Finding your way around Japan
Japan has over 20.000 km of rail and it would be stupid not to make use of it. It’s one of the most advanced train systems in the world and a really comfortable way to travel. And contary to my home country of Belgium the trains are very reliable and seemingly always on time. In the rare event that there is a delay the reason for the delay is announced on informational screens.
It should be noted that cars drive on the left side of the road in Japan, similar to the UK and Australia.
The Japanese seem to be the masters of signage. I was especially impressed by the signage of the public transportation system in Tokyo. Even though the stations are among the biggest in the world it seemed relatively easy to find my way once I “got” the system.
Every place that gets mentioned in a guidebook will have decent signage leading you to points of interest. Most of the time even with the specifics like distance or time to walk.
If you need to get somewhere else than a tourist attraction (e.g. a hostel) visual directions will help you much more than an address. In this regard, Google street view is a helpful way to check out a neighborhood before you go.
Most hostels have visual directions in the form of a small map/picture guide on their website.
Why is there a need for visual directions? Why not use street names? Well, the Japanese don’t really have a street name system.
The Japanese address system differs strongly from that of the U.S. and Europe. The general idea is that a Japanese address identifies a particular building by geographic regions that decrease in size, starting by prefecture and ending with the building name.
A building (chu) is in a block (cho), and this block is in a ward (chome).
There are two main airports in Tokyo: Narita (NRT) and Haneda (HND).
Narita is the newer one; however, Haneda is closer to town. Haneda is the 5th busiest airport in the world while Narita is the ninth busiest in the world.
Getting into town from Narita
Narita is about 45 minutes from the centre of Tokyo. There are lots of trains from the airport that go to the city. Look for the Keisei Limited Express which is a quick way into town to the Asakusa area (about ¥1100). Alternatively, there are ¥900 Tokyo Shuttle busses to Tokyo station. The best mode of transportation depends on where you need to be.
If you are looking for alternative flights to Japan you can also fly into Kansai airport, close to Osaka. This means your “homebase” will be the Kansai area providing easy access to Kyoto, Nara and Kobe. Tokyo is a great place to be but starting off your journey in Osaka and ending in Tokyo might be rewarding. I actually liked Osaka better than Tokyo.
Reaching Okinawa and Hokkaido
If you want to go to the Hokkaido region (the northmost island) or Okinawa (the subtropical islands, southmost) you will definitely need a flight. Hokkaido can be reached by train but it takes a while - and for Okinawa you have to take a flight - or an extremely long ferry.
The JR Rail pass
The JR Pass (Japan Railways pass) is a pass that gives you unlimited rail access on most JR lines including the Shinkansen (bullet train) for a set amount of time. You can only order it under the condition that you live outside Japan. There are options for a usage duration of 1, 2 or 3 weeks.
Oddly enough the pass doesn’t cover some of the most popular lines on mainland Honshu: the Nozomi and Mizuho services. You may find yourself waiting for a train that is not on these lines while 3 or 4 bullet trains pass that - are - going to that destination but are marked as Nozomi or Mizuho. The Nozomi and Mizuho lines are generally faster than the Hikari line because they have less stops.
Checks for the pass tend to be infrequent. Instead of going through the automatic gates, you always have to pass through the manned gate and show your pass. Most of the time the attendants don’t bother to check the date on your pass.
talk about value of JR pass - one way from osaka to tokyo is 13500+ yen, this is 135 dollars
The Tokyo Subway & Railway system
You can get a regular ticket at machines in every station, but I would recommend to get a rechargeable PASMO or Suica card. Which one you get doesn’t matter, for some reason there are just 2 brands of rechargeable cards.
It’s important to distinguish between the railway system ran by JR (generally but not always above ground) and the subway system (almost always below ground). The subway system is ran by a couple of different companies, the main ones being Toei and TokyoMetro.
Interesting to know is that the TokyoMetro subway stations offer free Wi-Fi.
If you see a map of rail and subways in Tokyo, it will apply to either the railway or the subway, but never both. This might sound obvious to experienced travellers but trust me, to many people it’s not.
There is a good iPhone application by TokyoMetro which works offline and call tell you the name of the closest station (by using your phone’s GPS function) and calculate the most efficient itinerary.
Keep in mind however that sometimes a combination of trains and subways can lead you to your destination much more efficiently. If you have a mobile connection I would recommend looking up itineraries on Google maps which will combine both the railways and the subway system.
Hyperdia is generally recommended for itineraries but I mostly relied on Google Maps since the Hyperdia website looks so old school.