Transport in Japan is generally fast, efficient and reliable (albeit crowded during rush hour). Expats living in large cities have easy access to every form of transportation – making owning and driving a car unnecessary. What’s more, expats needing to travel long distances will find that trains connect the country very well, and buses travel over extensive networks.
That said, 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 consider 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 fastest and most modern 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, allowing for fast commute times and accessibility for expats, locals and tourists alike. Japan Railways (JR) owns and manages all shinkansen trains. Tickets can be purchased online, at JR stations or via designated sellers. Expats who travel regularly should obtain the relevant smartcard for their area. These act as rechargeable tickets when riding JR and some private lines. Simply recharge the card as often as necessary.
Most major cities, such as Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka, have subway systems.
Where a train line ends, a bus often starts. 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. 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.
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. Many drivers don't speak English fluently, so it's best to know the destination in Japanese or have the address written down to show them. Ride-hailing services such as Uber are available in Japan's large cities. These eliminate the language barrier but can be expensive.
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. This is generally not needed in major cities, though, in which owning a car can be more of a hassle than a convenience.
Expats will usually need an International Driver’s Permit to drive in Japan when arriving, though some nationalities can use their licence from home as long as it's translated. These licences are valid for up to one year, after which it's necessary to get a Japanese driver’s licence. Some nationalities can simply swap their home-country licence for a Japanese one, while others will have to take a written and practical driving test before receiving a Japanese licence.
►Learn about the country's medical infrastructure in Healthcare in Japan
Are you an expat living in Japan?
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