How to Get Around Japan with Public Transportation: Buses, Taxis and Train

Japan’s known to have one of the most efficient and reliable public transportation in the world, but when you’ve just arrived in Tokyo (or worse, Shibuya), it’s still easy to get lost in the system simply because of the sheer scale of everything. From a vast network of trains, subways, and buses, you might wonder just how easy and convenient it is to use them. Should you hail for a cab in Japan, or rent a car instead?

Coto Academy has been welcoming new visitors in Japan, and so we want to help provide you with all the essential information you need to know about how to navigate Japan’s public transportation — like a local!

Want to explore or live in Japan with ease? One simple way to do that is by learning Japanese. Coto Academy offers online and in-person Japanese classes, with a focus on practical conversations. If you’re interested, contact us and we’ll get in touch!

Jump to:

Understanding Japan’s Public Transportation System

Japan’s public transportation system consists primarily of trains (電車; densha), subways (地下鉄; chikatetsu), and buses (バス; basu). Other forms of public transportation include the shinkansen bullet train, car rentals, and even river and sea transport, but they’re usually reserved for long travels.

Among the many types of Japan’s public transportation, trains and buses is the most popular and widely used form of transportation in Japan. In Tokyo and similar major cities, local trains and subways are the most popular, while in rural areas, bus services are more widely available. For immediate access to your destination, taxis and rental cars are more expensive but at the same time more convenient options. 

For long-distance travel, public transportation options include the Shinkansen bullet train, intercity buses, and domestic flights. And, since Japan is an island country, water transport has always been important for river travel and ferrying between islands. 

Get Your Prepaid IC Cards Ready!

What’s good is that most of these transportation use prepaid IC cards. You can buy them is most train stations. Simply navigate the ticket counter (for JR stations, it’ll be the green counter area), and create a new card. The minimum you can charge is 1,000 yen, but this will include a refundable 500 yen deposit — so this means you technically only have 500 yen!

Once you’ve bought it, you can charge, and tap in and out of the ticket gate with ease! Local train fares are calculated by distance from a base fare. There is also a surcharge when changing to a different train line.

Using the JR Pass to Get Around Japan

You’ve probably heard of the JR Pass, right? It’s a special pass designed for foreign tourists to give them access to unlimited rides in JR trains all over Japan.

One thing to note is that while JR is one of the biggest train operators, not everything is operated by them. For example, if you are going to Roppongi Station, you’ll be riding the Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway, two train lines that are not under JR. This means you’ll have to rely on, again, your prepaid IC card!

Remember that Japan Rail Pass can only be used for tourists, and you can’t purchase it after you arrive in Japan. Instead, purchase the voucher through agencies like JTB, All Nippon Airways, Nippon Travel Agency, and other official affiliates.

Train and Subway in Japan

Japan’s train and subway systems are the most commonly used form of public transportation in the country, offering a fast and efficient way to get around. The biggest train operator is the Japan Railway (JR), which basically covers regions across Japan and most parts of Tokyo!

Luckily, the train system in Japan is extensive, particularly in major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka. The train and subway system is generally easy to navigate, with signs and train announcements in Japanese, English and other languages as well. Some stations however, like the Shinjuku and Ikebukuro Station, are famous for being confusing and difficult to navigate. 

There are many train lines in Japan, but some of the most important ones are:

  1. JR Yamanote Line. A loop line that connects the most important areas in Tokyo. 
  1. Tokyo Metro. A subway system that serves the Tokyo metropolitan area, including the central business district and popular tourist destinations.
  1. Keihan Line. A railway line that connects Osaka to Kyoto. 
  1. Hankyu Line. Connects Osaka with its suburbs and other prefectures such as Kyoto and Kobe.
  1. Sannin Main Line. A train line that runs along the coast of the Sea of Japan in western Japan, connecting Kyoto, Hyogo, Tottori, Shimane, and Yamaguchi prefectures.

These train lines are important for both locals and tourists, as they provide access to major cities, tourist destinations, and other parts of the country. Many of these lines also offer a variety of travel options, including express trains, local trains, and commuter trains.

Read: How to Navigate the Japanese Train Platform

Riding the Shinkansen in Japan

JR also operates the Shinkansen (bullet train), which is a high-speed train that travels between major cities. There are altogether 9 Shinkansen lines. The most profitable and busiest one is the Tokaido Shinkansen which connects the major cities of Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka, and Kyoto. Since Tokyo is the capital of Japan making it an important hub for all sorts of activity, many of the shinkansen lines are connected to Tokyo, they are:

  • Tokaido Shinkansen (Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka, Kyoto)
  • Tohoku Shinkansen (Omiya, Fukushima, Sendai, Morioka, Aomori)
  • Akita Shinkansen (Omiya, Sendai, Morioka, Kakunodate, Omagari, Akita)
  • Yamagata Shinkansen (Tokyo, Omiya, Utsunomiya, Fukushima, Yamagata, Shinjo)
  • Joetsu Shinkansen (Tokyo, Omiya, Nagaoka, Niigata)
  • Hokuriku Shinkansen (Tokyo, Omiya, Nagano, Toyama, Kanazawa)

You can purchase a shinkansen ticket from JR ticket counters called Midori-no-Madoguchi (みどりの窓口), ticket machines or online. Luckily, most of them have English options, so even if you don’t know a lot of Japanese, you can still navigate them with ease.

