Transport and Driving in Japan
Transport in Japan is generally fast, efficient and reliable (albeit crowded during rush hour). Expats living in metropolises and large cities have easy access to every form of transportation – therefore owning and driving a car is unnecessary.
What’s more, expats needing to conquer long distances will find that trains connect the country, and buses travel over extensive networks.
However, smaller cities and towns typically have more infrequent or less accessible options. Expats considering living in one of these locations may have a harder time getting around and may want to explore the option of buying a car.
Public transport in Japan
Expats will not be disappointed by the availability and the excellent standard of public transport in Japan. The country has some of the most modern and fast rail services. Buses also provide a means of getting to more isolated locations in Japan.
Rail is one of the fastest and most efficient ways of getting around in Japan. Super express trains, otherwise known as shinkansen, connect most of the country’s major cities (on the islands of Honshu and Kyushu), allowing for fast commute times and accessibility for expats, locals and tourists alike. In some cases, it's faster and cheaper than flying, depending on the distance and destination. Japan Railways (JR) owns and manages all shinkansen trains. Tickets must be purchased at JR stations or designated sellers.
Regular express trains are more widely accessible than the shinkansen. Tickets can be purchased at a ticket machine before entering the ticket gate (using bills or change). Then, stick the ticket in the slot and remember to grab it from the other side when passing through. At some stations, one can simply give the ticket to an employee to stamp when passing through. Do the same thing when exiting ticket gates.
If living in Japan, expats can purchase electronic cards that act as rechargeable tickets when riding JR and some private lines. Simply recharge the card as often as necessary.
Subways function similarly to trains, as in the ticket process is the same. However, subway systems in Japan are only found in heavily populated areas and large metropolises.
Where a train line ends, a bus often starts. Not all cities or areas have regular bus routes and, even if they do, bus times may be infrequent (possibly four times a day or less). In major tourist areas, English will be displayed on the screen and spoken over a speaker. In smaller cities, Japanese will be the only language displayed or heard.
Also, remember to grab a ticket from the machine next to the door when getting on the bus, as this number will indicate how much is owed. Most buses nowadays have change machines on board, though some may not, so it’s good to carry extra change just in case.
Most train stations with bus terminals will have some kind of bus information booth, often with someone on staff during the day to help. However, English can be limited.
Cycling in Japan
No matter where one lives in Japan, it would be nearly impossible to go a day without seeing someone riding the ubiquitous bicycle. Most train stations and public areas provide large bicycle parking areas to cater to the vast majority of people who often travel on two wheels.
This also includes scooters, which require a special licence to operate but are typically much easier and cheaper than driving a car. Most bicycles used for daily commutes are fondly known as mama-chari – inexpensive, plain and practical, often with a front basket. However, speciality bike shops sell popular mountain, road and cross-country bikes for those who prefer something a bit racier.
Taxis in Japan
Taxis are popular transport options for those expats living in big cities without cars. Beware though that rates are very expensive and run up quickly. Also remember to never open or close a taxi’s door, as the driver controls the door. Most drivers likely won’t speak English, so it's best to know the destination in Japanese or have the address written down to show them.
Walking in Japan
Many people in Japan walk as much as they ride bicycles. It’s great exercise, and Japan is incredibly pedestrian-friendly.
Driving in Japan
Many people in Japan do own a car, and it may be necessary to have one's own vehicle in some parts of the country.
Expats must have an International Driver’s Permit to drive in Japan when arriving (purchase from a local auto association). This is valid for up to one year, after which it's necessary to get a Japanese Driver’s Licence. For many nationalities, this isn’t a problem as one can simply transfer a home country’s licence.
For Americans, and a few other nationalities, it's necessary to translate their licence, then take a written and practical driving test before receiving a Japanese licence. Sounds easy, but the driving test in Japan is notorious for being difficult.