To the average cost conscious traveler in Japan's large cities, taxis are an expensive and unnecessary alternative to the efficient public transportation. However, taxis are often the only way of getting around once trains and buses stop operating around midnight, resulting in a sudden increase in their demand, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, when long lines and waiting times at taxi stands at train stations are not uncommon.
In smaller cities, the countryside and in Kyoto, public transportation tends to be less convenient, thus taking a taxi from the nearest train station to your destination can be a good alternative. If you travel in groups of three or more people, taxis can also be an economical option on shorter distances.
How to use a taxi
To hail a taxi, either go to a taxi stand (usually located in front of train stations) or flag one down at a location where it is safe for it to stop. A plate on the dashboard in the lower corner of the windshield indicates whether a taxi is vacant or not. Usually, a red plate indicates that the taxi is vacant, while a green plate indicates the opposite (see illustration below). During the night a light on the roof of a taxi can indicate that the taxi is vacant. You can also call a taxi by phone or via your hotel reception; in large cities there is usually no additional charge for calling a taxi while in more rural areas a small fee may be charged.
When you board a taxi, note that the vehicle's left rear door is opened and closed remotely by the driver. You are not supposed to open or close the door by yourself, except when using a different door. Furthermore, you are not supposed to tip taxi drivers. If you do not speak Japanese or if your destination is not a well known place, it is recommended to give your driver the address of your destination on a piece of paper or - even better - point it out on a map, since the Japanese address system can be confusing even to local taxi drivers.
In some regions, especially popular tourist areas, taxis are available for charter as sightseeing taxis with the taxi driver doubling as the tour guide. Although the language barrier might be a problem, in some areas there are taxi drivers with foreign language skills or sightseeing taxi services targeted specifically at foreign tourists. Sightseeing taxis typically cost around 10,000 yen for two hours.
Taxi types and fares
Taxi drivers in Japan are generally highly trustworthy and will not try to take advantage of their clients. Licensed taxis can be recognized by their green license plates, as opposed to the white and yellow license plates of regular cars. In some places frequented by foreign tourists, such as Narita Airport, there are rare cases of unlicensed taxis showing up, which are better avoided. Fare calculation is almost always by the meter. The only exceptions are on a few popular tourist and airport routes where a predetermined, flat rate may be offered.
Taxi fares differ slightly according to region, company and size of the vehicle. You would typically encounter three classes of taxis. Large taxis (大型車, ōgatasha) have engine capacities above 2000cc and carry up to five passengers. Medium taxis (中型車, chūgatasha) and small taxis (小型車, kogatasha) are the most numerous, have engine capacities 2000cc or less, and carry up to four passengers. Medium and small taxis only differ in the length of the vehicle and therefore the size of the passenger compartment.
When using a standard four-passenger taxi, fares typically start around 600-700 yen for the first two kilometers and increase by around 80-90 yen for every additional 300-400 meters traveled. The cost also increases when the taxi is not moving for a prolonged time. Late in the evening (typically 10pm to 5am), rates are raised by typically 20 percent. Eventual expressway toll fees incurred during the trip are added to the fare.