Otaru – Sapporo – Hakodate – Shin Aomori – Omiya – Kanazawa: 1620 kilometres (1006 miles), 320 km/h (200 mph) at maximum speed, 12 hours, five trains including two shinkansens, two bento boxes and multiple snacks.

Japan countryside

This sums up our rail journey from Otaru in Hokkaido island to Kanazawa on Japan’s central Honshu last summer. During this ride, we took countless photos taken out of the windows of green paddy fields, mountains, blue waters and tiny Japanese houses in the distance, as well as wefies in front of departure boards at train stations.

It was cool to ride  from the northern end of Japan, across the Tsugaru Strait via Seikan Tunnel, the country’s longest underground tunnel, before emerging above ground and traversing halfway across the main island of Honshu.

Map of Otaru to Kanazawa by train

This was my first time taking a long-distance train in Japan and it was fun to have had such a prolonged and immersive experience. People on the train were quiet and mindful to not disturb fellow travellers. Some brought their own bento boxes while others chose from the trolley when the food service lady came down the aisle, and empty food containers were carefully disposed of.

I was particularly impressed by the shinkansens. More so by the spaciousness, cleanliness and comfort of the interiors – which reminded me of business class sections on airplanes – than by the incredible speed at which they travelled. The toilets were automated, huge (well, bigger than the one in my place), brightly lit and remarkably clean.

Train station in Japan - shot with Portra 160 film

While the surroundings were different each time we changed trains, the routine was similar:
– Disembark
– Check the departure board for the platform where the next train will arrive
– If time permits, stop by Family Mart / Lawson / 7-11 to buy water, sweets or onigiri
– If changing to a shinkansen, go through the boarding gate with JR Rail Pass and ticket for the next ride
– Take two wefies in front of the departure board, one showing the next destination in romanji characters, the second in hiragana and kanji
– Stand in line as train pulls up
– Locate seats, put away luggage and settle into the comfortable seats
– Unwrap onigiri or open bento box when hungry – and remember to say “itadakimasu”
– Read, write, doodle, take photos with phone, or sleep which I often ended up doing for the most part

Japanese rail travel

In a previous post where I reviewed The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux, I wrote briefly about the joy of train travel.

I think rail travel is the most civilised way to travel. I find it superior to airplane travel – it is less stressful, obnoxious and intrusive, as well as more comfortable and leisurely while (often) providing an ever-changing view of the land around us.

What about you? Do you enjoy travelling by trains?

6 replies on “Vignettes of Japan #8: The Civilised Way to Travel

  1. I agree with you that trains are the best way to travel, Angelina … especially when they’re as fast, quiet, and clean as those you encountered in Japan. One of my big regrets is that in the United States we don’t have even an approximation of the rail networks you find in other countries. It’s probably one of the reasons I end up going to Europe so often … because it really is much easier to explore small towns and see the landscape, without the burden of having to drive a car. Anyway. Thank you for a wonderful glimpse into train travel in Japan. I hope to follow in your footsteps someday soon! Cheers to you.

    1. Hi Heather, sorry for the belated reply. I was travelling for work for most of the last month – sadly, I only took a train once and it was to go from Cannes to Marseille.

      AB is from the US and works on public transportation planning, so I’ve also heard much from him too about the lacking US train/rail network. It’s unfortunate how the entire country was given over to the automobile industry in the last few decades and the rail network was left to languish. I was happy to read about the recent interest in train travel in the US, thanks to Amtrak’s Writers in Residency programme. But it will take much more than this before any significant policy changes are made in this area.

      Hope that you’ll get to visit Japan sometime soon and when you do, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line for recommendations.

    1. Thanks Robert! I’m trying out a new ‘format’ for presenting my favourite moments and memories from my recent trip to Japan. So there will be more “vignettes from Japan” to come!

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