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: