Japanese trains really are as amazing as people say they are! From the extensive network of local trains (why did we let Beeching get rid of most of ours in England?) to the high speed Shinkansen, they all run on time, are clean, comfortable and, for overseas travellers in particular, are an incredibly cost effective means of transport.
Foreign tourists are permitted to buy the JR Rail Pass (valid for 1, 2 or 3 weeks). We bought a two week pass to start after our few days in Tokyo. When one long single journey can cost as much as a week’s pass, you know it makes sense. You can also reserve seats on the Shinkansen (once in Japan), although all trains do have unreserved carriages. A useful tip: the luggage space on a shinkansen is limited, especially for large suitcases. However, if you can, reserve the rear seats in any carriage because behind these seats is a large space for luggage. There are overhead racks for small suitcases/rucksacks and there is ample legroom but you don’t really want to sit squashed with your luggage! Alternatively do what the Japanese do- send it ahead for a reasonable fee.
Another very useful tip and it also makes the subway so much more manageable is to get a prepaid subway pass. As foreigners we were entitled to buy a 3 day pass for the entire Tokyo subway (except the Yamamote Line) including a trip from Haneda airport to the centre for only 1,900¥. It certainly made us get to grips with the map below! Practice makes perfect, honest! (Actually there is also a Japanese/romaji version but this one is much more fun and tells it like it is!)
Eating is frowned upon on many trains, especially on commuter trains, as is talking on a mobile phone. (In fact, eating while walking on the street isn’t generally done. One of my students mentioned this to me as he’s seen people do it in England and thinks it most odd.) The Japanese are incredibly respectful of other people.
There are some pink ‘women only’ carriages during rush hour, due to the continuing prevalence of groping.
Talking of colourful trains, Bill dressed accordingly on some occasions!
Why is this post called sound? Eki melodies are fun jingles played each time a train enters a station. Each station has its own melody so if you are a commuter you would know you’re at the right station by the music! Apparently major stations in Tokyo such as Shibuya or Shinjuku (the busiest station in the world handling over 1 million commuters every DAY) even have different music between platforms and direction of train! Here’s a link to a selection of station music:
Talking of ears, sometimes the Shinkansen go so fast your ears pop! Top speed? 300km/h.
Another interesting thing about Japanese trains is the art of ‘train stuffing’! Busy stations used to employ ‘pushers’ or oshiya, to make sure the trains were filled to capacity. These days it seems to be the passengers who try to squeeze themselves on but sometimes station staff do the job of the oshiya. We experienced a minor version of this one morning when we erroneously thought that the train we were on was full, till more passengers squeezed themselves on. Luckily for us, and them, they were only travelling one stop!
There is a wonderful monorail in Tokyo to/from Haneda Airport which is also covered by the JR Pass (along with the Yamanote Line on the subway). So we used this to get to our hotel from the main line station when we went back to Tokyo from Onomichi on our penultimate day. They even tell you where to stand whilst you wait for the correct train.
Inside the monorail carriages it is open plan and there are even some higher ‘viewing’ seats as you glide above Tokyo:
Or some side-facing ones:
And a final tip…
Train stations are often huge terminals covering large areas of the local area with massive crowds. Work out where you are trying to get to when you arrive at the station from the many maps you’ll see and follow the signs…..exits are called gates! It took us a while to realise this when we first arrived at Asakusa Station! Alternatively, ask a helpful station worker- sometimes they even have iPads to help tourists, other times you can point at your map to ask for the best route from A to B, especially on the subway…..they know their stuff!