Living in Japan: Public Transportation

By Kei. Hamilton

The Japanese transportation system is a wonder of the modern world. Whether traveling by train, taxi or bus, one can expect a clean, orderly, safe and highly punctual service, if not a low-cost one, and most always provided by courteous and helpful drivers, conductors and other crisply uniformed officials. Japan's train system operates pretty much right on the clock most all of the time, making it a reliable way to get around town and between cities, while taxis, which can get stuck in a wall of traffic or go to the wrong place through misunderstanding, are at least clean, comfortable and honest, and easy to locate and hail. Buses are especially convenient, although also at the mercy of traffic conditions.
For any resident of Japan, there are many options that make for moving about the city a quick and easy part of daily life. Just the right mix of personal vehicles and public transportation services are the way to make even the most congested cities like Tokyo and Osaka convenient and pleasant places to live and work, despite the crowds and chaos. Here are some things to know about getting around Tokyo—first, related to Japanese signage and language issues, as well as the popularity of pre-paid IC card systems, followed by future posts on the various modes of transportation, as well as driving in Japan.

The Language Factor

Even short-term residents who have no need or intention of learning the Japanese language still have to remember Japanese train station and bus stop and area names, which are not always displayed in English on signage, maps and Internet services. Moreover, train and bus announcements are always in Japanese, of course, but only occasionally in English.
This makes it a good idea to spend a few weeks at the outset of your stay in Japan learning the fundamentals of Japanese kanji and kana, and familiarizing yourself with the written Japanese names of the train lines, key stations, areas of the city and other locations relevant to your life, as it will make it easier to use the Japanese signage to move around Tokyo and beyond. It’s also important to understand how Japanese pronunciation works and the ability to imitate it reasonably well, in order to help avoid many of the frustrations that come from interacting with Japanese taxi and bus drivers, train system officials, and other people who staff the Japanese transportation system, most of whom can be expected to have a poor or nonexistent command of English.
At the end of the day, however, one need not ever worry in Japan, as the Japanese especially like helping a lost foreigner, and don’t expect him or her to speak the language. So feel free to stop someone and politely ask in English where you are or how to get to where you want to go. Just be patient, because often they don’t know themselves, may lack confidence in their own English ability, or simply be pronouncing English in intelligible ways.

Pre-paid Systems

Japan’s rail and bus ticketing system has largely gone the way of pre-paid systems like IC Cards and mobile phone based services. The Train stations still have ticket machines, but they are largely used for dispensing and charging IC cards like Suica (Super Urban Intelligent Card by Japan Railway) and PASMO (Passnet system used by many non JR lines in the Tokyo area), and other pre-paid services. Most pre-paid services, including mobile phone based services, can be used for trains, buses and taxis, as well as at a variety of retail shops and vending machines.

Suica Card and PASMO

Suica and PASMO cards require a returnable deposit of ¥500 to obtain (included in the first charge), and can be continuously recharged at railway stations in various 1,000-yen increments to an upper limit of ¥10,000 and more.
JR-EAST (East Japan Railway Company)
Suica Card
PASMO Co., Ltd.

Suica & N’EX

For customers holding non-Japanese passports, a special Suica & N’EX card is available, which includes a Narita Express (N’EX) one-way ticket from Narita International Airport to Tokyo or Yokohama plus a Suica Card. It can be purchased at Narita International Airport Terminal 1 Travel Service Center or Terminal 2 Travel Service Center during office hours (open 365 days a year).
JR-EAST (East Japan Railway Company)
Suica & N'EX