In Part 1 of this series, I wrote about WHY a photographer might like to travel to Japan. In this post, I’ll look at logistics, especially transportation.  Images of commuter-jammed subways and incomprehensible-to-the-Western-eye script may be intimidating if you haven’t been to Japan before, but with a little preparation and a good attitude, the Japan-novice will find a lot to like.

What to know about getting around Japan

  1. Japan is known for its transportation system, which is a marvel of engineering and to-the-minute punctuality. A fantastic option for non-Japanese travelers is the Japan Rail (JR) pass, which can be purchased in 1, 2 or 3-week increments.  At this writing, a one week pass costs about $274 US, with a discount for longer increments (about $437 for 2 weeks and $558 for 3 weeks).  These prices are for “ordinary” cars as opposed to “Green” (First class) cars, which are at least 30% more.  Green cars offer more spacious seats.  I personally have never bothered with other than the “ordinary”, finding them quite comfortable.  A disadvantage of the Green pass is that seats must be reserved, requiring a trip into the JR office in the station before each train trip.  The JR rail pass is good for UNLIMITED train travel on JR trains, which is a VERY comprehensive network, including some types of shinkansen, the world-renowned bullet train.  Even one round-trip shinkansen trip between Tokyo and Kyoto will cover the cost of your pass.
  2. VERY IMPORTANT: The Japan Rail pass MUST be purchased through the Internet or a travel agent before you arrive in Japan. That may change in the future (a trial program of JR Pass purchase at airports is ongoing now, at increased cost). You receive a voucher, which is exchanged for the pass itself at a JR station. If you are arriving from the US to Narita or Kansai airports, there are JR stations in the airports, at which you can exchange your voucher.
  3. You must start using your pass within 3 months of purchase, so buy it well in advance of your departure but not too far (1-2 months is plenty of time).
  4. Take a careful look at where you’ll be and for how many days before activating your pass. Once you exchange your voucher, you have a month to start using the pass.  For example, depending on the length of our trips, we sometimes activate our passes at Narita and use the pass for tickets on the Narita Express train, a convenient express train service from the airport into the city.  This might make sense if you are only overnighting in Tokyo and heading elsewhere by train from there.  While the JR Pass can be useful in Tokyo (good on the circumferential JR Yamanote line which encircles the city), it often makes more sense in Tokyo to use the more comprehensive subway system.
  5. An invaluable app for researching routes and timetables, especially if you are disinclined like me to waste valuable vacation time waiting for trains is Hyperdia. Input your starting station and destination, time and date you want to leave, and you will be presented with a list showing possible departure times, platforms, total travel times, necessary transfers, etc.  For simple transfers (Tokyo to Kyoto) with multiple departures/hour, you can simply go to the station and catch the next available train, but with this app, you can choose the most efficient route.  This is particularly useful for a more complicated journey, such as to Naoshima Island, in the Inland Seto Sea, which has become a major destination for contemporary art and architecture aficionados.
    A sample of the invaluable information available using the App Hyperdia: input your starting station, destination and approximate time you want to leave to learn the options.

    You can also limit your searches to JR trains only, good insurance against accidentally boarding a Nozomi or other type of shinkansen not covered by the pass.

    The ferry is a pleasant way to reach destinations in the Seto Inland Sea.
  6. Getting around Tokyo: While you can use a JR pass on the Yamanote line, it’s generally more convenient in Tokyo to use a Pasmo or Suica card.
    Pasmo, a refillable card, very useful for navigating around Tokyo via the subway.

    Pasmo is a rechargeable card which can be purchased at Narita and Haneda airports and many subway and train stations, which is worth seeking out at the first opportunity.  It is a smart card that you top off at a machine with cash, saving you from having to purchase individual subway tickets, fumble for change, etc.  Just touch it to the entry gate, ride the subway and touch it a reader at the exit and the correct fare will be subtracted. It’s wonderfully convenient!  It can also be used to pay for items where you see the Pasmo sign, including food vendors in the basements of department stores (well worth a visit on their own!) and the ubiquitous vending machines. Suica is a similar product.

The Tokyo subway can be crowded at peak commuter hours.
  1. Getting around Kyoto: Kyoto has a less comprehensive subway system than Tokyo.  There are basically 2 lines, one running north-south and the other east-west.  We usually stay in downtown Kyoto, near the nexus of the 2 lines, and make do with a patchwork of trains, walking, cabs, subway, and buses.
    Small train lines service destinations on the outskirts of Kyoto.

    A fantastic half-day hike through a forest on the outskirts of Kyoto from one temple town to another (Kurama to Kibune) is accessed by small private train lines heading north (Keihan line to Demachiyanagi, then a tiny 2 car train on the Eizan line to Kurama).
  2. Driving is on the left side of the road, like in England! We’ve never done it and don’t plan to!Kyoto geisha in a taxi

Now that you know more about how to get around Japan, future posts discuss destinations to consider.