Tuesday, 7 June 2016

JAPAN - Conclusions & Travel Tips

JR rail network in Tokyo area

What you may have read in this blog during the past four weeks were just my personal impressions and, by no means, a full analysis. Hardly ever had I had the same feeling of rushing through a country, covering so many metro and metro-like systems in just one month. So while I have dealt with some in more detail, some other posts are just fragments resulting from a hurried visit. Still, I'm happy I have done this trip, and it has long been overdue for a real metro enthusiast, but in the end it was Andrew Phipps' serious proposal for a series of books about Japan which eventually made me decide to finally visit this country myself. And thanks to everybody who has been clicking into this blog and even read bits or everything. I'm glad I managed to get all posts online before being back home, as you can imagine there is still a lot of other things waiting to be done (not least the annual tax declaration).

So, here I am, finally sitting on board a British Airways Boing 777 flying to London Heathrow with a delayed departure of three hours and a missed connecting flight to Berlin.... who could imagine a better return to good old Europe after a month of all trains running exactly on time? Time for a few general conclusions after my trip and the country I have finally known. These conclusions and travel tips may be helpful to those considering a trip to Japan in the future.

Your humble author on the job in Sapporo

Travelling in Japan is probably safer than in any other country in the world, I mean crime-wise. And everybody had confirmed that to me before the trip, as I'm usually worried about which places one can go without risking any problems as an obvious foreigner. Doing metro exploration, I often get to areas other visitors may not get to, and often I feel uncomfortable taking pictures in an environment where I may not be supposed to be. But these places do not exist in Japan, you never feel a strange atmosphere in certain areas, and despite looking different and doing a weird job, no one bothers you. Most people ignored me, some looked a bit curious or astonished, but never really worried. Staff or the few security people I saw also leave you alone. The last few days in Tokyo, there were many announcements on the screens that police were on increased alert and suddenly also more vigilants were visible, but all with the typical Japanese calmness. So from the safety point-of-view, it is a paradise. Even in Berlin, I have to watch out when taking pictures in the U-Bahn stations, because there are a lot of aggressive people around, and drug dealers who don't want you to take pictures on their terrain, of course. Nothing like this occurs in Japan, at least not in their Subways, neither is vandalism or graffiti any issue.

What I had already mentioned in the first blogs (later it became normal) is that Japan is a toilet paradise. An issue one should not underestimate when male and over 50. I guess that there is a law that any station by default has to have proper toilets, just like nowadays it has to be fully accessible or requires a fire protection plan. In this respect in Europe we are third world. In Berlin, I think about none out of 190 U-Bahn stations has a toilet, and if it had one, it would be in a state you wouldn't want to use it. So on a full day of rail exploration, you'd spend several euros just on toilets you may find in major railway stations or department stores, while in Japan they are all free, clean and plenty.

I had a 3-week JR Rail Pass for some 450 EUR and that's just fantastic. You have to buy it at home, well, you order it from some online shop and you get a voucher which in major railway stations in Japan can be exchanged for the real pass. I did that in Fukuoka where I started my first intercity trip and used it all the way up to Sapporo, which with normal tickets would have cost more. But besides the intercity trips it is also good for all JR S-Bahn-type services, as JR only distinguishes between conventional lines (usually signed as "JR Line" at transfer points) and "Shinkansen", the high-speed network. But with a JR Pass you can enter both systems as often as you like, you just show your pass to the person at the manned window next to the ticket gates and walk through. The only restriction is that you can't use Nozomi and Mizuho (I have never encountered the latter category anyway), which are the fastest because they only stop in major cities. But the Nozomis only operate on the Tokyo to Osaka line and maybe beyond, where there are so many other trains to choose from, you may actually find it more relaxed to travel on a Hikari or Sakura or whatever they may be called. In fact, I never took a reserved seat (which you can without paying any extra fare), just showed up and got into the non-reserved cars without any problems (mostly cars 1-3), often they were even half empty. They have plenty of legroom, a bit like U.S. Amtrak trains, because they also turn the seats around so everybody faces forward, which, of course, needs some room, so I could mostly place my big bag next to me and still had place enough to get out of my seat. Between Osaka and Tokyo it seems that the Shinkansen headways are denser than typical Osaka Subway headways! As described in the Kyoto post, sometimes it may even be worthwhile to catch a Shinkansen on short trips as those Rapids which connect these cities on the conventional network do get very crowded at times. Things are a bit different on the Tohoku Shinkansen, north of Tokyo (surprisingly the southern and northern networks are not properly connected at Tokyo Station - maybe there is a track link - but all trains terminate on stub tracks), this route is not served so frequently and without realising I found myself on a train with all cars "reserved", although there were plenty of free seats and the conductor also assigned me a seat without any problems. From Sendai to Shin-Hakodate I took a reservation, as there was a gap of two hours between trains in the morning, and indeed, it was very full and "All-reserved" anyway. After Aomori, however, it also got half empty, on the stretch with had only opened a few weeks earlier. This includes the 53 km Seikan underwater tunnel (well, the undersea section is about half of that), which had already been in service since 1988 by conventional trains, but was now converted to dual-gauge, though no conventional passenger trains run through it anymore. The speed is therefore reduced drastically to some 150 km, but given the endless tunnels all along the Shinkansen routes, this is just another tunnel.

