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Much to see
Japan is a surprisingly diverse country; home to both subtropical and near arctic climates; some of the most densely populated cities in the world, as well as untouched remote locations that can offer paradisal experiences. In short, it can be a bit of an explorer’s dream, what with so much to take in. Luckily Japan also boasts a vast array of transportation methods that can help with those exploration endeavours, which also are considered as being some of the best in the world.
However, depending on what you want to see and experience, there isn’t one single method that will suit all eventualities and scenarios. So here, I’m going to introduce to you some of the best ways of exploring Japan, but most importantly why and when you should use each.
Lets get travelling
Train and rail network
Let’s start with what is often seen as Japan’s flagship public transportation method.
The Japanese rail network is the absolute best method of transportation in Japan when travelling between major cities, hubs, and hotspots. The majority of the rail network is run the ‘Japan rail network’ or ‘JR network’ for short and it’s services can get you from the most southerly prefecture of mainland Japan (Kagoshima) to the most northern city of Wakkanai in Hokkaido and most other major points and cities in between.
No matter what type of train you get, be it a local train or the impressive bullet train (Shinkansen) you will find that they are convenient, reliable, and importantly safe.
The overground train network is the perfect transportation method for those looking to quickly move across the country in order to reach their next port of call; although you can certainly catch some gorgeous scenery as you race past the country’s scenic landscapes.
Short-term holidaymakers are the prime example of who would benefit the most, not lingering too long in one location with an itinerary to follow. In fact, if you fall into this category Japan’s train network becomes essential as no other transportation method comes close to providing the speed and reliability of cross-country travel.
The JR network knows this too and to provide an even greater reason to use the rail network as well as attract tourists, they introduced what is known as the JR pass, a heavily subsidised train pass that offers unlimited rail usage for a period of one, two, or three weeks. It’s a service that has been the backbone of millions of holidaymakers to Japan.
With that in mind I highly recommend getting a JR pass if you intend to visit Japan. To find out more or to order a pass visit jrpass.com. (paid link)
Renting a hire car in Japan is the next best way to travel in Japan for several important reasons. First, as extensive as the rail network is, there is the simple fact that trains cannot go everywhere, and the places they don’t go could mean you are missing out on some spectacular locations that are perhaps less-travelled.
Twisting through Japan’s mountainous terrain are an innumerable number of smaller villages, lush walking trails, and secluded shrines and temples to name but a few things. Without a car, these things would be missed entirely.
You may be thinking at this point ‘you could just get a taxi to these places’, well yes you could, but as well as the price of multiple taxis versus a rental car, this feeds into the second important reason why it is one of the best methods of transportation in Japan.
Hiring a rental car allows you to focus your adventures, at a slower pace, that is most convenient to you. If you want to spend a week or two fully exploring a single prefecture or if you want to go on a road trip stopping at interesting locations; hiring a rental car surpasses any other method including the rail network.
In a sense it comes down to having a lot more freedom to go and do what you want.
If renting a car sounds like the right method for you, I recommend trying one of the following:
Now hear me out with this one. What if you are someone who prefers city-breaks? Or enjoys a bit of urban exploration? Then the humble bicycle will be one of the best methods for you — especially in Japan.
It’s no secret that space in japan is fairly limited when it comes to city-building, every inch of space is utilised as much as possible and the result is often a maze of streets and alleyways. Also ,due to building regulations and zoning rules, you can encounter a fascinatingly diverse locale that is anything but uniform.
Unusual buildings, tiny shrines, pocketed green spaces, hidden pathways are just a handful of things to discover should you spend time exploring. Doing so on a bike rather than walking allows you to cover a lot more ground quickly with the potential to find many more of these secretive locations. It also allows you to go further into the suburbs and outskirts, giving you a much bigger picture of the entire city.
Besides that, cycling in somewhere like Hiroshima can see you very quickly ascend into the mountainous surroundings which the city becomes one with. In Tokyo however, you can swap and change between the hectic downtown rush and the peaceful waterways that criss-cross the city.
It really is the best way to explore a city at ground level.
We have to remember that Japan at its heart is very much an island nation, a nation of over 14,000 islands to be frank, and travelling and working on the water has and continues to be an important means of getting around. In fact, boats and ferries can still be a great way to travel around Japan.
This method is ideal for those who enjoy a more casual, slower-paced means of travelling; that being said, it’s also a necessity for those determined to visit the far-off reaches of Japan’s territories. The perspective from a boat or ferry however can be vastly different from that on land and offer truly unique sightseeing opportunities.
For example, the Seto Inland Sea is often regarded as one of the most beautiful parts of Japan and sits between three of the four major islands: Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. Currently there are six different ferry services that operate within this part of the country, and boarding any of them will offer up panoramic views of the surrounding islands that only travelling by boat can offer.
This is of course only a selection of the more than 30 different ferry routes the country currently has available. It’s quite possible then to focus on an entirely coastal getaway and the best way to explore many of the country’s major coastal cities, which include:
Lastly we have another inner-city means of travel, but one that differs from the exploratory purpose to the bicycle and the purely destination focused subway or metro — trams and monorail.
They serve a similar purpose to that of a boat or ferry in the sense that they offer a more casual means of transportation in Japan with a focus on sightseeing. While part of the rail network, both trams and monorails provide a good balance of destination hopping with the ability to get great views of the city as you travel around it; the monorail more so in this case due to the nature of it running above road-level.
There is the caveat that only a few cities and prefectures have trams and monorails as part of their transportation method and even then may only cover a few areas:
The fact that they are somewhat of a scarcity actually adds an element of distinction that acts as an attraction in of itself.
But getting back to the matter at hand, where this does exist they provide one of the best ways to travel around a city in a much more enjoyable manner.
How you get around Japan depends entirely on what you want to see and achieve in the country, as well as how quickly you want to do it. If you are planning a trip, finding the best transportation options for you should be a careful consideration.
There is an argument that getting a train to and from major points is inevitable in which case the JR pass (paid link) is ideal, but what about after that? Hopefully at the very least this article has highlighted some other potential exciting options that align with your intentions, rather than opting for unnecessary domestic flights, uninviting subway trains, or forking out on taxis.
If you are in Japan to enjoy it, finding the best ways to get around is certainly part of it.