After five days in Japan, we’ve noticed a million examples of how things are slightly different here. From the insanely loud Pachinko parlors that resemble slot machines on crack to the ubiquitous bowing. But the one that strikes us over and over is that train travel in Japan is both astounding and outstanding. The traveling Kollineisers have been continually in awe of this vast and extensive rail network that runs smoother than seems possible. In fact, aside from the power of our own two feet, train rides have been our sole mode of transport since arriving. I really, really wanted to avoid throwing up this tired cliched mantra, but it is unavoidable: the trains in United States look like a half-hearted joke when compared to those we’ve seen here. (And yeah, probably Europe too, but we haven’t made it quite that far yet).
Before arriving, we purchased the seven-day Japan Rail Pass (the JR Pass) that must be purchased outside of Japan in advance of arrival. At around $350 per person, that pass wasn’t cheap, but it has already paid for itself twice over. It has been easy to use and one of the best purchases made to date. In fact, short of subway rides, it is the only transportation cost we’ve incurred. And to be candid, it helps that I love trains. I always have.
We’ve had a chance to ride the regional rail, Subways in Kyoto and Tokyo and even the Shinkansen (aka the famed “bullet train”). Our first experience was on the regional rail – the line of trains that connect city to city in and around Tokyo and continues through the rest of Japan. It starts with a never ending rail map that seems to have infinite possibilities and infinite stops. It took some time and patience, but with the help of some stop names in English, we were able to decode the rail map sufficiently. I’d rather not mention that this was a map that included only PART of the Tokyo system, but I’ll include that admission for the sake of accuracy. So far, we haven’t had to wait on a train for more than, say, seven minutes at most. At first, we chalked it up to some solid train luck, but the reality is that they just always seem to be pulling into the station. All of the train schedules – and even all of the seemless connections from line to line – are planned to such a methodical timetable that it would make the most dedicated clockmaker cry like a baby.
On all the trains we’ve ridden, people line up directly behind the space on the platform where the doors will open. Polite and organized. (Keep in mind, we haven’t been on the subway during rush hour which sounds like it could be much different.) While everyone has a mobile device in their hands, everyone avoids talking on their cell phones. My absolute favorite part is that each train line has their own unique, fun jingle that plays when the train doors are about to close. No boring chimes here, more like friendly little tunes that sound like you just hit the jackpot on a slot machine. And with so many trains, you end up having not just express service, but some crazy, multi-station skipping service called “Rapid Super Express” service. On top of all that, the trains are all remarkably clean. It’s possible we’ve just been riding at the right times, but we’ve seen no graffiti and no trash.
Brooke and I spent the last six years riding the NYC Subway just about every day, so we were interested in comparing the two underground labyrinths. To start, each car ends with a giant glass door that allows you to see into the next car. When everyone is seated, you can literally see from one end of the train to the other which makes for a more exposed experience. We’ve also seen doors and sometimes full walls that are on the station platform. They line up with the train doors and, in theory, prevent a rush hour passenger from falling onto the tracks. Finally and probably more importantly, each station has a designation like “N5″ or “A10″ (letter for the line, number for the stop) and a sign indicating which direction the train on these track will go and what the previous and next stop will be. Genius! That already saved us going in the wrong direction before we even got on our first train! Thanks, Japan!
Similarly, the stations have maps indicating the time in minutes to the future stations on the line. Seriously, these are such simple, amazing ideas that Brooke and I need to import ASAP. In the stations, we’ve even managed to see a few women (and a handful of men) wearing traditional Kimono outfits. We’ve seen signs that during rush hour times, there are trains that are “Women Only.” Pretty sure that one is to dissuade the icky gropers. As if that weren’t enough, each station on the regional rail (JR lines) have a nice set of shops and in some cases giant malls attached to the buildings.
For the nerd in me, It has been a giant thrill learning and mastering a complicated new train system, exploring the trains themselves, and discussing complicated routes with Brooke. Talk about getting some insight. I became dangerous when I finally scored a quality map. It’s been my new best friend. However, we should point out that there is no 24 hour rail service in Japan. We haven’t found any trains that run much past midnight. I guess NYC’s 24-hour subway scores a win in that category. Well, that and you have a more intriguing set of smells on American subways. Overall, it is a simply amazing system. Sensational! But beyond all of that, the single most impressive thing is that Brooke and I haven’t gotten on the wrong train once yet. Trust us, it hasn’t been for lack of trying. Give it time.
PS – We’ll do a full write up of the Shinkansen in a few days!