Rather primitive new terminus at Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto for the new JR Hokkaido Shinkansen

Talking of which, I would not recommend the Shinkansen to see the countryside. Especially on the southern routes between Fukuoka and Osaka, you can hardly see anything because of the large amount of tunnels, and many other sections have noise barriers. The best views, if you're lucky, are actually between Kyoto and Tokyo, the oldest stretch, which has fewer tunnels and even a Mt. Fuji panorama ready for you (sit on the left side) if the weather is nice. For whatever reason, the windows in the Shinkansen are rather small, you really need a window seat to see anything at all. On the other hand, it would require a lot of time if you want to cover the same distances with conventional trains, including many transfers as these trains only serve certain sections. Generally, the Shinkansen is not faster than what we know in Europe in several countries now, around 250 km/h, but as it is an isolated system, it keeps high speeds even on approaches to most stations, whereas our ICE or the French TGV mix with normal trains at least on their approaches to major stations and thus slow down much earlier. They mostly have an impressive length and even platform egde gates! Like other trains too, they always stop very accurately and station platforms therefore have clear signs indicating where which car is supposed to be.

Super Hokuto Express ready to depart from Hakodate

Except for the Super Hokuto Express from Hakodate to Sapporo (no idea why it deserves the super and express adjectives?) I haven't taken any of these regional trains, so can't say much about them. That train was o.k., as o.k. as diesel-powered trains can be. I actually had taken a reservation, but then sat in a non-reserved car because I could sit on the right side which is nicer along the long coastal route.

The mainline rail network is actually divided into various regional JR companies, but for passenger purposes all these different JR networks appear as a single network, the same is true for the Shinkansen network. No matter whether a train is operated by JR East or JR Central or whatever. In fact, the regional subdivisions are not visible in passenger information, just in Sapporo I heard something like "JR Hokkaido says thank you for travelling with us" or so. There are, however, numerous private railways, and especially in metropolitan areas also "third-sector" companies of which you never understand who is actually behind them, could be a city, a prefecture, a private railway, even JR, but generally a mix of some of these. So, while on the one hand you'll find a very dense rail network, you'll also find that this is very fragmented and something like a European "Verkehrsverbund" or joint fare system is a concept unknown and probably uncomprehended in Japan. In Europe, these fare systems were developed partly because something like the Japanese concept would be considered unfair, as a passenger generally cannot choose which rail line runs near his home and where he has to go for work. So we came up with the idea of "journeys" which can imply multiple means of transport and different operators within a certain area. Of course, it is still not all fair, because most European cities operate a zone-based system, but one could argue that nowadays you can't choose how far you need to travel to your job, so only proper global systems like that in Stockholm get close to "fair" (up there, people riding just short distances don't find this so fair because in the end many people pay a higher fare than what they might have to pay in Japan). Anyway, the Japanese systems are extremely fragmented in this respect, and if you do a bit of travel beyond the daily trip to work and back home again, it gets quite expensive, because even minimum fares of 150 Yen add up quickly. This fragmentation reaches some ridiculous extremes, from the two separate subway systems in Tokyo, to the silly 2-station "subway" in Nagoya (Kami-iida Line" or third-sector company's extensions of what are normal metro extensions in the rest of the world. Resulting from this, day passes available in most places can only be used on a rather limited network, or even just on a single line. There is no city which offers something comparable to a London Travelcard or a German Tageskarte (but don't get me wrong - I'm NOT saying that our zonal systems are ideal, in fact they are the main reason why potential occasional riders do NOT use public transport!).

So, while fares are a complete mess in Japan, paying those fares is easier than anywhere else now. You just have to get a so-called IC Card, add some value to it and you can use the same card in virtually all cities all over Japan. In this respect, we are decades behind Japan. This is especially ideal for occasional riders, because you don't have to worry anymore about fares and tickets. Just tap in and out as you travel and you should be fine. For the intensive metro enthusiat-type of user, the limited day passes are still recommended as they are cheaper in the end and won't cause trouble in case of weird travel behaviour (always remembering how I messed up my Oyster Card account in London, resulting in lots of "unresolved journeys" - in Japan, however, this wouldn't happen too often as the gates are everywhere, so you're unlikely not to tap out accordingly). If you decide to get paper tickets (of the tiny Paris RATP size), instead, and if you want to keep them, exit through a manned gate and ask to have it stamped (validated), otherwise the ticket gate will swallow single tickets. And what's also very good, if you don't understand what fare you should buy, just get the cheapest and pay the rest at the "fare adjustment" machines before you exit at your destination. And in case of problems, almost all metro entrances are staffed with very friendly people willing to assist. I think just in Nagoya I saw a few stations which had certain secondary entrances which were not manned, but this is indicated at surface level.

