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 transport – making owning and driving a car unnecessary and, given high levels of traffic congestion, inconvenient. Moreover, expats needing to travel long distances will find that trains connect the country fairly well, and buses travel over extensive networks.
Smaller cities and towns typically have more infrequent or less accessible options. Expats considering living in one of these locations may have a more challenging time getting around and may want to consider buying a car.
- See Japan's official travel guide for more information on travel in Japan.
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 the 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. The Japan Railways (JR) group of companies 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. Cards like Suica and Pasmo can also be used for buses, subways and even purchases at certain vending machines and shops, and they can be easily recharged.
Where a train line ends, a bus typically starts. In major tourist areas, English will be displayed on the screen and arrivals as well as departures will be announced in English. 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, service in English can be limited.
- JR East for train schedules and ticket bookings
- Tokyo Metro for subway lines and schedules in Tokyo
- JR West for train schedules and ticket bookings in Western Japan
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 that sell popular mountain, road and cross-country bikes are also available.
- Check out the National Police Agency for general road safety guidelines
Taxis in Japan
Taxis are popular transport options for those expats living in big cities without cars. Beware, though, that rates are costly 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, though due to legal restrictions, it primarily operates as a taxi-hailing service. Nevertheless, it eliminates the language barrier though it 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 necessary in major cities, where owning a car can be more hassle than 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 accompanied by an official Japanese translation. These licences are valid for up to one year, after which it's necessary to get a Japanese driving 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. It's worth noting that the process of getting a Japanese driving licence can be quite rigorous, particularly for those nationalities that have to take written and practical tests.
- See the NPA Traffic Bureau's guides for traffic safety
- Check out the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) official website
Air travel in Japan
Japan's air travel infrastructure is comprehensive and efficient, making it an excellent option for both domestic and international travel. The country has numerous airports with frequent flights, connecting major cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, Sapporo and Fukuoka, and providing quick access to more remote areas such as Okinawa and Hokkaido.
Two major airlines dominate the Japanese skies: Japan Airlines (JAL) and All Nippon Airways (ANA), both offering extensive domestic and international flight networks. There are also several low-cost carriers, including Peach Aviation and Jetstar Japan, which provide affordable options for domestic travel and some international routes.
Travelling by air within Japan can be an efficient way to cover large distances, especially when the journey involves crossing the sea. However, for shorter distances, trains often provide a more cost-effective and environmentally friendly alternative. Expats planning to use air travel frequently may benefit from airline loyalty programmes or air passes.
►Learn about the country's medical infrastructure in Healthcare in Japan
"Public transportation is very convenient. In our city Ashiya we have three major train lines that pass from here, JR, Hanshin and Hankyu. Throughout Japan, every possible public transportation is very reliable, safe, clean and punctual. We have a car that we take on longer journeys, but in everyday life, we use mostly trains and buses." Find out more about moving to Japan in our interview with North Macedonian expat Sania.
Are you an expat living in Japan?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Japan. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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