Japan is home to one of the world's best transport systems. Locals love the train service and it's the most popular way to get around the country. The schedules and variety of fares on offer may seem a bit daunting first off – take a look at the gapper in Japan's ultimate companion Hitachi's Hyperdia to start. Good luck with the Japanese in there though...
If you can't quite work it out there is a simpler version that just has the limited express, sleeper and bullet trains (Shinkansen). Keep it simple and try to learn that one before you move onto the big time.
Just so you know – in Japanese cities an address is useful for mail, but it's nearly useless for actually getting there. Most places are described in terms of the walking distance from the nearest train station, and relative to local landmarks rather than actual listed addresses. Typical addresses are written as "1??2-3" or "1-2-3", which would be district 1, block 2, house 3. Business cards very often have little maps printed on the back to make navigation easier. If you're having troubles – just ask someone. The Japanese are well-known for wanting to help tourists.
Japan's railways are fast, highly efficient and cover the majority of the country, making this the top choice of transport for most visitors. Trains are not 24 hours, but in the big cities they are near enough. If you're sampling the Japan nightlife, make sure you check what time the last train is before you start on the sake.
If you're in Japan on your gap year, make sure you check out the Shinkansen lines, so you can show off to your mates about going on one of the fastest trains in the world.
The carriages on the trains in Japan can get a little, err, cosy in rush hour, so there are women-only cars if you need. This is normally the first and last carriages.
Any gappers looking for a good value deal will enjoy the Japan Rail Pass. This allows unlimited travel on almost all JR trains, including the Shinkansen, for either 7, 14 or 21 days. A single round trip from Tokyo to Osaka costs almost ¥29,000, while the 7-day Rail Pass in Ordinary Class is ¥28,300. The 14-day and 21-day ordinary pass is 45,100 and ¥57,700, respectively. There are a few exceptions and choices, but just ask the vendor for more details.
The pass can only be purchased outside of Japan from specific vendors.
For travel within big cities, the easiest thing to do is to pick up a rechargeable contactless smart card like Suica/Pasmo (in the Tokyo/Kanto area) or ICOCA/PiTaPa (in the Kansai area), which will calculate the correct fares for you automatically.
At major stations there will be an obvious travel section where you can buy your ticket from a human being (look for the little green sign of a figure relaxing in a chair or ask for the midori no madoguchi. Since you probably need to know the train times and may want to reserve a seat as well this is a good thing. Remember what we said about languages in Japan if you have any troubles.
If you cannot figure out the price, buy a minimum fare ticket and pay the balance at the "Fare Adjustment" machine on arrival. Look for a small ticket vending kiosk near the exit, but still inside the gate. Insert your minimum fare ticket and pay the balance indicated on the screen.
Express trains require a surcharge and seating reservation so make sure you find a staffed window to ask about this first.
Making a reservation for the trains in Japan is surprisingly easy, and is strongly advised for popular journeys. Look out for the JR Office at the train station, which bears a little green logo of a figure relaxing in a chair - and ask to make a reservation when you buy your ticket. The reservation can be made anywhere from a month in advance to literally minutes before the train leaves.
If you're a Japan Rail Pass holder, reservations are free: simply go to the JR Office, and present your Rail Pass when requesting a reservation for your journey. The ticket that you are given will not allow you to pass through the automated barriers though - you'll still need to present your Japan Rail Pass at the manned barrier to get to the train.
Foreigners can make train advanced reservations for JR East trains on the internet, in English, at the JR East Shinkansen Reservation website.
Japan's excellent Shinkansen network means that flying is usually more of a luxury than a necessity. Planes are sometimes used for reaching the outlying islands though and for getting around sparsely populated Hokkaido, as there is no Shinkansen network there.
Tokyo's Narita Airport handles a few domestic flights, but most domestic flights leave from Haneda to the south of the city. Similarly, while there are some domestic flights from Kansai International Airport, more use Itami (ITM) to the north of Osaka, and Kobe's airport also fields some flights. Narita to Haneda or Kansai to Itami is quite a trek, so allow at least three and preferably four hours to transfer. Chubu, on the other hand, has many domestic flights and was built from the ground up for easy interchange.
List prices for domestic flights are very expensive, but significant discounts are available if purchased in advance.
ANA, JAL, and their subsidiaries offer a special standby card, the Skymate Card, to young passengers (up to the age of 22). With the card, passengers can fly standby at half of the full published fare, which is usually less than the equivalent express train fare. The card can be obtained from any JAL or ANA ticket counter with a passport-sized photo and a one-time fee of ¥1000
Boats are surprisingly uncommon in Japan as all the major islands are linked together by bridges and tunnels. There are some long-distance ferries linking Okinawa and Hokkaido to the mainland, but the fares are usually higher than discounted airline tickets and the only advantage is that you can take your car with you.
There are smaller islands where boats are the only option though, well hovercrafts and jet ferries. They may be expensive at between ¥2000-5000 for an hour-long trip, but they're a lot faster than the slow but affordable cargo boats at ¥1000 per hour in second class. It's up to you whether time or money is more important to you on your gap year in Japan.
Long-distance highway buses serve many of the inter-city routes covered by trains at significantly lower prices, but take much longer than the Shinkansen. Note that your JR Rail Pass may be valid for some JR buses.
Turn the slow factor of the buses in Japan to your advantage and travel on them overnight. There are a few buses that offer more luxurious premium seating, which could be worth the investment for a better night's sleep. If you prefer, there are also a few buses that can only be used by women.
Local buses are available in the smaller villages of Japan – ask around locally if you need a timetable.
Taxis in Japan are clean and completely safe, although a bit expensive. Starting fees are usually in the ¥640-710 range and the meter ticks up frantically after the first 2 km or so.
In the city, you can hail a taxi just about anywhere, but outside train stations and other transfer points you should join the queue and board at a taxi stand.
If the destination is a well-known location, such as a hotel, train station, or public facility, the name alone should be enough. Note that even in the major cities, extremely few taxi drivers can speak English, so carrying a pamphlet or card of your hotel or destination with the address on it can be very helpful. Get the staff at your hotel to write down the names and addresses of places you want to visit in Japanese to show your taxi driver.
Rental cars and driving in Japan are rare in or around the major cities, as public transport is generally excellent and gets you almost everywhere. In addition, the roads of major cities like Tokyo are plagued with massive traffic jams and parking is expensive and difficult to find, so driving they're more of a hindrance than anything else. Reading road signs can also be an issue for English speakers visiting Japan on a gap year.
Japan has many great opportunities for bikers. Bike rentals can be found throughout the country, especially near the popular routes like the Shimanami Kaido, which takes you from the mainland (Onomichi) to Shikoku (Imabari).