Standardised ticket machines, here on Hiroshima's Astram Line

Ticket machines generally have an "English" button, just on the Skyrail (the kind of cable car near Hiroshima) and on the Yurikagaoka shuttle in North Chiba I did not find any. Getting day tickets from the machines is usually no hassle, but in some cities like Kyoto they were just available from the ticket window. But as they are used to tourists they will understand easily what you wish (although here you have to say "Subway only" or "Subway and Bus, please"). Generally, the use of ticket machines is easier than in Europe, because all across the country they are very similar, so once you have used one you know how they all work.

The language is a problem to some extent. On the one hand, the Japanese have made a strong effort to sign almost anything in the transport environment in English, too, and except for some weird word like "wickets" for ticket barriers in Nagoya, it is generally correct English. I wish in Germany we would provide the same service to our visitors. On the other hand, spoken English is hard to find. Even at hotel receptions, their knowledge is limited to a few sentences learned by heart, and if you ask something you are never sure whether they understand you properly as they will always respond with a smile and probably a "Thank you" or "OK". Station staff generally does not speak any English either, but if you ask for a "map" they usually understand the word and try everything to let you go with something map-like in your hands. The lack of sufficient English knowledge is the more surprising to me as we grew up in the 1970s listening to all sorts of British pop and rock music and so acquired a certain love for that language. And we knew that Japan at that time was a very important destination also for our rock stars and that Japanese kids got crazy in concerts. In fact, I couldn't help having a look at the Budokan which was then one of the major venues where many of our heroes recorded their live albums.

Availability of take-away maps very much depends on the city, the best being Tokyo and Fukuoka with plenty of special English material stocked for self-service at ticket gates; a nice brochure with a take-out map, though the text in Japanese only, can be found in most stations in Sapporo; all other cities were rather disappointing. Upon asking you may be given an A4 colour print (Osaka), a pathetic lovely photocopy in b/w in Yokohama, or nothing at all in other cities. I found a few large bus maps which include Subways, too. So it is not exactly a map collector's paradise, but my suitcase got heavy enough with the items I did collect along the way for myself and some co-collectors.

The lack of fluent verbal conversation does not, however, result in a risk of being ripped off when buying things. In fact, they are very correct and always say aloud "I take 10,000 Yen" or so in Japanese (sometimes they do it in English, so that's how I know). and count your change for you very accurately.

This brings us to general price levels: I would say, overall they are similar to those in Germany, which means visiting Japan must be quite cheap for British, Swiss or Skandinavian people. Many things are actually cheaper, like a bottle of Coca Cola from the numerous vending machines on the streets just costs 160 Yen (1.30 EUR). Many of the dishes advertised in full colour and 3D in restaurant windows are below 1000 Yen.

Typical Japanese restaurant window

Hotels in the medium category have a good standard, in fact they are so standardised that rooms are almost identical. In the 70 EUR price segment you generally get a better equipped hotel than in Germany, though without breakfast. Useless to say that for the same room in London you would probably pay 200 EUR. Maybe Tokyo and Osaka are slightly more expensive but usually there is a big choice of similar hotels around railway stations, I just wouldn't go back to the one I had in Hiroshima (Ark Hotel; quality maybe worse due to important tourism) and Nagoya (Toyoko Inn), although they were still much better than what I had for 120 EUR in London Earl's Court last year! For me, who prefers firm beds, the quality of the beds was very good compared to many hotels around the world. Free WiFi works perfectly in all hotels. With a 24-hour convencience store around everywhere you can always get some easy food or make your own breakfast if you (like me) don't fancy Japanese breakfast buffets with their (for us) rather unusual and often unidentifyable delicacies. Rooms always have kettles, though coffee and tea supply is often limited. And major cities also offer quite a few Starbucks or other coffee shops, and French-style bakeries are also quite popular. For those who don't care about hotels, there are many cheaper options too, like the Japanese box hotels, but I didn't try those.

Railway stations and even most metro stations have lockers, for a big suitcase they are 600-700 Yen (5-6 EUR) a day. Normally there seem to be plenty, but in Nagoya I had difficulties finding one as holiday season had just started. Anyone planning a trip in spring should take this into account: The first week of May is Golden Week in Japan, many people are on holiday. This may be good for big cities as overcrowding on urban trains may be less of a problem, but certain tourist destinations may get packed instead. If you go for cherry blossom, forget it, the chances to be in the right place in the right moment are low, you'd have to be in the same place over a longer period, or book last minute when it is clearly predictable how the season will go in that year. And then, I was told, the best places can get quite expensive suddenly. But still, spring and autumn are the best times to visit, and Tokyo was quite summer-like in early May, which was very nice!

