Japan has an extensive transport system, the most convenient segment of which is the nation's excellent rail service. You can also travel by plane (good for long-distance hauls but expensive unless you plan ahead), bus (the cheapest mode of travel), ferry, and car.
The most efficient way to travel around most of Japan is by train. Whether you're being whisked through the countryside aboard the famous Shinkansen bullet train or are winding your way up a wooded mountainside in an electric streetcar, trains in Japan are punctual, comfortable, safe, and clean. All trains except local commuters have washrooms, toilets, and drinking water. Bullet trains even have telephones and carts selling food and drinks. And because train stations are usually located in the heart of the city next to the city bus terminal or a subway station, arriving in a city by train is usually the most convenient method. Furthermore, most train stations in Japan's major cities and resort areas have tourist offices. The staff may not speak English, but they usually have maps or brochures in English and can point you in the direction of your hotel. Train stations also may have a counter where hotel reservations can be made free of charge. Most of Japan's passenger trains are run by six companies (such as JR East and JR Kyushu) that make up the Japan Railways (JR) Group. There are also private regional companies, like Kintetsu (Kinki Nippon Railway) operating around Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya, and Ise and Odakyu Electric Railway operating from Tokyo to Hakone.
Shinkansen (Bullet Train) -- The Shinkansen is probably Japan's best-known train. With a front car that resembles a space rocket, the Shinkansen hurtles along at a maximum speed of 300kmph (187 mph) through the countryside on its own special tracks.
There are five basic Shinkansen routes in Japan, plus some offshoots. The most widely used line for tourists is the Tokaido Shinkansen, which runs from Tokyo and Shinagawa stations west to such cities as Nagoya, Kyoto, and Osaka. The Sanyo Shinkansen extends westward from Osaka through Kobe, Himeji, Okayama, and Hiroshima before reaching its final destination in Hakata/Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu. Only Nozomi Super Express Shinkansen, the fastest and most frequent trains, cover the entire 1,179km (730 miles) between Tokyo and Hakata. The Hikari makes more stops than the Nozomi; the Kodama stops at every station. Frustratingly, the Nozomi is not covered by the Japan Rail Pass, so rail-pass travelers wishing to go the entire distance must take the Hikari or Kodama and transfer in Osaka or Okayama. Trains run so frequently -- as often as four times an hour during peak times not including the Nozomi -- that it's almost like catching the local subway.
The Tohoku Shinkansen Line runs north from Tokyo and Ueno stations to Sendai, Morioka, Kakunodate, and Hachinohe (some trains require reservations), with branches extending to Shinjo and Akita. By 2011, the Akita branch will extend farther north all the way to Aomori, with future plans calling for a new Hokkaido Shinkansen to extend all the way to Sapporo by 2013. The Joetsu Shinkansen connects Tokyo and Ueno stations with Niigata on the Japan Sea coast, while the Nagano Shinkansen, completed in time for the 1998 Winter Olympics, connects Tokyo and Ueno stations with Nagano in the Japan Alps. The newest line is the Kyushu Shinkansen, which currently runs between Shin-Yatsuhiro and Kagoshima but will extend all the way from Kagoshima to Hakata by 2011.
Shinkansen running along these lines usually offer two or more kinds of service -- trains that stop only at major cities (like the Nozomi on the Tokaido-Sanyo Line) and trains that make more stops and are therefore slightly slower. Note: If your destination is a smaller city on the Shinkansen line, make sure the train you take stops there. As a plus, each stop is announced in English through a loudspeaker and a digital signboard in each car.
Regular Service -- In addition to bullet trains, there are also two types of long-distance trains that operate on regular tracks. The limited-express trains, or LEX (Tokkyu), branch off the Shinkansen system and are the fastest after the bullet trains, often traveling scenic routes, while the express trains (Kyuko) are slightly slower and make more stops. Slower still are rapid express trains (Shin-Kaisoku) and the even slower rapid trains (Kaisoku). To serve the everyday needs of Japan's commuting population, local trains (Futsu) stop at all stations.
