Japan by Train

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The journey from Sakaiminato to Hiroshima, our first stop in Japan, involves three trains.  First it’s a local train to the mainline, then onto an express train to cross the island, and finally a bullet train to do the last 160 km in 35 minutes.

From the local train we got our first views of Japanese countryside.  Neat little fields of vegetables were tended by people who’d pitched up in the little square vans which are ubiquitous in small town Japan.  Between the fields more square vans trundled along narrow, clean, freshly tarmacked roads, along with the odd pastel coloured square car.  The houses too were square and neat.

Seeing these little fields made me wonder if there was more of a trend for smallholdings here than in Europe, and of families being self sufficient for vegetables.

It turns out that the small size of Japanese farms is partly as a result of postwar land reforms in the 1940s.  Landlords were forced to sell their holdings to the government, for reasonable compensation, and the land was split into smaller bundles and sold on at the same rate to tenant farmers.  Very high inflation in the late 1940s meant that the tenant farmers could quickly pay off their loans, and the former landlords were left with very little for their land.  So the land reforms stuck, and you don’t see large-scale agriculture here as you do in Europe, and especially in America.

Geography also plays a part — Japan is pretty mountainous, so farming is generally only possible on thin strips of coastal plain, and the narrow valleys that cut inland.

In fact, Japan has a very low self-sufficiency rate of less than 40%, compared to 60% in the UK, and over 100% in France, the US and Australia.  (This is measured by the proportion of the food calories consumed that are produced domestically).

I’m not sure how all this relates to self-sufficiency on a personal level.  Fruit and veg in supermarkets are certainly expensive in Japan, though they feature heavily in Japanese food.  I imagine this would either be a cause or a result of people tending to grow their own.

From what I’ve read Japan also seems to be experiencing a bit of a hip-farming boom, with artisan food production becoming achingly cool.  On the other hand, over 60% of Japanese farmers are aged 65 or older, and more than 30% are over the age of 75.  I wonder how the landscape of patchwork fields will change in the next decade or so.  The area of abandoned farmland in Japan is increasing year on year.

Once on the express train, the scenery changed.  Now we were crossing the mountainous spine of the island, and between dark tunnels the train curved gracefully through deep wooded valleys next to clear rivers.  Not rushing rivers though, as the overenthusiastic infrastructure investment that I’d read Japan was marred by was already becoming evident.

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97% of Japan’s rivers are dammed or have had their course altered.  As well as concrete lining the banks of the tamed rivers, it crept up the hillsides in geometric blankets, like a huge grey beehive.  These landslide prevention measures turn much of the landscape into a display of engineering prowess rather than of natural beauty.

Soon the landscape flattened again, and we reached the eastern seaboard. At Okayama we bought ourselves some ekibento (station bento) — a neatly organised lunchbox of rice and delicious things to go with it, and waited excitedly for the bullet train.

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Boarding a train in Japan is an extremely orderly experience.  On the platform, channels are marked to show exactly where to queue for each carriage, colour coded for different classes of train.  A line forms in each of these channels, and when the train arrives, invariably precisely on time, the doors slide exactly in to place in front of each queue.  Everybody politely waits while people get off, then swiftly boards, and the train leaves, still precisely on time.  This system even extends to the metro.

At shinkansen (bullet train) stations, shiny railings protect the rest of the platform, only breaking at the precise spots where train doors will open.  In between trains, a pair of station workers march smartly along the platform, buffing the railings with cloths as they go.

This organisation means the shinkansen need only stop for for 30 seconds, so you have to be ready to get off well before the train stops, or risk being whisked 100 km or more further up the line to the next stop.

On the train we settled into our comfy seats and tucked into our bento box, which was simple but delicious, and all beautifully prepared and arranged.

This supremely fast and comfortable train travel, complete with delicately prepared food, felt extremely luxurious after Russian train travel.  Not to say Russian trains are uncomfortable, but as we were already realising, travelling in Japan is like being wrapped in a great big, hand-made, hypoallergenic, blanket.  Everything is overwhelmingly easy and comfortable.

All of this comes at a price of course.  Train tickets in Japan are very very expensive.  Buses are much cheaper, but still not cheap, and travelling by bullet train was one of the things we really wanted to do in Japan, so we decided to take the hit and have a bit of luxury.  We’d planned to get a Japan Rail pass to cover our time there, which is expensive (£320 for 21 days), but very good value.

However, we couldn’t because we forgot that you can’t buy it in Japan, and we hadn’t got it in advance.  So, instead, we used a couple of regional passes, which you can buy at railway stations.  First we got a Sanyo & San’in area pass, which lasts 7 days and covers the south western third of the main island (Honshu), down to Fukuoka at the top of the next island down (Kyushu).

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Later on we got a Kansai Wide area pass, which got us around eastern Kansai (roughly in the middle of Honshu) for 5 days.  After that we had to switch to bus, since there’s no single regional pass that’ll get you all the way from Kansai to Tokyo.

You can present these passes at the ticket window to be issued a ticket for reserved seat, or just board the train without a ticket and sit in an unreserved carriage.  For all the journeys we made with the pass we just turned up at the station, reserved a seat at the window if we were going further than half an hour or so, and got on the next train.  The trains are so frequent that we never really looked at a timetable, or worried about booking in advance.

Getting a reserved seat ticket also helps for finding your train, as it’s got the departure time and type of train on it.  It’s very easy to get around stations and read departure boards in Japan (everything’s in English as well as Japanese), but as with everywhere, it can be hard to work out which train to get on if your station isn’t at the end of the line.

So our first journey across Japan was very quick and easy, and we arrived in Hiroshima by early afternoon, to be greeted by one of the few inconveniences that’s common in Japan: rain.

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Skin-soaking, street-slipperying, lush-green-hillside-making, rain.

And, of course, everybody had an umbrella.  Everybody, that is, but us.

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