Final view from Sapporo's TV Tower looking west along Odori

Final Stop: SAPPORO | Tour start: TOKYO 

Resulting from this trip, our first book will be available from late June 2016:

Thursday, 12 May 2016

JAPAN - Sapporo Subway & Streetcar

Tozai Line - Bus Center-mae station

My last stop on my extensive, but also intensive Japan metro tour was Sapporo. Travelling with a JR Rail Pass, I also came here by train from Sendai, but despite the Hokkaido Shinkansen to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto having opened only a few weeks earlier, the train journey is still long and tiring. So, I'm glad to fly on the way back to Narita, from where I'm connecting directly with a flight to London and from there to Berlin.

Namboku Line (feat. T-shaped guide-rail) - Makomanai terminus 

To finish the trip with a little extra time, I calculated a total of three days for Sapporo. The first two were rather cloudy, partly rainy and cold, so an ideal weather to stay in the Subway for a while. The Subway's most distinctive feature, if you don't know it you might not even notice it immediately - it has rubber tyres! Why? I don't know really, because all possible advantages are not quite true. It is certainly not less noisy, in fact, when trains enter and leave the stations they are much noiser than for example the Berlin U-Bahn. When you travel on the train they are also noisy, which may come from the open gangways between cars (only a few have sliding glass doors). Do they run more smoothly than metros with steelwheel-on-rail cars? Not really! They run o.k., but nothing like floating. In fact they run a bit like metrocars which have not had their wheels properly maintained, so they are not 100% round. Unlike Lausanne, for example, there are no considerable gradients which would require additional adhesion. Maybe they accelerate a bit faster than normal trains, but that would be the only advantage I have observed. And this would not be Japan if all three lines had the same specifications! The Namboku Line differs from the other two by a T-shaped central guide-rail as well as third-rail power supply, whereas the other two lines, which are newer, have a simple I-shaped guide-rail and overhead catenary. Otherwise, I think the cars have the same width, which at 3m is rather wide. All the platforms were laid out for much longer trains, though, but now only 6-car and 7-car trains are in service on the Namboku and Tozai Lines, respectively, and just 4-car trains on the Toho Line. 

Original Subway test car on display under metro viaduct

By the way, at Jieitai-mae on the Namboku Line, there is a kind of museum under the metro viaduct; it was closed when I was there, but you can actually see many exhibits like old trams and the original metro prototype cars from the street.

At Odori in the heart of the city, the Namboku and Tozai Lines, both opened in the 1970s, form a proper cross-shaped interchange with the Tozai Line and its island platform on the lower level, and separate escalators and stairs leading to the respective side platforms of the Namboku Line above. The Toho Line, however, feels like an improvised add-on to the original system. With the grid layout of the city, it was built two blocks east and feels like the undesired little brother. While at Odori, the long corridor is rather lively, that at Sapporo station was pretty deserted when I walked through during late morning. The corridor as such is very wide, divided into three parallel sections, of which the central one is within the paid area. Being less busy than the older lines, the Toho Line has not yet been equipped with platform gates, instead, the short trains still have a conductor in the rear cabin! The conductor not just stretches his head out of the window, but keeps standing with the door open when the train departs and only closes it when it is past the boarding section of the exaggeratedly long platforms. The unused platform sections on all three lines are fully tiled, but more or less fenced off, although without any signs that you are not allowed to enter this area. So with these long platforms, a leaning-over-the-platform-gate photo is possible in almost all stations.

Toho Line - Motomachi - rear cabin conductor

Toho Line - Sakaemachi - excessive platform length

What distinguishes the Toho Line positively from the other two lines are its proper next-train indicators, the same you would find in most Japanese metros. I mean they don't show the minutes left for the next train, but the departure time plus a graphical indication where the next train currently is (funnily, this is sometimes translated into English text like "The next train is now two stations away from this station" or something like this, can't remember exactly - and often these messages are interrupted). 

The older lines, however, do have some electronic indicators, but there was generally only some Japanese text running through. At termini where trains stay in the platform and thus depart from either side, there are no signs which side the next train leaves. One train may have just arrived when you come down the escalator and the other may be about to leave, so you may have to wait for 8 minutes because you made the wrong guess. And with no minutes shown before departure, you'd always need a watch to compare the real time with the announced departure time (sometimes there is a clock visible, but often it isn't!).

Typical line panel on Toho Line

Signage is also much better on the Toho Line: on the walls behind the tracks there is a huge line panel with blue arrows indicating the direction. On the older lines, I missed global-standard line diagrams as soon as you come down to the platform to reassure you choose the right train. There are just signs above the platforms saying "For Odori, Sapporo, Asabu" (I think this is something we could copy from Japanese metros, that also major points are always included, or "Asabu via Odori & Sapporo").

