Yes, you can travel Japan without a Car
As ludicrous as the title may sound, hear me out; Japan has an extensive and very efficient Public Transport network ready and available to use for the busy general public, and it is well adjusted for tourists!
I have been to Japan twice now; in 2017 I stayed for 4 weeks, getting a feel for the place whilst my sister handled most of the travelling requirements for me (buying tickets, getting my travel card). I was quite overwhelmed by how convenient everything was, and so I decided to travel again and visit places on my own as well as with my sister. In 2018 I bit the bullet and spent my savings on a whopping 3 month adventure around Japan, using nothing but public transport where I could, and the occasional lift from a friend of my sisters.
First thing to put on the table; I don't drive a car, but I do ride a motorcycle, and you can hire mopeds and other bikes in Japan as well, but I chose not to. And here is why: Public Transport in Japan is very convenient.
First things first; the Essentials
I know, I should probably just get right into travelling without a car, but first I want to share a handful of things most tourists don't even consider when they decide to visit Japan.
Number one; get a coin-purse. I understand for the men out there how degrading that may sound, but trust me, when you hand over a 1000 yen bill for a 300 yen Onigiri at 7/11 you will get your change in as many coins as the cashier can possibly give you. Okay that sounded extreme, but you will get a lot of coins and they will start to make your pockets heavy, and even tear the lining. You can get some gender-neutral coin-purses easily from many stores in Japan, but I recommend Tokyu Hands for almost everything, including this.
Second; get a Suica Card. I will go into more detail about this later, it's just here for a checklist.
Third; get a WiFi box or SIM Card. You will find yourself relying on Google Maps a lot when getting around, and while there are plenty of free WiFi spots in cafes they are not always reliable. When you land at Haneda Airport and leave the arrivals gate you will see a Toilets to your left, and several stores selling SIM Cards and WiFi boxes to rent on your right. The WiFi box is easier to use and doesn't require your phone to be unlocked, but if you are forgetful like me you will likely forget to return the box to the store you got it from. The SIM cards you don't have to return, and they expire after their time period is up or if the data allowance is used; I got a SIM card for 90 days with 10GB usage for 7000 yen ($70, about £50), and while I didn't use all the data during my 3 month stay, it was better to have it when I really needed it than to risk using just free WiFi.
Now that's done, onto the travelling!
Parking and Traffic: The headaches of using a Car
I know what you're thinking though, "if the signs in the stations are in English, doesn't that mean the road-signs will be as well?" of-course, you are right, all the road-signs in the major cities and Expressway are displayed in Japanese and English, but give me a few moments to explain how I got around Japan without the burden of renting a car.
So, what's the parking like? How does it work? Is it expensive? Well, there are several different types of car park; from the standard mall parking blocks, to street parking, and then there's what I like to call the "curbing your car" system (this one is the most common). The curb your car system has you park in a spot like a typical "Pay and display" lot, but instead of putting a ticket on your window, a ramp lifts up under your car, this ramp stops the back wheels from passing over until you pay to have the device lowered.
No matter what system you use, you're looking at quite a steep price to park your car for even one hour. My sister and I went to Kobe one day to try the famous Wagyu Beef, and a friend of hers came by in his car to meet us (we used the train). After the meal I offered to pay for parking, and I paid 1000 yen, roughly $10 or £7, for 40 minutes. (Ouch!) Second to the price is finding a space at all; space is precious in Japan, there is little room for a parking lot which Americans, and even us Brits, might be use to. Parking your car for a day out is one thing, but parking your car for the night while you stay at a hotel? That can be pricey as well; many hotels don't even have car parks!
Parking is just the start of why using a Car in Japan just isn't worth it; the Expressway is not free either! For those who aren't aware; Japan's Motorway/Highway was developed by a private company, and as such you pick up a ticket from the toll station when you enter the Expressway, and then pay when you pass through the toll station on the other side. If you are travelling in a large group you can spread the cost of the Expressway between your party, but this is the only time using the Expressway would be considered cheaper than using Trains or Busses. Expressways still have a legal speed limit that is significantly lower than those found in the similar systems found in the USA and the UK, so perhaps it might be worth spending that bit extra on a Shinkanzen ticket.
