Unless you’re traveling to Japan on a tour that takes care of all your transportation, you’ll likely have to take Japanese public transport at some point. The good news is that Japan has one of the world’s best-developed commuter networks: wide-reaching, convenient, and incredibly reliable. Trains arrive and leave on the dot, and they’ll apologize profusely for being late by just two minutes! The challenge though is navigating this network. Sometimes when you ask for directions, your Japanese informant will ask you how do you want to get there: fastest, cheapest, or easiest?
That’s actually a very valid question. To help you decide, here are a few pointers we’ve picked up from our visits to Japan:
Buses are one of the most convenient ways to get around, specially in Kyoto which has only two subway lines. Buses, if you get on from the main terminal such as Kyoto Station, offer seating and will usually stop very close to your destination. When traveling to or from the airport, airport limousine buses can take you to or very near to your hotel and back to the airport. This is specially convenient if you’re traveling with children or the elderly. On the other hand, buses are relatively slow. They make very frequent stops and can be caught in heavy traffic, which is rather common during peak tourist seasons. On the farther routes you may also have to wait longer for your bus.
Trains are excellent for inter-city travel, and are also an option for some intra-city trips. Airport express trains are one of the best deals, fare-wise and time-wise, in getting from the airport to your hotel and vice versa. In the city, trains are convenient if there’s a stop reasonably near to your destination. Sometimes you have choices of multiple train lines, and you can choose based on whose line has a closer station to where you’re going, has a cheaper fare, or has a station nearer where you’re coming from. Going to Nara, for example, you have the choice between JR and the Kintetsu line. Kintetsu Nara station is much closer to Nara Park, where most of the temples and shrines are.
Subways are the fastest way to get around a city, specially during the rush hours when the roads are clogged with traffic. They’re fast, and the trains come every few minutes. They can get quite crowded, though, and the stations can be baffling labyrinths to navigate. Prepare to take the subway by finding out which line you need to take, how many stops before the one you’re getting off at, and which gate to exit from when you get down. Otherwise you’ll stick out like a sore thumb as you crane your neck looking for an English sign amid a river of hurrying Japanese.
With both trains and subways, you may have to change train one or more times to get to your destination. Sometimes there’s a choice between taking one line all the way to a desired stop, or taking a shortcut by changing trains. If you’re comfortable with the system, go ahead and take the most efficient route, it can save you quite a bit of time and money. On the other hand if you’d rather the simple way, go for the route with less or no train changes; less chances of taking the wrong train or getting lost on the way.
To help you decide your route, you can use an app like NaviTime or Google Maps. Searching “Get from X to Y” in Google Maps will produce a selection of routes according to your selected method — driving, walking, or commuting. Use it to map out your routes and transportation budget, and keep yourself connected by renting a MIFI device at the airport. Ki o tsukete kudasai!