For long distances, say, between Tokyo and Sapporo, JR operates overnight sleeper trains (Shindai-sha), which offer compartments and berths.
Information -- For the most comprehensive site covering rail travel in Japan, go to www.japanrailpass.net, which also provides links to the websites of all six JR Group companies, gives fares and timetables for long-distance JR trains (including the Shinkansen), displays maps of Tokyo and Shinjuku stations, and contains information on rail passes. I also like www.hyperdia.com and www.jorudan.co.jp, both of which give routes (including transfers), fares, and timetables for trains and planes in Japan.
In Japan, stop by the Tourist Information Center in downtown Tokyo or at the international airports in Narita or Osaka for the invaluable Railway Timetable, published in English and providing train schedules for the Shinkansen and limited express JR lines throughout Japan. To be on the safe side, I also stop by the train information desk or the tourist information desk as soon as I arrive in a city to check on train schedules onward to my next destination. Another good resource is the JR East InfoLine (tel. 050/2016-1603; www.jreast.co.jp/e), available daily 10am to 6pm to answer questions about train schedules, fares, how to buy tickets, and more.
Train Distances & Traveling Time -- Japan is much longer than most people imagine. Its four main islands, measured from the northeast to the southwest, cover roughly the distance from Boston to Atlanta. Thank goodness for the Shinkansen bullet train! In addition, transportation can be slow in mountainous regions, especially if you're on a local train.
Train Fares & Reservations -- Ticket prices are based on the type of train (Shinkansen bullet trains are the most expensive), the distance traveled, whether your seat is reserved, and the season, with slightly higher prices (usually a ¥200 surcharge) during peak seasons (Golden Week, July 21-Aug 31, Dec 25-Jan 10, and Mar 21-Apr 5). Children (ages 6-11) pay half fare, while up to two children 5 and younger travel free if they do not require a separate seat. I've included train prices from Tokyo for many destinations covered. Unless stated otherwise, prices in this guide are for adults for nonreserved seats on the fastest train available (except the Nozomi) during regular season. You can buy JR tickets and obtain information about JR trains traveling throughout Japan at any Japan Railways station (in Tokyo this includes major stations along the Yamanote Line, which loops around Tokyo). If you wish to purchase a ticket using a credit card, go to a Ticket Reservation Office (Midori-no-madoguchi) at any major JR station.
No matter which train you ride, be sure to hang onto your ticket -- you'll be required to give it up at the end of your trip as you exit through the gate.
Seat Reservations -- You can reserve seats for the Shinkansen, as well as for limited-express and express trains (but not for slower rapid or local trains, which are on a first-come, first-served basis) at any major Japan Railways station in Japan. Reserved seats cost slightly more than unreserved seats (¥300-¥510 for the Shinkansen and express trains). The larger stations have a special reservation counter called Midori-no-madoguchi (Ticket Reservation Office) or View Plaza (Travel Service Center), easily recognizable by their green signs with RESERVATION TICKETS written on them. If you're at a JR station with no special reservation office, you can reserve your seats at one of the regular ticket windows. You can also purchase and reserve seats at several travel agents, including the giant Japan Travel Bureau (JTB), which has offices all over Japan. Finally, JR East (serving the area around Tokyo and north through Tohoku) offers Internet reservation for its trains at http://jreast-shinkansen-reservation.eki-net.com; unfortunately, the reservation system does not apply to lines run by other JR companies, including the popular Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen to Kyoto and beyond.
It's a good idea to reserve your seats for your entire trip through Japan as soon as you know your itinerary if you'll be traveling during peak times; however, you can only reserve 1 month in advance. If it's not peak season, you'll probably be okay using a more flexible approach to traveling -- all trains also have nonreserved cars that fill up on a first-come, first-seated basis. You can also reserve seats on the day of travel up to departure time. I hardly ever reserve a seat when it's not peak season, preferring instead the flexibility of being able to hop on the next available train (or, sometimes I reserve a seat just before boarding). If you want to sit in the nonsmoking car of the Shinkansen bullet train, ask for the kinensha, though nowadays most trains are completely smoke free.
