In situ : on the train, Japan

You probably heard the stories about how magic Japanese transports are. These stories might even involve futuristic white trains and a sort of paradise on tracks.
This is not that spectacular I’m afraid (or maybe I mysteriously failed to board that train), but, like often in Japan, heaven is in the details and the invisible.
On our first trip to Japan we had a pretty busy schedule, with an average of two nights per stop and train rides that sometimes involved three connections. With our rather heavy luggage and speaking no Japanese, this was definitely a source of worry for me.

Yet everything went formidably well. Why?

  •  There is always someone to point you in the right direction, and you should always ask, because they’re really here to help, and with sometimes only a few minutes between each train, you don’t want to risk missing it because you’re too proud to admit you need guidance!
  •  Everything is always on time, from trains to buses to planes, which means you never wait and you never miss a connection. In Japan, domestic flights board only ten minutes before departure time, meaning you don’t have to get to the airport ages before taking off like everywhere else.
  •  Mosty they’re rather empty. Unless it’s rush hour, and even if it is, people will behave in such a decent way that it’s tolerable. This means you’re almost always seated (the picture above was an exception), a convenient fact when you have to carry luggage around.
  •  They’re quiet, clean and safe. You are supposed to feel comfortable, even if it a public space! In addition to that, Shinkansen seats tend to be huge, making you feel like a wealthy Japanese businessman on his way to sign a big contract.
  •  Fares and tickets are here to make your life easier, not to confuse you or trap you into getting a fine. On the subway, if you’re unsure you’ve paid the correct amount, fare adjustment machines are placed near every exit, making it very easy to pay the extra if needed. And if do make a mistake, it’s ok, the guy in charge of the exit will help you make it right. Bus, subway and ferry tickets are mostly bought on vending machines, but even in the most remote location there will be someone to assist you. As for Shinkansen tickets, they’re sold in person by ultra efficient employees that will get you set up in no time. You also don’t have to book train seats ahead, because prices are fixed and there are so many trains that you will likely always find a place.

Once you’ve realized all that, you really feel all the country is within your reach (well, almost). I will add that if you really want to make the best of it, you should invest in renting a portable wifi during your stay. That way you can use the itinerary function of Google Maps and easily jump from train, to bus, to subway without thinking twice.

Be warned though that there is one drawback to all this. You, like me, might end up getting far too comfortable and forget something there like, for instance, your brand new camera! I got it back a few hours later, but don’t get too soft, stay sharp even when you’re comfy!

 

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See our 15 days itinerary in Japan.
Shinkansens are Japan’s high speed trains.

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