10 Tips for Public Transportation in Japan

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  1. Get to your stop on time.

No matter where you are in Japan, or what mode of transport you’re planning on taking, the most important thing is to be at your stop on time. You can NEVER count on your bus being a minute late, because it really never will be. Japanese public transportation prides itself on being on time, every time.

  1. Leave your food at home.

It’s an unwritten cultural rule that you’re not supposed to eat in public, especially while walking. So grabbing a quick Pocky or onigiri to snack on while you wait for your train? Best to leave it in your bag and enjoy it when you get home.

  1. Noise level: library.

When the group that I was with traveled together, you could unfortunately tell. We embarrassingly stood out because we would talk on public transportation. While we had some nice conversations with local school kids, the majority of the adults probably wondered what the annoying foreigners were doing on the train since most Japanese people remain silent while they ride to and from their destinations.

  1. Know your maps.

In big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, train maps can get confusing. While all of the colored lines are attractive, trying to figure them out is not so simple. Plan your route before you leave if you want to make it to your destination on time. If you want to explore and have time, then feel free to wing it! After all, most trains only cost between 2-5 American dollars.

  1. End your night early.

Japanese trains have a closing time, and it’s usually around midnight or 1 AM. If you’re planning on staying out late, make sure to have a backup hotel or taxi planned out.

  1. Plan your shinkansen beforehand.

If you’re trying to travel long distances, the best way is by bullet train (shinkansen). If you want a shinkansen ticket, you had better buy it the day before. Otherwise, you might get to the station at 11 at night, realize the trains are all sold out, and take an overnight bus to Tokyo that takes 8 hours instead of 3…but it all makes for good memories, right? Right?

  1. Go with a Japanese person on a bus if you can.

My first bus trip was a few hours after landing, on a route I didn’t understand, and I was expected to pay with money I didn’t understand, using a payment system that I didn’t understand. That makes for an angry bus driver. He’s on a schedule, and if you can’t figure out how to work the bus, you’re his problem. It’s much better to ride with someone familiar with the system for the first time if you can.

  1. Look at the stops overhead.

Most buses and trains have light-up maps near the ceiling that show you where you are currently. Even if you can’t read Japanese, the little blinking red light should show you if you need to get up soon.

  1. Get comfortable with strangers.

During rush hours, transportation gets so packed, it’s hard to breath. It’s just best to hold your bag in front of you, suck in your gut, and pray to everything you know that people get off at the next stop. You may be pressed up against a complete stranger, but odds are he or she are used to it by now anyways.

  1. Don’t be afraid!

If you don’t ride the bus or train, how can you get the full Japanese experience? Public transportation is one of the best aspects of Japanese society, and it’s the one that I might say I missed the most when I got back to the States. A train ticket is your ticket to the world – a world that is there for the exploring. Go have fun!

Photo courtesy of Zac Jones.


Zac Jones is junior at the University of Kentucky studying International Studies, Anthropology, and Japanese. Zac participated in the JShIP program at Osaka University during summer 2014.