Trains in Japan

Trains in Japan

Speed trains are certainly one of the symbols of Japan and its technological progress, in fact, they have been in use already for over half a century. The first high-speed trains began to run in Japan in 1964, the year the Tokyo Olympics.
It would be interesting if during the planned Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020 a new kind of “maglev” Shinkansen was available, which has been already in development for some years.


Shinkansen [新幹線]

Shinkansen (meaning something like “New Main Line”) is a bullet train reaching speed of 240-320 km / h. These trains use special, highly secure type of rails, led through tunnels and viaducts, and not shared with other types of trains. For over half a century of existence, there were no fatal accidents due to derailment or collision of these trains, despite the large number of natural disasters. During larger earthquakes, the trains automatically stop thanks to an earthquake detection system.

Shinkansens are not cheap even for the Japanese themselves, for example, students often travel by highway buses instead – Kousoku basu [高速バス], which cost roughly half the price of a speed train, or sometimes they use local trains, which of course takes longer.

At present there are three main kinds of Shinkansen services – Nozomi [のぞみ] Hikari [ひかり] and Kodama [こだま], where Nozomi is the fastest and stopping only at the major stations, while Kodama is the slowest and stopping everywhere. In certain areas, there are also services called Sakura, Mizuho or Tsubame. Journey from Nagoya to Tokyo (around 350 km distance via highway) by a highway bus would cost around 5000 to 6000 yen and lasts six hours, while the fastest Shinkansen Nozomi costs 11,000 yen (about 90 EUR) and the journey takes 1 hour 40 minutes. In 2027 when the maglev train will be in operation, journey from Nagoya to Tokyo should take just 40 minutes.

Rinia [リニア] – MagLev Shinkansen

Shinkansen using maglev technology is in Japan known as [Rinia – リニア] (Japanese pronunciation of the word “Linear”). These bullet trains are able to travel over 500 km / h. So far only one part of the first maglev track – Nagoya-Tokyo has been built, and is currently used for testing. The remaining parts are to be finished and a ready for commercial operation in 2027. However for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, one part of the track is likely to be available to the public for trial rides.

foto: Saruno Hirobano

Traveling by train in Japan

Japan, of course, does not have only speed trains, majority of commuters use local trains instead, which are air conditioned, clean, safe and accurate as well. Some lines do even announcements when the train is late only 30 seconds.

However, using local trains to travel long distances is not very convenient, despite the lower cost, such a trip takes several times longer and requires many transfers. In addition, it is often necessary to transfers between trains of different companies, and hence one has to buy tickets separately for each operator.

This is one of the reasons behind the popularity of contactless cards such as Suica or Manaca, which can be used to pay for the ride without stopping, just by “touching in/out”. These cards are valid usually only in certain parts of Japan, but in those locations can be used for all train companies, including the subway. These cards can also be used to pay in shops or vending machines at the stations.

With tourists, a so called JR Pass is popular, which includes trains by the national operator JR, some local buses, as well as Shinkansen (except the fastest – Nozomi). JR Pass can be bought only outside of Japan and is only for Japanese tourists or Japanese living permanently abroad. It is usually purchased for a specific period – for example, 7, 14, 21 days and the cost is just a fraction of the actual fare.


Train Etiquette

The journey with a Japanese train is normally quiet, also because phone calls and loud conversations are considered annoyance. Most Japanese switch their mobiles to manner mode when on trains and they pick up calls only when they have to, and if so, they usually try to quickly tell the caller that they are on the train and can not speak.

Other things NOT to do on trains in Japan include: smoking, eating, sitting on the ground, listening to music loudly, putting luggage on the seat, putting on make-up and when waiting on the platform people are expected to wait in a queue.

An exception can sometimes be the last train – shuuden [終電], which usually runs around midnight, where you can also meet people at various stages of intoxication and various decibels of noise. Nevertheless, the train travel at night is relatively smooth and safe. Worse is if one misses the last train and have to wait until morning for the first one, to pay for a cab home, or to spend the night in a hotel. An interesting option can be also spending time until morning in a manga cafe, but probably not for everyone.

The Japanese are also excellent at sleeping on trains. As soon as they are able to sit down, they can fall asleep and be completely “out” until the train arrives at their station, whene they suddenly wake up and get off as if they were all the time awake. They can also sleep in different strange or uncomfortable positions. In larger cities, it is not that common to offer your seat to an elderly or expecting woman, sometimes even if someone falls down unconscious, the other passengers prefer to ignore the incident, pretend to be asleep or busy with their phones.

In the rush hours, the trains can be quite crowded. If commuters are not able to squeeze in, “train pushers” with white gloves will come to help. Traveling with large suitcases or strollers in these times is definitely not recommended.

Overall, the trains and stations are well marked, the usual tourist spots have names in Roman letters and information in English. Traveling by train in Japan is usually quite enjoyable.