Ah yes, speeding. This is a no-brainer, but if you get pulled over by the police in Japan for speeding you won't just get a slap on the wrist like in the UK; the police are very strict when it comes to road safety in Japan, so you need to be on your best behaviour at all times on the road. You may notice however that the locals can drive a little bit to the extreme; remember that mother from Ponyo and how she drove her car? I and many others can confirm that her driving is authentic, and can be just a tad bit intimidating. If you don't consider yourself a very confident driver, then you most definitely need to avoid renting a car in Japan.
However, in some rare cases I would see the benefits of a car in Japan; rural villages high up in the mountains don't have regular bus services to reach them, making them less accessible to those who would like to see the real Japan without a car. Areas like Mount Fuji, whilst having a great rail network to reach Fuji Highland Resort, doesn't have any ease of access to the mountain base for aspiring climbers; you will need to use one of the hourly coaches to get to the foot of the mountain, or use a car. These are the only times were I say a car would be better to be used.
Don't mess around with Tickets: Get a Suica Card!
Okay, so the car is not recommended, but what is? Well I used Buses, Coaches and various Rails to get around Japan, and all of them were easy to use and required limited Japanese knowledge. If you are staying in a major city like Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka then it's made easier with all the available English instructions, and there are more staff and locals who will be able to help you. Whenever my sister or I looked lost or confused in Kyoto a local was quick to come to our rescue, pointing us in the right direction, and trust me the Kyoto Station is probably the most confusing station you will visit in Japan. I've been to Kyoto three times now and whilst I am familiar with the area surrounding the station and what trains to catch, the problem is getting from one end of the station to the other. But I am straying from the topic here, let's get back on track.
Now, as many internationals land in Tokyo Haneda Airport, I strongly suggest you grab a JR Pass, Suica or Cocoa card; go to the nearby monorail/subway station in Haneda Airport to grab one of these cards from a ticket machine. These are like the Oyster Card we use in London for the Underground, but unlike the UK, Japan allows these cards to be used outside of their capital city! I didn't buy a Cocoa card as I was recommended a Suica by my sister, so I will only be referring to the Suica in this article.
A JR Pass grants you cheaper rail fares on all JR Trains. The Pass also works like a Suica so it is handy to have around for trains that don't take Suica, though mine worked on all train services perfectly fine whilst my sisters did not. My Suica card was brand new, so it may be that the Suica is being made more accessible. The card can be bought from any rail station in major cities, costing 2000 yen ($20, about £15), this covers 500 yen for the card itself, and then charges it 1500 yen. You tap the card at the turnstiles when you enter and leave a station, don't worry if your card doesn't have enough when you try to leave; there are charging points inside the stations, usually by the turnstiles themselves, so you can top up the card without having to leave the station. You can use Suica cards on many bus services as well.
They work on vending machines!
One thing you will notice right away is the abundance in vending machines around Japan, and as you enter the subway in Tokyo you will see plenty of them displaying a Suica card symbol on the ones inside the stations. If you need a drink but don't want to spend your coins, look for a vending machine with a card touch-reader like the ones you use to enter or leave the turnstiles with; tap your Suica onto the touch reader and pick your drink, the card will be charged so you don't have to use coins. This proved handy for me, as I liked to save my 100 yen coins for Gatcha machines and buying snacks from Convenience Stores.
Vending machines are found down almost every street and dispense all manner of drinks from coffee to soft drinks and water. If you travel in the summer this will be a life-saver, so always keep a few 100 yen coins in your pocket or coin purse.
Shinkanzen and the Japan Rail: Do's and Don'ts
Okay now I can explain a bit more about getting around the stations, buying tickets and a few "do's and don'ts". First, I'll start with the supposedly infamous ticket machines, though in all honesty I had no problems using them.
At all stations you have 2 types of ticket machine, they both have a colour of sorts around the label for quicker identification, but more often than not only the Shinkanzen machine label is coloured; if the ticket machine has a blue sign on it, or a blue border around the machine itself, then it is a Shinkanzen Ticket machine. JR Ticket machines usually are green, but remember that not all machines have coloured labels.
DO ask a ticket officer for help if you cannot find the right machine, or do not know which ticket to use in the turnstiles.
