Wednesday, 27 April 2016

JAPAN - Hiroshima Streetcars & Astram

For any urban rail enthusiat, Hiroshima is certainly one of the highlights of a Japan tour. Here you can find the country's largest "Streetcar" system, but also a single-line metro-style guided transit system.

Evening parade of older trams at the railway station terminal

Let's start with the trams as this is what you see first when arriving in Hiroshima by train. My first impression was, it feels like Melbourne, old and new trams entering a restricted terminus one after the other and hurrying to leave again to let the next cars arrive. The terminus actually has three stub tracks, but rather short ones, dating from the period when only short trams were used. Line 5 enters the northern track (the one closest to the station building) and also accepts passengers there. Lines 1, 2 and 6, however, use the other two stubs to drop off passengers (with a mobile fare collector helping on the platform), but they pick up passengers at a point further east (where line 5 also has to pass through without stopping). With lots of tourists coming to Hiroshima especially for the atomic bomb memorial sites, this is a busy tram terminal at all times.

Paris-style livery on Hiroshima's long low-floor trams

Japanese product for lines with less demand

But before we can board a tram we need to get a ticket, and here's good news for all foreign visitors: at the information desk at the tram terminal you can get a 3-day pass for just 1000 Yen (8 EUR), while a normal day pass for the tram would cost 600 Yen. The tourist pass also includes buses and the ferry from the end of tram line 2 to the Miyajima Island, a popular tourist destination. But it does not cover JR trains or the Astram Line (see below). For normal people, the tram, which is known as Hiroden (Hiroshima Electric Railway), there is actually a flat fare within the city of 160 Yen per ride (American-style transfer tickets are handed out on exiting), just line 2 beyond Nishi-Hiroshima has an additional fare. The biggest problem with fares in Hiroshima is the way it is collected. On older trams, you are supposed to enter through the rear doors (tapping in with IC Cards, and exit at the front by showing your ticket to the driver, paying the cash fare or tapping out. The problem arises when the trams get too full, and they do. So anybody getting off at one of the intermediate stops has to squeeze through the crowds to make their way to the front and get off. A very unpleasant and actually stupid procedure, in Europe I think only known in Amsterdam. But with the honesty of the Japanese and a few random inspections it should be possible to introduce a sort of honour system so that all doors can be used to get on and off. The situation is slightly better on the new multi-articulated trams because they have a conductor at the rear, so you can choose whether to move forward or backward in order to exit.

Typical super-narrow platforms

The Melbourne feel of the system is also apparent in the tram stops, of which there are plenty, maybe too many for example on the main east-west route. Most of them have platforms, hardly any boarding from street level, but those platforms are mostly so narrow, they would be considered dangerous in other parts of the world. Hardly two people can stand next to each other, which causes some sort of congestion with passengers getting off, those getting on, and those waiting for another tram obstructing the platform anyway. Otherwise the stops have all necessary information panels, the name is written in big letters, and what's best, like on Japanese metro systems, the stops are numbered, which is quite useful for foreigners, and also helps to classify the photos. As a trunk route, M1 to M39 (M for Miyajima) corresponds to line 2, other routes carry a letter for the area they run through or to, Y for Yokogawa, etc. Most tourists could thus take a direct line 2 tram from M1 (Railway station) to M10 (Atomic Bomb Dome). There are 8 lines, and these are shown properly in different colours on the abundant maps. The line colour is also used on some next-tram indicators.

Older articulated high-floor tram mostly running on line 2

Modern colour indicators at some stops

Typical information panel at stops

Although they call the system "Streetcar" in English and although it runs on street level, it generally has its own lanes, so the trams don't get stuck in traffic jams, but still offer a rather low average speed mainly because of rather long traffic light cycles (a feature I had also observed in Australia). So although they actually travel fast where possible, they often stop for a long time, there is no traffic light preemption. The condition of the track is rather reminiscent of some Eastern European tram systems, it is still operable, but could do with a complete renewal in many places. The tram fleet has already been renewed, but you can still see some of the very old vehicles, not yet branded as a special tourist attraction, but probably soon. 

