We spent September in Japan in 2016 and we rented a car for a week, but other than that, we only used public transport and I’m going to tell you all about it.
Public transport in Japan works very smoothly and is very reliable. Even when we hadn’t planned anything, there were signs saying when the next train/bus would arrive, and they would arrive at the exact time shown. If they were late, they would show the delay on the sign and even give the reason for the delay. If they were early, they would wait until the right time (it was never super early, just a minute or so).
Ah, we did NOT buy the JR Pass because it wasn’t worth it for us. We did some calculations and what we would pay single ride by single ride wouldn’t get near the JR Pass price. In the end, we did ride more than we counted on, and the whole month of trips ended up costing the same as a 2 week JR pass for the family. I think JR passes are only worth if you plan on visiting a LOT of places and using a lot of bullet trains in a short period of time.
We used Hyperdia to find out what train to take, which station we needed to go to, the prices and the times. It’s very handy, in English and free.
We arrived in Narita and used the Airport Limousine to get to Shinjuku. We did need to wait in line for 20 minutes or so (and it was hot) standing up. The bus itself was a comfortable bus, and we arrived in Shinjuku in 90 minutes, with traffic. The bus stopped at Hilton Hotel, where we caught a taxi (2 taxis, because we’re in 6 people) and paid JP¥ 900 each taxi for a 5-minute ride to the place we were staying. My kids LOVED the fact that the taxi doors are open and closed automatically (by the driver).
After that, we used mostly trains, be that regular trains, subways or bullet trains.
It was a great experience for my kids, as we were so used to having cars and never really needing public transport before.
I must say that they didn’t really love walking the 30 minutes to Shinjuku station nor standing up all the way home, but they did enjoy the train rides.
Even though we had 2 stations nearer us in Tokyo, we nearly always walked until Shinjuku Station because it was a super nice and easy walk and it ended up being considerably cheaper. 200 yen may not seem like much, but if we count the 5 people we paid for (2 adults and 3 kids – children pay around half of the price and under 6 ride for free) and the 2 way we needed every day, it did end up costing a lot more.
The trains in Tokyo and Osaka are full EVERY DAY of the week, ANYTIME. We didn’t catch any time where we could enter the train and sit and stay until the end of the ride. In Osaka, we only were able to sit because our station was the last one, and still, we only sat on the last 3-4 stations. The train announcements in Osaka were very helpful, as they used to tell what we could find in each station (‘for A University, B Driving School, and C restaurant street, use this station’). In Osaka and in Tokyo, the train announcements were in Japanese and English.
There are a few rules, like turning mobile phones to silent, not using phones near the preferential seats, not chatting inside the trains, placing big bags on the wired overhead compartments, but people don’t really follow them. And they don’t really mind that older people or people with babies were standing up, they really just carried on messing with their phones. When we gave our seats up to people who needed more, some businessman/woman would always rush to sit before whoever we were giving our place. We did need to stand our ground a few times and it was not fun. Once, I was offered a seat because I was carrying a sleepy Coral and it was a very sweet 10-11-year-old boy. Especially in Osaka, people were very loud inside the trains, which is not very cool when we’re trying to listen to the announcements, but it’s a relief when you have chatty kids.
The complicated part was buying the tickets and finding out where to go to. I mean, Shinjuku Station is just the busiest station in the world. And besides, it has stores, restaurants, subway lines, JR line, bullet trains, regular train lines, and they all require different tickets, bought in different machines. We usually knew which line we needed, thanks to Hyperdia, so we just went towards the right place – after asking around when needed. We bought the tickets from machines, and they allow you to buy in English, but before buying, you need to know the price. You can also buy them from attendants at the booths.
The price of the ride is by distance and it’s not the easiest thing in the world to find on the maps. As you can imagine, the train stations maps are huge and overloaded, so you do need to take your time there. If you buy the wrong ticket for some reason, you can always adjust it at the exit station: there are price adjustment machines near the exits.
Here’s how it works: we had previously found out what station we needed to go to, so we arrived at Shinjuku Station and looked for our destination on the map above the ticket machine. At the map, there’s the price you need to pay for each station, so we just went to the machine, pressed the button Adult + 2 children, chose the price, inserted the money, collected our tickets and the change. Pressed Adult + 1 child and did it all over again. Unfortunately, there isn’t the option 2 adults + 3 children.
Then we needed to find where to take the train. There are signs everywhere, so it’s also a good idea to know what’s the last station of the line you’re taking, so you can find your boarding platform. They follow the color of the line on the map, so you only need to know which way of the line you’re going to. You usually only need to follow the signs, everything is very well signaled and, if you don’t find any, you only need to ask. The people who work at the stations usually do speak English and they’re able to help you. If they don’t, they will find you someone who can.
The platforms on bigger stations have barriers so people won’t cross them. It’s also helpful to know where the door will be. When there isn’t any barrier, there are lines showing where the door will be, so it’s easy to line up neatly.
Inside some of the trains, there are little monitors that show you the next stations, which door is opening and what other lines run in each station. They’re pretty useful, even more so when people are being noisy. If there aren’t the monitors, there is spoken information, and they are spoken in Japanese and repeated in English. Sometimes, the conductor would speak over the English recording so you may need to double your attention.
One important thing: insert your ticket, take it back and keep it when you enter because you will need it to at your exit station. When you’re leaving, the ticket will stay inside the machine.
When you’re going out of a train station, be sure to check if you’re exiting through the right place, as many stations have loads of exits, and sometimes, going out from a wrong place makes you need to walk for half an hour longer.
We took the Keisei bus to go from Tokyo Station to Narita Airport, as it was considerably cheaper than the Narita Express (JP¥ 900 against the JP¥ 4000). Our bus was scheduled for 2 pm and we arrived at Tokyo Station at 1. Luckily, they had an empty waiting area (with air conditioning), where we waited comfortably until it was time. We caught the bus at 2 pm and arrived at the Airport at 3 pm, the bus was comfortable. I think it was the best option for us.
We rented the car at Budget and, even though the car was working perfectly, it smelt like cigarets (we did ask for a non-smoking car) and it came with a chewing gum paper forgotten. It was the cheapest option we found that accepted rentals from Suzuka and return in Osaka. The only problem we had (besides the smell) was the return point. We couldn’t find the Osaka branch until someone from another company helped us.
Overall, we believe that public transport is more than enough for big cities in Japan, and even small cities if you don’t mind walking a lot or have no time constraints. We truly enjoyed the train rides, the kids learned to read a bit of Japanese based on what they read at the train stations and we all learned a bit of humanity.