Friday, March 17, 2017

Public Transit in Japan

Hello all,

So it occurred to me the other day that as one embarks on the adventure that is traveling Japan, often the questions of what's cheap, what's fast, and what's worth it come up. So here I wanted to go over all of them and weight the pros and cons so that everyone can get a good idea of how they can best travel Japan.


(Photo Courtesy of SFGate)

Cost: Majorly expensive. From Narita Airport (成田空港) to Tokyo (東京) (about a 1 hour drive with no traffic), a taxi can run over $300 USD (compare to a similarly timed trip in Washington, DC which runs about $50).

Speed: Depends on location. In heavily populated areas, the speed is decent depending on the time of day (aka, not rush hour). Similarly,

Convenience: Very good. If you don't know how to get somewhere, most cab drivers can get you there with pictures, written addresses, or maps in the case that you don't speak Japanese.

Comfort: Cabs have automatic doors which open on command and are very clean.

Worth it?: If you're going a short distance and are traveling with 4 people or more (and if you have the budget for it).

  • Do your research before hand on where to go. It will normally eliminate your need and reliance on taxis significantly.

(Photo Courtesy of Japan Times)

Cost: Cheap. Can be rented by the hour or by the day.

Speed: Decent if you're staying in local areas.

Convenience: Not bad if you're going through local areas or if you're in areas where trains do not stop in many places. It's faster than a bus and if you're going less than 5 stations away, it's still a pretty decent method of travel. Anymore than that and a local train may be a better option. For example, Kyoto (京都) is a great area for renting out a bicycle. Also, if you have small children, you can get bicycles with children's seats on the back. The downside to bicycles is that you can't carry much on them and you should know the rules of the road, which can be tricky.

Comfort: Depends on you and your inclination towards physical activity and where exactly it is you are planing on going. Consider the terrain - is it flat or hilly; will there be a lot of people, what's the weather like, etc.

Worth it?: Unless you're staying in one small area, not really.

  • Ideally, one should peddle on the roads, not the sidewalks. Some places make this easy, others make it difficult. Additionally, knowing where to park your bicycle is also important to avoid it being confiscated by local authorities. A good way to park properly is to look for areas that are of little hindrance to others or are specifically designated for bicyclists.
  • Some lodging places have bicycles that can be rented for free or at little charge. So if you're interested, be sure to ask at the front desk.
  • Most rental shops will want to see some form of id when renting out a bicycle, so be sure to bring one!
  • Not all rental shops allow bicycles to be rented overnight, so be sure to check how long you can have the bicycle rented out for.
  • You can register a bicycle in the case of theft, though this is a rare occurrence.
  • Make sure you know where the bicycle locks are and how to use them.
  • Helmets are optional and not always provided at rental shops. If you want a helmet, you might want to bring your own!
Local Trains:
(The Yamanote Line. Photo Courtesy of TheDailyParker)

Cost: Very affordable. More expensive than trains in other Asian countries, BUT still much cheaper than trains in America.

Speed: Local trains arrive relatively quickly. Rapid trains are great if you can catch them, just be aware of what stations they do and do not stop at.

Convenience: Always on time. The only times I've ever experienced a train being late was due to something being on the tracks (which is quickly resolved). All information is normally displayed in both Japanese and English and trains generally stop at all major areas of the cities and prefectures they run in. Buses can be found close to train stations as well. The trains themselves often run within 5 to 10 minutes of one another, so even if you miss your train, another one is likely right on the way. Phone apps also give great direction for the fastest ways to get to and from various stations at the present time with a variety of routes and price options. Tokyo has one of the best local train systems in the world. With so many lines and stops, it's easy to get from one place to another via the local train.

Comfort: Decent. If you get a seat, you're fine. Some areas are reserved for those with disabilities, the elderly, those with children, and pregnant/nursing women. During rush hour though, expect to stand and be a little squished (ladies, bring flats if you can). They also have women only cars during certain hours of the day on certain train lines. If you're in Tokyo, the trains are generally extremely clean. Other cities' trains are also kept in good shape.

Worth it?: Most definitely.

