Train travel is extremely popular in Japan, among both locals and visitors. Fast, reliable trains crisscross the country, offering a strong alternative to the car or plane, which is important in a country that relies heavily on imported fuel. Travel on a Japanese trains and you’ll soon have an insight into more reasons why the country’s rail services are so successful.
Of course, the Land of the Rising Sun is well known for the shinkansen – the “bullet trains” – that offer a 200mph dash between Japan’s bigger urbanized areas. Yet not every train in the country is super-fast. Ordinary zairaisen trains don’t usually go above 80mph, topping out at 100mph when they do.
The first bullet train line was the 320-mile Tōkaidō Shinkansen, which came into service in 1964. It runs between Tokyo and a dedicated station in Osaka, Japan’s third-largest city. Its many users rank it among the busiest high-speed lines in the world. Nowadays, there are several bullet train lines that cover most of Japan.
The shinkansen trains have a distinctive look, which may be familiar to those who have traveled widely. China, Taiwan and the U.K. all use shinkansen-style trains, and they are planned for Texas and India too. And in other places, super-fast trains have become quite normal, not least the high-speed Eurostar service linking the U.K. with France and the Low Countries.
However, to spot a shinkansen, the best place is Japan. There, bullet trains glide along their specially designed tracks, only utilized by shinkansen. That’s because they need a wider gauge than conventional trains. And they also sometimes have their own stations a little way out from downtown areas.
Nonetheless, the shinkansen system is not the only way to get around Japan by train. Since the first tracks were laid from Tokyo’s old Shimbashi station to Yokohama in 1872, a network of nearly 17,000 miles of railway was developed. Today, more than nine billion rail journeys a year are taken in Japan, according to a recent International Union of Railways study.
JR, a private consortium, largely controls that network, and all rail is held privately, although historically the government helped rail to grow in Japan. It considered railways an efficient way to transport people without using too much precious oil. However, the same cannot be said of freight, little of which goes by railway.
For passengers though, rail has subsequently become central. This happened largely because firms bought up land near to existing cities and constructed lines to what would become suburbs. In due course, those areas became densely inhabited, with urban areas growing around the rail lines.
The outcome has been lines that have always been well placed. And consequently, Japan has the busiest railway stations in the world, thronging with passengers. Of the global top 51, an incredible 45 are in the Land of the Rising Sun. Roughly half of the stations listed serve its capital city, Tokyo, including all of the top three.
Easily the busiest of these is Tokyo’s Shinjuku station, serving the center of the city’s government and the many people who live in the area. It’s massive, and you could be forgiven for getting lost as you negotiate the tangle of lines and services that join here. The station proper has 36 platforms, and connected stations a further 17. And make sure you know where you’re going: there are more than 200 ways out of the station.
Besides Shinjuku station, Tokyo has other enormous rail stops, which offer their own attractions. Shibuya station features art by Taro Okamoto and, furthermore, a statue commemorating Hachikō. This was the dog that loyally sat waiting for his human every day outside the station, even a decade after Hidesaburō Ueno had died. The tale has since become a celebrated Japanese legend.
Rather more exotic is Ikebukuro station, which is right in the middle of Tokyo. There you can see penguins using waterslides, apparently visit a club to view dancing girls or perhaps catch a glimpse of the fabled Cornman. He is a curious chap occasionally spotted around the station taking vegetables on a leash for a “walk.”
Masahiko Naganuma claims to have adopted the idea from a foreigner he saw “exercising” a Chinese cabbage. Excited by the idea, he rushed home to get his own piece of produce. But the foreigner had disappeared, so Cornman was born. Now Naganuma walks all kinds of vegetables, giving them names as though they were dogs.
Outside of Tokyo, the largest station is Umeda in Osaka. And it is an amazing place, set on several levels, with walkways and escalators that can seem to lead you in circles. So befuddling is the underground space at Umeda that some have dubbed it “the world’s largest labyrinth.”
Perhaps a bit less confusing is Yokohama’s station, the fifth busiest globally. Yokohama’s previous rail stop had been destroyed in 1923 by a fire sparked by the Great Kanto Earthquake. It has since gradually grown into a massive edifice with its own mini-empire of stores settled around it, many in underground areas.
Of course, railway stations are not all there is to see in Japan. Indeed, it is a fascinating country with rich delights for the traveler. The country is a archipelago of islands numbering nearly 7,000, although most of the people live on just four: Honshu, Kyushu, Hokkaido and Shikoku.
Because of the extensive rail network, tourists can visit much of Japan by train. They can use a JR Pass, which locals cannot buy. This permits them to use the network of JR Rail. You can buy standard-class passes that cover seven, 14 or 21 days, at a cost (at time of writing) of $261, $418 and $534, respectively.
The passes are certainly economical if you pack a lot of travel into your visit – saving as much as hundreds of dollars in just a week. And internet sites offer lots of information about the pass and potential itineraries. Let’s take a look at a few of the places you could comfortably fit into a seven-day rail trek.
Your first train in Japan might well be the Narita Express, which runs from Narita International Airport into Tokyo. Whether you’re heading for Shinjuku, Shibuya or Ibebukuro, the Narita Express will take you there. The train divides at Tokyo, so you can stay aboard all the way to Yokohama and other parts.
As the capital of Japan, Tokyo is an enormous city, its metropolitan area housing the highest population of any in the world. So you can imagine that there is plenty to see, although not much is of any great age. Tokyo suffered from firebombing in the Second World War, having already been devastated by the Great Kanto Earthquake, so its buildings are mostly modern.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on the artificial island of Odaiba in Tokyo Bay. The plan to build this sparkling, modern area of entertainment and shops took time to realize, but now the completed project acts a huge draw for tourists and locals alike. Although it features several architectural wonders, it also offers plenty of parks and remains very walkable.
