This is part of an ongoing travelogue. To start at the very beginning, click here.
Japan is one of the most advanced societies in the world and their transportation system reflects this. But the challenge for first time visitors is to make sense of the complex train, subway, bus and road networks to save time and money and avoid the hassle of getting lost. The first thing to do before going to Japan is to do as much research as you can. There are many useful websites available, the two that I found the most helpful was Japan Guide and Hyperdia. Japan Guide is one of the best to research places to go and how to get to them. The sections of ‘getting to and around’ each city is very helpful. I used Hyperdia to calculate the fares on subways. And not to for Google Maps, which is probably the most important tool to plan your journeys and travels.
Landing in Kansai Airport
The airport very easy to navigate. Clearing immigration is fast, I was very impressed with the staff who were really helping to manage the crowds. But a word of caution – if you are staying in Airbnb, make sure you write the address and telephone contact of your home or they may not clear you to enter. The address has to be complete in English or Japanese.
JR Pass or Haruka & ICOCA?
It took me quite some time to fully understand these passes, so this what I can explain. If you are traveling between cities a lot, like say Osaka to Tokyo and back, then get the JR Pass. Its quite expensive, but usually 2 discounted rides on the shinkansen (bullet train) will justify the price. To buy the price you need to purchase it online (its available to foreigners only) and redeem it when you arrive.
I wasn’t travelling a lot between cities, so my choice was the Haruka & ICOCA. Haruka is special ticket from Kansai Airport to a few nearby cities like Osaka, Kyoto, Nara and Kobe (these cities are all in a region called Kansai). The ticket can be return or one-way only. The benefit of Haruka is that is a limited express (meaning they don’t stop at every station) and it is slightly cheaper. There are cheaper ways to get to Kyoto, but they involve switching trains at a slightly longer time, and this was not favourable to me as I was carrying large luggage. ICOCA is prepaid card, like our Touch ‘N Go or the Octopus Card in HK. You can use it for buses and most trains. Some convenience stores also accept payment with it.
Haruka & ICOCA is sold separately but better to be bought together as a package as it is slightly cheaper.
To get all these cards, once you exit immigration, go up one the escalator and cross over to the annex building. You will see the JR (Japan Railway) office on your left. Can’t miss it. Once there you get all your passes and can get all your questions answered (but please show your passports for all your traveling companions).
If you are planning to take the Sagano Scenic Railway in Arashiyama, do get them here beforehand as they tend to sell out very fast.
Trains in Japan
It is important to note that there are a few train companies in Japan, with at 2-3 running within each city. JR is the main railway company, much like our KTM. In my time in Japan, I also took Keihan and Kintetsu lines. They all have different stations within the same area, so make sure you don’t enter the wrong station. Their ticketing are also different, so make sure you check if the ICOCA card is accepted.
Getting To and Around Kyoto
However you get to Kyoto, you will most likely arrive in the cavernous Kyoto Station, one of the most impressive transportation hubs I have ever seen. All trains and subways stop here, as do most bus routes. There is a very helpful information desk right at the entrance with English speaking staff. First thing to do is get the bus route map and subway map from them.
Kyoto being such a large city, has rather limited subway coverage compared to other Japan cities. There are only two rounds running East-West and North-South. The problem is all the tourist site aren’t covered by these routes. So in order to get around the city, you need to use a combination of subway, trains, buses and taxis.
Subway – if you can, use the subway. Its cheap, fast (no traffic lights) and frequent.
Bus – second choice, use the bus. Their bus network is fantastic and the service is truly world class. The downside is the buses are usually crowded during the day time, and although traffic in Kyoto is very sparse, they stop every 500m to 1 km, so it takes a long time to cover long distance.
Trains – Trains function very similar to subways, and is equally cheap. But they have limited routes, so do study how the best to utilize them. But they do travel slower than subways.
Taxis – most people will tell you that taxis are expensive and best to avoid them, but for my family of 4, a short distance ride is almost the same price or only slight more expensive than bus or subway. This works really well if you are really tired and not looking forward to walking 1km from subway to your destination.
Getting To and Around Nara
There are two train lines from Kyoto – Kintetsu and JR. Use Kintetsu, it is nearer to the tourist spots. Once reaching Nara, we walked around the historical area, but there are loop. buses if you want to take them. But I strongly suggest walking, it is not far and you will truly appreciate the atmosphere (not to mention the deers).
Getting To and Around Osaka
On the sixth day we returned to Osaka from Kyoto by taking the limited express train. There are 5 different trains run by 3 companies (JR, Keihan and Hankyu) with varying prices and travel times.
In Osaka, there are two central stations separated by a river – Osaka and Shin-Osaka (don’t get off at the wrong station). Osaka is Japan’s second largest city, and is very much a modern city as compared to the older Kyoto. The subway here is excellent, so I didn’t take trains or buses. I did use taxi once, the rate is almost similar to Kyoto. So plan your journey with the subways, just make sure you have enough credit in your ICOCA card.