Inside the trains, line information is rather modern, with two types, one a simple electronic display, the other a full screen with constantly changing information:

Modern in-train monitors with changing languages

Not really appealing enclosed viaduct through southern districts

Another special feature of the Sapporo Subway is, of course, the enclosed viaduct along the southern Namboku Line. I can understand the snow argument, but that's about it. The noise perceivable from street level is not less than on other metros with open viaducts, in fact I would say that for example Vienna's U-Bahn is less audible when gliding over viaducts. Inside the stations the noise is much too loud anyway, and besides that, the train makes the entire station tremble, as if a convoy of heavy lorries was crossing a bridge. And from the outside, it simply looks ugly! Similar solutions, for example in Prague, are much more appealing.

 Namboku Line - Kita sanju-jo station (some stations with side platforms have connecting underpasses between the platforms)

Regarding architecture and design, the stations are o.k., nothing to get excited about, but not horrible either, standard Japanese functional style without any special highlights. Although opened over a period of almost 30 years (1971-1999) you can't tell the difference which station is older and which is newer. The most common element to many stations is the use of small tiles for wall-cladding, mostly in inconspicuous brownish or yellowish tones, but some with a nice strong dark-green: 

Tozai Line - Nijuyonken station

On the orange Tozai Line, many stations feature wall panels with images associated with Sapporo - unfortunately, the same images are repeated every few metres and in every station:

Tozai Line - Nishi juhat-chome - lovely, though repetitive motifs

The weakest point of the entire system are certainly the entrances. Most are hidden somewhere in buildings, and many are hardly visible because the logo disappears in a mass of other signs. Graphically the 4-colour 'ST' logo is not bad as a company logo, but it is not suitable as a Subway logo. On many signs, the colours have paled out, and the letters are much too thin to be seen from a distance. 

Sakaemachi - hardly visible entrance sign

A logo should be visible from several hundred metres away so you know which way to head for the next station. I love those cities where the metro logo is actually in the middle of a road intersection. When I'm in a city unfamiliar to me, I often use the metro entrances as points of orientation. Which brings us to another weak point in Sapporo: Although some entrances apparently (I haven't double-checked with a bilingual map) show the station name in big signs in Japanese, there is nothing in "global script". Sapporo was once an Olympic City, but not even the Makomanei station has an English name sign on the outside. Also inside the stations, English is used much less than in other cities.

Makomanai station without any English signs 

While JR East is just beginning to introduced line codes and station numbers in the Tokyo area, rail stations in Hokkaido are already coded. But strangely, this has not been done in coordination with the Sapporo Subway, so H01 to H14 stands for the stations on the Sapporo Subway Toho Line, but also for the JR lines east of Sapporo station towards Chitose (I don't understand anyway what their letters refer to, because only H02-H04 would correspond to the 'Hakodate Line'). There is, of course, no proper fare integration between Subway and JR. In fact, not even the physical integration is too good - at Sapporo station, the respective Subway stations are one block further south than where they should be.

 Northbound low-floor tram (rear shot) on new section


Sapporo's single Streetcar line became a proper circular line only in Dec. 2015, prior to that it had two stub ends which were only some 450 m from each other. The new stretch looks nice, instead of the tracks in the middle of the road on marked-off lanes, they were laid along the curbside, which allowed for the integration of the only intermediate stop on the pavement, and with rather stylish shelters:

Southbound stop at Tanuki-koji on new section

The former stubs were rebuilt, the one at Nishi-yon-chome, which is one block south from the Odori Subway intersection, has two separate platforms on either side of the corner, whereas the former southern terminus at Susukino remained in the same place for both directions, but now has two tracks:

Former Susukino terminus

Despite this recent effort to modernise the system, with a couple of new low-floor trams, the Sapporo Streetcar still leaves a pathetic impression, mostly because it is extremely slow. Too many traffic lights and usually the stops being placed before the intersections, which causes too long waiting times. Most of the trams are very old, could run as heritage trams for tourists, but a modern mass transit system has other requirements. Again, you have to get on at the rear and get off at the front paying the paybox next to the driver (flat fare of 170 Yen, no day tickets on weekdays, just on weekends! IC cards are accepted), but when the tram gets full, this is very unpleasant if you have to squeeze through to get out. And unfortunately people up here are no better than in Tokyo, they just stand there making no effort to get out of your way, you really have to kick or push them. I sometimes feel I should throw their mobile phone to the ground, what a plague! Luckily they are not supposed to use it for talking with someone, would even be worse, but at least they might lift up their heads and look a bit what's happening around them.

