Transportation in Rural Japan: Things to know before you go

As a countryside person, large portions of my trips to Japan are spent moving between towns, on local trains cutting through rice fields and lonely houses. There are plenty of places to read suggestions on how to prepare for a visit to places such as Tokyo and Kyoto, but fewer speak about going outside big cities. So here are some tips and comments for travelling around rural Japan!

There are two things to know before starting though: rural doesn't necessarily mean remote and rural doesn't necessarily mean tourist-free! For good or for bad, some rural areas are very popular with foreigners (such as Shirakawa-go) and others are just a few minutes away from a major city and easy to get to. There are many nice options for people who don't want to go too far from Tokyo / Kyoto or want to visit a scenic town without the fears of getting lost! However, in this article I'll be mostly talking about places that don't have too many visitors, because it's these cases where transportation may be harder.
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Know the timetables!

Perhaps the most important thing about going to the Japanese countryside, make sure to check train and bus timetables! It’s not strange that a train will pass once every hour or two, or that the last train of the day will be at 17:00h. So look it up online first, the last thing you want is to be accidentally stranded. And if not, be prepared to know how to arrange a taxi pick-up or have enough money to stay the night in whatever place there is nearby!

IC cards... may not be very useful

One of the most practical ways to travel in Japan is using an IC card, pre-paid cards that you can load up with money and later use as a debit card for travelling. They allow you to quickly scan and pass through stations' ticket gates or pay for bus fares. But unfortunately... many rural areas don't accept IC cards or have local IC cards that can only be used in small areas. For example, in Yamagata Prefecture the only train journey that allows IC cards is the journey Yamagata —> Yamadera (but not on the way back!). Buying individual tickets is the way to go most of the time!

It's worth noting that some stations don’t sell individual train tickets / don’t have any fare machine either, I’ve only found two of these cases though. In such a situation I've simply paid the station master at the arrival destination by hand, telling them where I come from. You may also see an officer walking by collecting people's tickets while still on the train or a ticket box next to the driver. This is because the upcoming station doesn't have a ticket gate, it makes sure people still pay the fare. If you aren't getting off, you don't need to give your ticket.
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It's a good idea to know the nearby cities

For example, I was on my way to Sendai after visiting a town a couple hours away. The train I hopped on ended its journey in Ichinoseki, and from there there are supposed to be trains going to Sendai. However, the next train all the way to Sendai left in two hours, but there was a train going to Kogota, another city closer to Sendai, departing soon. Because I knew this, I got onto the train and an hour later I was in Sendai instead of waiting around the other station.
It's also important to know the direction or destination of the train you need to take if you won't be getting off at the last station.
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Car or no car?

This is a question often asked (hard to answer without having a specific place in mind), and many people assure that a car is often necessary for travelling around the countryside in Japan. However, as someone who really doesn't like driving and as such have never rented a car, I'd say the answer isn't so straighforward. It will depend on a few things: how far you’re willing to walk, if there are buses / trains at all and their timetables, public transport / car rental prices comparison, and how much time you have overall.

Most places are possible to access some way or another without renting a car, even if a car makes things more practical, so don't let this scare  you off!

Sam Lesmana