Inbound Combino at Nishi Hiroshima, end of urban section

The Siemens Combinos are mostly on line 2 mixed with older high-floor articulated trams, and they run quite smoothly on the long interurban line, which has a railway-type alignment. The other long low-floor tram is a Japanese product, although it appears to be a copy of a Paris Citadis, even the RATP corporate colours are included. Then there are shorter Piccolos, which look like Pesa trams, so quite a variety. Some of the older high-floor articulated vehicles have been refurbished and now carry a "Green Liner" logo, so they will remain in service for some time still. In addition to the air-conditioning, the trams also have blinds, which is certainly good when the sun is too strong, but which obstructs the curious visitor's view...

Rubber-tyred metro system
Besides the relatively large tram system, Hiroshima also has one metro line, the so-called Astram, which technologically is similar to the Yurikamome in Tokyo in that it is a guided transit system on rubber-tyres, but unlike Tokyo's, it is manually driven. I explored it on a Sunday afternoon, so I can't tell you much about its normal usage. When I was there, it was not too busy, with trains running every 10 minutes, and only every 20 minutes on the outer stretch. The problem with Astram is that it is not very useful for short inner-city trips, maybe a bit more since the Shin-Hakushima station was added last year as this provides interchange with the busy JR Sanyo Line (yes, this line was even busy in the outbound direction on a Sunday morning!). So JR passengers can now avoid the overcrowded trams from Hiroshima station into the city centre. Otherwise, Astram just connects the city centre to the northern suburbs, so I assume that it does get crowded in peak hours, but is not too busy during off-peak.

 Astram viaduct beyond the outer terminus

Now that I have also seen a few monorail systems, I don't really see the advantages of such a rubber-tyred train, especially when a driver is used. The ride is certainly not smoother than on monorails, rather worse, a bit like a bus running on a motorway, with gentle sections, but then also a lot of humps. But compared to, for example, the Kitakyushu Monorail, Astram's viaduct is much more substantial, i.e. construction costs must be much higher and the visual impact is much stronger, as the elevated structure is just the same you would need for a proper metro.

Funnily, the otherwise rather basic stations, are colour-coded, on line diagrams and within the station itself. What you see from the train, however, are just orange doors! This is rather absurd, as colour-coding was originally (some 100 years ago...) meant to help passengers identify their station, but this is not the case here. But it would be the easiest of all possible improvements to paint the platform screen doors outside in the same colour as inside! And while they are at it, they could choose stronger colours anyway:

Ushita - typical Astram station, here in turquoise-blue

Pink is the colour for the Hondori terminus in the city centre

The original three underground stations are not bad, each in a different colour, too, but all a bit small. The most spectacular station is certain the newly added Shin-Hakushima with its high vaulted roof (the station is located below the surface, but somehow daylight comes down to the platform). The platform edges form a V, as the tracks diverge heading north towards the ramp under the JR railway viaduct.

Shin-Hakushima, a station added in 2015 to provide interchange with JR services

The trains also boast a strong orange on the outside, inside they are a bit pale with grey upholstered longitudinal seats (some have apparently been refurbished recently), making them appear a bit old-fashioned. The four cars are interconnected, but just with a rather narrow gangway:

Farewise, Astram is one of the bizarre cases of Japanese transport systems. While a day pass for the entire tram system is just 600 Yen, that for Astram alone costs 930 Yen! But considering that a trip from end to end (18.4 km) already costs 480 Yen, it's not that bad for a real rail enthusiats... Or get on at Hondori, ride the entire line to the end and back to Kencho-mae without getting outside for a photo, you may only be charged 190 Yen!

Still in the Hiroshima area, there is a funny cable suspension railway, i.e. hauled by a continuous cable which the cabins grip on to, it climbs from JR Seno station like the wrongly-named Chiba Monorail (actually a suspension railway) to a nice residential area. Biggest problem here, the system does not accept IC Cards from other places and the ticket machine does not speak English! So I pressed the HELP button, and said "Can I buy a ticket", so they called the ticket office next to me to wake up the station clerk who had apparently been resting behind a folding screen (I could have shouted, but thought it would be unpolite), so he came out and helped me to get a 160 Yen ticket for a fun-ride up. Down, I managed to get a ticket by myself... The ride itself provides a nice view, but the technology is not convincing, shaking a lot, actually a proper aerial cable car swings more pleasantly.

Previous Stop: KITAKYUSHU | Next Stop: KOBE


Hiroden (Hiroshima Electric Railway)

Saturday, 23 April 2016

JAPAN - Kitakyushu Monorail

On the Shinkansen, Kitakyushu is only 16 minutes from Fukuoka, so I could have explored this city's monorail system easily on a daytrip, but in the end I decided for the locker option to continue straight to Hiroshima the same evening (22 April 2016).

