The story appears on

Page A12 , A13

January 30, 2012

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature

Japan's Great Rail Pass

HER arrival is signaled by a troupe of pink ladies, standing in rigid formation, immaculately dressed down to the matching pristine-white trainers. Passengers stand in designated queues, patiently waiting, unfazed by her absence. They've been here before, and know she is dependable.

Suddenly a faint whoosh, and the majestic, long-nosed train glides by, easing to a silent standstill. The doors slide open, and in swoop the pink ladies, prancing and twirling through each carriage, pirouetting chairs, sweeping floors and seats, preparing her for a new journey. Moments later they depart, commuters and travelers shuffle in to take their seats. Never before has boarding a train been so joyful.

Japan's high-speed rail service, or shinkansen, has been performing without significant glitch since 1964. The facts speak for themselves; over 150 million passengers a year, trains every three minutes on busy lines, and if a train is over 60 seconds late an official report is logged and investigated.

Coming from a country where leaves on the line cause unprecedented delays and national embarrassment, this is an overwhelming feat. Then consider that the new E5 series will be running at top speed of 320kmph, with every major city and town accessible, and it becomes an understatement to say that traveling around Japan will be a smooth, enjoyable and glitch-free experience.

Conceived in the late 1950s, in the height of the metabolism movement that sought to organically combine the demands of modern living with population growth in a both seamless and elegant manner, the shinkansen has come to represent Japan's modernity, efficiency and class.

Connecting communities, businesses and infrastructure was an essential part of Japan's post-war recovery, but it also highlighted an ideology. Progress, Japan demonstrated, comes through fast and reliable connections. And these connections keep getting faster, more frequent and more expansive.

Purchasing the Japan Rail Pass, therefore, did not disappoint. Over the course of a week, nights were spent in Hakone (the region home to Mt Fuji), Sapporo and Otaru (on the northern island of Hokkaido), and Morioka in northern Honshu. More destinations could have been squeezed in. As the bird flies, nearly 2,000 km were covered.

Individual tickets would have amounted to well over 50,000 yen (US$652,069), the Rail Pass cost just 28,300 yen, providing practically unlimited rail travel across the nation, either in reserved seats or boarding on a whim. Pricey, yes, but undoubtedly worthwhile.

Having a Rail Pass does mean, however, that you feel compelled to use it. Tokyo to Sapporo was eight hours and 59 minutes, using four different trains. Even for the most ardent train fanatic, this is a considerable time.

Sure, the scenery was splendid, particularly the last section on Hokkaido's eastern coastline: Having passed through a 34-mile underground Seikan tunnel that links Honshu to Hokkaido beneath the Tsugaru Strait, the somewhat slower local train (still covered by the Pass) rattled alongside a picturesque bay, the waves crashing in one window, the mountains rearing up through the opposite, as a blizzard battered the carriage from all sides. But nine hours is the best part of a day, so bring a few good books.

Thankfully the passenger experience makes the hours roll by in a carefree manner. Food carts amble up and down the carriages, offering a range of meals, snack and drinks, at non-too extortionate prices.

Conversations are at a low hum, mobile phone calls are taken at either end of the carriage. The bravest may even sample the sushi lunchboxes - fear not, Japan's onboard shrimp does not require immediate vacation to the toilet. And even if it did, you would find a spotless, pleasant smelling cubicle, clean and well stocked with essentials. Finding fault was a fruitless task.

Returning to Tokyo station, a plaque reads "Product of the wisdom and effort of the Japanese people." As if to cement that, it is worth remembering that no major accidents have occurred in almost 50 years, no fatalities, and locals say the average delay in Japan is 10 seconds. Not surprisingly, public confidence and pride has swelled, and the network continues to grow and evolve.

The British may have invented the railway, but the Japanese have certainly perfected it.

The great Japan Rail Pass does not disappoint. Flights, accommodation, food and just about everything else in Japan may set you back a pretty penny, but at least traveling around this magnificent, engaging country will represent fantastic value for money.

Outside of rush hour, trains are busy, but not swamped. Stations, platforms and train English signage is accurate, so even without a word of Japanese you'll be able to get around effortlessly. Now if only the Tokyo metro system was so hassle-free!


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend