Japanese cities have earned the reputation to house some of the most comprehensive and impressive public transportation networks in the world. They are clean, safe, comfortable, and run mostly on-schedule, which makes it easy for residents and visitors to go around places or between cities – you just need to avoid the morning and evening rush hour. On the other hand, Japan is also famous for its high living cost, and people I meet often assume that everything, including the public transport, is expensive here. Well, not quite so. Let’s take Tokyo for example.
While it’s true that the subway ride here will cost more than the metro systems in say, South East Asian or Latin American countries, I don’t think it’s that much different from those in Australia, England or Scandinavian cities. For instance, the cheapest fare for subway is around JPY 170 (~USD 1.5) and overground rail is JPY 120. You could also take buses in the city center between JPY 100 to JPY 210 (~USD 1 to 2) per ride. Yes, it may cost you up to 20 times more to get to the airport, but I’d say it’s more related to the distance from the city center than the actual cost per kilometer.
On the contrary, I find taxi in Japan to be very expensive; USD 4 for the first km and about USD 3 for every km afterward. Uber Japan currently only provides black car or taxi service, so cheap car ride is virtually non-existent (at least not the legal one). So in general, if you want to trim your budget, forget about the cab and take the trains and local buses instead. Similar situation can be found in other cities such as Osaka, Kyoto or Sapporo as well.
Now, the good news is many Japanese companies have tourist-friendly fare policy that can help you save your transportation expense further. Here are some that I’ve personally taken advantage of:
1. Inner city / short distance travel
Most train or bus companies in Tokyo offers unlimited ride ticket for a specific area and time limit. For example, you only need to pay JPY 600 (~USD 5) to have a free 24-hour ride in all Tokyo Metro subway lines. Or there is a 1-day unlimited ride on Toei bus that costs JPY 500. Toei also runs its own subway lines, tram and monorail, and for JPY 700 a day you can travel with all of those in central Tokyo freely. Likewise, the biggest train company, Japan Railway (“JR”), will sell you daily unlimited local train ride within Tokyo’s inner wards for JPY 750.
There is, however, one cumbersome thing about this discounted fare. There are more than a dozen train and bus operators in Tokyo (and more if you count neighboring suburbs) and each offers their own special fare and ticket, some even offers combined fare with other companies, so make sure you know which one can take you to your destination(s) and which lines will be convenient to your travel.
In addition to the above, Tokyo Metro and Toei also offer a special fare for visitors in Tokyo, called Tokyo Subway Ticket. You can have an unlimited 24-hour ride on both companies’ subway network for JPY 800, or JPY 1500 for 72 hours. You do need to proof your eligibility (i.e., you are visiting from outside Tokyo metropolitan area) and these tickets can only be purchased in the designated places such as particular stations or partner hotels, but if you are a non-Japanese national visiting from overseas, just ask the tourist information booth staffs at the airport and they should be able to help.
2. Inter-city / long distance train travel
If you are planning to visit multiple cities during your visit in Japan, one of the best way is to travel with their bullet trains or shinkansen. The shinkansen are operated by JR and they sell a special ticket or ’pass’ for non-Japanese visitors that will allow you to ride not only the local trains, but also the limited express and shinkansen trains. For example, you can take any JR train from Hokkaido in the north to Kyushu in the south for 7 consecutive days with a package called Japan Rail Pass for only JPY 29,000 (less than USD 270), which is much less than what the locals pay. As a comparison, a non-discounted regular shinkansen ticket between Tokyo and Kyoto costs around JPY 14,000 one-way.
Just by simple calculation, you can use the pass to travel between Narita Airport and Tokyo, go to Kyoto, Osaka and back to Tokyo, and travel within Tokyo for a couple of days and you will still come out ahead. JR also sells cheaper, more restrictive pass such as JR West Rail Pass, JR Kyushu Rail Pass, JR East Nagano & Niigata Area Pass, etc. (fyi, Tokyo is one of JR East areas).
Narita Airport → (Airport Express) → Shinjuku → (travel around Tokyo with JR local trains) → Tokyo Sta. → (Shinkansen) → Kyoto → (limited express) → Osaka sta. → (Shinkansen) → Shinagawa Sta. in Tokyo → (JR local train) → Disney Resort/Maihama Sta. → (travel around Tokyo with JR local train) → Tokyo Sta. → (Airport Express) → Narita Airport
Now, if you are only travelling around Tokyo, I’d recommend using the Tokyo Wide Pass option which costs JPY 10,000 (around USD 90) for 3 days of travel. This pass allows the holder to travel on all JR East trains within the designated area, which covers greater Tokyo metropolitan area and the bordering prefectures. It covers most tourist spots in Tokyo, Yokohama, and Chiba, both Narita and Haneda airports, Lake Kawaguchi near Mt. Fuji, a popular hot spring area in Izu, and even the outlet/resort area in Karuizawa. What’s more, JR also allows non-Japanese residents to use its Tokyo Wide Pass. All you have to do is show your valid passport in the sales counter.
3. Air travel
Although most major cities and well-known sightseeing areas can be reached by trains, there are instances where flying is the best mean of transportation. For example, when you want to save time (let’s say you want to visit Sapporo in Hokkaido from Tokyo), or when there is no direct express train between the cities you want to visit (e.g., you want to go to Hiroshima after visiting Sendai). In both of the above cases, you might want to consider using the non-Japanese visitor fares offered by the Japanese airlines like JAL, ANA, and Star Flyer.
JAL’s visitor-only fare is called Yokoso/Visit Japan fare, where you can buy up to 5 domestic sectors for JPY 10,800 each (less than USD 100), or JPY 14,000 (USD 125) each if your international ticket is not with a One World carrier (JAL, American, Cathay, etc.). ANA’s own fare is called Experience Japan fare and has a slightly more flexible price range between JPY 5,400 to JPY 10,800 depending on the route but does not differentiate against the international carrier. Currently ANA and JAL do not allow online booking but in my experience, it was quite straightforward to book these fares thru their call centers. On the other hand, Star Flyer’s Fly Japan Value Fare is bookable online and has lower pricing, as they fly more limited and shorter route. For example, a one-way ticket between Tokyo Haneda and Osaka Kansai (KIX) will cost you JPY 7,000. Skymark Airline used to offer similar product to Star Flyer which I prefer because they have a more extensive route network, but it seems they have discontinued it since.
While I don’t deny that you can snag a lower fare if you book with one of the local LCCs in advance (like, USD 10 low), the above visitor-only fares allow you to book up to 72 hours before departure, as long as there is available seat in the designated fare bucket (all in economy class). And since they are full-service carriers, you won’t need to pay extra for your standard checked baggage or seat allocation. Just remember that these products are intended for visitors so you need to provide proof of your international ticket (at least your ticket number) when making the reservation.
There are many ways to travel in Japan and experience its unique beauty without breaking the bank, and the above are just some of the options available to help you bring your budget down. I think if you do some research beforehand and plan your itinerary accordingly, you can reallocate those transportation expenses to something more fun, like some extra plates of sushi🍣. Selamat menjelajahi Jepang!