The Joy of Japanese Trains

During out trip we traveled from Tokyo to Takayama (a small city in the Japanese Alps), to Kyoto and back to Tokyo. We did this via Japanese Railways, and the travel itself was a pleasure.

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Judy and I have always been partial to trains. Her maternal grandfather, a childhood hero of hers, was a locomotive engineer on the Union Pacific.

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Japan has an extensive network of high speed rail – the Shinkansen. It’s about 320 miles from Tokyo to Kyoto, and with the Shinkansen you can make the trip in two hours and twenty minutes.

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Big city train stations can be vast and intimidating. However, all we had to do was stand still and look baffled, and someone was guaranteed to ask if we needed help. They would typically find the platform we needed and either point us in the right direction or walk us to where we had to go.

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We loved watching the countryside roll by from the train cars.

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UPDATE: Judy wanted me to add this picture of Mt. Fuji, seen from our train window on a very cloudy day.

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And the train cars themselves were quite comfortable.

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Not to mention extremely clean. We noticed that trains pulling into a station were often met with crews of cleaners – women in pink uniforms, men in blue – who would rush in and spiff the interiors before the next load of passengers got on.

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A rather elaborate etiquette was observed on the trains. Crew members would bow to the engineer. And a crew member walking through a passenger car would, before moving on to the next car, turn and bow to the passengers. It seemed a little excessive to me, but then again it’s not my country.

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Perhaps nothing about this seems remarkable to Europeans. For me, though, it is a painful reminder of how backward our railway system is in the USA.

President Obama proposed building a number of high speed rail lines in the first year of his administration. The proposal was largely sabotaged by the Republicans – partly because they were against anything he was for, and partly because some people consider trains to be somehow anti-American. Real Americans drive cars, after all. Such a perversely wasted opportunity.

62 Comments on “The Joy of Japanese Trains

  1. I support trains completely. I’m clueless why the U.S. doesn’t have more rails.

    I actually like the idea of bowing out of courtesy on the Japanese trains and from what you wrote the Japanese seems so helpful.

    Instead of adding trains that went THROUGH the city with multiple stops, the City of Austin thought it would solve traffic issues with toll roads and bicycle lanes. In my opinion, this failed miserably. Austin is just too hot (6-7 months out of the year) and the roads are too congested to make biking worth it. I refuse to drive the toll roads because of the cost.

    • I was just in Austin, and the car rental agent gave us very sharp warnings not to accidentally get on a toll road! I hate, Hate, HATE the idea of a two class urban road system. (Fortunately, where we were going, there wasn’t much risk of getting onto the toll roads, and we had no trouble.)

      Trains are so wonderful – we got around in England and France and Japan quite handily. The U.S. is becoming more and more backward, in this case due to the deliberate obstructionism of various Republican governors.

      • I agree completely. I’m not entirely against biking. It’s just that Austin isn’t set up for it. Two professors I worked with both biked to work. Both of them got hit by cars, but fortunately neither one was seriously injured.

  2. Everyone moans about the train systems in Europe, but they are actually not bad compared to some parts of the world. Japan is probably the creme de la creme! I think the ‘etiquette’ is nice, and although superficial it at least gives the impression of politeness and respect!

  3. I love trains too, Jason and liked your photos from train car window. Mine go unclear sometimes and yours are in focus, well done. The traditions are different you’re right, it should be strange to see someone bowed in the train here.

  4. Interesting post, Jason. Those trains look a bit like planes.
    When I returned from a business trip to Japan, years ago, I found myself bowing to everyone here. It took me a while to get out of it, partly because bowing was not unfamiliar to me, and I had taken to the deeper bowing quickly in the Japanese workplace, on the streets etc. I think it’s a civilised way of showing respect to elders in particular.

  5. Japan has never been on my list of places I’d like to visit but your posts are changing my mind. It’s fascinating to see the country through your eyes. You and Judy should be getting commission from the Japan Tourist Board! In a world where respect and grace are sadly rare in public life, I like the idea of this train etiquette.

  6. I would certainly take a train if there was one that went to where I needed to go. I have taken the train to Chicago. I have to drive an hour and a half to get to the train station. If there was a train station in our little town I would go more often. It is very nice to sit back and let the train do the driving. The Japanese trains look very sleek and modern. The train I rode on is seemed very old. I still liked being transported into the big city.

  7. Very interesting post. Were you able to take photos of the interior of the trains? I would certainly use a train for most of my transportation if we had such nice ones here in the U.S. Think of all the traffic congestion, air pollution and unnecessary roads we could clear up. I love the look of the trains too – to them they are normal but to me they seem very futuristic. As others have stated, I also like the good manners shown. We could certainly use more that publicly here.

    I too was wondering how the outside shots were so clear at such a speed. My guess is Judy took the photos 🙂

  8. Yes, let’s hear it for trains! And you’re so right about the we-don’t-need-no-stinking-trains attitude that is far too prevalent in this country. So many reasons to have a speedy, efficient system that goes coast to coast. Unfortunately, we won’t be getting them anytime soon.

  9. Jason, count yourself lucky that you live in a city with public transportation. I love visiting Chicago. My husband’s aunt did not get a driver’s license until she was 65 and retired to the suburbs of Chicago where trains did not run (Calumet City). My father-in-law worked on the trains is Chicago. In Detroit we are just getting a short piece of rail downtown and the bus system stinks. Old fools still drive their cars around like they are in a London fog. Don’t get me started.