DON'T just buy a Shinkanzen ticket without double-checking the fees; you might end up buying a fare ticket but no seat, or buy a seat with no fare ticket!
Before buying your Shinkanzen ticket, make sure to think carefully about if you want/need a seat or not. When I travelled from Fukuyama to Hiroshima with my sister we didn't bother reserving a seat, since it was just a day trip, so we saved around 1000 yen that we could later spend in Hiroshima. ($10, roughly £7) When I returned from Okayama to Tokyo we made sure to buy seat reservations for the long haul back, and with the additional space you get inside the reserved section of the train it's a life-saver with all that extra luggage I was hauling back!
DO buy a seat reservation ticket if you are travelling more than one stop, especially if you have bad knees, have luggage, or are elderly or have small children.
DON'T waste the extra money for reserving a seat if you are on the train for 20 minutes or are getting off at the next stop.
Speaking of the extra fees for reserving a seat, it shouldn't be a surprise that you pay extra for Super Express Trains. This shouldn't be a problem, but if you are not careful when using your Suica card you can end up paying extra when boarding an Express JR train, as unlike the more common services these trains have ticket inspectors on them. You won't get fined if you use your Suica and board one, you just pay the inspector the additional fee, which can be very steep if you are travelling far.
I boarded an Express Train from Otsuki to Hachioji at a time Google Maps told me to, because I was in a hurry I didn't check if it was an Express or not. So the Suica fee for the trip was about 670 yen, but I had to pay an extra 510 yen because it was an Express Train.
As you can see, only the Shinkanzen Ticket has English on it. It is still possible to understand what a ticket says even if you don't know how to read Kanji or Hiragana; apps on your phone are readily available and can be very accurate, and some can even be used Offline. I used an app called "Yomiwa" to help me with some Kanji that I couldn't read, but I still advise you learn the Kanji for the major cities you will be visiting as it makes locating the right train and boarding the right one much faster.
DO use your Suica or equivalent Rail Card wherever possible, as it saves time and money.
DON'T board the first train you see going to your destination, it might be an Express and cost you double the usual fare!
Some smaller stations don't accept Suica cards, like Kiyone or Kurashiki just outside Okayama City. Tickets here are small and can have one of two backs to them; a black back goes through the turnstile as normal, a ticket with a white back won't work this way and needs to be handed to a Ticket Officer. The same rule applies if you choose to buy train tickets instead of using a Suica card or Rail Pass elsewhere in Japan; black back use the turnstile, white back use the ticket officer.
Now a few things to deal with Train Etiquette, or otherwise known as having good manners while using the Train. You can get in trouble if you are loud or disruptive, and I don't mean just the type of disruptive behaviour we are use to in Britain.
DO talk to your friends/family, but speak quietly. Many people sleep during their travels, including on the subway lines, so just be mindful of others.
DO send texts and play games on your phone with audio turned off, but avoid using your phone at all if the train is busy.
DO take a seat if one is empty, but give it up for someone else who may need it if the train gets full.
DON'T talk on your phone. This is rude, people don't want to hear your drama.
DON'T shout or bother people on the train. This is common sense.
DON'T use a Women-Only carriage if you are not a woman, even if the rest of the train is full.
DON'T fall asleep on the train with headphones on! You might miss your stop. Each station has a unique chime for when a train is approaching or about the leave, so keep your ears open if you plan on resting those eyes on the train.
Now that I have covered the basics for getting around Japan via rail, time to get onto some more fun stuff; Hotels, Things to Do and Places to Eat!
THINGS TO DO
Collectors Beware: Gatcha are everywhere!
I only say beware because these machines are addictive, and you can end up spending a lot of money on them, but for those who want to find souvenirs without grabbing the stereotypical tick-tack, and are on a budget, a Gatcha dispenser can be a really great find.
Yes, these machines do exist in the UK, but they are vastly inferior to their Japanese counterparts when it comes to what they actually dispense.
My sister and I are big fans of Dragon Ball and we found most stores in Japan didn't sell much in the way of merchandise, it just isn't as popular as most westerners think it is over in its birth country! Gatcha machines though? Everywhere I went I managed to find at least one or more that dispensed something Dragon Ball related; I went to Japan with only one key-chain attached to my backpack, but when I came back I had 7, with 6 of them from Gatcha machines alone.
