Since we have been on this assignment here in Japan, we have had a lot of opportunities for international travel. We have gotten used to the routine of getting ourselves and our luggage to the airport, finding our flight, and managing ground transportation at our destination. Most everywhere we travel from here is at least a 10 to 13 hour flight. Those long hours on a plane are tedious, but we have figured out how to deal with it.
But, in this blog I’ll talk about shorter trips, and the modes of transportation that are available to us here in Tokyo and in Japan. In the US, we had cars that we depended on daily to take us where we needed to go. Here — with no Japanese driver’s license (and the unlikelihood that we will ever get Japanese driver’s licenses, as it is such an arduous and expensive process for Americans) — we have had to explore the other options for transportation:
On foot. Not exactly considered to be transportation, but we use this mode of travel the most. Even with all the other forms of public transportation here, this is the easiest and most convenient for us for shorter distances. We are, after all, just over a kilometer from the closest train/subway stop, so any trip we take always begins and ends with walking on foot. True enough, taxis abound, but should I make that daily trip to the supermarket in a taxi? I think not.
Bicycles. Bicycles are a popular mode of transport here, but we don’t have one. Most bicycles here are the very utilitarian style… meant for commuting and transporting packages and/or children. “Mamachari” (mommy chariot) bicycles are very commonly used by young mothers, and I have seen women in dresses and high-heels taking kids to school/daycare on their way to work — a baby in a front-pack, a toddler in the front kid-seat, and an older child in the back kid-seat. These are the “mini vans” for urban Japanese mothers! They are large, heavy, and sometimes have a power assist option with a battery powered motor to help get them started. Most bicycles ride on the sidewalks, so they compete for space with the pedestrian traffic. I have often been sideswiped and nearly flattened by sidewalk bicycle riders. “Sumimasen… Gomenasai!” (Excuse me… I’m sorry!)
Taxis. I will be brief here because my husband and I just don’t really take taxis very often, and generally prefer other forms of transport. But, the taxis here are numerous, and fairly reasonable in cost. There are many taxi companies, and you can find a taxi at just about any train station or major street corner. The cars are all very clean and maintained, and the drivers are usually wearing suits and white gloves. The taxi doors open and close automatically, so don’t yank on the door handles. Wait for the driver to open the door for you. And the best part? You pay what the meter says — NO tipping.
Buses. There are many buses in Tokyo, and all over Japan for that matter. City buses, tour buses, and regional “highway buses” traveling between cities. We don’t often take the buses because we prefer traveling by the trains, but buses are a very popular option here. Train/subway routes can take you to a general area within Tokyo, but buses fill in the gaps. Some bus lines have a “per-trip” fare, and some charge by distance. Most will take the same IC rechargeable fare cards — and in fact, most of the buses and trains in Japan will all take the same IC cards, so when we travel to other cities, we can usually use the same cards as here in Tokyo. Cash is also accepted, and some buses have change machines on board.
Trains. There are myriad types of trains in Japan! Here in Tokyo, the two major types are “densha” — above ground electric trains — and “chikatetsu” — below ground subway trains. But, in addition, there are monorail trains (one runs right by our apartment, and connects Haneda Airport with Hamamatsucho train station), the Narita Express to Narita Airport, and other express or limited express trains traveling to suburban Tokyo. Between the cities, are regional trains, and the high-speed “bullet” train, the Shinkansen. All of these trains make travel around Tokyo — and around all of Japan — easy, convenient, and (for the most part) pleasant. The trains are clean, and well-maintained, and run (always) on schedule. It is a very dependable mode of transportation in Japan… with the only possible downside being that at rush hour, they can be very, very crowded. So crowded, in fact, that some of the stations employ white-gloved “pushers” to shove people into the train cars so that the doors can close.
Shinkansen. I know that I already mentioned the Shinkansen above, but I feel it deserves a little more attention. It is without a doubt the premier mode of long-distance travel inside Japan. The trains are fast — about 200 mph. The cars are clean and comfortable with plenty of legroom and space for luggage. They don’t go to all locations in Japan, but connect most of the major cities. True, airplanes fly faster, but with the Shinkansen, you don’t have to get to the airport 2 hours ahead of your flight to check-in and go through security. You can, actually, arrive at the station just ahead of your train time… forget security lines! But, don’t dare be late, because you WILL miss your train. They run ON SCHEDULE. Some stops along Shinkansen routes are very brief, so be ready to grab your luggage and get out the door. No dawdling here! Alas… the major downside of the Shinkansen is that it can be pretty pricey. Yes, it is usually cheaper to fly for the longer distances inside Japan.
Air Travel. I will leave this for Part 2 of the blog. There are many differences here between domestic air travel and international air travel. My husband and I just flew to Fukuoka and back, last week, and I will devote the next blog to talking about that trip.