Local Transport in Japan
Japan Railways (JR)
The Japan Railways network covers the entire country, over 21,000 km of line and 20,000 services daily. The company is divided into two main companies, JR East and JR West with lots of smaller regional companies. The minimum fare is ¥130, which will usually do you for one or two stops. All stations have automatic ticket vending machines. They are quite easy to use as long as you're able to read the name of your destination in Japanese. An alternative is to buy a pre-paid or rechargable (Suica) card for ¥500 up to ¥10,000. If you regularly commute the same route, you might consider a monthly teiki-ken pass. Most stations have automatic ticket gates. But if your ticket is not valid as far as the station you're exiting from, you'll need to use one of the fare adjustment machines or settle up with the guy (it always seems to be a guy) at the window.
JR services are generally frequent, regular and efficient. More and more trains have digital readouts in every carriage indicating the stops in both Japanese and English. During rush hours, trains on some lines become almost unbelievably packed, especially into and out of the major cities. But the train, subway and bus networks are so extensive that there is often a less crowded, if slower, alternative. The various networks are also well inter-connected, with bus terminals outside train stations, for example. But you'll have to buy seperate tickets for each. JR stations are almost always centrally located and often have shopping centers and restaurants in the same building.
A central loop line passes around the center of both Tokyo (Yamanote Line) and Osaka (Kanjo Line), which, together with the extensive subway systems, provides convenient access to almost any spot in the city. The main problem with the trains is that they stop running between midnight and 1am and don't start again till almost 5am, except on New Year's Eve, when they run all night.
There are many private railway lines serving suburban and resort areas. Usually they are shorter than JR lines, less than 100km in length. The stations are often located away from the commercial centers. Many of the lines are run by large corporations such as Seibu and Kintetsu which also own department stores, travel agencies and even professional baseball teams. In Tokyo, most of the private lines radiate out to the suburbs from the central JR Yamanote loop line. The Kinki area between the Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto-Nara metropolis and Nagoya is well served by private lines - the Kintetsu corporation is more correctly known as Kinki Nippon Tetsudo (Kinki Japan Railway). Using both private lines and JR trains means buying two or more tickets and gets pretty expensive.
A Ginza Line subway
A taxi noriba (stand)
A Tokyo metro bus
With the relatively small land area of Japan in relation to its population, subways are as much a necessity as a convenience. Subways in Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka and Sapporo are operated by private companies. The main inconvenience of the subways is that, like the trains, they stop running between around midnight and almost 5am, except on New Year's Eve.
Tokyo has two subway companies, Metro and Toei. The former was originally called Eidan, but was nationalized on April 1, 2004. It operates 8 lines, while Toei has 4. The lines are color-coded, making it easy to find the one you're looking for. Between them, the lines cover just about the whole city. The difficulty begins when you try to buy a ticket because most of the machines show the station names in kanji only. You can get around this by buying a Passnet pre-paid card (¥1,000 to 3,000) which automatically deducts the fare when you go through the automatic tickets gates. There are also several types of one-day tickets. The minimum fare is currently ¥160, making it a bit more expensive than the train. Some subway trains have digital readouts showing approaching station names and even which on side of the train the doors will open!
Many people spend their entire time in Japan without using busses. Especially in the cities, the train and subways systems are so good that the busses are not often necessary. But if you happen to live in the suburbs or countryside, a long walk from the nearest station, then the local bus comes into its own. Most city busses charge a flat fare (¥210 in Tokyo), making short journies expensive and long ones cheap. Suburban and rural busses show their fares above the inside front window. You take a ticket from the machine at the (rear) entrance and pay at the machine next to the driver on your way out. The main problems with busses are that all maps and signs are in Japanese; travel on the city busses is subject to the rush-hour traffic congestion; and bus services stop even earlier than the trains.
Taxi fares have become a little cheaper in recent years due to increased competition. But they are still expensive, usually starting at ¥660 or more for the first 2 kilometers plus ¥80 for each further 400 meters or so. After 11pm, rates go up by 20 percent. So if you miss the last train, be prepared for an expensive trip home. The 'for hire' sign is a bit confusing - a red sign means the taxi is available while a green sign shows that it's occupied. You shouldn't open the rear passenger-side door - it is opened and closed by the driver. If you don't speak Japanese, you should have your destination written on a piece of paper. Even then, the driver will often ask you the best way to get there! There is usually a taxi-noriba (stand) in front of train stations but there can be a long wait at night and taxis can be very few and far between, especially when it's raining.