There was always something I would want to bring home for a friend or family member as a gift from these things, because they can also have some very gimmicky and quirky things inside them, and there are entire stores full of nothing but these machines in Akihabara Electric City in Tokyo. Sometimes you will also find even corners of large retailers like Bic Camera have a place with up to 20 machines, and malls have them in small arcades or in the middle of a wide walkway. You are never far from a horde of Gatcha dispensers, and sometimes you will see just how oddly self-serving these machines can be.
It should come as no surprise that I am a Gatcha Addict, at least when it comes to the machines in Japan. So, as a memento, I bought a miniature Gatcha Machine...from a Gatcha Dispenser. Okay, I bought 3 (actually, 4. One is still in the pod.) they even dispense mini pods, some with little pictures inside resembling toys. I seriously recommend looking them over, you might be pleasantly surprised at what you find.
Mario-Kart, Arcades and Theme Parks
Arcades in Japan are not like they are in the UK; Gambling in Japan is illegal, so your hard earned cash is spent on games like Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum 'n' Fun! which costs 100 yen for 3 tracks, earning you a bonus game should you do well! I highly recommend this game, it's a lot of fun and is fairly easy to learn, even for someone as nonrhythmic as myself!
Arcades tend to be found in Aeon malls and other shopping centres, but they are mainly filled with those dreaded claw machines along with a bunch of other claw-like grabber games that are just as difficult. What you need to look at is the SEGA Arcades, dotted around Tokyo and more often than not coloured bright red.
Each SEGA Arcade is around 8 floors with each one dedicated to one type of entertainment. One we visited had claw machines on the 1st and 2nd floor, then on floor 3 the music games like Taiko no Tatsujin were found, whilst the 4th and 5th floor housed traditional shooting and racing games. Then on floor 6 was online strategy and card games. The 7th floor was full of photo-booths and as far as we could tell the 8th floor was just a cafe.
Every SEGA Arcade we went to was like this, though each one had something different on one of the floors, like one of them had less shooting games and had gatcha instead. Toys, figures and even food are prizes found in the grabber machines, and some slot-machine games reward tokens which you use for prizes as well. But if you really want to get money back when you play, you might want to look into Pachinko parlours, as they found a loophole in the system; by taking a ticket with your winning tokens printed on it, you can go out of the Pachinko building and into a different one to cash it in for money, but the other prizes are quirky and fun, so why would you want to do that?
Arcades not your thing? Have a driving license? You can go join a Mario-kart tour around Tokyo! I didn't try this out as I cannot drive a car, but every time I have been to Tokyo I have seen these karts whizzing around, and it looks like a lot of fun.
Still not quite enough? Head on over to one of the many Theme Parks dotted around Japan! My sister and I visited Universal Studios Japan, Osaka, to see the Harry Potter World and Jurassic Park Kingdom, and whilst we didn't go on many rides we still had a lot of fun.
If you want something truly crazy and fun though, I highly recommend paying the Robot Restaurant a visit. Don't let the name fool you though, it's more of a show with drinks than a restaurant, though it does serve food. The performances inside differ through the year, we went and caught the Christmas show and it was a lot of fun! You can find the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku, but it is around the red-light district so it might not be the best place to take your children.
Some more family-friendly places though are found in Tokyo, in Ikebukoro Sunshine City mall are two places I was dying to see; J-World (Shonen Jump World) and the Pokemon Centre.
J-World caters to the fans of One-Piece, Dragon Ball and a handful of other manga published by Shonen Jump; it has exhibits with interactive photo spots, merchandise and games. It cost us around 1200 yen each for our visit.
The Pokemon Centre is just a huge shop for Pokemon fans of all ages; from cards and games, to bathroom and kitchen supplies. I always spend most of my gift budget in this store, and there are many found all over Japan, but the one in Tokyo is by far the largest.
If you're willing to travel at night in Tokyo, I also highly recommend visiting the life-sized Unicorn Gundam! I'm not much of a Gundam fan, but I do love giant robots, and this was a real delight to see!
Museums, Parks and Heritage Sites
Japan is full of wonderful things to see and do that are geeky or satisfy the cravings of the anime or manga addict, but now and again I like to take time out to learn more about the history and culture of the country.
