Why taking the train in Japan is more pleasure than business.
Central Sydney 6.15pm: Walk into the station building. Line up to use one of only four ticket vending machines. Dang, only have a twenty dollar note. Slide it in anyway. Machine spits it out. Not enough change. Drat. Take place in queue for the ticket window. Sure I’ve missed my train by now. Lady behind the counter pulls a face at my twenty. Slowly counts out change, on purpose I’m sure. Ticket bought. Run to gates. Not quick enough. Get hit by the barriers. Ouch. Run up the stairs to see the train pulling out. Next train is in 30 minutes. Waiting, waiting, buy a mars bar – scoff it down – wait some more. Finally a rust bucket of a train pulls up. Graffiti splashed on the side. Doors clang open. There’s a struggle between people alighting and embarking. Results in no seats left. Hold on to greasy pole. There’s a guy eating a smelly kebab in one corner, loud music from headphones coming from another. Mixes well with the relentless chit chat of school kids and office workers. So tired. Fall asleep standing up. Jerk awake from rattling train. It’s gotten dark. Announcement is muffled and cracking up. Have to peer outside to see what station it is. Finally disembark. Walk another 30 minutes home.
And yet… on the other side of the world…
Osaka Station City 5.15pm: Outside central gates. Walk up to one of countless ticket vending machines and charge up my ICOCA prepaid travel card. Takes no time at all. Glide through the ticket gates with a hearty ‘thank you’ from the gate attendant. Take the escalator to the platform. A train has just pulled out. Oh well. Next train in 3 minutes, next express in 6. Lots of people. Bustling but not unbearable. Take position in short, ordered line. no one pushes in front. A pleasant tune begins to play. The train pulls up. Doors open onto a flawlessly clean and modern looking compartment. All the people alighting go first then my line starts to board. Manage to find a seat (miracle). Settle in for the ride. The carriage is quiet. No one is eating. The announcements from the conductor are crisp and understandable in Japanese then English. The electronic sign above the doors says the next stop is mine. It also says which side door will open. Line up once again to disembark. Walk another 5 minutes then hop on my bicycle back home.
The contrast is stunning. If I were to pick one thing about Japan that I could take back home it would be the impeccable train system. Not only for its efficiency – which is of course second to none – but for the ungoverned and unspoken rules of conduct that apply to everyone so as to ensure that each passenger has a safe, comfortable journey no matter how far.
No eating and drinking on a train seems standard, though I’m guilty of doing this in some situations. But bringing hot, smelly food on a train is something you certainly won’t see in Japan.
The ticketing system, while perhaps confusing a first, is actually quite simple and using a prepaid card that you recharge regularly can really save time and hassle.
Of course, the worst thing about train trips outside of Japan are not the conditions of the carriage or the inconvenience of tardy trains, but the people who ride. Large families speaking loudly with kids running all over the place. High school kids smoking and screaming. Loud music coming from headphones or even worse, speakers. The list is endless.
These are the things that you will never find on a Japanese train – unless it’s from tourists.
Why? Well if you do happen to be making too much noise some crazy, older Japanese guy is likely to reprimand you in a loud enough voice to embarrass you in front of the entire carriage. This actually happened to a small Japanese family who were being a bit raucous on my train home one evening.
Regardless of these sometimes stifling rules policed by the general public, riding the train in Japan is simply stunning. Whether you’re traveling for pleasure (a day trip to Kyoto), for business (shinkansen to Tokyo) or simply commuting (subway car to work), the Japanese train system will ensure you get there safely and comfortably.