Wednesday, 20 April 2016

JAPAN - Okinawa

After a short prelude in Tokyo (see First Impressions here) I started my south-to-north trip in the country's southernmost city, Naha, on the island of Okinawa. Primarily a tourist destination, unfortunately you don't see much of the seaside while in the city. But my visit was not meant to be a vacation, but a mission to get some nice photos for our series "Metros & Trams in Japan" [PS.: Naha was included in volume 2, which was released in March 2017!].

Wuppertal-style alignment just north of Asahibashi

The day I arrived (18 April) as well as the following morning were quite cloudy with a few sunny spots, but with a 10-minute headway these were often not long enough for nice photos. But in the afternoon it cleared up more and more and in the end I got my share of blue-sky pictures to show Naha's monorail line ("Yuirail") from its best side.

Route between Asahibashi and Tsubogawa

As there is not much description of the line on Wikipedia either, I will add a little bit more than just personal impressions. To start with, the line is a victim of its own success. On my way to the airport this morning (20 April) I could experience a proper rush hour, and you don't need too many passengers to fill a 2-car train. Luckily, there are more trains during rush hour, but still, I hardly got onto the train with my luggage, and on the way I saw some tourists which were left behind. I hope they realised that you'd better queue orderly to make sure you'll be the first to board the next train. Yes, like in Tokyo, people do queue outside the doors, which, however, adds to the congestion as the platforms are not really wide enough for four rows of queues form either side. So, while the overall impression is quite good, the system is undersized. The 2-car trains should urgently be extended with a middle car. While technically this shouldn't be a problem, I think it is more a logistic issue, as virtually all of the cars need to be rebuilt at the same time, while also the platform gates are adjusted. This may take the entire system out of service for a certain time. The platforms are long enough to take another carriage, so I assume that longer trains had been taken into account. Another problem with the otherwise quite nice Hitachi trains are the narrow doors, nothing like what you would find on a normal metro train nowadays, just about one metre wide. And there are only two doors in each carriage, rather at the end, so no one likes moving inside the aisle on a crowded train as it is always a hassle to get to the door if you want to get off at a less busy station.

Full train on leaving Airport station

Continuing with the trains, there is only longitudinal seating, with seats quite low and not much of a backrest, so again for me, a tall European, getting up from these seats may be a challenge. If you remain standing, you should not be to sensitive to air-conditioning, because that will blow strongly into your neck. Just at either end of the train, there are four transverse seats which allow you to look out the front window through the rather large driver's cab. These seats are virtually always taken:

Popular front seats

Taking pictures or filming out the front window, however, is difficult, because you have two windows more than a metre apart from each other, and then the front window is divided into three sections and strongly curved. You can, however, observe the driver with their somewhat funny Japanese routine of dispatching themselves. At all stations they have to get up and look out of the window, all movements made in a strict discipline and including all sorts of arm dancing and pointing at various objects before moving on. You can also see that they manually adjust the speed, with the speed limit (max. 65 km/h on straight sections) being set by an ATP system. The ride is rather smooth and despite the excessive dispatching, the journey feels fluid and not a crawl. The train doesn't bump or wobble or shake, the comfort is comparable to a normal metro train. So for a monorail, it is the best I have experienced and similar to Seattle's, as opposed to the crap-train in Las Vegas or the crawler in Moscow. The straddle beams that the train runs on are generally made of concrete, just a few bridges are steel structure painted white. At either end of the line, normally only the departing side is used, i.e. the trains switch from one beam to the other as they enter the station. I'm not quite sure whether there is a possibility to switch beams along the route. The depot is located quite near the Airport terminus and accessible from that station only.

High-rising viaduct on approach to Naha City Hospital station

So, this single line, which is almost 13 km long and has 15 numbered stations, links the airport with the city centre (Kencho-mae/Prefectural Office being the busiest station) and then continues on a rather steep route up to some residential areas. Many tourists will use the line to the upper terminus which is a short walk from Shuri Castle, the city's main tourist attraction. From the entire route you can enjoy lovely views of the city as the viaduct is pretty high in most places, the highest point above street level is, I'd say, just before Naha City Hospital station (some stations have adopted a translated English name recently, although this has not yet been implemented everywhere). Such an elevated structure is never beautiful, but it blends in well with the city, which itself is not a marvel, but a mix of small and high buildings without any architectural appeal. With no emergency paths, the structure basically consists of mostly single T-shaped pillars and the two beams, so it is quite transparent.