The platforms are again extremely narrow, in Europe we would consider them too dangerous. If there are several people waiting to get on, they fill the entire platform, so those who want to get off, can't, because at the same time they would have to queue to get off the platform as the traffic light is probably red to cross the street immediately, and as the Japanese are not allowed to and therefore won't do it, they'll stand there waiting for a green light although there is no car in sight anywhere.... Most of them wouldn't see the green light anyway, because they are still staring at their mobile device, and therefore the traffic light, when it switches to green, makes a loud noise to tell them that now they can cross. Luckily car drivers are very respectful in Japan, so passengers won't be run over when crossing the street with their eyes still fascinated by what's going on on their mini screens.

So while all this seems to be a survivor of times gone by, the narrow platforms feature very modern screens, which actually display in real time where each tram is at the moment - and what's even better, it shows you where the low-floor cars are: 

Enlarge to spot the only low-floor car shown (the other had disappeared from the screen)

Today, two of them were operating on the inner loop, i.e. the anti-clockwise circle. I saw another one standing in the depot, so there should be at least three of them, but I'm not sure and Wikipedia doesn't have any info on rolling stock on the Sapporo Streetcar page. About half of the rest belongs to two different generations, most of the old ones are covered with full adverts, and the second generation mostly boasts a green livery: 

As I was primarily trying to get good photos of the new low-floor trams, I didn't actually get a chance to ride them. I wonder what they are like on what looked like rather worn-out track. But with the purchase of the new trams and the closure of the gap in the city centre, obviously a decision had been made to keep the Streetcar alive. But then really more improvements need to be made. In the course of a stop upgrade, these should be generally relocated after the traffic lights so the trams can flow with traffic. Like everywhere in Japan (and in Australia) I have observed that traffic light cycles are extremely long compared to typical European cities. Shortening these would already increase the overall (at least perceived) speed. And where necessary, the trams need to be given priority or at least let them preempt the traffic light so it stays on green until they have passed the junction.

Sapporo was modelled after American cities and therefore has a grid layout in the city centre. I guess, following the American example, Sapporo could do with a Downtown Circulator, taking the Streetcar at least to the railway station, the TV Tower, etc. This could be operated as a vintage line while the current system deserves some more modern rolling stock.

Previous stop: SENDAI | Go to the beginning of my Japan Tour: TOKYO Part 1

Or read my general Conclusions & Travel Tips


Wednesday, 11 May 2016

JAPAN - Sendai Subway

Westbound Tozai Line train crossing the Hirose River

Sendai, just like Sapporo, was initially meant to be in the first of a 2-volume series about Japan, and this city somehow influenced our publication schedule as only a few months ago, they opened their second metro line, which for the foreseeable future will also remain the last completely new line to open in Japan. We thought that this opening would therefore be an ideal time to start with this series of books. As my co-author Andrew Phipps had just recently been there, I put my travel dates in spring 2016 so I would be able to cover the new Tozai Line. Later, I decided that we'd split the series into three volumes instead, and so Sendai will be part of the "North & Centre" volume in 2017, leaving more space for the numerous rail systems in the Tokyo area in the first volume (June 2016).

I calculated a full day for photographing in Sendai, and that should be enough, as besides the two Sendai Subway lines and some JR services there is nothing around here. The first thing you notice in Sendai is its Subway logo which sits on top of all entrances or is attached to buildings. For Austrians like me or Germans, the combination of two capital S's always evokes other associations, but that's what Sendai Subway suggests. I took a quick stroll through the awakening city centre when the extensive shopping galleries were just opening - by the way, unlike Osaka (Umeda), passengers are mostly delivered to a network of elevated walkways rather than underground shopping malls when they leave the railway station. I then entered the N09 station, i.e. Hirose-dori on the older Namboku Line (here you can sometimes also read Nanboku) and got my day pass easily from the ticket machine. Right next to these, I was surprised by a huge vaulted mural depicting mythological figures:

 Hirose-dori station on Namboku Line 

I took the next southbound train to check out the interchange at Sendai station between the two lines. The Tozai Line was signed well enough, but I was surprised that I was sent upstairs to the mezzanine, then along a long corridor to escalators which led me down to the end of the Tozai platform. So apparently, despite being located one station basically on top of the other in a + shape, there is no direct connection between the two platform levels. It may be possible via the lift, though, I'll have to have a closer look at the station layout map which was available at many Subway stations. Later I realised that Sendai station on the Namboku Line, i.e. N10, is actually the nicest station on that line, with a green indirectly illuminated vaulted ceiling along the middle of the island platform. I wonder whether this was an enhancement made in the course of the construction of the new Tozai Line which features similar design elements:

Namboku Line platform at Sendai station

After having visited almost all metros of all different technologies (only Sapporo left), I was quite positively surprised by the design of the new Tozai Line. All stations have some appealing elements, in most cases it is a special ceiling structure using indirect illumination, but also varying types of wall cladding and in some cases stylish murals in the intermediate level. So while all other underground stations all over Japan were rather functional, though still quite pleasant places, here for the first time I had the feeling that someone has actually given a special consideration to station design: 

