Hello all! Today, I’m going to write a bit about travelling by local train in Japan. The image that is conjured up by those words for Americans is usually a bad one (and pretty fairly, in my opinion) –unreliable, slower than planes and more expensive than faster highway busses. However, this isn’t as much the case in Japan, which is much more reliant on trains as a means of public and long-distance transportation, especially considering that gas is more expensive here.
There are a lot of breaks in the Japanese academic calendar, and winter break is no exception. Sophia University’s began this past Friday the 23rd of December and will continue through January 5th, and having so much time with so little to do, I was really interested in getting out of Tokyo for a little bit and doing some travelling. As it turns out, it's a good time of year for just that sort of thing.
Japan Railways (JR) has a special ticket, the “Seishun 18” ticket, which is good for five all-day norihodai (unlimited rides) on all local and rapid trains; in other words, no shinkansen or even express tickets, unlike the JR passes popular for short-term tourists. Despite the name’s implication (“youthful" or "young 18”), the ticket can be bought and used by people of all ages. The ticket can be used on any five days during its period of validity, meaning that you can choose freely whether or not you wish to ride on consecutive days. Furthermore, the ticket can be shared between multiple people: for example, two people can use four of the ticket’s 5 all-day passes over two days, and then one person can use the fifth pass on another day. My friend studying abroad near Kobe is actually planning a trip with four other friends for which they bought two of these tickets, and will split them between themselves in order to use two all-day passes. At ¥11,500, the ticket may seem a bit pricey, but it is an incredibly good deal. As an example, to get from Tokyo to Nagoya costs roughly around ¥6,000 one way, and since it is possible to get there in a single day, if the pass is used twice for that distance, it has already paid for itself. On top of that, JR’s network extends from Kagoshima in Kyushu (the southern tip of the four main islands) and all the way up through even some of the remotest parts of Hokkaido, so there is a way to get almost anywhere you want to go.
The catch is that the ticket is only sold twice a year: from the beginning through the end of December, and then again from July through August. These tickets are good through January 10th and September 10th, respectively, so the periods for which they can be used can be limited. However, given the good timing of the tickets being around the winter and summer holidays, they are good times for travelling.
Feeling that this was the perfect chance to visit someplace new on the cheap, I made plans to spend this week travelling by the Seishun 18. My interest in going on this trip originated more from an attraction to the idea of the chance to see more of Japan at a relaxed pace by rail rather than having a particular destination in mind. I wanted to see how far I could go using the passes to cover the entire trip, and it turned out that Fukuoka, a major city on Kyushu, was just about right. The entire trip takes about a day and a half to complete (including stops), and would normally cost around ¥28000. I felt that this was the perfect opportunity to get my money’s worth on such a long trip, and so I made hostel reservations, did some research on good things to do in the area, and made plans to set out earlier this week on the 26th, right after Christmas.
Its really true that travelling by local train through Japan gives you a lot of unique glimpses at Japan’s more remote and beautiful countryside. The first leg of my journey took me along the JR Tokkaido line, during which time I had many opportunities to view Mt. Fuji across the Kanto plain.
Travelling west and then south along the Tokkaido, Sanyo, and Kagoshima train lines reveals many of Japan’s obscure locations. Naturally, there is some really beautiful scenery, but there is also the more mundane side of the inaka (countryside). I wanted to get a sense of what “normal,” non-urbanized Japan looked like, and riding local trains across half the country certainly allowed me to do that. Aside from intimate views of countless small towns with a variety of mountain ranges in the backdrop, I was treated to some amazing views of the inland sea that separates Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. Unlike travelling by bus or even shinkansen, the big windows in local trains give you some really unparalleled glances at scenery, and especially when you have hours to spend, it's a great way to pass the time.
I also had a distinct feeling that I was moving through the seasons on my way to Fukuoka -- on the first day alone, I seemed to pass through both fall and winter as I sped through Aichi and Gifu prefectures and not only saw some recently fallen snow, but went through a storm myself.