Monorail train entering Kokura station on level +1

The bad thing about the Kitakyushu Monorail, there is no day ticket. So I had to use my PASMO stored-value ticket each time I wanted to get out and back into the system. I don't know for how long you could actually remain inside the paid area, and for example ride the whole line in both directions and get off at Heiwadori, a short walk from the railway station? Would the system understand that you only travelled between two stations? Or would it get suspicious and send you to fare adjustment? Has anyone tried? And what if you actually exit where you first entered? Anyway, to avoid problems I tap in and out as any real Japanese would do.

The good thing, you can use any of the IC cards available across the country and also add value to it. For someone who lives in Germany where each city not only has its own fare system, but also a completely different philosophy about fares and zones and subzones, using just the same card all over the country is like heaven. Especially for the occasional riders, it is so much easier, as you don't really have to worry about fares, as long as there is some credit on your card, and if not, you can always add some.

Monorail map

The monorail line initially started a few hundred metres south of the railway station, but was eventually extended, and the first station is now perfectly integrated into the railway station complex, with trains one level above the main lobby, and actually visible from there. Route diagrams are displayed in all stations, but there is no map to take away. While in other places there are always some leaflets to pick up, Kitakyushu has nothing about the monorail, it seems.

Typical entrance to monorail station, here at Tanga 

Opened in 1985, this is actually the most dated-looking of all urban rail lines I have seen in Japan so far. Especially the accesses to the stations look quite run-down, whereas the mezzanine and platform levels are o.k. Just the terminus at the railway station and the original terminus Heiwadori have an island platform, all other stations have side platforms, and though longer, stations have a similar layout to those in Naha. Here, there is mostly (or always?) also an escalator down from the platform, besides a lift and stairs, of course. Between street level and mezzanine, there is normally one up-escalator and stairs on either side of the street. One could say that the stations are almost designless, or have a very basic and plain design, somehow similar to Vienna's elevated stations, but without the elegance the line colours add to the stations in Vienna. The basic tone is cream, and walking down from the platform to the mezzanine in one station reminded me of those staircases you find in hospitals or department stores no one uses because everybody takes the lift.

Typical monorail platform, here at Kawaraguchi-Mihagino 

Jono station seen through driver's window

The lowest point of the viaduct is at Jono station, where the mezzanine is actually at street level, and this is also a good photo spot. Otherwise the viaduct is at a normal height, not excessively high, and you get a good view of the neighbourhoods the line runs through as well as of the mountains that surround the city. Taking pictures from the end of the platform is not ideal, because their is a glass wall with thin black lines on it. You can get decent shots with the train entering on the other side, but again, be careful not to be hit by the train entering in your platform. The monorail does not have platform gates, just a fence, but the area where the train doors are, is open. The train floor does not exactly match the platform height, so one of the middle doors has a gentle ramp to allow wheelchair users to get on without the help of others.

The stations have, however, one singular features, yet another system to announce when the next train will arrive (there is a basic 10-minute headway). First I was wondering what this sign was, but then understood it quite intuitively:

Next-train indicator: the next train is now approaching the previous station

With the original terminus at Heiwadori, the switches between the two beams are actually located to the south of that station. So between Tanga and Heiwadori, the trains alternate between eastern and western beam to continue into Kokura station, and then return on the same track, which somehow limits the minimum headway to what it is now. There is a layover of some 4 minutes, so with a continuous driver change as done on some metro systems, this could be reduced and thus also more trains offered if necessary. But this monorail is certainly not one of Japan's busiest urban rail lines, at least I haven't seen any train getting full, always easy to get a seat. It will certainly have its rush hour, too. Almost all trains were running with full adverts.

Regular livery vs. advert

Viaduct south of Tanga station

Viaduct near southern terminus at Kikugaoka

Movable beam section next to southern terminus at Kikugaoka (normally only the departure platform is used)

The ride of the four-car trains is decent, not too smooth, but it doesn't shake either. I assume that these are the first-generation cars, so they have been running for 30 years now. I wonder whether there are plans to replace them.