Tips for Saving Money -- If your ticket is for travel covering more than 100km (62 miles), you can make as many stopovers en route as you wish as long as you complete your trip within the period of the ticket's validity. Tickets for 100 to 200km (62-124 miles) are valid for 2 days, with 1 day added for each additional 200km. Note, too, that stopovers are granted only for trips that are not between major urban areas, such as Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Nagoya, Kyoto, Kobe, Hiroshima, Kitakyushyu, Fukuoka, Sendai, or Sapporo. In addition, stopovers are not permitted when traveling by express and limited express. Ask about stopovers when purchasing your ticket.
You can also save money by purchasing a round-trip ticket for long distances. A round-trip ticket by train on distances exceeding 600km (373 miles) one-way costs 20% less than two one-way tickets.
If you don't qualify for a Japan Rail Pass, the Seishun 18 (Seishun ju-hachi kippu) is a 5-day rail pass for ¥11,500 for travel anywhere in Japan as long as you use JR local and rapid trains (that is, no Shinkansen, limited express, or express trains), making it a good bet for day excursions in the countryside, albeit very slow ones (the trip from Tokyo to Kyoto would take 9 hr. and requires three or more changes of trains, compared to 2 hr. 20 min. on the Shinkansen). The biggest drawback, however, is that it's available only during Japan's three major school holidays: spring break (Mar 1-Apr 10); summer break (July 20-Sept 10); and winter break (Dec 10-Jan 10). You can use it on 5 consecutive days or on any 5 days within the school break period; people traveling together can share the five rides (for example, two people can travel for 2 days and one person can travel for 1 day).
There are also regional tickets good for sightseeing. The Hakone Free Pass, for example, offered by Odakyu railways (www.odakyu.jp/english), includes round-trip transportation from Tokyo and unlimited travel in Hakone for a specific number of days. The Hokkaido Furii Pasu (www.jrhokkaido.co.jp) valid for 7 days of JR train and bus travel in Hokkaido, costs ¥25,500, though some restrictions apply. There are also special passes for seniors (Full Moon Pass, valid for married couples with a combined total age of 88) and for two or three women age 30 and over traveling as a group (Nice Midi Pass). If you qualify, the Japan Rail Pass, however, is a better deal than these alternatives.
Japan Rail Pass -- The Japan Rail Pass is without a doubt the most convenient and most economical way to travel around Japan. With the rail pass, you don't have to worry about buying individual tickets, and you can reserve your seats on all JR trains for free. The rail pass entitles you to unlimited travel on all JR train lines including the Shinkansen (except, regrettably, the Nozomi Super Express), as well as on most JR buses and the JR ferry to Miyajima.
There are several types of rail passes available; make your decision based on your length of stay in Japan and the cities you intend to visit. You might even find it best to combine several passes to cover your travels in Japan, such as a 1-week standard pass for longer journeys, say, to Kyushu, plus a regional pass just for Kyushu. Online pass information is available at www.japanrailpass.net.
The Standard Pass -- If you wish to travel throughout Japan, your best bet is to purchase the standard Japan Rail Pass. It's available for ordinary coach class and for the first-class Green Car and is available for travel lasting 1, 2, or 3 weeks. Rates for the ordinary pass (as of Jan 2010) are ¥28,300 for 7 days, ¥45,100 for 14 days, and ¥57,700 for 21 days. Rates for the Green Car are ¥37,800, ¥61,200, and ¥79,600 respectively. Children (ages 6-11) pay half fare. Personally, I have never traveled in the first-class Green Car in Japan and don't consider it necessary. However, during peak travel times (New Year's, Golden Week, and Obon in mid-Aug), you may find it easier to reserve a seat in the first-class Green Car, which you can get by paying a surcharge in addition to showing your ordinary pass.