    • Our transit could be better, but I guess we should be grateful for what we have. The Metra gets downtown in 20 minutes, but the L can take a good hour from where we live.

  10. I agree it’s a shame that America doesn’t have a good rail system anymore. Some relatives of ours took a train from Chicago to Oregon a few years ago–I don’t remember the name of the line–and just loved it. It seems like it would be just a great way to enjoy all the beautiful scenery without the hassle of driving.

  11. Well-said. I get so upset by how the Republicans keep sabotaging our country. The metra in Chicago is an increasingly painful experience. I like the courtesy the Japanese show. It may seem excessive, but compared to how conductors on the metra conduct themselves, I’d love to see some courtesy!!!
    Your photos are beautiful. What a treat to get a glimpse of the the Japans countryside.

  12. I can appreciate the bowing idea too from afar, although I suppose after a while it seems routine and therefore excessive. I Love trains. And when they’re quiet and clean, what’s not to like. Beautiful shots of the countryside. I can only imagine looking through clean windows after riding the Metra.

  13. The kindness of strangers really shines when traveling. I’m wowed by the futuristic trains…afraid they won’t be coming soon to a railway near us. We do have some pretty cool transit trains in Portland though.

    • Strangers in train stations were remarkably kind. I missed the trains in Portland. I’ll have to give them a try next time we are there. By the way, I suspect my comments are still ending up in your spam folder.

  14. I can’t imagine going that fast on a train but I’d love to try.
    Since big oil pulls the strings on the republican side of congress why would they ever vote against gas guzzling cars? They’ll never vote for any form of clean energy.

  15. Thank you so much for these posts on Japan. They are thoroughly enjoyable. You and Judy are quite the intrepid travelers! (I hope a certain *ahem* president does not read about the bowing or he will want the same. Oy.)

  16. Oh, I love trains, too! It’s fun to see the countryside and the city landscapes in your photos. It does look like everything is very clean there. I have mixed feelings about major train line expansion across the U.S. On the one hand, it probably means each person would leave a smaller carbon footprint. But I’m not sure I would like to see pristine countryside crisscrossed with rail lines. I mean we have them now, but not to the extent that we would need for major commuter rail. It is weird, though, that Madison has no commuter rail and that it’s impossible to take a train from Madison to Chicago. My kids have, at times, caught trains out of Columbus, but it seems like Madison should have a limited commuter rail line.

    • There were funds for high speed rail from Chicago via Milwaukee and Madison to the Twin Cities, but the governor of Wisconsin said is wasn’t needed. Since our son is in St Paul, we are particularly sorry this isn’t being built. I imagine it would mostly go along current highway paths, but who knows.

    • Building new rail lines doesn’t bother me, I think we’re losing a lot more countryside to new roads. Madison should have a commuter rail – it should be the midway stop between Chicago and the Twin Cities.

  17. We would love to have trains like this in Australia…..Paul and I are always amazed when we hop on trains in Europe and they take us seamlessly from city to city. (and country to country!) The speed of most trains in Australia are just ahead of a horse and buggy …..
    One of our daughters visited Japan and commented on the helpful and courteous nature of the people.

      • As with the US, road is still the main way to travel….far too much freight is transported across vast distances instead of improving train systems. We do have good local airlines, and perhaps because we have a smallish population we can’t seem to get a good train system in place…more is the pity!

  18. How fun! I’ve enjoyed traveling on Amtrak before, but I wish we would upgrade our rail system as those overseas are far superior. I’ve only flown through Japan and caught a connecting flight in Tokyo, but I was very impressed. Our flight coming in was late and we had only five minutes to catch our other flight. The staff worked so efficiently and courteously to get us to our new gate. I thought our luggage wouldn’t make it, but it did. (It didn’t make it through Chicago, however, even though we had much longer before making our connecting flight – probably because they were busy stealing stuff out of our luggage.)

  19. I’m so glad Jason added the picture of Mt Fuji! When I took the photo, I wasn’t at all sure it was Mt Fuji, what with the clouds and the speed of the train, and it didn’t seem quite magnificent enough. Later I showed the photo to my clients and they assured me that it was Fuji. One of them is an excellent photographer who showed us stunning photos he had made of Fuji at sunset. Mt Fuji is iconic in Japan in the way that the Statue of Liberty is here, with multiple layers of meaning tied to national values.

  20. I, too, am a lover of trains and always use them when I’m in Europe. I’ve even taken cross-country train trips in the U.S., but it’s a challenge and definitely not speedy. The best part of travel on Amtrak is the institution of the ‘quiet car’ — no loud conversations, cell phones, or music allowed. During the Republican primaries, when Chris Christie was traveling from New England back to New Jersey on the train, took a seat (I think unknowingly) in the quiet car and started having a loud cell-phone conversation, the other passengers quickly sorted him out!

  21. There’s no way I could survive in the US without a car but in Europe it was so easy. They have so many people in such a small space and it’s so cheap!! I just don’t think there’s enough people in the US to build a ton of railways. Those Japanese trains are so pointy though oh my god

  22. Hey I’m going to Tokyo next month. How much did your train tickets cost you? Reading some stuff online about various passes but I’m so confused whether to buy one or not!

    • The tickets are fairly expensive, but we did not have a pass. They don’t make the passes easy to get, but I think it’s worth making the effort to get hold of one.

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