 Inbound Chikutetsu tram arriving at Chikuhu-Katsuki

As I had time, I took a JR train to Kurosaki, to see the Chikutetsu line to Nogata, this is a kind of interurban tramway running through the western parts of Kitakyushu (which has quite a large area of merged cities). It runs about every 12-15 minutes on the inner section, but suddenly I was stranded on the outer part where there is a train only every half hour during off-peak times. They have just introduced low-floor cars, making the line look more like a tram line than before. I only saw one in service, maybe it's the only one they have. Typically you have to get on through the rear door and exit by the driver who checks tickets or collects fares.

New Chikutetsu tram announced inside older vehicles

Previous stop: FUKUOKA | Next stop: HIROSHIMA


Kitakyushu Monorail (Official Site)

Kitakyushu Monorail at UrbanRail.Net (feat. map)

Thursday, 21 April 2016

JAPAN - Fukuoka Subway

I spent a day and a half (20/21 April 2016) in Fukuoka to explore its Subway and a bit of the suburban railways, too.

Compared to Tokyo, the Fukuoka Subway feels more European, especially because of the train length, with 6 cars rather similar to what I am used to. On the newer Nanakuma Line trains consist of only 4 cars. Also the level of usage is not as excessive as in Tokyo, in fact the Hakozaki Line seemed pretty empty during morning off-peak hours. And the system uses a proper logo, a white f on blue background, in italics, so in a way it suggests F for Fukuoka, but also seems to include an S for Subway.

Outbound Subway train continuing beyond Meinohama terminus

Let's start with the older lines, the Kuko (Airport) Line and the Hakozaki Line, which is in fact a branch of the first. In a Japanese fashion, the Hakozaki Line is shown as a separate line, although about every other train continues west on the Kuko Line to Nishijin or Meinohama. Some maps show a thinner blue line next to the normal orange line, which depicts quite well that it is a mixture of separate line and joint operation. Interestingly, the junction station Nakasu-Kawabata actually consists of two stations on top of each other, so the Hakozaki Line actually merges with the Kuko Line just east of Tenjin station. So transferring passengers who wish to go from the Kuko Line's eastern leg towards Kaizuka either have to go one level up (down in the opposite direction) or continue to Tenjin and change across the platform.

By the way, Subway maps are available to pick up at all stations, in a Japanese version and an English version, although the latter may not be waiting for you in all the stations. 

JR train at Hakata on Kuko Line

At the airport, the Subway station was only a very short walk from where I came out, getting a day pass for 620 Yen (Subway only) from a machine was easy. Trains run every 7 minutes during off-peak hours, and about every fourth train is a JR train that continues beyond Meinohama. With only one interoperating route, this is pretty clear here in Fukuoka. At the western end of the line, Meinohama, there are two island platforms, terminating trains seem to normally use the inbound track directly, so no reversing beyond the station. Interestingly, the indicators announce that this "train originates in this station", which is like saying "don't worry, you'll get a seat anyway", very nice. JR trains, however, use the outer tracks. If I have observed correctly, Subway trains may also continue on JR tracks. At Kaizuka, the Hakozaki Line is not interconnected with the Nishitetsu Kaizuka Line, although both lines are actually on the same level and have the same orientation, but I guess that this was not considered due to the lower demand on the outer line, where rather short trains operate less frequently, but it may be an option for the future, I assume.

Position of train on its approach to "This station"

The funniest feature I have detected in the Fukuoka Subway is the display of the position of the train on its approach. A similar service is provided in Brussels, even with several trains and their position visible. Here a small train is shown as it enters the previous station and then when it is between that and the station where you are waiting. Indicators also show which train provides a connection at Kaizuka, or that at Nakasu-Kawabata you can connect to the other line.

Station symbol with matching colour bar on Nanakuma Line

I was already familiar with the station symbols. This is a nice feature, although I wonder why it is necessary. In Mexico they said it is for people who can't read. Are there so many in Fukuoka? It will be interesting to study their origin more deeply, as some are quite obvious, but others may need some explanation. On these two lines, the colour assigned to the symbol was also used for some other station finishings, so adding a little colour to the otherwise rather sober designs. The stations are not ugly, but very functional and global style, could be in Germany in the 1980s too. They seem to have the right size, not too narrow, but not exaggeratedly spacious either. Needless to say that all are well-kept and also feature excellent toilets. Trains on these two lines look a bit dated, but probably will remain in service for a couple more years still.