Yagiyama Zoological Park - western terminus of the Tozai Line

A feature unique to Sendai, which had been in use on the Namboku Line, has also been implemented on the Tozai Line, i.e. a different colour for gates and station signs depending on the direction of the train. So all westbound platform edges are green, those east are orange; the line colour is light-blue. I wonder whether those colours were chosen at random or whether they mean anything intuitively to the locals. Especially on the western leg, the line runs through rather hilly terrain, so International Center station lies just below the surface right after the bridge, while other stations lie as deep as level -5. The underground stations are well-ventilated, in fact almost too cold to hang around for a while, and to make them less spooky, there is modern classical music (which can easily get on one's nerves...). As not many people from overseas will have had a chance to see this line yet, here some examples of various stations from west to east:

 T01 Yagiyama Zoological Park - western terminus of the Tozai Line
 T02 Abayama - serving the university
 T03 Kawauchi
 T07 Sendai
 T07 Sendai
 T08 Miyagino-dori
 T10 Yakushido
 T12 Rokuchonome
 T13 Arai 

Just after noon you can get quite nice shots from the station square above with the trains entering or leaving International Center station. Otherwise only Sendai (T07) station allows the typical "leaning over the platform gates" shot of a train, as most other platforms are just long enough for a 4-car train (though there is an unfinished platform section behind a wall in case a fifth car needs to be added). From the outside, the trains are pretty ugly anyway... Inside they are nice, though smaller than those on the Namboku Line, as like in Fukuoka or Kobe, this is once again a linear-motor metro line with a smaller profile. So, besides Osaka and Tokyo, there are a total of three cities in Japan, which have just two metro lines, but these two each use different technology. I wonder if all calculations were done properly? Usually you reduce costs by having a larger system with a single technology, by sharing depots, maintenance staff, etc.

Inside a Tozai Line car

Right now, it does not seem that the Tozai Line will need a fifth car soon. Besides a few students going and coming from the University at Aobayama station, the trains were barely used during noon. Like the Namboku Line, the Tozai Line operates every 7-8 minutes during off-peak hours. At either end of the line, buses are supposed to connect, but there was hardly any movement visible. The Arai terminus near the line's depot lies in a rather undeveloped area, although some housing construction was visible. But all in all, I wondered whether a full-scale metro (well, it's a down-scaled metro anyway) was needed here, or whether some sort of light rail, maybe with an underground portion through the city centre, would have done the job too. But such intermediate systems do not exist in Japan so far. On the other hand surprising that they didn't simply erect an ugly viaduct through the less densely-built up areas, but built the line mostly underground. Besides the bridge across the Hirose River next to International Center station, there is another short bridge structure, but I think it is hardly accessible through a forested area; and if you manage to get there, you'll find a sort of modern truss bridge, so no good spot for an easy train picture. Like other linear metros, the Tozai Line uses an overhead catenary. It is operated by a driver in ATO mode, but even on straight sections does not speed up too much, and in curves the max. speed was mostly marking 40 km/h, although the train ran even slower despite proper canting.

After exploring the Tozai Line in depth, I had a quick look at the JR underground route, the Senseki Line which starts in an underground station Aoba-dori right in the city centre (and this station is quite directly linked to the Namboku Line, both forming a sort of L-complex). This JR line has a total of five underground stations, all look similar, but each with a different colour. Off-peak there is a train every 15 minutes, so I took one out from Sendai to Kozurushinden and then back to Aoba-dori. 

JR underground platform at Sendai station

The western leg of the present Tozai Line is a logical continuation of this rail tunnel, so I wonder whether originally these two projects were related. Inside the JR stations there is a huge system map for the suburban services, but this was the first of its kind not to include English station names. The same was true for the service-pattern maps, although inside the trains these showed English transcriptions, too.

After this it was finally time to ride the Namboku Line properly. First I took the northern leg, came through Asahigaoka station which allows a view out into a park on the western side, and then got off at Kuromatsu to take some pictures on the open section just north of that station. In fact, the line remains on the surface almost to the northern end, and possibly some shots are possible from street level between Yaotome and Izumi-Chuo, but I was getting too tired. 

N01 Izumi-chuo - northern terminus of Namboku Line

On the Namboku Line they also use just 4-car trains, but all platforms are fully fitted out, so you can get those over-the-fence shots everywhere. Otherwise, as said before, the stations are plain and monotonous, with beige and brown tones dominating. The walls are mostly clad with beige bricks. So I picked a few as samples to take pictures and rode to the southern end, which is also a surface terminus with tracks leading to the depot. But the sun was getting too low already for good photos, so I changed at Nagamachi to take a JR train back to Sendai station and finish the day early.

Despite having just added a new metro line, there are no nice system maps available. The only thing they hand out are huge bus maps which let you recognise where the Subway runs along.

