Monday 5 July 2010

Japan by Train

Sorry, sorry about my absence since Wednesday. I had very limited access to internet and, when I did, I needed to use it for (gasp!) work. But though I wasn't posting, I was writing and taking hundreds of photos. I'm going to try to put up a few more today so you can see for yourselves. This is something I wrote on Friday....


I love trains in Japan – which is lucky, because quite a lot of my time in Japan is being spent on a train.

First of all I travelled from Tokyo to Kyoto. Apart from a glimpse of Mount Fuji, the landscape wasn’t that interesting: one urban sprawl blending with the next. (Though, to be fair, it’s more of a tidy spread than a sprawl – this is Japan, after all.) City after city, town after town, looks like an oversized lego set. There are two-storey, four-storey and ten-storey boxes, all looking like they were built from the same modular pieces, all in muted shades of grey, beige, green and brown.

What was much more interesting was seeing the train etiquette. Trains only stop for a few minutes at each station, but everyone is cued, ready to get on (car numbers are marked on the platform) and leap into action when the train arrives.

People respect trains here. The guard on the platform with the whistle bows at the train when it departs. The conductor turns and bows at the carriage when he leaves it. Nobody looked twice at me as I snapped photos of the Shinkansen (bullet train), probably because they thought I was showing due deference.

Here are the cleaning ladies ready to leap into action:

On the train one can buy very appetising looking bento boxes and there are vending machines selling all manner of exotic drinks: coffee in a can, a variety of juices, beer.

I didn’t have a picnic on the first leg of my journey because it was relatively short. I made up for that by buying a bento box at Kyoto Station for my trip to Nagasaki. Avid readers may remember my hints for lady train travellers underscored the importance of a good train picnic. This one was a beauty:

I had rice, what I thought was fish but turned out to be minced chicken, un-minced chicken with teriyaki sauce, pickled vegetables. I was supplied with a cloth to wipe my hands and chopsticks. I was also able to buy beer, fruit and ‘Kyoto manufacture’ shortbread biscuits.

When I wasn’t chomping I was reading Isabella Bird’s Unbeaten Tracks in Japan. Granted, she wrote in 1878 with the prejudices of her day (she thinks the Japanese are an ugly race – was it Bridget Jones’s mother who was always saying they were a cruel race?) but some of her observations still hold true.

My route took me through Hiroshima, which looks like a typical, modern Japanese city. It is a little odd when a place is only associated in your mind with the worst excesses of war, to hear the conductor announcing very matter-of-factly that the train is making a brief stop in Hiroshima.

From Hiroshima, the train went on from Honshu (the biggest island, where Tokyo is) to Kyushu. The scenery changes too: the towns look less prosperous, but the houses are more ideosyncratic.

I saw several baseball matches from the train – a bit surreal to see something that I had previously though of as super-American in Japan.

I’m writing this, appropriately, on another train. This is my fifth (and most likely final) train journey in Japan, on the toy-sized Shimabara Railway. (I keep humming 'Shimabara Choo-choo, won't you choo choo me home.') The train is just one long carriage, a bit like a tram and painted bright yellow.

All in all, my Japan-railing will have taken me half the length of the country, all in a great deal of comfort and with super-efficiency. (None of the trains – not one – has been so much as a minute late.)


  1. Interesting that the bento box and the cleaning ladies provide the most colour in your pictures.

  2. Was that coffee in a can? There's something that looks like a horse on the front. Is it horse in a can? Carbonated horse beverage?