As professionally I deal with transport and infrastructure economics, one of my special interests all around Japan was its transportation system. And already on our first day in Japan I got quite a nice experience pack.
A photo made a couple of days later. The very impressive entrance to the Kanazawa railway station.
A JUMBO JET ON PILED PIERS
My first ‘wow’ happened as our aircraft was rolling alongside the taxiway at Haneda, the Tokyo airport. Haneda is ranking the fifth busiest airport in the world. I was aware that because of increasing traffic the airport had to be extended several times. At a certain point this was possible only by additional land reclamation. That what I did not know, was that the airport runways/taxiways were built on a combination of reclaimed land and piled pier sections. Our jumbo jet indeed moved on a taxiway constructed upon piled piers!
THE JR PASS
The first thing we had to do after we cleared the airport closed area was to claim our Japan Rail Passes (or shortly JR Passes). (We paid for them earlier at home.) The JR Pass is a document that for a lump sum paid upfront allows travelling by most Japanese trains without limits within a certain period of time, for which the pass was bought. Only a couple of times we had to pay some additional amount to use a Shinkansen (high-speed) train.
As I understand, the concept of the JR Pass is about making the railway transport affordable to those, who come visit Japan. Almost all of us traveled on a tourist visa. Only our guide/interpreter was supposed to stay longer upon a working visa. This excluded him from the JR Pass system. Each time he had to pay the full ticket price.
As a tourist with a JR pass issued on your name you can use all Japanese Railways (JR) lines for a lump sum up-front payment. However, you must be prepared to pay additional fee in some Shinkansen (high-speed) trains. You must also reserve a sitting place. The JR pass is not valid in metro trains.
THE EXPENSIVE RAILWAY TICKETS
The tickets were expensive even if compared to Western European standards. The railway prices in European countries differ. But two months later I paid less for the Eurostar ticket (from Paris to London) than he paid for even shorter Shinkansen trips in Japan.
The Shinkansen and Japanese Railways (JR) ticket machines.
As I understand, most employers in Japan offer their employees (on a regular contract) a travel allowance (for commuting purposes) that is tax-deductible. Without it, even Japanese would not be able to afford the train tickets.
The tickets are expensive because unlike in Europe the Japanese railways are not subsidized. The European authorities subsidize railways upon the assumption that passengers can afford only tickets that pay for train operations as well as regular maintenance of infrastructure. In case of commuter trains this would be even less. But if ticket prices had to include the investment costs, including building new infrastructure, upgrading or heavier repairs, the prices would be prohibitive. In Japan, the problem was solved by means of privatizing the railway companies, that are allowed to keep a relatively high price of railway tickets. On the other hand, the government grants the employers tax deductions on travel allowances they pay to their commuting employees (indirect subsidy). Besides that, the railway companies are given incentives to finance their railway business though other business activities with higher rates of return (like housing).
PEOPLE IN WHITE GLOVES, QUEUING AND THE MUSIC PLAYING
Of things that are noticeable at the first sight about the Japanese railways is that there are relatively more employees working in the passenger service (than in Europe). You can recognise them easily as they wear uniforms and white gloves.
People in white gloves, always ready to assist.
The other thing is that on most railway platforms there are marks on the floor indicating the place where the passengers should queue. So it is the role of the train driver to stop the train so that the door opens exactly in front of the queue. I do not understand Japanese. But a friend of mine, who speaks the language says that if the train driver does not manage to fit the exact spot a speaker says a polite excuse formula though megaphones. To be frank, all of us had a problem of queuing this way (preferred to spend the waiting time on conversations standing in a circle). Once even we were brought to order by a man in white gloves (ops!).
Us (this time orderly) queueing to get to the train. Shinkansen platforms are protected like this one. Door opens only when a train is standing at the platform. The regular trains usually do not have protection like that.
Of other specific things we noticed was that when trains were about to depart music was playing for several minutes indicating to people approaching the platform to hurry up.
THE SHINJUKU AND THE MIDNIGHT COMMUTERS
Our first day in Japan was a short one. We were tired after the eleven hours flight from Munich. As we landed at Tokyo Haneda airport it was already 2 p.m. We needed additional 4 hours or so to get to the hotel. We lost about an hour and a half because not knowing the local specifics. Accidentally, we took a train that serviced commuters living far outside the city centre. As the train left the city centre, it did not stop for the first 30 km or so. Quite quickly we were approached by a Japanese, who explained the system to us but it was already too late to leave the train. After we got to the hotel, we gave us some time for a shower and left for Shinjuku, the Tokyo district (to be exact the so-called ‘special ward’) combining office and leisure area.
The lights of Shinjuku. As I did this photo the entrance to the Shinjuku railway station was to my right. If you watch closely you will see a train flyover. There are many like that in Japan.
As we arrived, it was raining. The streets were full of colourful lights of all possible kinds of advertisements and of Japanese, who just left offices crowding in the restaurants (izakaya) and game plazas (pachinko). Going out after work with work colleagues and often the boss is traditional in Japanese companies. We joined the crowds and quickly landed in an izakaya. We enjoyed the evening. But, we were under a time constraint – the last commuter trains leave the district around midnight. So before midnight we came back to the Shinjuku railway station, that together with other public transport means stopping there is considered the biggest railway station in the world. And we were not alone. Around us were thousands of Japanese, who after spending the evening in Shinjuku, more or less sober, headed home.
Shinjuku railway station. It is 11.57 p.m.
And already in the train. It is 11.58 p.m.
I do not recall the name of the station we headed for, but as we left the train and looked at the crowds the first thing some of us did was to check the hour. I have a colleague, age 28, who works in a Japanese company. He parties with his colleagues 3-4 times a week. At first he had fun, but after two or three months the fun was gone. Nevertheless, that evening in the crowded midnight commuter train, the first time I realised why it is said that many (more or less younger) Japanese do not have a private life.
The crowd of commuters at the local stations somewhere in the greater Tokyo area. It is already 12.30 am.
SOME OTHER THINGS WORTH TO REMEMBER
- On many Japanese buses you enter by the middle / back door(s), and leave by the one close to the driver’s seat where you validate your ticket. So if it is crowded inside, it is better to prepare for the exit a bit earlier.
- You cannot drive a car in Japan unless you have the local driving license. So you have to rely on the public transport. Japanese public transport closes lines relatively early during the day, sometimes beyond bigger cities area at unexpected hours. It is better to check the public transport itinerary in advance.
- In most places the train and bus schedules contain names of stations and stops written in English letters. But it is not the thumb rule. A photo in your cell of a line map with names in English and in Japanese can help you sometimes out.
- The air conditioning works extremely well in Japanese public transport. Even on warm days it is good to have something with long sleeves.
- I many big cities we walk miles changing the metro lines. But I was under the impression the Tokyo transport nodes are at the extreme. Be prepared to walk miles.
- Loud talking, in particular on the cell phone, is considered as impolite.
JMA, June 2017