The green Nanakuma Line is different in various aspects, although I don't quite understand why. They chose linear technology which is said to allow smaller tunnels, but I don't see much of a difference compared to other metros, and they chose 1435mm gauge as opposed to the typical Japanese 1067mm gauge, making the line incompatible with the rest. Without knowing its history, I would think that originally the Hakozaki Line and the Nanakuma Line were supposed to become a single line, which explains the separate stations at Nakasu-Kawabata; this would have given an X-shaped network. When the Nanakuma Line was built in the early 2000s, apparently an eastern extension towards Hakata was already considered, as the line turns sharply east just west of the current terminus (requiring trains to reverse beyond the station). So probably this intention was the reason why it was not linked up with the Hakozaki Line. Eventually this extension seems to be starting now, I saw some construction just being launched at the intermediate station near Canal City. This will partly alleviate one of the major flaws of the Fukuoka Subway system, the unacceptable interchange between the Kuko Line and the Nanakuma Line at Tenjin - you have to walk for some 500 m through an underground shopping mall. It's quite an elegant mall, though rather dark to make it look more stylish! When you come from the well-lit metro station it is like entering the real underworld... 

Quiet moment in the mall used to transfer between Kuko and Nanakuma Lines

But if you want to travel from A to B, you want to change trains as quickly and easily as possible and not find your way through a shopping centre. So the extension will at least bring people from the southwest directly to Hakata to catch a Shinkansen or allow them to change to the Kuko Line towards the airport much more easily. Anyway, if you really need to change trains at Tenjin, you have to exit through special gates, otherwise you'd be charged an extra fare:

Special gates for transferring passengers in green

The Nanakuma Line is a proper 'Green Line', I mean, the line colour is quite present, even on handrails, which made me think of Vienna's U4. Each station symbol also has a specific colour, but this is not reflected elsewhere within the station except for a colour stroke above the station name. Otherwise the stations all feature a standard design, although different materials were used for some wall cladding around staircases and escalator shafts. Just Yakuin-odori station has many animal motives on the otherwise blank platform gates to show the way to the zoo:

Nanakuma - standard station on the namesake line

This line is operated in full ATO-mode and this is more visible than elsewhere, because the driver, whose duties have been scaled down to train attendant, sits there in front of you in an open cabin, so you can watch every move he makes. At the terminus he closes the driving console, and people can actually sit in his place (which also means, that the drivers have to sit on a very basic, certainly not ergonomic seat!). 

A look over the driver's shoulders on the Nanakuma Line train

Just with one driver I observed that he kept to the same routines you can see with all Japanese train drivers, pointing in all directions, while others just pressed the door-closing button to move on. I suppose these trains were meant for driverless operation, but in the end they decided to keep the driver. They could install a separating wall, though, to give the driver a bit more privacy... The train runs smoothly, and features the best seats I have seen so far in Japan (well, they also look a bit like Berlin's S-Bahn seats...).

Inside a Nanakuma Line train

So while visual announcements are plenty and quite good, accoustic announcements in Fukuoka can get on your nerves after a while, because the lady has a rather unpleasant voice and speaks continuously. I don't know what she says, but it sounds very repetitive, and the single sentence intermingled in English is hard to grasp as it is spoken within the same monotonous monologue. It can't be the language, because I hadn't perceived it as unpleasant in other places, so it must be that voice.

By the way, Fukuoka also feels a bit American - the next-train indicators also display a message saying "If you see something suspicious, tell an official". In America, taking pictures inside a metro station is already suspicious, but I hope that in Japan they have mercy on us. Anyway, so far, no one has bothered me, everybody seems to be ignoring me, or pretend they do. However, when somebody told me that actually drivers and staff were smiling at you when they see you taking pictures, I think they were talking about Korea or China, because here every driver puts on a pokerface as if any kind of reaction would be disobeying the strict railway rules.

Older Nishitetsu rolling stock at Tenjin terminus

I also took the Nishitetsu Tenjin-Omuta Line, which heads south from Tenjin and intersects with the Nanakuma Line at Yakuin. The route is rather busy, offering local, limited express and express trains, so at Yakuin, a train stops every few minutes. The line still has lots of level crossings, but I saw that on some section they have started to put the line on a viaduct. I was a bit shocked by some rather dated stream-lined rolling stock on my way back from Futsukaichi on a limited express.

Previous stop: OKINAWA Naha Monorail | Next stop: KITAKYUSHU Monorail


Fukuoka at UrbanRail.Net (feat. map)

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 book "Metros & Trams in Japan - Vol. 3 West & South", which, however, is not planned to be released before 2018.

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)