  • Grab a JR Pass card to reduce the cost of your fares and to get to the platforms quickly
  • Don't eat on the trains. Drinking water is okay, but anything that could spill and be sticky isn't a great idea.
  • If you need to talk, speak in hushed tones, particularly in Tokyo.
  • Politely line up on the platforms and wait your turn to board. The trains will not leave without you. :)
  • Some cities, like Tokyo, will have several train companies running various lines through out the city. Thus, if you get a rail pass, make sure it will apply to all of the local train lines.
  • Google Maps often utilize the train schedules for great accuracy. Other apps like Hyperdia are also worth looking at and downloading for directions.
  • While not common, some groping exists on trains. This is why women only cars exist. Still, you may not be able to avoid a general car if the women only cars are full. In order to minimize risk of harassment, stand against a wall or door, back to the wall/door, with your hands in front of you.  In the case that you do face harassment, yell the words "Hanashite!" (放して) meaning "Let go!" or "Hentai!" (変態) meaning "Pervert!". As being linked to that kind of image is obviously not desirable, yelling either of the above should succeed in warding off any predator. At the next stop, get off and find a station attendant ("Eki-in" / 駅員) for assistance. Standing near middle-school aged boys is also recommended as they are more likely to intervene on your behalf than others as they are not as prone to worry about public appearance as some might be. Again, this is not common. I went two years there without experiencing any of the sort even once. Still, always good to be prepared!

(Photo Courtesy of Japan Times)

Cost: Cheap

Speed: Rather slow. Probably a little slower than a local train, yet will likely have more stops in areas not accessible by train.

Convenience: Decent. Really depends on where you're going and where your starting location is.

Comfort: Depends. Each bus is different. Local buses are made for short rides, so comfort isn't high and they can get packed near bustling city centers. Charter buses are much more comfortable, some including wi-fi, power outlets, and reclining seats.

Worth it?: If you have the time and don't mind long drives, yes. If you're traveling somewhere not close to a train station, need to get there relatively quickly, and it's on route, yes.

  • You can use your JR train pass for many local buses. 
  • Reservations in advance are recommended for charter buses.
  • Overnight charter buses are cheaper than day charter buses. If you can sleep in the car, you might consider this an option for a long trip.
Bullet Trains (Shinkansen / 新幹線):

(Japan's Bullet Train pulling out of the station)

Cost: On the pricier side. Still better than a taxi and faster.

Speed: Superman level. Seriously. While some Shinkansen trains (新幹線 meaning "new main line")  like the Kodamo (こだも meaning "Echo") are made for speeds of 175 mph, most trains, like the Hikari (ひかり meaning "Light"), Sakura (さくら meaning "Cherry Blossom") , Nozomi (のぞみ meaning "Dream", "Wish", "Hope", or "Desire"), and Mizuho (みずほ), operate at 185 mph. Their top trains, the Maglevs, have breached speeds of 375 mph, however, these trains are still in preliminary stages with as of now, only one line in production, the Chuo Shinkansen line (中央新幹線 meaning "Center new main line"), running between Tokyo and Nagoya (名古屋). Still, at 185 mph, who can beat that?

Convenience: Excellent in the case of longer trips. All announcements are made in Japanese and English and the trains are always on time. There are places to store larger luggage pieces.

Comfort: You'll feel like royalty. Okay, maybe not really, but you'll certainly be comfortable. Seats are great to sit on, cars are always clean (you may be lucky and witness the cars being cleaned in under 7 minutes prior to boarding), and you can barely feel trains departing and arriving. Perhaps the only downside is that some cars have 'smoking rooms' which supposedly block out the smell of smoke. They don't. Try to avoid these cars for the best comfort.

Worth it?: Really depends on...
1. How much time you have and 
2. How far you're traveling. 
If you don't have a lot of time and are traveling a decent way, it's worth it. If you're traveling a shorter distance (one that can be reached via local trains), I would only take it if you're short on time. If you're traveling a longer distance, but the train would take longer than a plane to travel to your final destination, then no, it's probably not worth it.

  • Purchase a reserved seat, especially during rush hour.
  • Trains don't have places to buy food. Buy a Bento (弁当 meaning "lunch box") to bring with you. Unlike local trains, eating on bullet trains is okay! Just don't leave a mess.
  • If you're going to be traveling a lot through out Japan and via local trains, it is worth purchasing a JR Rail Pass which is only available for tourists. It's a little pricey at first, but it applies to most JR trains, both local and bullet. Check out this website for details: JR Pass


(Photo Courtesy of Pinterest)

Cost: About the same as a Bullet Train, though likely a little cheaper.

