December 15, 2017
In Love with the Japanese Train System
I am in love with the Japanese train system. My favorite trains to ride are the JR lines because I can see everything as we zip past the high rise buildings of Tokyo. I am always in awe of the fact that I have moved all around Japan just by the means of walking and trains (sometimes my bicycle). My daily commute to school involves walking to the train station, using the shinjuku line, mita line, then walking from the train station to my university. Reverse that for the commute back home. The ultimate train of trains in Japan is the shinkansen, the bullet train, and I have been fortunate to have been able to ride this train a total of five times. From Kyoto to Tokyo, a round trip from Tokyo to Toyama , and a round trip from Tokyo to Nagano. The first time on the shinkansen I compared the feeling of the ride to the feeling one gets when taking off in a plane but never leaving the ground. The speed is almost the same as when preparing to fly and the wisp of the air behind you sounds almost the same as well but the ride is much smoother and has no uncomfortable jolts of turbulence. Shinkansen are also incredibly convenient and it is easier to find a station to board a shinkansen than to get to the airport to board a plane. I have a professor in my university who actually lives in Akita Prefecture, a Northern prefecture on the main island of Honshu, but who takes the shinkansen when he needs to be at work in Tokyo. He arrives on Monday night, teaches Tuesdays through Thursdays then pops back onto the shinkansen for a four hour trip back to Akita. Although taking a plane might be cheaper, it is much more convenient for him to ride the shinkansen home. He finds that the shinkansen is comfortable, and that he is able to work, rest, and take private time for himself while riding. Sometimes I find myself more productive on trains as well because it is very relaxing to sit, enjoy the hum of the train cars, and relish in the fact that Japanese trains are quiet, clean, and so very convenient. I doubt I will come across a train system as efficient, expansive, and pristine as Japanese trains.
I am from a small city in the United States but we do not have an efficient public transportation system. We have one train called the Amtrak that runs from a few towns in my state of New Hampshire to Boston, Massachusetts, then to New York City and from there, the rest of the country. This train is relatively inexpensive, but inconvenient to board for you have to drive long distances to actually find the sparse train stations. and also does not provide the comfort or speed of Japanese trains. There are many cargo trains in my area and I live near the train tracks so at night I can hear the bawl of the train and the racking of the old railroad tracks. We also have a local bus called a trolley which is reminiscent of the electric rail cars that used to run in my area. This trolley is now run by gas but has a set route which takes about an hour to loop around major landmarks in my city. It costs two dollars to ride no matter where you decide to stop. I have ridden this trolley for fun many times but it is not a quick, easy way to move around my city. In the future, instead of driving around my town, I hope to bike more because I find driving to be my least favorite mode of transportation. It feels like a waste of time while with biking, at least I am exercising and when riding the train you can stay productive by reading a book or listening to a podcast for example. After living in Tokyo where public transportation is the norm, anywhere that requires that I drive a car will almost definitely feel like a hassle.
My first experience on the train in Tokyo came about three days after I had actually arrived because frankly, I was extremely nervous to “brave the system” as I said. I had taken a taxi from Haneda to my share house in Kanda, Chiyoda-ku (which I do not recommend because it cost about 200 U.S. Dollars), and walked the days prior to my train ride. I was that nervous. Thankfully, my sharemate saved me and actually explained all of the methods to ride the train. For example, to ride the train in Tokyo you can either buy a ticket or use a Suica or Pasmo. Suicas and Pasmos are cards that you pay a 500 yen deposit for (which you can get back if you return the pasmo at the end of your stay) and you continuously recharge this card when you want to spend money to ride the train. For example, a ride to my school from my house costs about 270 yen. If I want to charge my Pasmo, I can either put in 270 yen exactly or I can put in any amount of money and repeatedly use the card until I run out of money. Charge, and repeat. It is very simple, easy, and much more convenient than buying a ticket every time you want to ride a train. You can also use these Pasmos to buy food or drinks when you pay at a cash register. When actually riding the train as my first experience, I just kept quiet (as I learned you are supposed to do) and followed the English signs to get to my destination. It was much easier than I expected.