Shinkansen tickets come in two types: non-reserved and reserved seat tickets (make sure you double-check and read your tickets carefully)! Reserved seats are more expensive, but you’ll be guaranteed a spot throughout the journey. For non-reserved, this means you’ll be in the non-reserved cars and wait in line. It’s also not possible to ride a shinkansen using your IC card.

Buses in Japan

When you’re in big cities like Tokyo or Osaka, using the train is usually a sufficient means of transportation, and everything can be within walking distance. Still, if you’re traveling (or living) in the countryside or somewhere far from the station, using a bus is a way to go. There are buses operating within cities and towns, and they accept payment via cash and IC cards.

Buses within Tokyo’s 23 districts have a pay-first policy, which means you pay as you enter — usually 206 yen for adults using IC cards! For other buses, you’ll pay when you’re getting off, and the fee is calculated based on how many stops you take. You’ll tap twice: once when you enter the bus, and once more to pay for the fee.

Remember this, though! Buses will not give you any change when you’re using cash, so make sure you don’t use any big bills.

The downside is that buses can be slower than trains or subways as they are affected by traffic congestion and have very limited seating. Other than that, local buses in Japan only cover a short distance, usually within a certain neighborhood.

Highway and Long-distance Bus

Now that we’ve covered local buses, we’ll go over long-distance buses that connect major cities and towns across Japan. In major cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto, buses are a great way to explore the city at a slower pace and to visit more out-of-the-way locations that may not be accessible by train or subway. Many tourist destinations also offer sightseeing buses that allow visitors to see the main sights of the city in one trip.

You can get a highway bus ticket by location or purchase a Japan Bus Pass where you can ride highways buses all you want.

When you’re buying a single ticket, reservation, and payment in advance is usually required. You can use to reserve a ticket, and you can pay at a convenience store or using a credit card!

Taxis in Japan

Taking a taxi in Japan is probably the most expensive method of transportation — at least in terms of distance-to-price ratio. It’s definitely a good choice if you missed the last train or bus (most trains stop operating around midnight), or if you’re too tired to walk!

If you see the word “空車 (kuusha)” which means “Vacant car”, that’s when you know you can call it. Simply raise your hand, and the taxi will stop for you. The passenger doors are operated by the drive.

To tell them where you want to go, you can say:

(Place) made onegai shimasu
To (place), please.

How much you’ll be charged depends on distance and time — but surcharges may apply. For example, it’ll be more expensive to ride late at night and early morning!

To give you a reference, 2 kilometers’ worth of taxi drive cost around 1,000 yen! l

You can look for taxis at train stations, as they have a designated waiting area (there’s usually a “Taxi” sign). You can also use apps like Didi, GO, S.Ride, and Fulcul, but they’ll be more expensive!

Other Available Transportation in Japan

And here are other forms of public transportation in Japan that are not used regularly in everyday life, but more on a need-to basis or for special occasions like going on vacation or visiting. 

Domestic Airplane

Domestic flights can actually be cheaper than shinkansen! When taking a domestic flight, consider the cost, time, and distance to travel from the airport to the city center. 

The major airlines in Japan that operate domestic flights include Japan Airlines (JAL) and All Nippon Airways (ANA), both of which offer a range of flight options and schedules to suit different travel needs. In addition, there are several low-cost carriers in Japan, such as Peach Aviation and Jetstar Japan, which offer affordable domestic flights.

Water and Sea Transport

Ferries are a popular way to travel between different islands in Japan, with regular ferry services operating between major ports such as Tokyo, Osaka, and Hokkaido. Ferries are also the main mode of transportation in Okinawa which is made up of many islands. There are places in Japan that are only reachable by ferry. 

Car Rental and Car Share 

For travelers that can drive, car rental and car sharing are two options available for exploring Japan at their own pace and on their own schedule.

There are several car rental companies in Japan that offer a range of rental plans and prices. Rental cars are suitable for full-day or multiple-day uses, but for short-term use, car share is a better option. Car share services in Japan include Times Car Rental and Careco. Car share cars can be found in neighbourhoods around Japan and typically charge by the hour. They offer the same flexibility as a car rental. 

It is important to know the rules about driving in Japan beforehand. For non-Japanese driver’s license holders, an international driving license is required, though there are exceptions for license holders from certain countries. 


There you have it! Unless you’re thinking of traveling around Japan, buses, and trains are typically enough to go about your daily life in Japan. Shinkansen can be more expensive than domestic flights, but it’ll definitely a good experience!

If you’re interested in learning Japanese with us, fill out the form below and we’ll redirect you to a booking page for our free online consultation!

What public transportation is there in Japan?

Train, subway, bus, taxi, aeroplane, water and sea transport, car rental, and car share.

What is the primary mode of public transport in Japan?

Subways and trains in major cities, and buses in rural areas. 

How important is a prepaid IC card for using public transportation?

A prepaid IC card in Japan is only relevant for local bus, trains, and subway. It makes traveling easier and faster. Do note that shinkansen and long-distance buses do not accept IC cards as a payment method. 

Test your Japanese level!

Do a self-test to see which course fits you.

Check your level