I say this to absolutely everyone I meet who plans on going to Japan; visit Hiroshima, go to the Memorial Museum, and read the stories found at the Memorial Garden. Words cannot express how haunting seeing the Atomic Dome in person really is. The city itself is impressive and has a large amount of museums and reconstructed heritage sites that had been lost by the bomb drop.
If you want to learn more about Japan's history without going too far from Tokyo there is the Edo Museum, which has plenty of different sections to it covering lifestyle of ancient Japan, history of its economy, the Feudal Period, and even arts and crafts.
Information provided in the museum were in English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean. There were several Dutch-speaking tourists around when we visited, who were able to get audio-guides as well as tour-guides, so enjoying museums in Tokyo without knowing Japanese shouldn't be a problem. The Edo Museum doesn't just cater to pre-war Japan, it features many post-war Japan sections that was very interesting to see. The museum is very large and I would recommend spending a whole day to get the most out of it, though if you don't plan on reading everything in the museum you could get through it all in 2 hours.
If museums aren't your thing and you prefer landmarks, then obviously Tokyo Tower should be on your list. If you buy the Top Deck Tour ticket you get some history lessons on the way too, with audio-tape guidance in a wide variety of languages including English.
If you are willing to take 2 trains over 2 hours you can visit Mount Fuji without needing a car, but the closest you can get is at Fujikawaguchiko. Still, if you have children with you, there is a theme park nearby called Fuji Highland featuring rides and Thomas the Tank Engine themed trains and station signs, the station signs being themed this way made it easier for me to remember where I had come from and where I had already been, and needless to say I tried snapping pictures of each sign anyway because it was very unusual to see.
Whilst at Fuji you can head over to Arakura Pagoda and Park, which gives wonderful views of Fuji and the surrounding area. However, if you go in the winter don't expect Fuji-san to show up until mid to late morning. Most people might recognise Arakura from a TripAdvisor photograph taken during a clear morning in Spring; you can go see the exact spot the picture was taken and try snapping a similar shot yourself. I wasn't very lucky, the sky didn't clear until I had walked all the way back down to the station!
Arakura is lovely, I visited in February, but I highly recommend going in spring or autumn, just to see the place in more colour and have less chance of cloudy weather. It gets very busy after 9AM as clouds start to clear and Fuji comes into view. It isn't clearly signposted from the station, but once you head in the right direction it does become clearer to see what direction you need to take. When you leave Shimoyoshida station turn right; there is a path you can take which then has signs to Arakura, the walk from the station to the foot of the stairs leading to the pagoda is about 10 minutes. There is a temple here as well, which sells charms and other fuji-themed objects that you can either use at the shrine or take home. People and signposts in the area are generally English friendly.
The park at Arakura is large and is home to various wildlife like Boars and even Bears! It's not advised to enter the park alone because of the risk of Bears.
Love wildlife and history but don't want to risk being mauled by a bear? Head over to Nara, just south of Kyoto!
We had one whole day to visit Nara, but that turns out to be all that we needed. The famous
Tōdai-ji Temple was our main reason for visiting Nara as it was home to the largest Buddha Statue in Japan, and just a short train ride away from Kyoto and Kobe it made for a nice stop-over point in our journey.
Whether you love the old tales of Japan or are a Buddhist yourself, this Temple has more than just the statue inside of it. It houses miniature replicas of the grounds, and has a nearby museum full of old items that had been found in and around the temple.
Should the temple and museum not be to your liking, then there are numerous Pagoda to see, and there is always the Deer Park!
After visiting Nara we went to Kobe, and whilst it is a far more modern city it still has plenty of interesting places to see, such as the Herb Gardens for the avid gardener or scent enthusiast (not too great for me as I have no sense of smell!) You can reach the gardens on foot, bike or using the cable cars which we went for, as a round trip using them cost 1,500 yen ($15, approx £10) yielding stellar views of the gardens and Kobe City.
Still, there just is no beating going out into rural Japan, or even a smaller town or village off the beaten track, and see what surprises it has tucked away! I stayed with my sister most of the time in Ibara-shi, Okayama, and went out exploring on my own. And whilst she said there wasn't much to see or do there, I begged to differ; everything was new, everything was exciting!
