Please read carefully the following Customer warning:
If you never played with toy trains as a kid, STOP reading and spend your time more productively by looking through the window observing the clouds in the sky.
For the rest of you being irreversibly infected by the train fever:
Welcome to the world of TRAINS! Japanese trains! Just saying the word SHINKANSEN gives me a jolt of excitement and joy.
Originally we had a very simple plan. First and foremost we will go to Japan in the spring for Sakura. As it is difficult to predict where and when the cherries would bloom, we contrived a plan to outsmart them.
Let us fly to northernmost island of Japan, rent a car as we like to do, and move slowly against the blooming cherry line as it moves with warming weather north and….let fate bring us together.
Until, a few days before leaving Western Australia for Sapporo, as I read my car rental agreement, I found to my big surprise the fine print: “Driving in Japan is allowed with Japanese driving permit OR National driving license WITH the International Driving Permit (IDP) issued by the country of the driver’s origin ONLY!”
Damn! We have been renting cars year after year and we carried our IDPs, but nobody ever asked for them! So when the last one expired in January 2019 we did not bother to renew it. Well, great timing going to Japan, the only country that demands it!
In a few days we made an urgent inquiry with our families back in the States and in Europe, and the message was clear. If you want to get it, you better come home in person, show your valid National/State driver’s license, get the IDP issued and then you can drive around Japan for six months but not a day more!
Forget it! Instead we will have to opt for travel by trains. What can I tell you, I was in heaven!
For those of you who read our last year’s blog covering our overnight travel from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, it is a well known fact that I love trains – the marvels of engineering innovation since Locomotion No. 1 was put on rails by Mr.Stevenson and run some 200 years ago (1825 to be exact).
But you may remember that we did not do much train travel after Chiang Mai, not just because of the miserable and well refrigerated overnight Thai ride, but even more because of my wife’s well known dislike of trains. In her youth she once spent days and days on stinky Soviet trains, which left her with TPTSD (Train PTSD) and utterly diminished appreciation for the beauty of train travel.
With the IDP Japanese disaster my chances of getting on a train again were now looking very good, indeed!
Now let’s get those fabulous Japanese Rail Passes that let you ride the Bullet trains! According to our initial Google research the JR Rail Pass could only be issued to bona fide temporary foreign visitors of Japan and purchased outside of Japan. There were offers of ordering and paying for the 1, 2 or 3 week passes on line and then having a voucher sent to your home address. After arriving to Japan you then present the voucher and your passport stamped by Japanese immigration officer to the Japan Railways office and receive the real pass. Complicated? You bet! Especially if you are not at your home address, but half way around the world. There must be a different way! After further Internet digging we found out that one could also buy the Rail Pass from an overseas Japan tourist office and Hallelujah, there was on the list a convenient office in Perth, Western Australia, where we were heading next.
To sweeten the deal, I suggested we upgrade to the first class so called Green car. My wife agreed and with a 21-day Rail Pass voucher in hand I could start planing the optimal route. On this map
red lines mark Shinkansen High Speed (known in the West as Bullet) Train network. The yellow lines are Local and Limited Express Trains. Complementing the rail lines are also JR operated buses, and in addition, surprisingly, one ferry. All covered by the Japan Rail Pass issued either for different geographic regions or the whole National one.
Japan is a densely populated country of about 130 million people. But that number is very unevenly distributed over the main 4 islands to such an extent that 80 million people live in a relatively narrow belt on the southern coast of Japan biggest island of Honshu.
That is where Shinkansen concept came initially to life with its first section between Tokyo and Nagoya open to public for Tokyo 1964 Olympics (bravo, you guys, nice excuse to get funding). It is true that the costly overruns were alarming (about double of initial requested funding), costing the project champion his position and career but nobody dared to stop this project. The concept proved to be very successful and today Shinkansen is a sturdy skeleton of a very efficient and apparently profitable rail transportation system of the whole Japan. As for our travel plans the rails went where we wanted to go and not the other way around. We had to look for our accommodation to be as close to the rail stations as possible so we would not have to drag our luggage around or rely on expensive taxis. (No cheap Uber in Japan). Fortunately, in a country like Japan, where businessmen use fast train transport, there are always clusters of hotels in easy walking distance from the stations. With 3 weeks of unlimited rail travel we (read I) figured we could pretty much cover the whole of Japan from the North to the South, avoiding the most popular and tourist infested areas of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, where we have been before anyways.
We flew to Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaidó, the northern most island and after getting our passports properly stamped we easily found the JR office at the Airport rail station and got our vouchers exchanged for the glorious real Rail Passes. With the skillful help of the lovely JR ladies we even got reserved seats for the first week of our train travel. We were ready to jump on our first train. Hurrah! Our Great Japanese Train Adventure had just begun! My excitement could not be significantly marred by the disappointing fact that the Shinkansen network has just one Hokkaidó station. It is in Hakodate, a temporary terminal in southernmost tip of this island. The further northern reach of Shinkansen is still under construction through mountains of Hokkaidó and will not be open till March 2030. While sad that my complete Shinkansen experience may have to wait beyond my useful life expectancy, I do hope in the improbable case of beating the odds, I will report to you on riding the newly open section if I am still able to hear, see and write.