Before You Leave Home -- The standard Japan Rail Pass is available only to foreigners visiting Japan as tourists and can be purchased only outside Japan. It's available from most travel agents, including Kintetsu International (tel. 800/422-3481; www.kintetsu.com) and JTB USA (tel. 800/235-3523; www.jtbusa.com). If you're flying Japan Airlines (JAL; tel. 800/525-3663; www.ar.jal.com/en) or All Nippon Airways (ANA; tel. 800/235-9262; www.ana.co.jp), you can also purchase a rail pass from them. A full list of authorized travel agents is available at www.japanrailpass.net.
Upon purchasing your pass, you'll be issued a voucher (called an Exchange Order), which you'll then exchange for the real pass after your arrival in Japan. Note that once you purchase your Exchange Order, you have 3 months until you must exchange it in Japan for the pass itself. When obtaining your actual pass, you must then specify the date you wish to start using the pass within a 1-month period.
Once You've Arrived -- In Japan, you can exchange your voucher for a Japan Rail Pass at more than 40 JR stations that have Japan Rail Pass exchange offices, at which time you must present your passport and specify the date you wish to begin using the pass; most offices are open daily from 10am to 6 or 7pm, some even longer.
At both Narita Airport (daily 6:30am-9:45pm) and Kansai International Airport (daily 6:30am-9:45pm), you can pick up Japan Rail Passes at either the Travel Service Center or the Ticket Office. Other Travel Service Centers or Ticket Offices, all located in JR train stations, include those at Tokyo (daily 5:30am-10:45pm), Ueno, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Shibuya, and Shinagawa stations in Tokyo; Kyoto Station; Shin-Osaka and Osaka stations; and Sapporo, Hakodate, Nagoya, Kanazawa, Okayama, Matsue, Hiroshima, Takamatsu, Matsuyama, Hakata, Nagasaki, Kumamoto, and Kagoshima Chuo stations. Stations and their open hours are listed in a pamphlet you'll receive with your voucher.
Regional Passes for Foreign Visitors -- In addition to the standard Japan Rail Pass above, there are regional JR rail passes available for ordinary coach class that are convenient for travel in eastern or western Honshu, Kyushu, or Hokkaido. They can be purchased before arriving in Japan from the same vendors that sell the standard pass. All but the Kintetsu Rail Pass can also be purchased inside Japan, usually only within the area covered by the pass but also at Narita airport for some passes. These regional passes are available only to foreign visitors and require that you present your passport to verify your status as a "temporary visitor"; you may also be asked to show your plane ticket. Only one pass per region per visit to Japan is allowed.
If you're arriving by plane at the Kansai Airport outside Osaka and intend to remain in western Honshu, you may opt for one of two different JR-West Passes (www.westjr.co.jp/english), available at Kansai Airport, Osaka JR station, and other locations. The Kansai Area Pass, which can be used for travel between Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Nara, Himeji, and other destinations in the Kansai area, is available as a 1-day pass for ¥2,000, 2-day pass for ¥4,000, 3-day pass for ¥5,000, or 4-day pass for ¥6,000. Travel is restricted to JR rapid and local trains, as well as unreserved seating in limited express trains that operate only between Kansai Airport, Shin-Osaka, and Kyoto (that is, Shinkansen are not included in the pass). Children pay half-price for all passes. The other JR-West Pass available is the Sanyo Area Pass, which covers a larger area, allows travel via Shinkansen (including the superfast Nozomi) and JR local trains from Osaka as far as Hakata (in the city of Fukuoka on Kyushu), and includes Hiroshima, Okayama, Kurashiki, Himeji, and Kobe. It's available for 4 days for ¥20,000 and for 8 days for ¥30,000.
