Experiencing Japan By Rail
My husband, 14 & 10 years old sons and I are on the high speed Shinkansen train – Sakura 560 – bound for Shin Osaka. Having just visited the Toto toilet museum in Kokura, we are taking the 2 and a half hour (approximately 500km) ride back, along with many commuters. This is the 2nd last day of our 21 day holiday to Hong Kong and Japan. I don’t have the exact figures but I reckon we have travelled thousands of kilometres on the train, bus, subway and foot combined. Unlike many tourists, our idea of a holiday is not just the destination but also the journey itself.
Travelling has always been in our family. Since my husband (then boyfriend) and I backpacked around Europe in 1995, visiting 11 countries within a month, we have always shunned the tour coach style of travelling, preferring to use the local transport system or self-drive. Following Europe, we self-drove around California in 1997 and backpacked to the Scandinavia in 1999.
After our two boys arrived, we dropped our backpacks but the travelling bug is still alive. We have brought them to different parts of the world, overseas as well as interstate within Australia. In 2012, we went to South Korea as a family, navigating the complex subway system with a map and a limited vocabulary of Korean words. In 2014, we took a month off to drive from Melbourne to Alice Springs, the red center of Uluru. For this 4500km road trip where we often meet more wild life than humans, we pitched tents at many places or stayed in road houses along the way.
Compared to the Uluru journey, the accommodation in Hong Kong and Japan is much more luxurious. We slept on beds or futons and stayed mostly in rented apartments booked through Airbnb. This website offers very competitively priced accommodation although prices and standards vary, so do make comparisons before booking. Also, check how to get to the accommodation as well. This can be very tricky and costly if you have to transfer to the taxi or bus/subway to get there. Very often, we planned our next stop only about two to three days ahead. I know many people are uncomfortable with the idea of not knowing where you will sleep the day after next but if you avoid the peak season, accommodations are aplenty. This gives us the flexibility to decide if we want to stay longer at one place. The apartments in Japanese cities are very small, often about 25-40sqm. Although clean, the space is very tight for a family of four, unlike the 200sqm kind of houses we are used to in Melbourne suburbs. We do love the Japanese baths though and the way their bathrooms are so well insulated.
After the first three nights stopover in Hong Kong, where my sons fell in love with the Cantonese style of breakfast, we flew to Fukuoka to begin the Japanese leg of our journey. Unlike Hong Kong, where I can speak Cantonese, my Japanese is atrocious. Although I can read Hiragana and some Kanji words, which are Chinese characters with similar meanings but different pronunciation, so we can sometimes guess its meanings. Also, some of the Japanese, especially the railway staff can speak English and there are English words on most signages as well, so that really helped. Language is a barrier but amazingly we managed to get there, including getting off at all the right stops. Many of our interactions are with machines too, such as ordering food through vending machines that dispenses your food ticket, getting change on board a bus and buying subway tickets.
Not withstanding language barrier, navigating the complex Japanese rail and subway network was the most interesting experience of this trip. From Fukuoka, we went to Hiroshima, Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, all using the Japan Rail. As foreigners, we can buy the JR Pass which gives us unlimited travel on the trains for 21 days. Masses of people use the rail system to get to work and travel everyday. Every train runs on schedule, stops for less than a minute at each station and connecting from train to train is as normal as drinking green tea in Japan. As a foreigner, it was a little difficult trying to find our way to the right track amidst the sea of people moving in every direction. Whenever we moved to another city, we had to negotiate through the crowd with our baggage in tow. But we are not alone, many people travel like us, though we seldom see families with young kids. Once you get onto the right platform, it’s figuring out which direction, which train to board and which queue to line up for. Different trains comes few minutes apart, some are express trains that skips stops, others stops at every station. They also have different length of carriages, as such the car numbers varies at the same location on the platform. Even though we may have reserved seats, we need to figure out where to board the correct carriage to find our seats. Shinkansen trains usually has different platforms than local trains so do allow for extra time to walk from local train platforms to Shinkansen ones.
Of course, some mistakes were made, plus time spent trying to learn and find our directions. However, these are all part and parcel of the experience and that’s what made the journey interesting. Although it is a more physically demanding way of travelling, using the public transport system, not on air-conditioned coaches, I believe we get to experience many everyday life aspects of Japan that is more realistic. We stood in line with office workers going home at 1030pm, sat next to high school students after a long day in school and even slurped on a quick bowl of udon standing up at restaurants inside train stations.
We also walked a lot during our trip, sometimes we even had to run and we don’t always get a seat on the train during peak hours. It is great that our boys are older and tougher now to do this together. Other than visiting major tourist destinations such as Disneyland Tokyo, Miyajima, A-bomb Dome in Hiroshima and Mount Fuji, we also paid visits to smaller and not as popular attractions such as the Kyoto Railway Musuem, Toei Film Studios and the Toto Toilet Musuem. In addition, staying and wandering through the heartlands, we get to see parts of Japanese neighbourhoods and admire their style of architecture, things not commonly seen by package tour groups. Recommended by the local hosts we stayed with, we spent a relaxing time at their public bathhouse and even attended a vintage kimono sale.
We enjoyed this way of travelling, as the journey itself is a learning experience of the country’s culture and everyday life. We also love the flexibility of deciding where to go, what to do and the choice when it comes to deciding what and when we want to eat. It is our hope that through this way of travelling, our boys will learn the spirit of independence and adventure and appreciate different cultures, as they journey through life and continue their exploration of this beautiful world.
Eileen is the mother of two boys, aged 9 & 14. Originally from Singapore, she now calls Melbourne home. She is the founder of custom cakes studio Kekx Kreations and is also a qualified VET (vocational education and training) trainer in Bakery. A former cabin crew and trainer with Singapore Airlines, Eileen has travelled to more than 30 different cities in the world. Her training experience spans from Singapore, Australia to China. Other than baking, spending time with the family, teaching or traveling, Eileen enjoys watching Korean dramas and loves to sing karaoke.