We had many adventures across Japan, but I simply cannot fit everything into this one article. More will come in the future...
HOTELS AND INNS
Hotels are not always cramped!
Contrary to popular belief; not everywhere in Japan requires you to be packed up tight like a tin of sardines!
Both times I went to Japan I stayed a large chunk of the time with my sister at her apartment, but when I did travel to places far from her home I didn't have to worry about being trapped in a box-like Capsule Hotel. Something else I worried about was paying a lot of money and getting a view of a brick wall outside my window. Thankfully this wasn't the case outside of Tokyo; each room came with a wonderful view, but the ones inside Tokyo often just faced a brick wall!
I stayed in regular Western Hotels, Japanese Hotels and even a Traditional Japanese Inn in Kyoto. All the rooms were surprisingly spacious, comfortable and affordable. The most expensive hotels I stayed at were in Tokyo, costing £100 a night on average. My stay at Kyoto alone was around £30 a night, so you can already see a huge advantage to not basing your whole holiday in Tokyo! Also, don't confine yourself to just Western or Modern hotels; try out a Traditional Inn at least once in your trip if you can, they usually cost less and are a nice change of pace to all the other hotels you might stay in.
Do take note though that many, if not all, Traditional Inns have shared bathroom facilities. If you are Transgender like I am this can be a little off-putting, but thankfully these sorts of Inns are quiet so there's always a good chance to sneak into the bathroom without anyone seeing or bothering you.
If the hotel you are staying in has an Onsen (Hot Spring Bath) you may have to cover up your tattoos if you have any, or you might not be allowed to use them at all. It is always worth asking someone at the Hotel to avoid complications or embarrassment. If you are Transgender, well, I would advise giving the Onsen a miss until you have had all your surgeries if you plan on having them all, as again this would avoid a lot of embarrassing situations because Onsen are typically separated by gender AND require full public nudity.
If chilling in a Hot Spring sounds more hassle than it's worth, at least there are plenty of places to eat out and explore!
Now I, like many of you I imagine looking through this article, want to try local dishes and snacks rather than sticking to the comforts of home or popular chains like McDonald's, so seeing this title might be a bit off-putting. Don't be fooled though, Japanese Fast Food isn't always what you imagine; Sushi is not usually served in restaurants as a main dish, it is commonly referred to as food-on-the-go!
One thing to remember is that if you are allergic to shellfish or sesame seeds, then you might have to avoid certain foods or eateries. All traditional foods in japan contain traces of one or both allergens, so it is best to learn the kanji for items like shrimp (Ebi, 蝦) and sesame seed (Gomashio, ごま塩) to help you identify the
allergens easier. Though most restaurants and fast food joints do have an English menu available, this is especially the case in Tokyo.
You will find home comforts such as Cola and Lemonade, but I highly suggest you take the plunge and try one of the more exotic drinks in these fast-food joints, namely the radioactive-looking Melon Soda! Once I got a taste for this drink, I stopped leaning to the classics wherever I could, sometimes though it isn't on the menu. This makes me sad, so very sad.
If you happen to enter a restaurant like Sukiya then you will find a pale brown iced drink given to you; this is barley water, so again if you are allergic to barley you might want to avoid drinking it.
One of my favourite places to eat is a place in Okayama Aeon mall called "Umi no homare" (海の穂まれ) that sells a rice-based dish called Donburi (丼). I had a different dish each time I went, but my personal favourites and recommendations are the Salmon Sashimi Selection and the Negitoro (ドネギトロ). Negitoro is made with different cuts of raw tuna, often the fatty parts that are scraped off the bone or aren't able to be presented nicely in the form of Sushi. In all honesty, regardless of how it might look and sound, it tastes incredible. I am having withdrawal from Negitoro since, in the UK at least, we just don't eat fish this way so it is not easy to find.
You might remember me mentioning Sukiya, well, it is possibly the most impressive "fast food" joint I have ever seen in my life. The food is served quickly and tastes wonderful. I tried curry beef, Negitoro Don, Teriyaki Eel and a handful of other things there, but my sister recommended the cheesy beef Donburi to me once and I have to say, it became one of my favourites.
Ramen Bars: Know Your Noodle!