Finding your way between cities in Japan

Once you’ve decided where you’d like to go in Japan, you may be wondering about how to travel from one place to another. Will it be difficult if you don’t know Japanese? How do you know where to go? In a previous post, I talked about how to find your way around cities. Getting between cities has similarities, but there are some additional things that are helpful to know.

Key things to know

In Japan’s larger cities, there are multiple stations which long-distance trains leave from. The central station may not be the shinkansen station. One example is Osaka, where limited express trains to towns and cities in the Kansai region leave from Osaka station, but shinkansen going to Tokyo and Fukuoka leave from Shin-Osaka station.

Check what station you need to go to before you try to look up timetables or reserve tickets. The main station in Fukuoka is called Hakata. In rural areas, you may need to catch a bus from the nearest station, for example you would travel to Iiyama station and then take the bus to Nozawa Onsen.

Some trains and buses are reserved seats only, so you need to do this before you board. Examples are the Hayabusa shinkansen to Hokkaido, and some Nohi buses between Takayama and Kanazawa.

Useful tools

The access maps mentioned in the previous post generally give directions from the nearest major station where intercity trains arrive. Looking up the website of your hotel or the attraction you’re going to see is a useful first step. Google Maps is also quite useful for finding the nearest station.

Once you’ve established exactly where you’re heading, route finding tools can help you work out how to get there. These include:

  • Rome2Rio, an international tool for finding routes between two places by car, train or bus.
  • Hyperdia, a Japanese website which covers trains, planes and some buses
  • Jorudan, a Japanese website covering trains, which has a useful feature enabling filtering by Japan Rail Pass valid lines
  • Japan Bus Online, which covers a wide range of bus routes, including regional ones.

If you are going to smaller cities and towns, regional and local tourist boards are useful sources of information about transport. Their websites often have access details for local towns and attractions, with links to timetables for buses and ferries.

Once you’ve found out how to get where you want to go, and which train or bus you need to catch, write down the details! If you have looked up a train in Hyperdia, it will have a train name and number, eg LTD. EXP THUNDERBIRD 24. Copy this and note the departure and arrival station.

English guidance for travellers

At larger stations, there generally are staff at ticket offices who speak good English, but occasionally you may encounter someone who only speaks very basic English. At smaller stations, don’t count on there being an English speaking person. If you have written down details of what train you want to catch, this makes it easier. You can show this to the staff when you want to buy a ticket or reserve a seat. Not only may their English be minimal, you may also be mispronouncing a Japanese place name in a way that it can’t be understood.

There are English signs at many stations indicating which platform to go to and, once on the platform, indicating which train is approaching. The signs cycle between Japanese and English, so you may have to wait a minute for the English to appear.

There are also signs with English marking where to stand on the platform to board specific carriages. In Japan, people queue in an orderly manner for trains, and wait until passengers disembark before starting to board.

Smaller rural stations may not have English signs, particularly in areas that few tourists go to. While there are English announcements on the shinkansen and limited express trains, there may not be announcements on local lines. Google Maps can be quite useful in this case. As the scheduled arrival time approaches, check your location to see if this is your station (Japanese trains are occasionally late!). You can also look at the station and surrounding area in Google street view before you set off, so that you know what it looks like and will be able to recognise it when you arrive.

Intercity buses may have English signage and announcements, however this is less likely on more regional and local routes. When catching a bus, places like Shinjuku Busta or the airport bus stops have English signage, but again smaller local places may not. Don’t expect the bus drivers to speak English. Have the appropriate ticket ready or, if you need to buy a ticket on the bus, have the name of your destination in writing.

Airports have good English signage, and so do the airport buses and trains going to them.

Summary

Preparation is the key to getting yourself from one destination to another in Japan. Key points are:

  • Know where you’re headed.
  • Have details of your destination, train, bus or plane in writing
  • Allow enough time to look at signs in stations and airports
  • Expect less English signage the further you get from popular tourist areas

Do you have any questions about travelling around Japan? Please feel free to contact me.

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For further information, the ebook Japan Just for You is a practical step-by-step guide to planning your trip to Japan, starting with developing your own personal trip concept. It’s now available on Apple, Amazon and Kobo, and other stores.