Japan Transportation Guide

Tokyo transportation map

Good luck with that…

Transportation Within Tokyo

You’ll mostly travel by train within Tokyo (and probably any other cities you visit), with the majority of Olympic venues easily walkable from their nearest train station (though there are a few outliers which will presumably have shuttle buses provided from the nearest stations). This generally means using a combination of JR lines, private railways (i.e. railways operated by private corporations separately from the national JR network), and city subways.

The ticketing’s all separate for each of these, so when you transfer from one to the other there’s a separate ticket fee. This can seem a bit confusing at first and it’s annoying having to buy a new paper ticket each time, but the simple solution is to use a stored value IC card.

Tokyo's Pasmo IC card

Photo credit: tkaige, used under Creative Commons

These enable you to tap in and out of each train you ride without having to worry about lining up at ticket machines; they don’t save you much on fares (just a few percent), but they do save you a fair bit of hassle. They can also be used pay in all convenience stores, many fast food chains, and some supermarkets.

You can get them from any train ticket machine in the coverage area, which basically covers the whole of Greater Tokyo (and other major cities have their own cards, but if you have one of those you can also use it in Tokyo). They’re free but there’s a 500 yen deposit, plus you need to load a minimum of 1000 yen as the initial charge. The specific card you get depends on the region and train company, but they can all be charged and used interchangeably within all the coverage areas; in Tokyo you either get a Suica card from a Japan Rail station, or a Pasmo card from one of the other railway companies. The only thing you can’t do interchangeably is return the card for the deposit refund after you’re done using it – this can only be done at the ticket offices of the company that issues the card you have e.g. if you get a Suica card in Tokyo and then fly out of Osaka, you can’t refund it in Osaka. In such a case, either refund it at a JR station before leaving Tokyo, or simply make sure to use up the balance on food etc, forget the deposit, and keep the card as a memento or perhaps for your next visit to Japan.

(Note: there’s one IC card you can’t really get as a foreigner, which is the Pitapa card issued by non-JR train companies in Kansai (reason being that it’s not prepaid so requires you to have a Japanese credit history). If you do need to get one in Kansai (Osaka/Kyoto/Kobe), simply get the Icoca card from any JR station)

These IC cards work in all major cities, so if you get one in Tokyo you can also use it when visiting e.g. Kyoto or Hiroshima. In smaller towns or rural areas outside the coverage areas, you just have to use cash (or credit card if accepted, but make sure to always have some cash on you).

Getting Around Japan

Shinkansen bullet train

The JR Pass will be of particular use if you’re planning to do some travel to other cities and regions for sightseeing in addition to your Olympics-related activities in Tokyo. For example, you could use it to go from Tokyo to Hiroshima, then work your way back to Tokyo via Kyoto. For full details on the JR Pass click here, or click the banner to browse & order:

JR pass banner

Of course flying’s also an option, and for longer distances e.g. Tokyo-Sapporo or Tokyo-Kumamoto it often works out both faster and cheaper than the shinkansen. The main low cost carriers in Japan are Peach, Jetstar, and Skymark, and a few regional airlines like Air Do for Hokkaido. JAL and ANA also cover all the domestic routes.

Use Kayak to search all of the above airlines to see who has the best fare available for the route & date.

If you’re on a tight budget you can also use the highway buses – these are significantly cheaper for single tickets, but journey times are long (e.g. Tokyo-Osaka is 8 to 10 hours by bus vs 3 hours by bullet train) and the bullet train can actually still work out cheaper if you make good use of the JR Pass. The easiest bus company to use for non-Japanese speaking visitors is Willer Express.

So, how to get around then? If you’re not set on flying for time reasons or taking the bus for budget reasons, the thing to do is look at where you intend to go and calculate the total price for individual train tickets (which you can do on Hyperdia; see here for an explanation on how to use it). If that’s more than the JR Pass price for the time period in which you’re doing it, get the pass; if it’s less, buy individual tickets (and of course you can also check the flights).

Any questions about transportation in Japan? Give me a shout below and I’ll get back to you.

Click the banner to order your JR Pass, or see here for my guide to using it:

JR pass banner

11 comments on “Japan Transportation Guide
  1. Jerry says:

    Can JR Passes be used to travel from central Sapporo to Sapporo Dome stadium and from central Kobe to Kobe stadium? Thanks for your assistance.

