Student Survival Guide: Public Transport

I wish that somebody wrote a how-to guide before I moved here. I had read blogs beforehand, but most were from the male point of view, in a country other than Japan, or the authors dropped off the face of the planet after arriving in Japan.

I decided to write 'Student Survival Guides' on different topics, to help others who want to study abroad in Japan. By the way, I'm not doing this for a scholarship or any type of profit, so I'll say what I think, not a dressed up version.

Where to start though?

How about, with the first thing you will probably have to deal with when you get off the plane: buses and trains.

I'm from Hawaii, where I took the bus everywhere, but maybe in your hometown public transportation isn't as common.

At the train station, you buy your ticket from a vending machine. First, locate your destination on the map or chart posted by the vending machine. In Nagoya, I've found things are always written in romaji (Roman characters) somewhere, so have no fear if you can read few or no kanji. That map will tell you how much you need to pay for your ticket.

For example, if you want to from my home station to Nagoya Station, the cost is 290 yen; if you want to go to Sakae, it is 260 yen. When you put in coins or bills, buttons will light up depending on how much I put in. If I press the 260 button, I will get my 260 yen ticket to Sakae, and the change will be dispensed.

There are automated turn stiles at the stations. You feed your ticket into one end, walk through, and it will pop up at the other side. Don't forget to grab it, you'll need it to disembark at your destination.

When you step onto a platform, there will be an analog clock with the current time, and a digital clock projecting the time of the text train (and the train after that, sometimes). The trains arrive roughly every five minutes.

One side of the platform goes one direction; the other side of the platform goes another direction. The sign with the clocks will tell you which city or train station that train is headed for. It sounds redundant, but trust me, I boarded the train in the wrong direction when I wasn't paying attention.

When your train is approaching the platform, a song will play. Every station has a different melody. 

If you are traveling with suitcases, please be mindful of others. Bullet trains have areas at the front of each train car where you can stow and lock your bags, but the subways aren't equipped for this.

On the subway, there are seats reserved for the elderly and pregnant women, please watch where you sit. Even if you're in an 'open' seat, always offer your seat to the elderly.

There are women-only cars. It's normally one or two central cars, on weekdays during the morning and evening commute.

The name of every station will be announced on the intercom as you approach it. It will also be displayed on a digital screen at the front of the car, sometimes in romaji (roman characters) too. Sometimes these announcements will be made in English. If you disembark at Nagoya Station, the announcement is made in several languages!

When you disembark a train, locate the exit and proceed. You will probably have to take an escalator down or up. You'll have to exit through a wicket, which is just a checkpoint of turnstiles. Insert that ticket you were supposed to hang on to, and proceed through the gate. It will be 'eaten' by the machine, and you go on your merry way.

What if you bought the wrong ticket? Remember when I said your fare may vary by your destination? Once I bought a 260 yen ticket when I meant to buy a 290 yen one. When I was exiting through the wicket, a bell rang, and the doors closed on me.

The solution was simple though. All I had to do was walk over to a window where a tenant helped me adjust my fare. I paid him the extra 30 yen, and exited smoothly through the manual door. If there's not a tenant, there will be an automated fare adjustment kiosk, with options in English and other languages. 

Besides buying a ticket every trip, if you are in a hurry you can invest in a Manaca (マナカ) card. These silver cards have a yellow smiley face on them, and act as prepaid passes for buses and subways. You can buy them at vending machines right next to ticket vending machines.

All you have to do is pay a 500 deposit for the card itself, then you can load it up with as much cash as you want. You can pay in denominations of 1,000 yen. Then, because of the chip inside, that money stays on your card like a virtual account.

Every time you pass through a wicket, all you do is swipe your card over the Manaca pad (it's blue), and the fare is automatically deducted from your account.

Now, it's not the trains that scare me. If you get lost on a train, all you have to do is get off at a station, consult a map, and catch another train back the way you want to go. Technically, as long as you don't exit through a wicket, you don't have to buy another ticket. You could ride the train around all day if you want, if you're a train enthusiast; it's not like a roller coaster, where you have to get off every time.

Buses? Totally different story.

Once, my friend and I got lost coming home from our station. We stood in the wrong bus terminal and took a bus somewhere we had never been before, then had to catch a cab home, since it was the last bus for the night. 

If you pay attention and know where you're going, the bus is great. If it's your first time, you'll want to take a well-adjusted friend.

Some buses in Japan want you to pay when you exit the bus; our local buses have you pay when you board. The fare is 200 yen, or you can use your Manaca card on the touch pad. After that, you just take a seat or stand. As with trains, offer seats to the elderly and pregnant.

My stops are easy to remember; whether I'm going to the station or coming home, it is always the last stop. If your stop is somewhere in-between, you press an orange button that says "とまります (tomarimasu)", which means "stop". Exit through the back door and continue your adventure.

Buses and trains are nice, but it can rack up... 200 yen for the bus to the station, 260 to get to a destination... your round trip could easily break 1,000 yen, depending on how many stops you take. What's an adventuring student to do?

Wait until the weekend, and buy a pass!

At vending machines (at least in Nagoya), you can buy a green paper pass for 600 yen. Good for one day, these passes grant you unlimited access to subways and buses. I've only used them once for a field trip, so it may have even more perks I'm not aware of! 

Like I said above, you should prepare for trips by knowing your destination and route ahead of time. If you get lost, don't panic; sometimes all it takes is a cool head to figure out your route home. Also, check the time tables at your home stations, so you know when the last bus and train come. Make sure you don't miss them!

If you are caught up the creek without a train... as my friends say, you have two options: Taxi or Karaoke! 

Seriously. Karaoke places are usually open twenty-four hours, sometimes with unlimited soft drinks. Depending on how late you're out, it may be cheaper to rent a private karaoke room and chill out until the next train home, than it is to hail a cab. 

For cabs, a twenty minute ride may cost between 5,000-7,000 yen. Ouch. The benefits are that your cab should have a GPS installed, for confidence in your driver. Not to mention, it's always worth it to sleep safe in your own bed. 

Now, you can consider yourself primed on public transport; or at least everything you'll exhaust as an exchange student sans bike and car. 

Good luck and grand adventures!

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