What It’s Like to Ride Public Transit in Japan

Fukuoka prefecture in Japan. Photo by coloredby.
Featured Image: Fukuoka prefecture by coloredby / Flickr.

Are you getting ready for a study abroad program in Japan, but feeling nervous about getting to and from school each day? We understand! If you’ve never rode busy public transit before, the Japanese train system might feel a little bit daunting. There are a lot of trains and buses to choose from, so it’s easy to get turned around especially during rush hour. Many of our students feel nervous about their daily commute prior to going to Japan, but once they arrive and get into a routine, it becomes an empowering experience!

Teen Summer Language Camp in Japan group photo.

A group photo of the teen summer language camp classmates. Photo by Joyce Walpole.

Read on to learn how our alumni navigated their commutes on Japan’s bus and train systems:

Eden Wood, Summer Camp Alumna 2017

I was very lucky to have a really nice family where the dad actually got the train with me the first day. So, I knew what trains to get and where to change. It was much better than I expected as it worked basically the same as [transit in] London (where I live)… You just tap your card or ticket when you leave and enter the station…

Some key takeaways from Eden’s expertise:

  • Even if you get the wrong train you won’t waste any money or get told off for not having a ticket
  • Transit signs at Hakata are electronic and alternate to romaji every 10 seconds so you don’t have to know kanji to read them
Hakata Station in Japan.

Hakata Station in Japan. Photo by Kenzo Alwitt.

Emalie Poulos, Summer Camp Alumna 2017

At first, public transit in Japan seemed very intimidating. I could barely read the bus and train schedules, and I really wasn’t looking forward to going on my own. On my first train trip, I made a list of notes on where I was going, how much it would cost, and how long the trip would be.

Here’s what Emaile recommends for transit success:

  • Sit near the doors so you can see the stations
  • Pay attention to signs and people around you
  • Don’t wear headphones until you’re good enough at navigating
  • Plan ahead and find the bus and train schedules beforehand

The longer I stayed, the more comfortable I was with using public transit… As long as you pay attention and plan ahead, you’ll be fine!

A commuter transit timetable in Japan.

A commuter schedule in Japan. Photo by Joyce Walpole.

Joyce Walpole, Summer Camp Alumna 2017

I was extremely nervous about having to ride the bus and train by myself in Japan. However, it turned out not to be a problem at all. My host family helped me figure out which trains to ride and at what time I should leave to get to school. In fact, my host mom rode the JR line with me at first!

Joyce’s recommendations for train travel in Japan:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask people from the information desk, officers, and even random strangers for help
  • Find a timetable for your train (and/or bus) and take a picture of it
  • Pay attention to what stations come right before Hakata Station on the way to school
  • Learn which stations come before your host family’s location on the way home

In no time at all, knowing my route to school became second nature.

Fingers gripping a train ticket in Japan.

Holding a train ticket in Japan. Photo by Holly Jones.

Holly Jones, Summer Camp Alumna 2016

My host mom walked me half way to the station [on my first day]. She informed me about the terminals and exits I had to take to get me to school. My first day I couldn’t read the instructions well because I was so nervous, but I saw other students holding the same piece of paper on the platform so we found it together!

A way to pay it forward:

  • Leave transit instructions at your host home for future students, if your host family hasn’t already done this

My host mom had little journals on her desk that all of her former host kids wrote in… I was very thankful some talked about how to get to school.

A train in Fukuoka, Japan.

Public transportation in Fukuoka, Japan. Photo by Kenzo Alwitt.

Kyla Nandelstadt, Summer Camp Alumna 2017

When I first got to Japan, I was shown the way to get to the school and back by my host father. Unfortunately, I was so entranced with the stuff around me that I wasn’t listening… The next morning, I got to the train station and realized I had no idea which way to go… I was so confused! I suppose I got lucky that I only needed to take one train, otherwise I would have definitely gotten lost! From then on, transporting to school became easy. 

Train station signs in Fukuoka, Japan.

Train station signs in Fukuoka, Japan. Photo by Kenzo Alwitt.

Kyla’s commuter insight:

  • You will get lost, but don’t worry
  • There are many people and employees of the train station willing to help if you ask
  • Pay attention to instructions
  • Ask for written instructions (if you get easily distracted like me)
  • Most importantly, remember to have fun

This is the experience of a lifetime, spend most of your time getting to know the culture rather than worrying over problems that can occur.

Japanese commuter train signs.

Train signs in Fukuoka, Japan. Photo by Kenzo Alwitt.

Are you ready for your own adventure on Japanese public transportation? Apply for our Japan summer camp or high school abroad programs today!

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