We were forewarned that the learning curve on riding the Japanese trains was steep so let us share some tips we learned along the way. The frequency of trains run by JR is incredible, so you do not have to worry that you will miss your train. If you do, there certainly would be another one coming soon, probably within minutes. But you should be aware that majority of non-local trains have many cars assigned for reserved seating only and you CANNOT buy the reservation ON the train. In this case you will end up in non-reserved seats car(s). From our experience there is no reason NOT to reserve your seat. In each and every station in Japan we were able to get a seat reservation in a matter of minutes. It helps to install on your smart phone HyperDia application with JR schedule, so with a click or two you can get all possibilities of how to get from point A to B and hence can just show to the JR sales person the phone screen with the train you want. You could theoretically even master this activity on the station’s automatic machines but it involves a conversation with the JR person in the Central JR office in Tokyo and at least rudimentary knowledge of Japanese language.
After you have your reservation stubs you approach the station gates, Rail Passes in hand. The gates are mostly automatic, armed with sensors reading the tickets. They unfortunately do not work with Rail Pass and to enter the station you have to show your Pass to a live JR staff at the gates. They usually just glance at the pass and wave you through. Please note on this picture the essential differences between women of East and West. The petite Japanese girl is the epitome of the demure cuteness with her toes pointed inward while the Western sturdy feet are firmly planted in a outward conquering stride. The speculation and our unproven theory here is that after centuries of wearing a tight kimono and mincing her steps, the Japanese woman walks pigeon toed, and men find this attractive, while in the West the open feet ballet stance is more in vogue.
Any which way, let your feet carry you towards your train platform, most of the time on a different level, but serviced by escalators and/or elevators so you do not have to struggle with your luggage on any stairs.
On your reservation stub you have the name of the train and car and seat number so now you only have to look around the platform to find the exact spot where your car door will stop. Look down on the floor and up on the hanging signs and then line up at the marker. But before you embark on your train, do check carefully that you are indeed on the right platform.
On station signs, which most of the time alternate between Japanese and English, you can, in a hurry, get confused looking only at numbers amongst the flashing Japanese signs. We once got misled by recognizing the time of our train departure and blindly followed to the wrong platform with our luggage in tow, only to discover there were two different trains leaving at the same time and our train was on the other side of the station. A feverish run ensued and we barely jumped into the last car of our train, totally out of breath, but with a big grin on our faces.
Of course whenever and wherever we could, we rode Shinkansens. They are physically separate from other trains and ride on mostly elevated tracks, never crossing the roads or other train lines. But we were happy to experience many other trains, too: local, commuter and so called Limited Express trains. We had fun on a local train with one and only car, where separation between the train engineer and traveling public is almost none existent and on this two car train in Kyushu where we were the only representatives of traveling public. Except for the busy Golden Week where it looked like all of Japan was traveling and on a few trains taking high school students to and from their very long days at school, the trains have been surprisingly empty. Perhaps not as surprisingly, for our Japanese friends complained about the high cost of train travel and were quite envious of our Rail Passes. It is indeed unfar to local residents that a similar Pass is not offered to them. Our running tally says we would have had to pay three times the cost of what we had to pay for all our train rides as individual tickets!
Still people do take trains in Japan, especially in highly populated areas where commuter lines are packed tight. On Tokaido Shinkansen line between Osaka and Tokyo the Bullet trains transport on average 22,000 people in an hour in each direction! In a year Shinkansen trains take 159 million passengers to their destinations. Standing on the platform observing those 16-car trains passing one another every 4-5 minutes is mind boggling! It is even more mind boggling that the trains run at the maximum speed of 320 km/hr (200 miles/hr). Not to say anything of my impression of the futuristic design of the train locomotive. It is like watching Formula One race but much safer! If I add to this the beautifully designed new Kanazawa Rail Station I am really feeling like in a sci-fi movie. The interior design is very cool, too. The seats can be easily configured so that families can sit face to face. Some private line sightseeing trains were built for scenic excursions into Japanese countryside. A train like this bird watching beauty runs three times a day and provides the bird lovers comfortable seating with plenty of opportunity to sharpen their eyesight with enough drinks, so no one would be sorry for binocular forgotten at home. What all of the Japanese trains have in common is their admirable accuracy, frequency and cleanliness. The bane of my wife’s (train) existence – toilets are modern and immaculate, much nicer and roomier than any airplane bathroom, which, of course, is not saying much. The service too, is much better. You can order some food and/or booze from lovely, young, smiling train attendants. When not chatting up the attendants, one can enjoy the fleeting images of Japan rushing past the window. From snow capped mountains of the Northto warm sea and shore line of the South, or most exciting engineer’s view of the tunnel.
And let’s not forget passing more than twice through Japanese Alps which gave us the sense of how much of Japan is still covered by the lush green forests, contradicting the notions of sprawling urban concrete jungles along the Shinkansen line.
It is the last day of our 21-day Rail Pass on our 2,000+miles long trip, and we are spending it on trains back to Tokyo airport. We reached our goal of riding trains from Northernmost to Southernmost Japanese Shinkansen station. For good measure we added the Western most rail station in Japan in the town of Sasebo. We are on Hikari 476 Shinkansen arriving just before expiration of our Passes at midnight. As I am browsing I discover the fresh news:
“Japan is pushing the limits of rail travel as it begins testing the fastest-ever Shinkansen bullet train, capable of speeds of as much as 400 kilometers (249 miles) per hour.
Called the Alfa-X, the train is scheduled to go into service in 2030. Rail company JR East plans to operate it at 360 kilometers per hour. That would make it 10 km/hr faster than China’s Fuxing Hao, which links Beijing and Shanghai and has the same top speed. Good! It looks when I come back in 2030 I will be riding a new faster Shinkansen to Sapporo and beyond.