There are also a couple other non-JR passes available for Kansai. The Kansai Thru Pass (www.surutto.com) is valid on city subways, private railways (not JR trains), and buses throughout the Kansai area. Available only to tourists, it costs ¥3,800 for a 2-day pass and ¥5,000 for 3 days and is sold at Kansai International Airport and Tourist Information Centers in Osaka and Nara. Or, if you plan to spend a few days traveling farther afield between Nagoya, Osaka, Kyoto, and Ise-Shima, you can save money by purchasing a Kintetsu Rail Pass (www.kintetsu.co.jp), which covers travel throughout the region on Kintetsu's private lines. Available only for foreigners, it must be purchased before arriving in Japan at Kintetsu offices or authorized travel agencies. It costs ¥3,500 and includes 5 days of unlimited travel (but only 3 trips on limited express trains). For ¥5,700, you can purchase the Kintetsu Rail Pass Wide, which adds a trip from Centrair or Kansai Airport, Mie Kotsu buses, and discount coupons for sightseeing spots.
Though not as popular as western Honshu, eastern Honshu also offers its own JR-East Pass (www.jreast.co.jp), which includes travel from Tokyo to Nagano in the Japan Alps and throughout the Tohoku District, including Sendai, Kakunodate, and Aomori via Shinkansen and local JR lines. Passes for travel in ordinary coach cars are available for 5 days for ¥20,000 and 10 days for ¥32,000; a 4-day flexible pass (valid for any 4 consecutive or nonconsecutive days within a month) costs ¥20,000. Green Car passes are also available. Passes are available at Narita airport and JR stations in Tokyo, including Tokyo, Shinagawa, and Shinjuku, as well as online at http://jreast-shinkansen-reservation.eki-net.com.
If your travels are limited to the island of Kyushu, consider the JR-Kyushu Rail Pass (www.jrkyushu.co.jp), valid for 3 days for ¥13,000 (¥7,000 for northern Kyushu only) and for 5 days for ¥16,000 and available for purchase at Narita Airport and at Hakata, Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Kagoshima Chuo, and Beppu JR stations. Likewise, there's a Hokkaido Rail Pass (www.jrhokkaido.co.jp) valid for 3 days of travel for ¥15,000 or 5 days (or 4 flexible days within a 10-day period) for ¥19,500, sold at Narita Airport and Hakodate and Sapporo JR stations.
Because it takes the better part of a day and night to travel by train from Tokyo down to southern Kyushu or up to northern Hokkaido, you may find it faster -- not to mention cheaper if you buy your ticket in advance -- to fly at least one stretch of your journey in Japan. You could, for example, fly internationally into Osaka and then onward to Fukuoka on Kyushu, from where you can take a leisurely 2 weeks to travel by train through Kyushu and Honshu before returning to Osaka. I don't, however, advise flying short distances -- say, from Tokyo to Osaka -- simply because the time spent getting to and from airports is longer than the time spent traveling by Shinkansen.
Almost all domestic flights from Tokyo leave from the much more conveniently located Haneda Airport. If you're already in Tokyo, you can easily reach Haneda Airport via Airport Limousine Bus, monorail from Hamamatsucho Station on the Yamanote Line, or the Keikyu Line from Shinagawa. If you're arriving on an international flight at Narita Airport, therefore, make sure you know whether a connection to a domestic flight is at Narita or requires a transfer to Haneda Airport via the Airport Limousine Bus.
Two major domestic airlines are Japan Airlines (JAL; tel. 0570/025-071 in Japan; www.jal.co.jp) and All Nippon Airways (ANA; tel. 0570/029-709 in Japan; www.ana.co.jp). Regular fares with these two companies are generally the same no matter which airline you fly domestically and are more expensive for peak season including New Year's, Golden Week, and summer vacation. However, bargains do exist. Some flights early in the day or late at night may be cheaper than flights during peak time; there are also discounts for seniors 65 and over. Your best bet on snagging a discount, however, is to purchase your ticket in advance. ANA's Tabiwari and JAL's Sakitoku are discount fares on reservations made 28 days in advance, while the Super Tabiwari and Super Saitoku give deep discounts on tickets purchased 45 days in advance. Regular one-way fares from Tokyo to Naha, Okinawa, for example, are ¥40,900 but go as low as ¥12,800 for a Super Tabiwari or Super Saitoku on selected flights. There are also slight discounts on tickets booked 3 to 7 days before departure and on round-trip fares.
