of the Shinkansen are bigger and more comfortable seats, better equipped bathrooms, and the ability to buy various products on the train, including food, drinks, and toys. There is a booklet in the pocket of each seat showing available products, and a cart circulates through the train cars carrying these for purchase. They only take cash, however.
There are two types of seating on the Shinkansen, free seating (自由席) and assigned seats (指定席), make sure you know which tickets you have purchased and sit accordingly.
If you are lucky to find lodging near a station you can walk directly there, but it’s not uncommon to need a taxi to get from the closet station to your hotel. There are designated places for Taxis to wait in standby, like in front of stations, hotels, or major shopping areas. Some large temples even have such places nearby their entrances.
Like in the US, Taxis are generally significantly more expensive than trains (I’ll make a very ballpark estimate at 5x-10x the price), though of course you pay for convenience and a guaranteed place to sit. You can also use the taxi driver for Japanese practice, starting with basic questions as “この辺に本屋さんありますか？” We didn’t try speaking to any of the taxi drivers in English, but I get the feeling that most of them aren’t very fluent, so unless you are somewhat fluent yourself in Japanese I’d recommend printing out the name and address of where you are going and showing it to them. Or if it’s a well known place you can just try a basic phrase like “「浅草神社」までお願いします”。One or two of the taxis I was in had a sign on the door advertising a book of phrases to help communicate with the taxi driver, but not sure how common those are.
Most taxis we rode allow payment with Visa or American Express credit cards, though be sure to ask before you commit to anything. You can use the simple phrase “クレジットカードで払えますか？” to check this. Don’t forget that there is generally no tipping in Japan, which includes Taxis. You can expect the Taxi driver to help with your luggage in and out of the truck, however.
Many of the Taxi cars in Japan have doors that automatically open and close, so watch out for that. If you see the door automatically open before you get in, when you are leaving just wait for it to open on it’s own, and then close when you get out. You can also look for the word “自動” (jidou) which means automatic and is usually printed on the inside of the taxi car.
Taxes are usually non-smoking, but several times there was a scent of smoke lingering from someone who had nevertheless smoked recently. We even had a taxi driver smoke in the car during the entire trip.
Pretty much any other form of transportation you would expect is in Japan, including tour buses, hotel buses, ferries, and even aerial lifts.
However you plan your trip, odds are you’ll end up doing a great deal of walking. I’ve heard that Japan is the country with the largest number of steps in the world, and I’ve walked up and down my share of steps in my trips to Japan. Temples and Shrines generally have a large number of steps, so if you are planning on visiting any of those be prepared.