The Long and Scenic Rail to the Deep North


A rural town (Tokyo -> Sendai leg)

Over the past month or so, I have spent upwards of 100 hours on trains, buses, and planes, including several 6-7 hour-long train journeys north as part of a series of long-distance rides I took with a friend as we slowly made our way to Hokkaido, the northern most prefecture of Japan. Gazing out train windows at the diverse scenes passing by, I felt compelled to reflect on a few of the wonders (and not-so-wonderful aspects) of trains of Japan.

First off, above-ground train rides in Japan are fairly scenic. Whether on trains passing through the rural countryside, or on Tokyo’s Yamanote line which circles the metropolitan area, outside views always offer interesting sights. From city billboards and high-rise buildings/towers, to small residential neighborhoods, to farmland, to the natural beauty of mountains, hills, and lakes, a glance outside provides some insight into the diverse parts and regions of Japan.

I took a bunch of pictures of areas along my train journey, and each photo offers a small glimpse into the worlds of the different areas of Japan. One of the main reasons I opted to take the long way north with local trains as opposed to the bullet train was the extra time that I got to take in these scenes from various areas, with the comfort to stop and get a taste of the local atmosphere everywhere we went.


Snowy crossroads (Sendai -> Aomori leg)

Trains are also quite convenient. Within the city, the Tokyo Metro offers around a dozen underground subway lines, and in addition to quite a few private railway companies, getting from place to place is fast and reliable. Stations and train interiors are pretty much always super clean, and unspoken courtesy rules for riders (such as staying quiet on the train, no phone calls, no eating) make the ride tolerable and comfortable. Since trains are also very rarely late (for both arrivals and departures), looking up posted timetables makes planning trips or timing a commute a breeze – Google Maps ends up being super accurate. Comfort-wise: overhead luggage racks, soft seats, and heaters that run from under your seat make even the longest of journeys bearable.

However, the attractive pros of public transportation create a con from its popularity. Many Japanese people who live in urban areas don’t own cars, choosing to instead rely on public transportation to commute to work/school and get around. With Tokyo being a heavily densely populated city, peak hours on trains can get pretty crazy. Images and videos of crowded Tokyo trains have been surfacing on the internet for years, depicting dedicated employees working hard to push riders onto over-packed trains. While I haven’t yet experienced anything that bad, weekday rush hours and weekend evenings have proven to be the most uncomfortable times to try to ride the subway, with very limited personal space available. Luckily, getting on and off trains is fairly orderly: queues form on platforms to board, and when arriving at a station, people close to doors step off to let people behind them off. Any trouble with getting off a train is usually erased with a simple “Sumimasen” (excuse me), as people will shuffle around to make way to let you off.


Mountains and the sea! (Aomori -> Hokkaido leg)

The convenience of trains also tapers off quickly as you move away from urban centers. Many of the trains I took to travel north only ran a couple of times a day, and with many of my transfers either being less than 10 minutes long or more than 30 minutes long, the transition between each part of the journey felt either stressful (with one transfer needing us to run through a fairly large and crowded station), or overly boring (giving us nothing to do but sit around at a station in the middle of nowhere to wait for the next train). Nevertheless, planning such a trip to be as efficient as possible is still very easy with all train timetables available online, though due to limited options and infrequent trains, experiencing such transfers is inevitable.

Overall, I’d have to say that transportation in Japan is an improvement over the systems I’m familiar with in the U.S. Reliability, comfort, safety, and consistency play important roles, and while train culture may take a bit of getting used to here, it’s worthwhile in the end to appreciate the uniqueness that the Japanese public transportation system has to offer. Now that I’m totally (not really) a seasoned expert on train riding in Japan, I’m more than ready to face the countless more hours on trains I’ll continue experiencing in the coming months.


Until the next journey!

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