I have had many positive experiences in the train stations of Tokyo. I rarely get lost because all the trains are updated on google maps or the train schedule app Hyperdia that I use. I also am eager to ask the train station masters where to go if I ever do have any doubt. But one of the most positive experiences was when I was scouted for modeling while waiting for a train. The scouter was a ceramics artist from Seattle who needed a model for her upcoming gallery. She saw me casually standing on the platform at Roppongi station of the Hibiya line and decided to approach me and discuss the job while we rode the train. That is one of the most amazing aspects of riding trains in Tokyo; people watching and the strange yet wonderful encounters you can have with Tokyoites. I modeled for her artwork simply as a twist of fate from waiting for a train.
Japanese stations also have adorable quirks that I find charming. For example, the fun game of stamp rallies. Stamp rallies are a common scavenger hunt-like-game in Japan that train companies hold while being sponsored by the media such as anime or upcoming movies. I participated in the first stage of a stamp rally held from the 10th of November to the 3rd of December in 2017. This stamp rally was held to excite people about the upcoming Star Wars movie “The Last Jedi” released on December 15th, 2017. One simply purchases the rally booklet and makes their way to each of the stations to stamp their booklet. By the end of the rally, when you have quite literally rallied up an impressive amount of star wars stamps in your booklet, you receive a star wars folder. It was quite fulfilling to receive mine at the end of the rally.
One more charming aspect of Japanese train stations are the train jingles that are played at the arrival and departure of a train. Depending on the station and whether it is famous for something particular, there might be a characteristic jingle that plays along to the sound of the train closing or opening doors. When I was heading to the Christmas Market at the Red Brick Warehouse in Yokohama, I had to go to Bashamichi station. When I arrived at Bashamichi, we found that the train opened and the sound of seagulls played. I was confused for a slight moment until I realized this was the jingle to the sound of the train. The reason for the seagull sound was in honor of the seaside walk of Yokohama which was very close by. One other example of this which comes to mind is when I arrived at Seiseki-Sakuragaoka station which is noteworthy for a Hayao Miyazaki movie of “Whisper of the Heart”. The theme song of the movie,“Country Roads” played at the opening and closing of the train. Absolutely adorable and it can not help but to charm foreigners and Japanese alike.
Nevertheless, this is not to say that I have not had negative experiences on trains in Tokyo. I have never been sexually harassed by chikan, perverts, as is commonly seen in the news, but I have been a victim of nanpa or an attempt to be picked up on the train—drunk men after a night in Shibuya have asked me for my line or facebook account. They continue talking to me even as I move away from them in the cart. But this was probably not the most negative of experiences. The most negative experience happened when I was on my way to a concert in Shibuya. It was a classical music event so I had made an effort to dress formally. I was sitting in a seat and noticed a woman and her daughter next to me fussing over each other. The daughter looked very ill and was leaning over. As I was watching this, the daughter suddenly convulsed and threw up all over the train car, a nice helping of vomit finding its way onto my leg. I was left there completely shocked while the woman and her daughter rushed off at the next stop and the train station masters came in with cleaning supplies. I watched as the vomit moved like a river down the train car, hiding under the seats and barely missing people’s shoes. I made my way to the bathroom as soon as I made it to my destination. Now, it’s an amusing experience but that is the case against public transportation: people might inconvenience you. However, this rarely happens in Tokyo because of the high level of consideration that Japanese people pay towards one another. A natural inconvenience one has to deal with in Tokyo is the rush hour trains. This rush hour causes what is called まんいんでんしゃ (crowded train) and is known for uncomfortable pushing, shoving, cramming onto the train especially JR lines (as I mentioned before, this is my favorite train in Tokyo but only at slow times). If you search “crowded trains” or まんいんでんしゃ on youtube you can find perfect examples of what I am talking about. Example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtfjlJjXOfk
Many of my friends in Japan really appreciate the Japanese train system. We are whisked along Tokyo at frightening speed and it helps us all move about our daily lives and accomplish all that we need to do. People do not question the train system that much for it is so reliable. I often find myself wondering what goes on behind the scenes of this impressive mechanism. What are the shifts for the station masters, where are the trains “parked” after the system shuts down, what kind of “loops” each of the train makes, and how many trains there are in Tokyo altogether. To answer these questions another blog might be necessary, but these musings are only a “first timer’s” impressions of Japanese trains. Thank you for reading.