Getting Around in Japan (Is Not Easy)

Tokyo subway sign

Whether you’re in Tokyo or Kyoto, Sapporo or Koyasan, getting around in Japan can be a bit tricky (and pricey) as a foreigner. Your options:

1. Walking. Sure, this works if you’re exploring one hood. But if you need to get from one side of town to the other, walking isn’t practical. Especially in Tokyo, which is HUGE (you can easily spend at least 45 minutes by subway getting most places)…but even in Kyoto (each of the sites recommended in our Fodor’s travel guide as being in the same neighborhood were easily an hour walk away from each other).

2. Renting a car. You gotta be prepared for this one: You can only rent a car if you have an international driver’s license, which you have to obtain in your home country (you can’t get one at the embassy/consulate in Japan). We didn’t…whoops. Also, better get used to driving on the “wrong” side of the road (Japanese drive on the left, like the Brits).

3. Taxi. There are plenty of taxis in big cities like Tokyo or Kyoto–but they’re pricey (the fare in Tokyo starts at 6,000 yen and can easily mount to 20,000 yen, or about $20, for less than a 10-minute ride). Only really an option if you’ve got lots of $$$ to piss away (or it’s raining and you’re desperate…guilty of that a couple of times).

4. Bike. A decent option, and there are plenty of bike rental places you can hunt down. The issue: In Kyoto, you MUST park your bike in a designated bike parking spot or it will be impounded and you’ll have to go some place really inconvenient and have to pay to get it out. And bike parking spaces are few and far between. And in Tokyo, places are still pretty far apart to get around efficiently by bike. It’s great for smaller cities (like Sapporo or Koyasan)!

5. Subway. This is the most practical solution in Tokyo, but be prepared for a period of adjustment (which means scheduling in plenty of time to your itinerary to figure out where you’re going and then get lost). Why? There are three different subway and rail line groups in Japanese cities (JR national lines, private lines and semi-private lines), and while they do overlap they’re not run by the same companies. And so often you’ll have to exit the subway, wander around outside hopelessly like the clueless westerner you are, and then go in another entrance to arrive at your transfer line. Oh…and it’s not cheap either–expect to shell out $2 for one stop, at least $4 for most rides (the subways are outfitted with clean toilets and lots of crossing guards keeping things orderly…but of course all this cleanliness costs, and not just in tax dollars…).

6. Bus. This is the best solution for Kyoto–there are tons of buses and (if you get on the right one) the tourist landmarks (temples and museums) are clearly marked on the route and announced at each stop. Just be prepared to wait a while at each stop (and be a master of maps). Each ride, no matter how far you go, costs 500 yen ($5)…so also not cheap, especially if you have to take multiple lines.

Best advice: Use Google maps, and ask for help. Even then you’ll probably get lost. But the instructions are relatively clear as long as you have a map handy to cross-verify the stops you’re making. And don’t be afraid to ask for help–Japanese are usually more than happy to do what they can even if they don’t speak English (Google translate is also key here…what did we do before Google?!).

Helpful links:

Tokyo rail & subway map

Kyoto rail & subway map

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