Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Tracks In Japan

The train systems, and I mean the National railroad system and the local subways, in Japan are something to behold. While preparing for my first trip I received a copy of the Tokyo subway system. It is a colorful and confusing work of art both visually and in the details of how it works.

I watched a show called, Begin Japanology, in June of 2010 that dealt with the trains and subway systems in Japan and was amazed to see how their analysts create a schedule. They have these large, probably 15 foot long, reports with a grid that shows station on one axis and time on the other then diagonal lines very tightly knit across the grid. If the line flattened out then the train would be on a scheduled wait to stay on time for its coincident arrival at another station so that it could pickup passengers from another train or drop off its passengers in time for them to change platforms.

I had some training in scheduling back during my university days but I don’t think it would even get me started on something like they are doing.

I mentioned before that I do a lot of preparation before leaving on a trip to Japan. One of the things I do is plan some of the activities for my train trips and that includes checking train schedules. On one website or another I saw a link to the Japan Railroads (JR) schedule planner. The link is on my author web page at my publisher’s website www.pensmithbooks.com.

With this planner you enter the station you are starting at and then the station you are going to. You can pick the date and time you want to leave then hit search and the system comes back with 5 routes that you can take to get to the destination.

You can also tell the system to use JR trains only, Shinkansen (Bullet Train) only, airlines, busses and walking. This allows you to check your alternatives. I was just checking out a trip and by not using the Shinkansen I can save about $26 each way on the trip. It adds 2 hours but you get to see the country side better.

I end up printing all of my planned routes and taking them with me and this has proven to be pretty helpful. I did it for this trip as well. I have discovered that the schedules are regular and predictable, like every half hour or 5 minutes before the hour, so if I change departure times I still have some idea when the trains are leaving.

The key thing is that the trains are on time and the schedules don’t change so if I find a train that is leaving at 8:44 AM on September the 6th that I want to be on, I can count on that train leaving exactly at that time.

JR offers a rail pass that provides you with unlimited train travel on all JR trains (except the Shinkansen Nozumi) in weekly increments at a cost of around $300 per week. If you are doing a multi-city tour I would recommend that you get one of these passes. They are only sold to people who hold non-Japanese passports, can only be ordered while you are outside of Japan and have to be validated by showing your passport with an entry stamp at a JR ticket office.

This trip I’m not getting one because I will be in Tokyo most of the time except for one 2 day trip I’m planning and the fare for that trip isn’t very expensive.

The platforms for the JR trains are part of the information system. For example, if you are traveling on the Shinkansen Hikari you got to the platform that your train is leaving from and look at the markers on the platform floor. They will indicate the train and the car number that will be stopped at that spot. Some trains, and always on the Shinkansen, have some cars that are reserved and some have open seating. On the overhead signs there will be information letting you know which cars are open seating and which are smoking cars. If you see that car 3 is open seating then find the spot on the platform that indicates car 3 for the Shinkansen Hikari and get in the line at that spot. You can be sure that the car that stops in front of you is car 3.

There are also lines painted on the platform to indicate how the line should form. There are 2 lines for each door, one on either side. The middle is left open for exiting passengers and this system works. I’ve always wondered what is going through the heads of people trying to get on the subway in New York who stand in the middle of the door before it opens so they can get on first. Make room so people can get off then get on.

During my last trip in November of 2009 I didn’t follow my own advice and we got on a reserved car, put our luggage up on the rack and took seats. Two stops later a grumpy old guy got on the train and showed me that we were in his and his wife’s seats so we had to move forward to the open-seat cars. By this time the train was packed and we had to stand in the crowded area between cars for 2 hours on the way to Osaka. We had arrived early and chose to catch the train at Tokyo Station rather than in Shinagawa because there would be a better chance of getting a seat. Thanks to my error we stood for two hours.

On our first trip in 2005 the five of us were on a Shinkansen train from Kyoto to Himeji. It was not very crowded and therefore was very quite. When a conductor came through the train you barely noticed them they are so polite and unassuming. They always stop at the door and turn to the passengers and bow before they leave. I love to dip my head and bow back each time; the bow in Japan is such a nice gesture. I find myself doing it for a few days to people in America after each trip.