What I noticed most strongly in Sendai is the large amount of old buses. In this respect, Japan seems to be decades behind Europe and North America. High-floor buses we can hardly remember they once existed on urban lines, are rather common here, and not to think about the diesel emissions. Wasn't Tokyo once associated with climate change and how we should save the world? 

Previous stop: TOKYO | Next stop: SAPPORO


JAPAN - Tokyo Part 2.7

Rather deteriorated underground JR station at Shimbashi

Day 7 (8 May 2016)

Sunday was my last day in Tokyo, and I actually wanted to use it for a bit of city walking and sightseeing, but then I remembered that I had almost forgotten to ride the Tokyo Monorail! Well, with so many different rail systems in the whole of Greater Tokyo, this can easily happen! So, after walking across the Imperial Gardens to Tokyo Station, I went downstairs to search for Tokyo's north-south "Passante", something that's shown as Sobu-Yokosuka Line. The underground station isn't really pleasant, but at least the train which was about to depart had a nice driver, who stepped aside when I wanted to take a picture, then helped me to reassure that this was the right train and after he had driven me down to Shimbashi, just one stop, saluted me with the big train horn. A very small, but lovely gesture in a country where train drivers seem to risk their job when the show any human gesture towards trainspotters.

Frightening photographing spot at end of platform at Shimbashi on Yamanote Line

At Shimbashi I had to change to a surface line, because just these, and primarily the Yamanote Line stop at the following station, which is Hamamatsucho, where the Toyko Monorail starts. The good thing about this line is that JR Rail Passes are accepted (I saw that some of the intermediate stops have unmanned gates where you won't be able to get out and back in again with a JR Rail Pass). The Monorail begins somewhere high above the Yamanote Line tracks, the station has only a single spur, though rather wide platforms, one side for arrivals, the other for departure, with a clear system for queuing painted on the floor:

And of course, there are three types of services, express just for the airport stations, some semi-express and locals. The local trains let the faster ones overtake at Showajima, next to the depot, but the timing is very tight, so the stop is rather short. Upon departure from Hamamatsucho, the Monorail glides over the multi-track railway corridor, you can watch all sorts of trains from Yamanote to Shinkansen head north and south. At this point I actually discovered the only Yamanote prototype train, so at least I knew that it was in service and in which direction it was moving on the ring line. The Monorail offers many spots for good photos, the better ones would be in the morning as on the western side there are often high buildings which throw their shade on the route in the afternoon. 

Tokyo Monorail - end-of-platform shot at Seibijo

From the end of the narrow side platforms, many photos are also possible after noon, though. And while in many countries of the world we are confronted with stupid photographing bans or whatever trouble, the Monorail encourages photographing, at least at the International Terminal station, where big signs show you the way to the best spot at the end of the platform. As this view is towards the east, late afternoon would be the best time here. 

 Invitation to take photos of Monorail!

 View from official photo spot at Haneda International Terminal 

The station at the International Terminal is wide and clear, and the arrival platform has a direct exit to the departure hall, whereas passengers who have just arrived by plane, easy access is provided from the lower level with one escalator up to the monrail. The Monorail's two underground stations at the Domestic Terminal are quite nice and also well-integrated into the terminal building. What is a bit funny on this monorail is the strange seat arrangement, probably determined by some technical equipment or the wheels under the floor. On some vehicles there are raised seats in the middle of the car, like thrones, very weird: 

This is probably a problem with straddle-beam monorails that has been solved later, as the vehicles in Tama or Kitakyushu have normal flat floors and seats could be arranged in whatever way, though resulting in an overall higher vehicle.

To finish off this Tokyo urban rail story, I could not help myself and started to chase the new Yamanote Line train. To improve my chances to get a photo in good light, I jumped on the next clockwise train at Hamamatsucho to get to the western side of the loop, while the new train was doing its circles in the anti-clockwise direction. With a headway of 3-4 minutes, I looked out continuously to see whether the new train passed on the other track. From that moment I would be able to calculate its position, with a full circle taking about an hour, similar to Berlin's Ringbahn. I got off at Ebisu and still hadn't spotted it, so it couldn't be too long unless it had been taken out of service in the meantime. But after a couple of older trains had come through it suddenly appeared and I got the pictures I wanted. While I was concentrated on my job, I heard some clicking behind me, and when I turned round, some spontaneous photographers who had taken the chance for a shot, too, had jumped back into their train going in the opposite direction:

And finally, the new stylish prototype Yamanote Line train at Ebisu

With that job accomplished I returned to Hamamatsucho on the next train to really finish my pleasant stay in Tokyo with a visit to the Tokyo Tower and its fantastic views. Then I made my way back to Iidabashi to collect my luggage and headed for Tokyo station to get on the next possible train to Sendai.  

Go back to Tokyo Part 2.6 | Next Stop: SENDAI 


Tokyo at UrbanRail.Net (feat. all-rail map)