Travelling at the speed of a bullet

Travelling by train in Japan is simply a brilliant experience.  There’s nothing not to like.

Having blogged about Indian trains (in particular, So do Indian trains run on time?” on 7 April, 2018), I was going to pose the same question regarding Japanese trains but it wouldn’t have been a very long post.  In a word, “yes”.

We had one connecting journey where the connection time was only 2 minutes and on another journey, we had a series of 5 connections where again the connection times were all pretty tight.  In any country other than Japan, this would have been problematic, but here, there was no problem at all.

When the train is at a station, you see the guards on the platforms repeatedly checking their watches: clearly they are anxious for passengers to get on and off as quickly as possible so that these punctuality records are maintained. With this in mind, before each station, an announcement is made to say that the train will “briefly be stopping at X” (with a lot of emphasis on the word “briefly”) and advising passengers to ensure that they are ready to disembark etc.  Keeping the trains to time seems to be a collaborative effort.

However, it would be wrong to say that every single train we were on was 100% on time – disappointingly, we were on at least 2 trains that arrived about 2 minutes after their scheduled time and, even worse, once we caught sight of a train information board displaying a 4 minute delay.

L: Train information board: R: the cleaning army ready to bow to arriving passengers and then to jump on the train to do their work

The trains are also super clean (including the toilets).  When a long distance train reaches its terminus, you see an army of cleaners hovering on the platform ready to jump on and clean the carriages for the next journey which will probably only be a few minutes later.  There’s no littering and this is in spite of the fact that people eat on long distance trains and the rubbish bins aren’t particularly generous in size.  However, the etiquette in Japan in this regard is to take your rubbish home with you.  Obviously the local population is proud of their clean country and do their bit to maintain this status quo.

Beautiful bullet trains

The journeys are comfortable.  The bullet trains (shinkansens) are a joy to travel on.  They simply glide along and are very smooth indeed: unless you are staring out of the window, you would not really be able to gauge how fast you are going.  There’s lots of leg room: this is because the rows of seats are fully reversible (by clicking a lever you can spin the seats round) and the seats are arranged so that you are always travelling forward.  Imagine our surprise then when we boarded one train at Nagoya and as we pulled out of the station (on time of course), we realised that we were in fact travelling backwards; however, just before total panic set in, an announcement was made to say that the train would be reversing at the next station 20 minutes down the line.  Thank goodness for that: the end of the world was not nigh and the normal level of deep calm was quickly restored.

And travelling by train in Japan is a calm experience: unsurprisingly, everything is orderly.  People line up in prescribed spots on the platforms to board the trains; there’s no scramble for seats even in unreserved carriages; when on board, noise is kept to a minimum and the use of mobile phones is severely frowned upon.  To make yourself more comfortable, you may recline your seat but on departure, the etiquette very much is to put your seat back as you found it ready for the next passenger.  Each time a guard arrives and leaves any carriage, he or she turns and bows to the passengers.  Although we’d heard reports that there wasn’t much room for luggage, in practice, this was never an issue for us: there was ample room above the seats and on some trains there were even luggage racks at the end of the carriages although this wasn’t that common.

I guess one slight anomaly is smoking but this is a general anomaly in this country.  While smoking is quite often banned in public areas including when walking along streets, curiously it’s still possible to smoke inside in bars and restaurants and even on many trains which have dedicated smoking booths: admittedly not all trains but quite a number of them.  It’s just a bit of an oddity but what you never see is any smoking-related litter.

Ok so I like the bullet trains!

On local trains and metro lines in Tokyo, somewhat addictive jingles are played when the trains are at platforms and the doors are opened.  I’ve no idea of the purpose of these (it has to be said, slightly annoying) tunes but they are a feature of local travel in the capital.  I’d expected these trains to be particularly crowded but even at rush-hour, they were pretty manageable and no worse than London so we didn’t get to see anyone employed to shove people onto the carriages.  Again, it’s pretty orderly: there are marks on the platforms denoting where to stand and people queue up appropriately; however, once on the train, all bets are off and it’s up to you to have your wits about you if you’re going to try and score a seat.

On local trains, the seats are fixed so cannot be reversed by the journeys tend to be pretty short

As I said at the start, what’s not to like about train travel in Japan?  Even the costs can be managed as a tourist with effective use of a Japan Rail pass.  But what I don’t really understand is how it is possible for the train system to be as good as this.  After all, this is not a small country: it’s densely populated with a population of around 130 million people (over twice that of the UK’s).  How can it work so efficiently?  But increasingly, as we explore this country, I find myself with many more questions than answers: it really is a fascinating place.

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