Otherwise, there are small regional airlines that generally offer fares that are cheaper than the standard full fare charged by JAL or ANA. These include Skymark (tel. 03/3433-7670 in Tokyo, or 092/736-3131 in Fukuoka; www.skymark.co.jp), operating out of Fukuoka; Skynet Asia Airways (tel. 0120/737-283 toll-free; www.skynetasia.co.jp), connecting Nagasaki, Kumamoto, and Kagoshima with Tokyo and Okinawa; and Air Do (tel. 0120/0570-333 toll-free), out of Sapporo.
For information on fares from Tokyo to major cities throughout Japan, see individual city listings in this guide. Tickets can be purchased directly through the airline or at a travel agent such as Japan Travel Bureau (JTB), which has offices virtually everywhere in Japan.
Special Domestic Fares for Foreigners -- Purchasing domestic tickets in advance in connection with your international flight is by far the most economical way to go. JAL's "Oneworld Yokoso/Visit Japan Fare" ticket, purchased in conjunction with a flight to Japan with JAL or one of its Oneworld fare partners (such as American Airlines) and sold only outside Japan, provides discount fares of ¥10,000 per flight for domestic travel to 42 cities in Japan served by JAL and its two subsidiaries, JAL Express and Japan Transocean Air (JTA).
Visitors flying other airlines into Japan can take advantage of JAL's "Welcome to Japan Fare," which provides discounts on JAL's domestic flights regardless of which international airline is used to reach Japan. Also sold only outside Japan, this costs ¥13,650 per flight, with a minimum of two flights required.
ANA offers a similar program, with its Star Alliance Japan Airpass ticket costing ¥11,000 per flight if you fly ANA or one of its Star Alliance partners such as United Airlines; if you fly another airline, its Visit Japan Fare is ¥13,000 per ticket. Note that there are blackout dates for all these fares, mostly in mid-March, during summer vacation (mid-July through Aug), and New Year's, and that fares exclude airport taxes and insurance. You should first purchase your international ticket and then contact JAL or ANA to purchase and book your Japan domestic tickets.
If you plant to visit at least two Okinawan islands in addition to Okinawa Island, you can save money by purchasing an Okinawa Island Pass, valid on five specific routes within the Okinawan island chain, including flights from Naha to Kume or Ishigaki, on Japan Transocean Air (a subsidiary of JAL). A minimum of two flights, at ¥9,000 each, is required, and tickets must be purchased from JAL before arriving in Japan. For more information, contact your nearest JAL office.
Buses often go where trains don't and thus may be the only way for you to get to the more remote areas of Japan, such as Shirakawa-go in the Japan Alps. In Hokkaido, Tohoku, Kyushu, and other places, buses are used extensively.
Some intercity buses require you to make reservations or purchase your ticket in advance at the ticket counter at the bus terminal. For others (especially local buses), when you board a bus you'll generally find a ticket machine by the entry door. Take a ticket, which is number-coded with a digital board displayed at the front of the bus. The board shows the various fares, which increase with the distance traveled. You pay when you get off.
In addition to serving the remote areas of the country, long-distance buses (called chokyori basu) also operate between major cities in Japan and offer the cheapest mode of transportation. Although Japan Railways operates almost a dozen bus routes eligible for JR Rail Pass coverage, the majority of buses are run by private companies (most of which do not have English-language websites). Some long-distance buses travel during the night and offer reclining seats and toilets, thus saving passengers the price of a night's lodging. Long-distance buses departing from Tokyo Station, for example, cost ¥4,200 to ¥8,600 for Kyoto or Osaka, depending on the company and time of day, and ¥12,060 for Hiroshima. Long-distance bus tickets can be purchased at View Plazas at major JR stations (for JR buses), at travel agencies such as JTB, or at bus terminals.
