So. You wanna go to Japan (Part 1: Getting Around)

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A lot of people we talk to just love the idea of going to Japan for an automotive-themed vacation but the common vibe is always that Japan is a little intimidating. You can’t speak the language, you’re worried that it’s expensive. Well, it is expensive in the sense that you will blow lots of money on car-related stuff, but the other things like food, accommodation and travel are surprisingly inexpensive….which of course, leaves you more money to blow on car-related stuff! Can’t speak the language? Hey, neither can I, and I’ve been there 9 times!

So from us here at Grand JDM, this will be a series of articles to help demystify the wonderful country of Japan, and hopefully get more of you guys on a plane and onto JDM soil. We’ll also put together some suggestions as to how to plan your trip to take in some car shows, how to buy parts, visit tuners and other stuff. And along the way hopefully bust some of the myths about our favourite holiday country. Obviously, we can’t cover every destination in Japan so we’re going to focus on Tokyo.

Ok…..so you’re at the airport. You’ve already found the airport convenience store and you’ve got an armful of JDM car magazines (which are sooo much cheaper than back home!). You are buzzing pleasantly from your second can of Georgia Coffee (Emerald Blend) and nervously run outside, half-expecting to see drift cars sliding around the airport driveway, and Keiichi Tsuchiya himself waiting there with a GT-R to give you a ride.

Hey, maybe that is how it’s gonna work out for you :-) but in that event that it doesn’t…then you’re going to have to pay attention.

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Obviously, you need to get to your hotel. But don’t make a beeline for the taxis. We’ll explain more about taxis later but for now you need to find your way to the Limousine Bus service counter.

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I’m not sure why it’s called “Limousine” because it’s just a bus service that takes you to most hotels. The cost is around US$25 and if your hotel is on their drop-off list then you’re in luck: the bus will drop you at the door. However, if the bus doesn’t go directly to your hotel, then the next best thing is to take the bus to the TCAT. The TCAT is a bus terminal in central Tokyo that is part of a subway station. So take the bus to the TCAT, and then jump on a train.

Sure, you can catch a train into Tokyo from the airport, but if you’re staying in central Tokyo, then that’s a slower way to go. Catch the right express train and it isn’t too bad but catch the wrong train and it’ll take 3 hours as it stops at every station.

Speaking of trains, the Tokyo subway system can be pretty daunting. It can be incredibly crowded and it can be confusing but you really have got to get the hang of it if you are going to get around. And when you do, you’ll find that it’s the fastest, cheapest and easiest way to go.

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The Tokyo system criss-crosses itself many times to form a dense grid. Basically you can go almost anywhere, if you are willing to change trains. Here’s a map of the Tokyo system.

The complexity of the system means that some major stations will have dozens of different platforms and it’ll generally be quite confusing (even for locals). The biggest station is probably Shinjuku, which has so many platforms that it takes 15mins to walk from one end to the other. But here’s how you do it.

First, work out what line you have to take. All the various lines have names. For example, say you have been loading up with electronics at the Yodabashi Camera store in Shinjuku, and now you want to go to the famed Roadster tuner, Car Make Corn’s at Ichinoe. Walk thru the Shinjuku station, looking for the Shinjuku Line, then take the train that heads to Motoyawata.

But first you got to buy your ticket. Outside all stations is something that looks like this.

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What you’re supposed to do, is to look at the map, figure out how much it will cost to go to Ichinoe, then you front up to one of the machines:

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Press “one person”, then select the amount of the ticket on the touchscreen, pop in your coins and it will produce your ticket. The problem is, most of the time the big map with the ticket prices is only in Japanese. So what you do, is just buy the smallest ticket, and you can sort things out at your destination. When you get into the bowels of the station, find the Shinjuku Line, and locate the platform that heads to Motoyawata.

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Each platform will have a digital signboard like the one above, and if it says that the next train is going to Motoyawata, then that’s the one for you. And when you get to Ichinoe, like all stations it will have this: The Fare Adjustment Machine. This will save your ass time and time again.

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Pop in your ticket, and it will helpfully tell you that you need to top up your ticket by say, Y150. Pop in your coins and you are on your way. Easy! If you have a destination which requires the need to swap lines, that’s ok, but it usually means you have to buy another ticket.

No one actually drives a car to work in Tokyo, and everyone uses the trains. Shinjuku for example, is the world’s busiest station, with over 2 million people going thru everyday. So prepare to be surprised when the trains seem to come every 3 or 4 minutes or so. It’s so fast that you can easily pack in 8, maybe 10 tourist destinations into one single day. I can’t think of any other mode of transport in any city that allows you to get to so much, so fast. So get your ass on a train!

