Sunday, February 17, 2019

Mountain "Training" in Japan

-- Susan, every other Sunday

One major benefit of trying to climb 100 Japanese mountains in a single year is the chance to ride so many of Japan's amazing trains.

The Fuji Express. An extremely happy train.

In historical terms, railroads came to Japan relatively recently--the first train line in the country (which connected Yokohama with Tokyo--now a 25 minute trip by commuter rail) opened in 1872.

Japan embraced railroads as part of the Meiji Restoration-era efforts to modernize (and Westernize) the country. The government imported Western railroad engineering experts, not only to help with  construction and design of the initial lines, but to train Japanese engineers--with the plan of achieving an entirely Japanese railroad engineering program, and designing railway lines domestically, as quickly as possible.

Local train, Kyushu

I'd say they succeeded beyond even the Meiji Emperor's wildest dreams.

Today, Japan is a world leader when it comes to trains and railways. Some of the technology is still imported from abroad, but utilized with a decidedly Japanese spin. (Hello Kitty Shinkansen, anyone?)

For long-distance travel, the high-speed shinkansen (often referred to in the West as the "bullet train") is comfortable and stylish:

Instantly recognizable, second to none. Master of the rails.
Inside the Shinkansen.

if more expensive than the local trains.

The Hayabusa shinkansen - the fastest train in Japan.

That said, high-speed options and express trains exist for shorter distances too--like the Narita Express (abbreviated N'Ex), which travels from the mountains outside Tokyo to and from Narita Airport.

The futuristic N'Ex pulling into Shinjuku Station

Ratchet down another level, and you're talking about "local" train lines, many of which run hundreds of kilometers in length.

The workhorses of Shikoku, in southern Japan's Tokushima Station
On these tracks, you can find several different kinds of trains, ranging from the ultra-fast Commuter Express and Limited Express (which stop at only a few major stations), to the slightly-slower semi-express and special express (which stop at a few more stations), and finally the "slow-boat" local trains that stop at every station.

Themed trains--including, but certainly not limited to that Hello Kitty Shinkensen I linked above--are popular too, especially in parts of the country known for certain sights.

I've ridden a ninja-themed train in Mie Prefecture (once Iga Province, home of the Iga ninja clans)

All aboard! (There's a blue one, too - which I was riding when I took this photo.)

The "Fuji Express" in the Fuji Five Lakes Region:

Who knew Fuji had such big . . . trains . . .

(and yes, you can see Mt. Fuji from the train if the day is clear).

And Thomas the Tank Engine trains--again near Fuji Five Lakes.

My son would have loved this when he was small.

(The themed train promotes a new attraction at a nearby amusement park, which now features "Thomas the Tank Engine Land.")
The decorations are inside, as well as outside. 
Incidentally: watching Japanese businessmen in expensive three-piece suits riding to work on the Thomas the Tank Engine Express was almost as entertaining as riding the train itself.

Some of the trains, while highly familiar to Japanese people, are less familiar to foreigners--like the "Anpanman" train in Shikoku, which celebrates a Japanese superhero (and eponymous anime series) who has an anpan (bean paste stuffed bread) for a head.

Anpanman - a local hero, now with his own themed train.

When the anpanman express goes by, small children often stop and wave. (And yes, I waved back.) Even adults often stopped to look and smile.

It's easy to think of trains as falling somewhere between romantic, outdated modes of travel and the daily commuter workhorses that service millions around the globe. In proper circumstances, both are true. However, this year has taught me that trains are infinitely more than transportation--modern or otherwise. At least in Japan, they're also clean, convenient, and an opportunity for some serious fun.


  1. WOW. I don't know what book(s) you're going to write after this great adventure, but I'm buying ALL OF THEM. You simply have a gift for training our attention on everything Japan.

    1. Thank you Jeff! The experiences have definitely given me a lot to choo on.

  2. A major component of Japanese culture seems to be to include ART in just about everything that's done, not just build something that's 100% utilitarian but to also make it INTERESTING.

    While Jeff likes to make puns, I'll simply say that I'll be making tracks to the nearest bookstore as soon as your next book pulls into the station.

    1. LOL! Thank you! I do love the beauty and fun that seems to infuse everything over here. Boredom is definitely something they've trained out of me!

  3. Susan, what a privilege for me to have traveled on the world’s greatest public transit system with you!