Japan is crisscrossed by road and rail networks at two levels: fast-moving but heavily tolled expressways superimposed on intricate networks of slow-moving local roads, and an excellent bullet train (Shinkansen) service added to a vast array of local, express and super-express train services, plus subway systems in many cities.
Rail and air travel
Except for peak hour on the main Tokyo subway lines, when white-gloved station officials help commuters squeeze into carriages by pushing the seething masses in from behind, train travel in Japan can provide nothing but good experiences, included among them never-failing punctuality, helpful officials, clean trains and from time to time local residents happy to try out their English to offer help.
To get from A to B, the Shinkansen cannot be bettered in the world – using it you will cover at least 200 kilometres every hour, including station stops, so for trips up to 600 kilometres it’s hard to beat the convenience of this form of travel, especially as most major railway stations are centrally located in cities, and surrounded by reasonably priced hotels. The Shinkansen platform is usually found at the far end of the row of a station’s platforms.
Visitors to Japan have the option of buying a Japan Rail Pass (outside Japan) for use on all Japan Rail transport, a very convenient and cost effective way of travelling around the country. Passes for particular regions are also available For those who arrive with a pre-planned route worked out and having avoided peak holiday times, use of a Japan Rail Pass and places of accommodation that are always to be found near stations can provide a hassle-free travel experience.
For longer trips between cities, price will probably come out more in favour of air travel, now that true competition has entered the skies in Japan, but to be able to depart from and arrive at a central city station rather than an out of town airport has its advantages. The story about taxi fares from Japan’s main international airport, Narita, to Tokyo costing upwards of $300 is well-known, and on some days, at certain times of the day, may not be too far off the mark as it’s a long way, however there are quite satisfactory rail and bus alternatives.
Especially in the major cities, peak hour train and subway travel is best avoided (graphically portrayed in The Yamanote Line in peak hour anecdote below). Most subways have marks placed near the platform edge, indicating where the carriage doors will open. People stand in orderly lines behind these marks, waiting patiently for the next train’s arrival, and in peak hours, for many subways this will mean only a couple of minutes. But in a city like Tokyo, within this brief period dozens of people will be congregated in each line by the time the next train arrives.
People at the front of the line will shuffle aside to allow alighting passengers egress, but well before they’re all out a burst of energy will erupt from within the waiting line, turning everyone in it from quiet and mild-mannered into something akin to a wild animal, like a coiled spring suddenly unrestrained.
In some carriages travellers will notice a seat-shaped symbol inside a circle, with an arrow pointing to the chair beneath it and accompanied by the words ‘seki o yuzurimashō’. This sign indicates it is a silver seat, for use by elderly passengers, the sentence translating as ‘Let’s give up our seat to the elderly and handicapped’, an admonition not frequently observed by younger passengers.
With increasing tourist and business travel in and out of Japan, airport construction is a growth industry. The country’s main airport, Narita, had a very difficult initial history due to strong opposition from local landowners, who eventually agreed to give up their farms because construction of a new international airport was considered of national importance. When steps were taken to implement the next phase, a second runway and terminal, vehement opposition arose among the landowners, many of whom were farming land held for generations by the same family.
With financial and logistic support provided by left-wing anti-government activists, the area was quickly turned into a war zone, with razor wire, trenches and tunnels employed to protect the farms, the airport guarding its perimeter in a similar manner, supplemented by military personnel.
From time to time, explosive devices were lobbed into the airport, and for years, all vehicles entering it were stopped and fully searched by soldiers. Basically this ludicrous situation had arisen due to the obstinacy of government officials, who were used to riding rough-shod over anyone, and the farmers, who wanted to be treated with respect and fairness.
As flights in and out of the airport increased, and total movements reached the maximum for a single runway, the stand-off continued, with the airport officials refusing to apologise to the owners, and offer to meet them directly. Eventually the prospect of Japan co-hosting the 2002 World Cup, and the increased air travel this would generate, led to a resumption of talks between the parties, the required apologies from the unnecessarily heavy-handed government officials, and some compulsory land acquisitions. A shortened version of the second runway was opened in 2002, and extended in 2009.
Tokyo’s original airport, Haneda, is mostly used for domestic or short-haul international flights. Kansai Airport, on a man-made island in the Osaka region, was built during this period, and numerous other regional airports, such as in Fukuoka, Nagoya and Sapporo are also used for both international and domestic flights. There is no need to travel by taxi to or from any of these, as they’re all well serviced by public transport, in the form of subway (such as Fukuoka), above ground rail and bus (the most cost-effective way in and out of Narita).