Japan

 

Pre-Departure

A series of orderly queues form on the platform several minutes before the train is due to depart, each queue corresponding to the carriage numbers stamped on the platform floor. On the train an army of cleaners is seen running from seat to seat, cleaning, polishing and even vacuuming between the seats. They step off the train together, line up and deliver a deep bow to the waiting customers before disappearing into the station building below. The signal is given to board and the queues quickly shuffle on board and find their seats. So begins a journey on the shinkansen (bullet train). By providing a service that is reliable, comfortable and convenient Japan Railways propel millions of people up and down the spine of the country on what is widely considered the best railway system in the world. It is hard to believe that the first bullet trains began service in 1964.

 

On board the bullet train

Once on the train the quality of the service is just as impressive. A regular trolley service offers food and drinks at similar prices to the convenience stores. The immaculately dressed girl in charge of the trolley (it’s always a girl) bows upon entry to each carriage and again when leaving. The conductor (always a man) does the same. Announcements are always given in English on the shinkansen services and even on some local trains that are rarely used by foreigners.

 

Punctuality

Punctuality is taken for granted. With train drivers required to explain delays of over a minute and in some cases of over 15 seconds, if your watch suggests a late arrival at your destination it might just be time to get yourself a new watch. The phrases ‘points failures’, ‘signal problems’ and ‘insufficient driver numbers’ do not form part of the Japanese railway vocabulary. When delays do occur (on one journey our line was blocked by a landslide caused by a typhoon) a well-oiled system swings into place and you can rest assured that somehow the staff will get you to where you need to be.  As for the on-board toilet facilities, they are spotlessly clean and even after a six hour journey can be used with none of the dread associated with train loos elsewhere in the world.

 

Backpacking and Japanese trains

The rail system in Japan is set up well for the rucksack-wielding traveller. Coin lockers are available at every station and the overhead racks on the train are big enough to accommodate all but the most bulky backpacks. When leaving the train you need to have your wits about you as some minor station stops are very brief. Fortunately every station name is printed in English as well as Japanese.

 

Cost

Rail travel in Japan comes at a hefty price and a three hour journey can easily cost in excess of £100. Most visitors to Japan will get good value out of a Japan Rail pass with the cost of a one week pass pretty much the same as a return journey between Tokyo and Kyoto. Two and three week passes are available for those wishing to see more of Japan. You need to plan in advance as these rail passes can only be purchased outside of Japan.  Rail travel in Japan is a real pleasure and allows you to see every corner of a fascinating country where pretty much everywhere is off the beaten track to western folk. A word of warning however to British travellers: after travelling on the Japanese rail system for a while it may take a long time to acclimatise once again to the traumas of train travel in the UK.