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Valuable Lessons Learned When Riding Trains and Buses in Kyoto and Osaka

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Riding trains and buses in Kyoto and Osaka was a goal for us. Not only to avoid horrendous taxi fares but also to experience what is often referred to as one of the most efficient public transport systems in the world. We did ride trains and buses. Sometimes.

Bus stop in Kyoto

I’m going to say it, clearly and unapologetically, that nothing in this post is meant as a guide about riding trains and buses in Kyoto and Osaka. Hell, no. This is just about what we wanted to do, what actually happened and what we learned amid all the bewilderment.

Lesson 1: Japan’s railway system is complex and can be overwhelming

Just because you’ve experienced riding trains in, say, Singapore, Hong Kong or Taiwan doesn’t mean you can easily comprehend the railway network in Japan. The difference in level of complexity is tremendous.

Step into a train station and you will feel it at once. Last year, my friend, Kat, a seasoned traveler, and I decided we would take the train from Kansai International Airport (KIX) to Namba Station in Osaka. It seemed so simple considering that the train platform was right outside the airport. Still, we managed to get on the wrong train. Fortunately, we got off before the train closed its doors. We did find the right train, eventually, and got off at the right station.

Why the confusion?

There are several train lines, to begin with. On maps, the routes are color-coded and, in theory, the color-coding makes everything simple and understandable. That was true in Taiwan. But in Japan? Two or more lines can get you from Point A to Point B via different routes. Because one route may be longer than the other, the fares are different too.

To add to the confusion, two or more trains may have the same route but they won’t stop at the same stations.

Faster trains cost more; slower trains cost less. It all depends on what matters more to you. Money or time?

Lesson 2: When choosing between train, bus and taxi, cost is relative

Yes, taxi fares in Japan are notoriously expensive. But train and bus fares aren’t cheap either. Not if you compare them with Third World prices anyway. I told Speedy weeks ahead of the trip that since there are four of us, there might be times when it would be cheaper to take a taxi than to ride the train.

There were two instances, however, where riding trains was imperative. Traveling from the airport directly to Kyoto on the day we arrived and going back to the airport from Osaka for the flight back to Manila.

It was still smarter to the the Haruka Express from the airport to Kyoto. The total cost was about a quarter of what we would have paid for a taxi ride especially since we had luggage and would have required a larger vehicle. In Japan, while taxi fares differ from region to region, there are generally three kinds of taxi — large, medium and small — and larger ones cost more.

The same was true going back. The distance between Osaka and KIX is shorter than the distace between KIX and Kyoto, but taking a taxi from Osaka to KIX would still have cost a lot more than taking the train. Besides, our Osaka apartment was quite near Namba Station and the Airport Express that leaves Namba stops right at the airport.

Lesson 3: Trains are great for large cities like Osaka

Trains can take you almost anywhere in Japan. When it comes to traveling within the limits of a city, trains are convenient in large and populous cities but, in more rural areas, and in Kyoto, train stops are fewer and farther away from one another. To take you to your destination, it is sometimes necessary to take a taxi after getting off the train.

Second, trains don’t operate 24 hours a day. From midnight until 6.00 a.m., there are no trains.

Lesson 4: Our first bus ride in Kyoto

Kyoto ramen Koji, 10th floor, Kyoto Station
Kyoto Ramen Koji, 10th floor, Kyoto Station

It was our second day in Kyoto. We flew in the day before, got into our accommodation at midnight, we were dead tired so we slept until noon. The first thing on our agenda was ramen. I read that the 10th floor of Kyoto Station was dedicated to ramen from every region of Japan so I thought we should try it out.

Easy peasy, we thought. Armed with local SIM cards, we turned on Google maps, walked to the bus stop, got on the correct bus, paid using our ICOCA cards and located the ramen place in Kyoto Station.

(I won’t write about ramen right now. I want to dedicate a whole post about everything I learned about ramen in Japan. But all that for another day.)

So, we were in Kyoto and we managed to get on the right bus to Kyoto Station. We ate ramen, we had dessert and coffee, and then we went shopping. I wanted bowls. Japanese bowls.

There was a guy painting bowls with such beautiful and delicate images. “Kimono” designs, he explained, because the patterns were based on traditional kimono patterns. I asked permission to take photos and he generously acceded.

Handpainted "kimono" bowls in Kyoto
Handpainted “kimono” bowls in Kyoto

The bowls were beautiful and I wanted to bring them all home. Until I checked the price tags and realized that the cost of a single bowl was almost three times as much as our average monthly electricity bill. I moved away from the shelves of “kimono” bowls, went to the section where there were SALE signs and took my pick.

So, yes, I bought bowls in different sizes. Six bowls. Speedy offered to carry the bag for me and I was thankful. Six ceramic bowls in a bag, well, the weight was not negligible.

The girls bought stuff of their own too.

I mention the bowls and the shopping to give you an idea of what we were carrying. By the time we were ready to go back to the ryokan, we had several bags between us. As we got more tired, everything felt heavier. But it was just one bus ride anyway so we didn’t think there would be any problem. Why would there be, really? We managed to get to Kyoto Station from the ryokan without issue so why should going back be any different?

Well, we couldn’t find the correct bus stop.

Out in front of Kyoto Station, there was an area designated for bus stops. Yes, stops. Plural. And there was a queue on each stop. You’d think that once you found the right stop, it was just a matter of waiting for the next bus. But it wasn’t that simple. Two or more buses with different numbers (meaning they would traverse different routes) loaded and unloaded passengers on each stop. It got confusing.

Surely there were road maps showing the bus routes?

Sure, there were. But there were English translations only for routes frequented by tourists. There were English instructions on which bus to take to Arashimaya (the bamboo forest) and Fushimi Inari (the torii gates from Memoirs of a Geisha), for instance. But routes for residential areas not frequented by tourists? If you can’t read Japanese, well, it’s a guessing game.

It didn’t help that buses change routes on certain days.

To make a long story short, we took a taxi.

Lesson 5: Going to Nishiki Market was our last attempt at taking the bus in Kyoto

Undaunted by the previous night’s debacle, we set out to take the bus to Nishiki Market the next day.

At this point, I have to say something about our SIM cards. For some reason, and this happened only while we were in Kyoto, Google maps were unreliable when using the local SIM cards. Even when you’re still, on the map, it looks like you are moving and, worse, there were times when directions shift.

It didn’t help either that Kyoto is not very well documented on Google maps. Street views are old and it’s a headache locating bus stops.

And so it happened that when we were looking for the stop where we would take the bus to Nishiki market, Google maps kept pointing from one side of the street to the other. As a result, we took the bus on the wrong side of the street. The bus was already moving when we realized we were going in the wrong direction.

We got off at the next stop, crossed the street and waited for the right bus. And then we realized that the bus we were waiting for would arrive the next day. Or two days hence. Buses change schedules. And, on that day, we would have to walk all the way to a far away bus stop to catch the right bus going to Nishiki Market. We had wasted enough time and finally booked an Uber taxi. And, yes, we took an Uber taxi from Nishiki Market back to the ryokan. Enough with the bus adventures.