Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Japan - Getting Around (Part 1?)

Japan is well-known the world over for its mass transit system, but it's almost impossible to convey just how unbelievably impressive it is in words and pictures. You really need to see it for yourself. Still, I will do my best, and hopefully give some tips to any would-be travelers in the process.

Staying in Kyoto and Tokyo, we obviously used the mass transit system in both cities quite a bit. Our hotel in Kyoto, the New Miyako, was in fact right across the street from Kyoto Station - the absolute perfect location, if you ask me.

There are several hotels near the station, so this is not the only choice, but the New Miyako is pretty much as central as it gets. All of the major train and bus lines leave from here, so any of the sights and attractions you'd want to see are within reach.

As I mentioned in another post, Kyoto Station is one of the craziest buildings I have ever seen.

Fans of modern architecture really need to see it; it is almost stupefyingly large and just unnecessarily complex. It is an example of complete architectural excess, and for that reason it is apparently highly controversial in ultra-traditional Kyoto. A modern steel and glass structure, it has a main hall that to my eyes looks larger than all of Grand Central Terminal in New York. It has at least five stories, including a series of escalators that go to nowhere, and a whole bunch of little nooks and crannies that seem to exist for no other reason than to give couples a place to hide and practice a little romance late at night. The mood at night in its upper levels is really quite strange.

But it's here that you'll catch the commuter trains, the subway, the shinkansen out of town, or if you're a tourist, the mode of transport you'll most often be using: the bus. While Tokyo is all about the train, Kyoto, for tourists at least, is a bus city. There's simply no train or series of trains that goes to all the temples and other tourist sites in the city; buses, though, do.

Inside Kyoto Station, there is a tourist office on the second level (just inside the north entrance) that sells an all-day bus pass for 500 yen and will also provide you with an English (or Japanese) map. There may be other, longer-term options, but we found that the day pass worked well for the 3 days we were there. Using the pass can be confusing to first-time visitors - it was even to my wife, who is from Japan. First, entering the bus is through the back door - unlike in the US, where it's through the front. The front of the bus is for getting off, and you pay your fare as you exit. To use your pass, you must insert it into the proper slot in the fare machine only the first time you exit a bus - after that, simply show the date side to the bus driver.

Buses in Kyoto don't run very frequently, and they can get extremely crowded - especially going to and from the station. Avoid rush hour if you can, but I've found when I'm on vacation that I completely lose all sense of anyone else's schedule - to me, every day is a Saturday, so I never remember to even think about rush hour until I'm caught in it.

If you do what we did and visit both Kyoto and Tokyo, chances are you're going to be riding the shinkansen - flying is possible but not very pleasant, and not really any faster either. Given the central location of both Kyoto and Tokyo stations, it really makes more sense to take the high speed "bullet train". (That's a western nickname, by the way - it's best to simply call it the shinkansen, as the Japanese do.)

There are three classes of shinkansen train service - Kodama, Hikari and Nozomi. Kodama is local service, Hikari is "express" and Nozomi is "super express". Basically, Nozomi makes the fewest stops, though neither Kodama nor Hikari is what anyone would call slow. If you have a Japan Rail Pass (which wasn't worth it for us but may be for you), you can ride either Kodama or Hikari, but not Nozomi. No big loss, really.

Yeah, this model shinkansen looks like a duck.

We were on the 10:26 Nozomi service from Kyoto to Tokyo, in a reserved car. Our travel agent set this up for us, but you can buy a ticket in the station if you need to - just try to do it in advance. I do advise getting a reserved seat, as the non-reserved cars can be standing-room only at times, and if you do get a seat, they're worse than economy class coach on a domestic flight. Reserved seats have a much longer seat pitch - even I, at 6'4", was quite comfortable. There are also "green cars" - basically first class - but the difference in comfort level is probably not enough to justify the extra cost. It is not like the United States, where first class on a train means a private bedroom. (Of course, who needs a bedroom when you can traverse an entire country in less than a day?)

There are stores in every shinkansen station that sell nothing but bento boxes like this. They also sell them on the train. There are no more "restaurant cars" (as they called them in Japan), but JR employees do come around with a little cart every once in a while that has stuff like this that you can buy. By the way, just as an indication of the amount of legroom, that's actually a suitcase on the left side of the above photo, resting behind the seat in front. You can see the guy across the aisle has his legs comfortably crossed.

Here's what a shinkansen ticket looks like - the top is the ticket for the base fare, bottom is the reserved seat express surcharge ticket:

The line from Kyoto to Tokyo is the Tokaido line, and it was the first shinkansen line to open in the 1960's. It's the line that famously goes by Mt. Fuji, so you can catch a glimpse of it if the weather cooperates. Unfortunately, it did not for us - a typhoon raged as we blasted through to Tokyo. JR shuts down train service if the winds get too bad, so I was more worried about that than I was about safety, but there were definitely a few wind gusts that jolted our train to one side or the other in a pretty unsettling manner. Traveling at 160mph, the last thing you want to feel is your train swaying from side to side in the wind.

This was not my first time on the shinkansen, but it was my first long trip and my first sustained high-speed ride. (My only other experience was riding from Tokyo to Yokohama just for the heck of it - a journey of about 15 minutes.) The shinkansen system and trains are even more amazing in person than what you've probably heard. First, during rush hours, they run about every 4 minutes on some lines. They're everywhere. And they're always on time, down to the second. Unlike the TGV or other European high-speed trains, there are many different shinkansen types, so if you like trains, there's always something interesting to look at.

If you're wondering what rocketing through the Japanese countryside at 160mph looks like, it looks something like this:

As smooth as it is, and as quiet, it almost seems kind of sedate. But it's not - the 230 mile trip (as the crow flies) from Kyoto to Tokyo only takes a little over 2 hours. That's including two stops, and a routing around the mountains.

Well, this is turning into an epic post, so I'd better continue it a bit later. Getting around Tokyo is a whole other adventure unto itself, so it probably deserves a post of its own anyway. I'll revisit it after touching on some other subjects, though. Coming up: Tokyo Tower, Harajuku, Akihabara and more!

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About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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