    • Simon Norton says:

      Hi Jerry, both stadiums are accessed using the city subway systems, which aren’t covered by the JR Pass. There is a JR station near the Kobe stadium but it’s on a minor branch line which sees very little service so it’s not much use.

  2. James satendra says:

    I like to travel to kamaishi stadium from Tokyo for the world cup ragby …. between Fiji and Uruguay on 25th September …is it possible for me to go end watch the ragby game and back the same day..all so can you provide train time table

    • Simon Norton says:

      Hi James,

      Yes it’s possible but it’s a long journey. The stadium is next to Unosumai Station on the Sanriku Line which receives infrequent service from Kamaishi Station. Basically you ride the shinkansen to Shin-Hanamaki (2.5 hours), then the Kamaishi Line to Kamaishi (2 hours), and then either the Sanriku Line to Unosumai (10 minutes) or just take a 15-minute taxi ride to the stadium from Kamaishi Station. So total journey time is roughly 5 hours.

      If you want to take the train all the way to the stadium, you need to take the 7:16 Hayabusa shinkansen from Tokyo Station, reaching Shin-Hanamaki at 9:49. Then Kamaishi Line at 9:57 reaching Kamaishi at 11:59, and finally the Sanriku Line from there at 12:15. This obviously gets you there quite early (arriving 12:27), but the next Sanriku departure is after the match starts.

      By taking a taxi for the last segment you can leave Tokyo slightly later, on the 7:40 or 7:56 Hayabusa shinkansen services. The 7:40 reaches Shin-Hanamaki at 10:07 connecting with the Kamaishi Line at 10:23, reaching Kamaishi at 12:23. The 7:56 reaches Shin-Hanamaki at 10:37 connecting with the Kamaishi Line at 10:53, reaching Kamaishi at 12:53.

      You should get the 7-day JR Pass for this (see here), as the 1-way fare is 15000 yen. The 7-day pass is 29000 yen, so you save 1000 yen and then you can also use it to ride trains for another 6 days so you can use it for airport transfers, local JR trains around Tokyo, or taking a trip somewhere else e.g. Kyoto.

      See also my Kamaishi page here

      Hope this helps and let me know if you have any more questions.

  3. Luke says:

    Hi Simon,

    Thanks for this. I was looking at advice on getting:
    – from KIX to Shizuoka
    – from Oita to KIX

    Also, any advice on where to stay for games in Oita (I think Oita itself is overbooked)? Somewhere that is accessible but also worth staying/visiting in itself.

    Thanks in advance!


    • Simon Norton says:

      Hi Luke,

      for KIX to Shizuoka take: Haruka airport express train to Shin-Osaka > Hikari shinkansen to Hamamatsu > Tokaido Line local train to Aino (journey time around 3.5 hours. The stadium is at Aino station, obviously if you’re staying elsewhere in Shizuoka adjust as necessary, see here)

      Oita to KIX: Sonic express train to Kokura > Sakura shinkansen to Shin-Osaka > Haruka airport express to KIX (journey time 5-6 hours)

      If you’re doing these 2 train journeys within 7 days you should definitely get the 7-day JR Pass. If they’re more spread out a longer duration pass may still be worth getting, depending what other travel you use it for (if there isn’t any more then single tickets will be cheaper)

      A good alternative base for games in Oita is the neighbouring town Beppu. It’s a popular hot spring resort with a ton of hotels, definitely worth visiting in itself so hopefully you can find something there. See my Oita page here

  4. Claude says:

    I’m not going to the Olympics so I get the best value by buying the local rail pass and using it to death.
    On my last trip I had the Kintetsu pass (from Asuka to Nara to Ise. I wore that pass out!) then the Osaka Amazing Pass (Free admission to most major attractions) Kansai Thru Pass (Admission to all the transit systems and independent railway companies except JR) And the JR West Hiroshima Wide Pass, which cost just a little more than one round trip on the shinkansen.
    If your plan is to see everything in an area with a few trips, the pre-paid cards are great. If you’re plan is to travel to all the local areas across the region the company rail pass is a true friend.

    • Simon Norton says:

      Yeah if you’re sticking to a single region like Kansai, it doesn’t make sense to pay for a JR Pass. In such cases, those other passes you mention are good value – as long as you use them to death!

      • Claude says:

        The fun part of the Osaka Amazing Pass is all the free admissions to places like the river cruises, museums and Osaka Castle. I got my full value just from those.
        In essence, the subway rides were all free because of the money I saved on admissions.
        Best pass I ever saw!

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