I previously blogged about my experience in a shinkansen green car - basically the closest thing the Japanese have to "first class" on most trains. But did you know they also have green cars on some commuter trains? My wife's family lives on the Joban line, and luckily it's one such line.
She had never taken one before and every time we visit, we lug all of our luggage into a standard car and either leave it sitting in the middle of the car or have to stand with it for 45 minutes because the trains are so crowded. I unfortunately have never taken a photo of a regular Joban line car but usually they look something like this:
(That photo's from urbanneighbourhood.com, but I'm sure it's a stock photo.)
You can imagine riding a train like that with three or four large suitcases in tow, for up to an hour.
This time I pretty much insisted that we take a green car both to and from Tokyo. Well, the inbound leg didn't quite work out as planned - we ended up barely making a Hitachi Limited Express train instead, and we stood in the vestibule halfway to Ueno. We did manage to make it to the "green car" at the first (and only intermediate) stop, but it was just like any other car on that train. On the plus side, it was pretty empty, and the train was fast - about 20 minutes to Ueno instead of the usual 45.
Our "green car" on the way in to Tokyo - not bad for a Japanese commuter train, but we had to pay extra both for the express fare and the green car, and there was just nothing special about this alleged green car.
We finally made it into a proper green car on the way back out.
Just compare that with the photo at the top. It's a completely different world. The seats face forward (and recline!), there's plenty of legroom, and for some reason, almost nobody else uses these cars! Forget about people standing in the aisles - through most of our trip, we had the entire end of the car to ourselves. This was the real reason I wanted to ride in one - just to get out of the crowd. I knew from previous experience that whenever I've seen a Joban line train pull into a station, the green cars are basically empty. I can't believe they make any money off these cars.
The green cars on the Joban line are bi-level cars, but they do have single-level seats at the ends. Since we had four heavy suitcases plus a bunch of paper bags full of stuff with us, we went for the single-level seats. I don't know if I could even stand up in the bi-level section of the car - the cars aren't any taller than the regular single level cars. Unlike in American bi-level commuter trains, the single-level section has a door, so you feel like you're in your own little room when you're in this area.
Here's where we sat from the outside:
The unexpected bonus: like on the shinkansen, car attendants come through the Joban line green cars with snacks and drinks! Remember now, this is on a commuter train. This is like getting at-seat snack service on the LIRR - imagine such a thing. My wife didn't even expect this, and she lived in Japan for 28 years. It was brutally hot outside and we were loaded up with stuff so I quenched my thirst with an iced green tea bought from the car attendant.
The cost for our green car seats? Only 550 yen - about $6 extra over a standard ticket.
Totally worth it. I would ride this way every day if I lived on this line, or at least a couple times a week. It's a much more civilized way to travel.
You can get a green car ticket at any ticket machine - and you can buy it separately from the main ticket. (In other words, if you aren't sure and decide to buy it later, you can do it even after buying your original ticket.) On some platforms, there are machines just for buying green car tickets for those making last-minute decisions.
Look for this option on any JR train you happen to take in Japan. Not all trains have it, but most commuter trains with a lengthy run do, as do the vast majority of shinkansen trains and most "express" trains. As our experience on the Hitachi Express demonstrated, it's not always worth it, but two out of the three green cars I've ridden in so far have been 100%, totally worth the extra money.