Traveling Tips within Japan

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.

Map with top South South West

Map with top South South West

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.

Coin Locker in Hakata Station

Coin Locker in Hakata Station

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.



  1. Reblogged this on Japan Reblogged and commented:
    Nice tips. Thank you for sharing. I was surprised that foreigners expect the top of maps to be north. Thinking about it, I usually do not care about north and south of a map.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. >I usually do not care about north and south of a map

      Yes, the compass direction isn’t important. Those maps are helpful because you can see lwhich way you need to go (ie: “go left and walk two blocks, then turn right”)


  2. >One of the confusing things about traveling in Japan is that, unlike in Western nations, the top of these maps isn’t always north…The Japanese cartographers often design maps to be aesthetically pleasing, and sometimes north on top is simply not the best aesthetical choice

    I respectfully disagree a bit.
    There is a very logical reason that “north” isn’t usually at the top of maps on Japanese streets…
    it’s because these maps are fixed. They’re in the sidewalk like a street sign. They can’t be turned.
    And they show the streets as they actually are. Meaning, if you happen to be facing to the south while looking at it, then “south” is at the top of the map.

    The cardinal direction isn’t the important or helpful part of those maps…when you look at them, you just find where you are and where you’re going and you can see which way to go on the actual street right in front of you.

    If the map was turned to have “north” at the top, even when the “real” north is in a different direction, that would be confusing!


    1. I agree that is the rationale for forsaking the normal conventions, but I doubt if that rationale is valid, especially as Japanese adapt to Western standards. To me it seem an anomaly of bygone days.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. >forsaking the normal conventions

        How can you think so?
        These maps are stationary…they can’t be turned.
        Unlike folding street maps or world maps with “north” universally at the top, these maps in the streets of Japan are more like a “You are here” map found in shopping malls etc.
        They show the area as it is from the direction you’re facing. Cardinal directions aren’t important.

        > adapt to Western standards

        Japanese folding street maps, world maps, etc have had “north” at the top for centuries.

        Not trying to debate you on your own blog…but I think that if those maps that are in Japan’s sidewalks had “north” at the top, no matter which way north actually is, that would be confusing.
        Like a “You are here” map in a mall.


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