But it wasn’t only the countryside I saw. Although I didn’t stop there, I passed through Kyoto, Kobe, and Osaka to name a few major cities. I also went through some places of historical importance, such as Sekigahara and Shimonoseki, where some of battles that have decided the course of Japanese history were fought. I wish I’d had more time to spend stopping at each and every one of these places, although I was lucky enough to have the chance to spend some time in Hiroshima (including an okonomiyaki lunch, of course) and Nagoya. I’m already thinking of buying the Seishun 18 again next summer to return to Kansai; even by local train, its within one day’s journey, and having spent a bit of time in Kyoto, Nara and Osaka, I think it’s really worth it.
Right outside of Hiroshima station
I did encounter a few problems along the way, as is bound to happen with this sort of trip. I set out a little bit later than I had originally intended on the first travel day, and so made my first transfer about half an hour behind schedule (8:15 as opposed to 7:45 AM). I was hoping to make it as far as Hiroshima, a trip that takes around 17 hours by local train from Tokyo, and even though I’d known before going that trains come less frequently in the countryside as opposed to the major cities, but I hadn’t been aware of what a difference 30 minutes can really make. Even towards the more populated areas of Japan, local and rapid trains may only come once every half hour or even every hour, making catching a particular one very important if you plan on travelling this way. Even riding the train without stopping all day, I only made it as far as Fukuyama, which is about an hour and 45 minutes away from Hiroshima, and so I had to spend part of the night sleeping at an Internet café (less expensive and more comfortable than one might think; they are frequented by businessmen who stay out late and are in similar binds) before catching the first train out the next morning. If I hadn’t caught that train, I would have had to wait another 30-45 minutes for the next one bound for Hiroshima.
While I would have preferred to have had a full night’s sleep in a real bed, it was nice to take a trip without so much planning involved. I highly recommend the Seishun 18 because it's truly a great excuse to literally see some (or even half) of Japan. The few pieces of advice I would give to anyone interested in travelling by the ticket would be to spend a fair amount of time checking train options. In hindsight, I probably would have stopped in Kyoto or Osaka rather than Hiroshima, as they were closer to Tokyo, and even being a little bit late I would have been there in plenty of time. Building room into your schedule is truly a must. In line with that, transfers can often take less than five minutes, so its best to bring snacks or even meals onto the train for the long stretches of time, especially if you are making a longer trip. I found that sometimes I had to wait for a few hours for a chance to buy something to eat for in order to avoid missing the next transfer and having to wait even longer for the next train. On the bright side, each train I rode had a bathroom onboard, something which made the long journey easier to manage.
時刻表 (Train schedules) can be a bit tricky
Finally, make sure to bring something (or some things) to do -- those long stretches of time can leave you feeling spent, and I found that it was nice to have music, books, reading materials, and even something to study along the way. Believe me, you'll run through them.
Finally, if you do decide to try the Seishun 18, I recommend making plans early. There are express night trains (such as the “Moonlight Nagara,” which can get you as far as Ogaki, past Nagoya, before 6 AM) which the ticket can be used on – they depart before midnight or even early in the morning, and allow you to get the most out of your travel day. The trains are extremely popular for this reason, and because they are reserved seats only, they are often booked to capacity far in advance (you can start reserving a month before your travel date). Hostel or hotel reservations are also important, especially considering that the period you can use the ticket is prime travel season for many people that they are likely to get full as well.
I would highly recommend trying the Seishun 18 out – its tiring and occasionally boring (like any long-distance travelling), but if you have the time and the patience, you'll be in for something really special. You really come to realize how much more there is to see of Japan beyond Tokyo once you get out there, especially if you go by local trains that run through some pretty remote and amazing areas. For my next post, I may write more on my trip to Fukuoka, so stay tuned! Happy holidays andよいおとしを！