Today was a bit of a transition day. So far, I’ve stayed in one place and have just wandered around Tokyo, checking things out. After today, I’ll be going to more places for a shorter time, looking at very specific things, but not really getting to spend as much time getting to know what’s going on in the city.
I am currently in Kyoto and will head out for Hiroshima in the morning. From there, I’ll spend 2 full days in Hiroshima, followed by a full day in Nagasaki, and 2 full days in Okinawa (I’m ignoring travel days). If that sounds like my trip is zooming along, that’s because it is. I realized my number of days in Japan is down to 9…single digits. That’s sad.
Since I didn’t have a huge number of adventures today worth blogging about (unless you want a play-by-play of me doing laundry. I’m actually waiting for it dry right now – ADVENTURE!!!) I thought I’d take a brief detour today.
The trains in Tokyo are incredible! The metro-Tokyo area houses about 37 million people and needs to get them from place to place.
There are two types of systems, the underground subway and the mostly above ground rail system. To further complicate matters, there are different companies that run these lines.
Most of my travels have been on the JR rail lines. The reason I chose them is because of my magic little document – my JR Rail Pass! As a foreigner, I can buy this pass for a set period of time (mine is a two week pass) that allows me unlimited access to all JR trains. This includes the Shinkansen (bullet trains) to get around the country. All I need to do is to flash this pass at the guards and I’m good to go!
So what makes Japanese Trains so Great?
They just work!
They will get you where you need to be exactly at the time they state. The Japanese value punctuality and these trains and subways operate to a crazy level of punctuality. On the Tokaido Shinkansen (the very busy bullet train service between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka), the average delay was only 0.6 minutes. This punctuality is very important because you can be assured that you will be able to make your connection with another train from a different line.
If the train is more than 5 minutes late, you will receive a note from the conductor that you can show to your boss or principal to prove that you weren’t at fault for being late.
A second reason Japanese trains work well is with the Japanese people. These trains are packed! Average daily ridership between the underground and overground train systems is estimated at around 37 million (and this was back in 2010). To put this in perspective in 2015, the New York subway system averaged about 4.8 million per day.
In order to fit this many people on a train, everyone has to work together. Passengers are shoved on to trains, packed like sardines. Even when this packed in though, I found it strange that the train was totally silent. No one talks or uses the phone (in fact there are constant reminders to not use the phone and to put it on silent). It’s funny to watch this huge mass of people sway left or right in reaction to the trains motion.
Finally, they are clean. The trains themselves and the stations are impeccably clean, especially for transporting so many people.
Is it Easy to Navigate?
There are a ton of lines and each line could be run as an express service, local service, or whatever. This is where my favorite app for this trip comes in: HYPERDIA.
HYPERDIA is an app that lets you simply plug in your desination, arrival, and when you want to leave or arrive, and it will figure everything out for you. It will tell you what track to go to, when the trains are. You can even see multiple options if you want to avoid the Yamanote Line (which I suggest – this one line carries more people per day than the ENTIRE London Underground).
I’ve included a picture of a simple trip I’m taking to show how easy it is to figure out.
What about the Stations?
The Tokyo train stations are incredible. Because train travel is the predominate form of transportation, the stations serve as the hub of life in the area they serve. Stations in big areas, like the are I stayed in, Shinjuku (the busiest station in the world, by a good margin), are giant department stores or shopping malls attached to them.
The first time I got off the train at Shinjuku at night, I was shocked by the mass of people – a majority just there to hang out and shop.
As far as navigation, everything is generally in English so it’s not too bad to find your way around. What can get tricky is if you are not going to a main station, it can be tough to figure out which direction of train to take on a certain line.
Before you leave for your journey, you can fuel up with food from numerous vendors all over the train station.
What’s your favorite part about the Trains?
Like transportation systems in other countries, the subways and trains are filled with ads. These ads are very entertaining to watch as you ride around town. Here’s one that cracks me up:
That must be some pretty nice soap they are using!
Also bought this drink due to a video ad where some good-looking Japanese girls watches fireworks with her friends and then drinks this drink. I thought, I don’t know what that drink is, but if it’s good enough for her, it’s got to be good!
Turns out – it’s terrible!
Enough about trains.
I did travel down to Kyoto in the afternoon for a brief stopover before heading for Hiroshima in the morning. I knew that due to the time I was arriving, I wouldn’t be able to see much, but I did wander around and did bump into two nice places.
Unlike most of the places I’ve been to so far, Kyoto really didn’t suffer much during World War II. There is a story about Kyoto, maybe true – maybe not, that it at one point was at the top of the list for places to drop an atomic bomb. The Secretary of War, however, had honeymooned here and wanted to save the city.
Kyoto is a very important cultural center in Japan. You can’t go too far until you run into a beautiful temple here or there. There some amazing castles and temples scattered around the city.
I saw two main place (and almost a third but I got there a tad too late).
Hongan-ji is one of the main temples of Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism.
It is a complex with several MASSIVE structures that are beautifully ornate.
As I wandered around, I ran into a Buddhist “service” going on in the main temple building. It was interesting to watch for a few moments. I wish I could have gotten a picture of it, but they specifically ask people not to.
Nearby the temple stood the Shoseien Garden. This was a very beautiful Japanese garden. Pictures do a better job than I of explaining it.
Any bee that is referred to in the singular tense is a bee that I want to stay far away from!
Finally, I felt like getting some authentic Japanese food to make up for the Burger King I had last night. I went to get some Takoyaki which are basically “Octopus Balls”.
That is of course to say they are a fried dough with chunks of octopus inside of them…not…octopus balls…
And now that I tried that once, I never have to eat them again (they weren’t the best).