For more information on local and long-distance bus service, refer to individual cities covered in this guide, contact the Tourist Information Center in Tokyo or the local tourist office, or check the websites www.bus.or.jp, www.jrbuskanto.co.jp, and http://willerexpress.com.
With the exception, perhaps, of Izu Peninsula, the Tohoku region, and Hokkaido, driving is not recommended for visitors wishing to tour Japan. Driving is British style (on the left side of the road), which may be hard for those not used to it; traffic can be horrendous; and driving isn't even economical. Not only is gas expensive, but all of Japan's expressways charge high tolls -- the one-way toll from Tokyo to Kyoto is almost the same price as a ticket to Kyoto on the Shinkansen. And whereas the Shinkansen takes only 3 hours to get to Kyoto, driving can take about 8 hours. In addition, you may encounter few signs in English in remote areas. Driving in cities is even worse: Streets are often hardly wide enough for a rickshaw, let alone a car, and many roads don't have sidewalks so you have to dodge people, bicycles, and telephone poles. Free parking is hard to find, and garages are expensive. Except in remote areas, it just doesn't make sense to drive.
If you're undeterred, a good roundup of more than 800 car-rental agencies in Japan, including those located at airports and train stations, is provided at www2.tocoo.jp, where you can make reservations, see pictures and descriptions of rental cars, and review your knowledge of international traffic signs. Otherwise, major car-rental companies in Japan include Toyota Rent-A-Car (tel. 03/5954-8020 in Tokyo, or 0800/7000-815 toll-free; www.rent.toyota.co.jp); Nippon Rent-A-Car Service (tel. 03/3485-7196 for the English Service Desk; www.nipponrentacar.co.jp), Nissan Rent-A-Car (tel. 0120/00-4123 toll-free), and Avis (tel. 0120/31-1911 toll-free; www.avis-japan.com). In Hokkaido, Kyushu, and some other areas, there is also JR Eki Rent-A-Car, located beside JR train stations and offering 20% discounts on train fares booked in conjunction with car rentals; you can reserve these cars at any JR Travel Service Center (located in train stations) anywhere in Japan.
Rates vary, but the average cost for 24 hours with unlimited mileage is about ¥10,500 for a subcompact including insurance but not gas; in some tourist areas, such as Hokkaido, rates are more expensive in peak season.
If you do intend to drive in Japan, you'll need either an international or a Japanese driving license. Remember, cars are driven on the left side of the road, and signs on all major highways are written in both Japanese and English. It is against the law to drink alcohol and drive, and you must wear seat belts at all times. Be sure to purchase a bilingual map, as back roads often have names of towns written in Japanese only. Recommended is the Shobunsha Road Atlas Japan, available in bookstores that sell English-language books; it also contains maps of major cities, including Tokyo, Sapporo, Hiroshima, and others.
Breakdowns & Assistance -- The Japan Automobile Federation (JAF; www.jaf.or.jp) is one of several road service providers maintaining emergency telephone boxes along Japan's major arteries to assist drivers whose cars have broken down or drivers who need help. Calls from these telephones are free and will connect you to JAF's operation center at your request. English is spoken.
Because Japan is an island nation, an extensive ferry network links the string of islands. Although travel by ferry takes longer, it's also cheaper and can be a pleasant, relaxing experience. For example, you can take a ferry from Osaka to Beppu (on Kyushu), with fares starting at ¥8,800 for the 11-hour trip. Unfortunately, information in English is hard to come by. Contact the Tourist Information Center for details concerning routes, prices, schedules, and telephone numbers of the various ferry companies.