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And remember what I said about avoiding taxis? Well, in Japan, taxis are not meant to be an alternative to the train system, it’s meant to compliment it. I’ll explain. Outside of any train station in Japan you will see a row of taxis.

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The idea is that you take a train to where you want to go, and then if it’s too far to walk, then you jump in a cab for a short hop to your destination. Taxis will charge a flat fee of Y660 (about US$6) for most short journeys but if you need to go very far, the cost escalates almost exponentially. Remember how the bus ticket from the airport to central Tokyo was about US$25? Catch a cab and it’s more like US$200. So you’ll find that most taxis only make short hauls within a small area, and if you want to go across town, most cabbies won’t be familiar with the area and so won’t really know where your destination is. To cap it off, almost all cabbies don’t speak English….so if you have to catch a cab, print out a map from the website of the shop or tuner you wish to visit, and hand it to the driver with a lot of pointing at the X that marks the spot.

And oh yes, JDM cabs have electrically opening doors. If you try to open it yourself and grab the handle, you’ll end up in a tug of war with the electric mechanism and that seems to piss off the cabbie something awful and when you get into the taxi you will have to sit thru this really long speech.

Rental cars aren’t too expensive, but there is very, very little parking in metropolitan areas and driving can get pretty expensive with some roads requiring a toll of up to US$25 each way. The main problem you will face is parking (and most hotels don’t have a parking lot).

300_sany0135.jpgHey, if local residents have this little room to park their own cars (and sometimes they have to resort to contraptions like the one below to park their cars near their own homes)…..then trust me, there is no parking for your rental car. Commercial parking stations are pretty cool, you drive you car into this hole, and then your car is scooped up and taken mechanically somewhere into the bowels of the parking station.

300_japantrip048.jpgBut these are really expensive in popular areas and can cost up to US$20 an hour. If you need to drive a few hours outside of town to say a racetrack or Daikoku Futo or something, then a rental car may be the only way to go. But for the urban areas, there is no reason not to use the trains, and there are plenty of parts shops and tuners which can be accessed this way. So if we have a choice, we stick to the trains.

The next instalment, we will cover where to stay, and….how to find the good stuff!

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This post is filed under: Japan Stuff.

8 Responses to So. You wanna go to Japan (Part 1: Getting Around)

  1. Van said:

    Man, it’s just so much to take in. I spent a day in Japan on my way to NYC, and I pretty much hung around Narita airport all day, too scared to venture out to Tokyo, haha. Wasted opportunity I know, but ah well. Next time!

    Top article Kev :D

  2. scott said:

    awesome article

  3. rupewrecht said:

    great article – exactly what i need to know!

  4. toyotageek said:

    Japan rocks! I’ve been there 3 times… I’m lucky though, as my fiancee is Japanese and currently lives there. First time there, I was completely lost, but things get easier each time.

    If you stay in the Tokyo area, try & get a Suica card. It’s the easiest way to pay for transportation that i found. Load it up and just go, go, go!

  5. Jnostalgics said:

    Great writeup! I’ve only been there 3 times, but each time I’ve spent way too much money than I should have.

    I’ve only taken the train from the airport so I can’t compare to the Limousine service, but I find that it usually costs between US$10 and $15. It is slow if you get on the wrong one, however! Also, it’s not very convenient to get to the airport by train with bags full of heavy car parts and magazines/brochures!

  6. Kev said:

    It’s about an hour by bus from the airport to central Tokyo, so it’s faster than the train IMHO.

    The last time, we stayed at Jimbocho, and it was a $20 cab ride to Suitengumae station (which is where the TCAT bus terminal is), then it was a bus ride to the airport.

    Suitengumae’s on the Hanzomon Line, so we coulda taken the train there from Jimbocho, but like you say, the train isn’t such a great idea when you’re lugging three suitcases full of metal :)

  7. toyotageek said:

    When your trip comes to a close and it’s time to go to the airport, you can avoid lugging around your heavy car parts on the train by going to a Family Mart or other conveniance store (as well as other locations), where they offer shipping services to the airport. Then when you get to the airport, you pick up your parts &/or luggage at the appropriate shipping counter! Of course Japanese langauge skills will come in handy if you try this, unless you have someone that can communicate for you.

  8. toyotageek said:

    BTW – your pix make me homesick for Japan… (sigh)