Inbound train arriving at Furujima

The stations all have a similar basic layout. From the outside they look like rather massive structures, quite striking that the pillars are able to carry this structure. Usually from either side of the road, a lift, an escalator and a set of stairs can be used to reach the mezzanine level, which acts as a footbridge over the road. At some stations, elevated walkways lead directly to nearby buildings. Ticket gates are similar to those in Tokyo, i.e. they are often open. If you use a printed ticket, this carries a QR-code which you need to scan at the gate. Alternatively, IC cards are available too. I haven't really checked whether the Tokyo PASMO card would work, but I'd assume so. Upon arrival, I got a 2-day pass (1200 Yen - 10 EUR) which is actually good for 48 hours, which was perfect for my stay. Next to the ticket gates there is always a station clerk who seems to thank everybody personally for scanning their tickets. In Berlin, bus drivers don't even nod although they are supposed to check your ticket. Once inside the paid area, there is a wide vestibule as well as toilets, again all in good shape and free to use! One lift and one escalator go up to the platform(s), and there are one or two sets of stairs, too. I think most stations have an island platform, but some have side platforms. At stations with island platforms, the train kind of hangs outside the station, and especially in the centre, where the line follows a canal, it reminded me of the Wuppertal Schwebebahn. The platforms are separate from the train by half-high gates. Unfortunately the end section of each platform is enclosed by glass (the stations still get rather draughty), but this glass has a very fine grid, so it is impossible to take a picture through them. At stations with side platforms you can get nice shots with the train coming in on the other side or stopping on the other side, but don't lean too much over the gates as the train on your side may just be arriving. 

One of several stations with side platforms: Omoromachi

Unfortunately, there are no indicators showing the minutes remaining, but you can normally hear a Japanese announcement before the train enters. Inside the train, the stops are accoustically announced in Japanese and English ("Now arriving - Omoromachi"). 

Typical station with island platform: Akamine

The stations don't have much individual design, besides a small wall mosaic in the vestibule, but different colours are used in different stations for signage, which is quite unusual, as signage is normally standardised or reflects the line colour. Here, the colour, however, is not prominent enough to make it a distintice feature, and the same colour reappears in various stations. I have only now seen on one of the photos that shows a line diagram that three stations in a row use the same colour, starting with blue at the airport, as well as Akamine and Oroku, then green, then yellow, orange and red. I'm not quite sure what this is supposed to mean or how it could be helpful. The same diagram also shows the distance between stations and the required time of travel between them (the diagram above the ticket machines does not reflect these colours and shows the line in green). 

The station name is in fact hard to read from the train, as the original signs are vertical, so in a typical station you may have two signs in Japanese and two in English, but in some places I have seen that brown stickers have been added to increase the number of signs (these already carry the new translated name in the case of several stations). On the outside of the station, the name is written in large letters with an illustration of what could be a symbol of the station, but then I did not find this theme inside the station itself.

Although geographical route maps as well as a line diagram is displayed at all stations, this map is not available to take away. Instead they give you tourist information material which features some info about the monorail and what to see around stations. Inside stations there are also good and large neighbourhood maps.

Wall mosaic at Onomaya Park

The line is currently being extended with four new stations at its eastern end beyond Shuri, hopefully a train-extension programme can be finished by when this extension opens, otherwise overcrowding during peak times will become more severe. I don't know the number of trains they have right now, this morning during rush hour, at least two were standing in the depot. The current line only serves a small part of this rather extensive city, I wonder whether there are plans for any more lines; building an elevated intersection at the central Kencho-mae (Prefectural Office) station might probably even be too much of a visual impact to the otherwise not so easily irritated Japanese eye.

From here, my itinerary will continue due north, calling at all metro cities - next stop: FUKUOKA   


Yui Rail (Official Site)

Naha Monorail at UrbanRail.Net (feat. a map)


  1. Thanks for your report.

    Tickets/IC-cards: Unfortunately, the IC-cards for the Yuirail (Okica) are not integrated with the rest of Japan, so you cannot use the usual Pasmo/Suica etc cards here. Maybe at some time in the future, but integration costs money, which nobody wants to spend.

    Trains may be extended, technically that should not be a big problem. But as the system is heavy in debt, I doubt there will be money to finance it. The operations are actually profitable, but the high construction costs are a great burden and dragging down the balance sheet, mainly due to high depreciation and debt repayment. There are plenty of ideas for extensions, but Japanese politicians prefer spending money to build roads, not rails, so except for the extension now under construction nothing else is planned in the near future.

    Passenger numbers were originally expected to be around 46,000 a day, but were below 40,000 permanently until 2012 (even dropping as low as 33,000 after the financial crisis in 2008/2009). With the recent rise in tourist numbers, passenger numbers are around 45,000 a day, which is still below the exectations, but enough to fill the trains. Probably the original estimates were that more local people take it, who have less luggage and can move faster in and out of the train.

    They have 13 train sets, 11 are needed for the peak service, 2 are always back-up or under inspection. When the extension opens, 6 more train sets should be added.

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