Japan is blessed with a good public transportation system: buses, subways, trains, and airplanes. But travel in Japan is different than travel in the States. Here is some practical advice about traveling in Japan:
Take the train. One of the nice things about traveling in Japan is that they have a great train system. Taking the bullet train is a great alternative to flying because there is less hassle boarding a train, the seats are bigger, there is more legroom, the air is better, and there is a view. Also, the train will take you to the center of town, while the airport is usually removed from the city, so a trip from downtown Nagoya to downtown Tokyo is almost as fast by train as it is by plane and connecting transportation.
Of course, you can’t take a train everywhere. Going to Okinawa, you need to fly or take a ship. Even if the train goes there, sometimes the trip is so long that it makes sense to fly. For instance, we often take trains from Gifu to Fukuoka, but if we go to Kagoshima to the south or Sapporo to the north, we fly.
Avoid holiday travel. There are three times when I try to avoid traveling: the New Years holidays (in December and January), Golden Week (mid-May), and Obon (August). I avoid these times because that is the time when everyone travels, which means that everywhere is crowded and hotel reservations are hard to get. During these three times, it will sometimes be impossible to get a seat, as people stand in the aisles. I have traveled that way, without a seat for long trips, and it was a bummer.
Remember the top of maps isn’t always north. A nice thing about traveling in Japan is that there are plenty of maps posted in train, bus, and subway stations. One of the confusing things about traveling in Japan is that, unlike in Western nations, the top of these maps isn’t always north. Sometimes it is south, or east, or west, or somewhere in between. That can be disorienting for a Western tourist, who assumes that the top is always north.
The Japanese cartographers often design maps to be aesthetically pleasing, and sometimes north on top is simply not the best aesthetical choice. For that reason, cartographers here often indicate north with the letter N and an arrow. When reading maps in Japan, always look for that N and the arrow.
I have lived here many years, but recently I forgot to check which way was north on the map, assuming it was the top. I ended up taking the wrong exit and began walking in the wrong direction. Fortunately, I had my iPhone, which leads to the next tip.
Use your compass app and your map app. Before my trip, I find where I am going in Google Map or the Apple Map app, and drop a pin on where I want to go. When I arrive at a station for the first time, or a station that I haven’t been to for a while, the first thing I do is check my iPhone, using the Compass app to determine which direction is north, and then I check my Map app to see where I am in regard to where I want to go, and I watch the blue dot representing my location approach the dropped pin.
Once, when I was going to a Christmas party in a busy section of Osaka. I saw no indication of the venue for the party, so I simply walked using the Map app as my guide until the blue dot was at the dropped pin. I looked around, and lo and behold, the venue was right before me. I was surprised at the accuracy of that little blue dot.
Use a coin locker and take a picture of it: If you travel light, which I recommend, then when you get to a station, you can check your luggage into a coin locker, and travel throughout the station shops and restaurants unencumbered with luggage. Unfortunately, some of the larger stations have many different areas of coin lockers, and if you don’t remember where your specific locker is, then you will probably waste a lot of time looking for it. One solution is to take a long shot photo of the coin locker area with your smartphone camera. Then, when you are finished shopping and eating, you can use your photo to find your locker area.
Wherever you go, I wish you a pleasant trip.