While at Odaiba, you can ascend the Tokyo Tower. It may look somewhat familiar – its design was inspired the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. Since 1958 tourists have regarded the sprawling city beneath them from its two observation decks. The tower is not just for tourists, however; it houses communications masts too.
From Tokyo, you might head north to the city of Sendai for a day trip. It’s only an hour-and-a-half on the shinkansen. There you can take in the market – “Sendai’s kitchen” – or wander around the city’s temples and ruined castle, and still be back in Tokyo in time for an evening performance of Noh at the national theater.
Noh is Japan’s classical theater, with a history dating back to the 1300s. Its intricate performances historically comprised of five pieces, interspersed with comedy routines, but these days two dramatic scenes separated by one comic sketch is more common. Noh is perhaps best known for the cypress wood masks that the performers wear; there are about 450 different designs.
Of course, to make full use of a rail pass, you need to take trains and enjoy views of rural Japan, which away from the busy cities is hilly and wooded. Heading to Kyoto would be a great start because the shinkansen goes right past Mount Fuji. Make sure that you’re seated on the right though!
In Kyoto, you’ll be spoiled for choice when deciding what to look at. The top spot is probably Fushimi Inari Shrine, the most-visited site in Japan for tourists. The shrine houses thousands of gates, all colored red. To get there and back, a city bus will do the trick: day passes are less than five bucks and will cover you for visiting the other sights.
The Zen Temple at Kinkakuji might well be on your list. It’s been ruined and rebuilt many times, most recently in 1955. If you love temples, you’re in the right place, because you can take a short ride to Ryoanji, which includes an amazing rock garden. Try to capture all 15 rocks in one glance – they say that if you do, enlightenment will be yours.
From Kyoto, less than an hour’s journey will take you to Nara. This is a center of culture and history, reflecting its position as one-time capital of Japan, its first. Here you can see a giant Buddha at Todai-ji Temple or ancient wood buildings at the temple of Hōryū-ji. This establishment has been around since the early seventh century, although the oldest part still standing is from the eighth.
However, Nara is not just famous for its temples. It also houses a deer park, where you can buy senbei, or crackers, that the deer enjoy. Some will even give you a cute bow for their snack and then pose for a photo afterwards. And if you stroll from there up to Todai-ji, you’ll have the opportunity to refresh yourself on something munchable from a street stall.
While you can reach cities such as Kyoto and Nara by shinkansen, if you were heading to Himeji Castle or the Kōraku-en Garden at Okayama, you might instead take a sleeper. Once much more common, the remaining sleeper trains still offer a level of comfort that may surprise Western tourists.
The first thing you’ll notice on the “Sunrise Express” trains is that they don’t feature the kind of seating you’re used to. Instead, even the ordinary areas have separate sleeping areas. These are called nobi nobi seats, and they offer somewhat more comfortable accommodation than a normal train seat does.
These compartments, partly walled off from each other, offer a window to look out of – although it may be too dark to see much for most of the journey. You’ll also find something to lie on and coverings – and even a table to put your book or a drink on. However, some travelers want a bit more luxury.
Indeed, you can get that comfort if you book a single deluxe compartment. The bed’s long enough to fit someone well over six feet tall and at nearly three feet across, it has some room for tossing and turning. The deluxe rooms are even upstairs in the double-decker train, so the views are better.
Lower-level cabins exist, some offering twin beds in a shared area. Everyone on the train has access to showers and lounges where they can rest when not sleeping. Thirsty travelers can also grab a drink from an onboard vending machine. However, unlike on a European train, you’ll have to keep your luggage with you since the “Sunrise Express” offers no place to put it.
These are not the only special trains in Japan, although the “Moonlight Nagara” does not run throughout the year. You can catch it from Tokyo to Ogaki for two weeks in spring, across most of the summer, and during the festive period. However, tourists cannot usually make use of it because the tickets, sold a month in advance, aren’t available online, and no one can travel without a reserved seat.
For those who want to travel in even more style, the “Twilight Express Mizukaze” offers a luxury trip through western Japan. If you stay aboard for the whole of either of its two available journeys, you’ll spend two days enjoying the scenery. And while taking in the views, you can munch on traditional Japanese food cooked by chefs.
And even that pales into insignificance alongside the “Seven Stars Kyushu.” On this train, travelers can look out at views of the island of Kyushu to grand piano accompaniment. At dinner time, they enjoy the best of the island’s food, from land and sea, and perhaps enjoy a postprandial drink as they gaze at the countryside.
Slightly more affordable is the “Yufuin no Mori” which also runs in Kyushu. Tourists can use it to visit the hot springs at Yufuin. These onsen are common throughout Japan. Although these days people have their own baths at home, they were once used as public bathing areas. Don’t think to get clean in one though – it’s bad manners to hop in while you’re dirty.
Finally, we can’t really offer a story about Japan without talking about Pokémon. And yes, there’s a Pokémon train! It’s one of the “Joyful Trains” that JR East offers; the Pikachu train travels through the Tohoku region. The concept behind it was to bring some joy to kids who had suffered in the 2011 earthquake there.
But Tohoku is not the only area that features a train painted with a character. Animé drawings adorn trains nationwide. It’s all part of the fun when you take a train in Japan, offering experiences, cities and views that you cannot get anywhere else. Perhaps it is no surprise that rail is so popular in the Land of the Rising Sun.