There was an older Japanese lady sitting by herself in the first row, two rows in front of us. She was by the window of a three seat row. At one stop an older businessman got on and sat in the aisle seat in the same front row as the lady. He seemed restless and moved around quite a bit in his seat.

At one point he placed his foot up on the wall in front of him and tried to sleep but that only lasted for a few seconds. All of a sudden he was yelling at the lady in the window seat. We all looked at each other then back at the guy who was loud and based on his tone he was really tearing a strip off of the poor lady. Suddenly he stood up and turned to go to another seat and he spotted us. Five foreigners who he guessed spoke English. He paused for a second and then yelled, in English, “F--K Lady”.

Again we looked at each other kind of shocked because you almost never see any display of emotion in public in Japan. We couldn’t help but look at the lady who just smiled at us then shook her head.

My kids and my daughter’s boyfriend (now her husband), still tell that story to people and when some one annoys them they quite often use the angry man’s words to display frustration.

With regard to the rail passes, JR has different regions and each region offers its own rail pass for slightly less money. If you know you are going to be in just one region you could get a less expensive pass. The one I mentioned above is for the entire system.

JR did an interesting thing that I read about before going to Japan. They hired a composer to make a 4 or 5 note jingle for each of the train stops. As you approach you will hear these tones. It isn’t easy to differentiate the different jingles but at first I did hear them. Now I don’t pay attention, I’m listening to the announcers and trying to understand what is being said in Japanese.

The subway system is different in that it runs underground and has many more stops. It too runs very efficiently and on time. All the stations have plenty of maps that are usually a straight line with the different stations marked in order along the line. Each station also has a number and each subway line has a designated color.

If you know which station you are at and which station you are going to you look on the line map and you can tell how many stops is to your destination. You can also see which direction you should be going to get to the next station and on the subway wall across from the platform there is usually a sign that indicates the direction for the first or next station on the line. If your train comes in and is headed in the direction of the next station on the way to your destination then that’s the train for you. If not, then you probably want the train on the track behind you.

In the subway there are ticket machines that also have a map of the whole system. Take your time and find your destination because written under the station is the amount of the fare to get there. Once you know how much it is, you purchase your tickets. Most machines have a button to have the instructions presented in English. You can also buy all-day tickets that are good for the subway line/company that you buy them for. There are 2 or 3 different subway lines and the day passes don’t transfer between lines although the individual fares do.

The subway is very important in Tokyo. Like New York, you don’t really need a car if you know the subway system. While I was looking for an apartment, one of the most important features of an apartment is proximity to the subway station and each apartment lists how long it takes to walk to the nearest subway station then how long it takes to get to some of the major subway stations in Tokyo.

Another interesting thing about the importance of the subways I discovered while talking to a young American man who had been in Tokyo filming a documentary about the underground music scene. I asked him if he got to see a lot of late night/early morning club activity and he said that doesn’t happen with underground music in Japan. The venues are usually a long subway ride away and the concerts have to end in time for the audience to get back and catch the last train. In this case the subway schedule dictates the social life of the young citizens.

Here are some updates. I still haven’t made a commitment on an apartment. I found a bigger place in a better location but they are telling me I have to take it 9 days earlier that when I arrive. My friend went to look at the place and said it is a good place in a nice quite part of the town so I really want it. We are playing a waiting game right now, hoping it doesn’t get rented for another week and that they will allow me to rent from August 1st, which is still before I arrive.

The money issue, that is getting money in Tokyo rather than taking all I will need, isn’t as big an issue as I thought since my girlfriend is coming over halfway through my stay and she can bring some additional yen if I need it. She's coming during the September sumo tournament,
; that’s the only time she said she would come over.

The phone hasn't been arranged but with today’s disposable phone technology I’m not worried about it.

There weeks before departure. Now I working on the clothing etc. that I’m going to take. I’ve been living in shorts and T-shirts for 4 months and going back to long pants and shirts is going to be weird.

Next blog is going to be about food. I get hungry thinking about food and Japanese food is one of my favorite cuisines. Sushi is definitely excellent in Japan but I find I don’t eat much of it while I am there. There are so many other things to eat.

Please visit my publisher’s website for more information. www.pensmithbooks.com

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