Trains, Ferries, Buses and Planes – A guide to travel in Japan beyond JR (PART I)

This is the first installment in an ongoing series of articles about transportation options in Japan.

So, here’s the thing: I know lots of travelers think of riding JR (Japan Rail) trains with Japan Rail Pass (JR PASS in short) as the one-stop solution to their travel needs inside Japan.

Yet, while that is true in some cases, JR Pass (or JR) by itself is not always the most efficient nor most economical way to travel across Japan. That is not a dis on JR Pass, because the pass has its purpose. Yet like all tools, it is good for certain situations but not all. The design of JR Pass is for tourists that travel long distances between cities within a fixed period. It had limitations laid in that are not economically sound for travelers that stay mostly in big cities. Those who are not on the move for long enough distances would also not benefit much.

But you would ask, what are the alternatives? Well, there are plenty of them, and all you need is a little digging.

Trains, Ferries, Buses and Planes

To get around Japan, there are plenty of transportations to choose from. When used with JR, you will have a comprehensive network to travel.

  • Trains – In this case, we are talking about the private railways, i.e. all railways that are not in the JR Group network. They cover a major part of the country that is not operated by JR Group, which are mostly localized train lines.
  • Metros and local buses – The best way to transit within major cities and neighboring areas. Local municipal transportation bureaus operate most of the metros lines, except Tokyo and Osaka. Local buses can be operated by municipalities, private railways, bus operators and JR.
  • Ferries – Ferries are part of the essential transportation for some of the hottest tourist locations (e.g. Miyajima). Those locations are only accessible by sea. At the same time, ferries can be great alternatives to transit some areas (e.g. between Matsuyama and Hiroshima).
  • Planes – More popular in Europe and US than Japan, local flights in Japan are actually important resources. This is even truer when you need to cover mid-to-long range distances without a JR Pass.
  • Highway buses – Highway buses are least utilized by tourists (base on first-hand experience). Yet, they can be a great part of your transportation kit, and they are relatively easy to book and use than you might think.

So why would these options be considered? Let’s look at a few situations:

  • You are in Nagoya for a short day trip, but the next day you need to be in Tokyo. Instead of staying in a hotel, then ride the morning Tokaido Shinkansen to Tokyo, it is very possible to book an overnight bus ticket. Hop on after dinner, and sleep through the night in your air-conditioned seat for a fraction of the Shinkansen ticket. Wake up and you are in Shinjuku!
  • You are in Matsuyama, Shikoku for a wonderful trip to the Dogo Onsen. Your next stop is the Hiroshima area, just across the straits in front of you. You can certainly ride JR train back to Okayama, then loop back to Hiroshima. But you won’t, because there’s a ferry right into Hiroshima Harbour direct! And you can even make a stop to the nearby Kure, the military and commercial port town that built the legendary battleship Yamato.
  • You are working on your itinerary for Tokyo and Kansai area and realized that the trip is heavier on the outbound leg to Kansai than the return leg back. It is perfectly normal to ride Shinkansen back (ticket price in the range of 13k yen). It is also viable to fly from Kansai International Airport (KIX) to Narita International (NRT) from 4500 to 6500 yen one way, flight time one and a half hour. Even after adding the train transit to KIX and from NRT, the total cost will be at most 9200 yen, about a third cheaper than straight-up Shinkansen.

With all the benefits, are there drawback that you need to consider? And how to use them? We will talk about them in our next installment.