Speed: The planes are fast. Getting to, getting on, and getting off them, not so much. Airports are run well, but like all airports, getting through them takes time.

Convenience: Not super. Most airports are out of the way and not near city centers. Big cities like Sapporo (札幌), Tokyo, and Osaka (大崎) will have trains departing out of the airports, however other cities may require bus rides to and from the airport. In short, do your research before hand. Also, like mentioned earlier, it takes forever to get in and out of the airports themselves. The planes are fast. The airports are not.

Comfort: Depends on what airline and what class ticket you purchase. Most of the time, flights within the country are short (under 2 hours), so even if you can't grab an aisle seat, you won't be stuck in a small space for too long if you're flying economy. Cheaper airlines typically use older planes, but they still fly decently, you just may see some age on the interiors of the planes' decor.

Worth it?: If you're traveling to and from cities, have the time, and are looking to save some money, then yes. If you want to reduce travel time, this likely isn't your best option.


  • Check out airlines like Peach and JetStar Japan for more local flights at cheaper prices. Airlines like All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Japan Airlines bump up the price in comparison as their planes are generally newer and more comfortable (all links in English). However, this makes the Bullet Train the cheaper option.

In conclusion, the best methods of transit are the ones that will suit your needs at the right price. Make plans in advance for how to get to and from various places. Consider time, money, comfort, and speed when making your plans. In regards to time, err on the side of caution. Particularly if you have a lot to do or a lot that you want to see, time is valuable. You may also consider 'the experience factor' as well. Bullet Trains are some of the world's greatest modern wonders, while riding the Yamanote (山手線) is just part of the brilliance that is Tokyo (and it's just about in every J-drama/anime that takes place in said Metropolis).

Hopefully, with the information above, you will have a much easier time making travel decisions.

Good luck!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Meiji Shinto Shrine with the Sisters

Hello everyone,

I hope this week has been treating you well. Today I wanted to tell you all about an experience I had about three years ago, just because it is such a good memory. I was very fortunate in this memory to be able to spend the day with two lovely Sister Missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints on their free day in early spring of 2014.

While living in Japan, I often went to church at a Japanese-speaking ward or group. The sister missionaries however, were both from the States so we spoke together often in English. Sister Missionaries get one free day to get whatever they need to do done as well as take in sites if they are accompanied by a member. As we were super close to Tokyo, the two Sisters asked if I would join them on their day off to visit the Meiji Shinto Shrine in Harajuku (原宿) so that they could experience more of the Japanese Culture and surrounding areas.

While I'll explain more fully about Harajuku in another post, the Meiji Shinto Shrine or "Meiji Jingu" (明治神宮) is the largest Shinto Shrine in Tokyo and was formally dedicated in 1920. Unfortunately, the original building was lost to air raids during World War II, but the Japanese have since reconstructed the Shrine, which has become one of the primary attractions of Tokyo due to its size and Emperor Meiji's significance in history.

The Shrine is dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his wife, the Empress Shoken, both of whom are buried near Kyoto and the former of which was responsible for the end of the Edo Period. With the end of the Edo Period, the Meiji Restoration took place and Japan's doors were once again opened to outsiders. The building was built for the purpose of enshrining their souls and is still in use today. Many ceremonies and events such as weddings, baby blessings, funerals, Hatsumode (First Year's Prayers and Shrine Visits)(初詣), and the Dezuiri (when the Grand Sumo Champion enters the ceremony ring of the shrine occurs) (手数入り).  And despite all of this, the place remains a calm in a sea of hustle and bustle. Needless to say, it's worth checking out.

I met the Sisters outside of the entrance to the Meiji Shrine. After taking some pictures at the impressively tall torii gates (鳥居), we began our walk down the path to the main building of the shrine. One of the cool things to see was the Imperial Family's crest on the torii gates, which is unique only to Imperial Shrines. On the walk, we passed by loads of Sake (酒) barrels (Sake is rice wine). I took a picture for the two sisters in front of the barrels, who were then stopped by a foreign tourist passing by, who asked if they should be taking pictures in front of alcohol. Surprised that the man recognized who they were, it led to an interesting conversation about what the Sisters were doing at the Shrine (it turned out that the gentleman knew who they were and was pulling their leg). It was a delightfully fun experience.

So that begs the question, why were there so many Sake barrels? At the beginning of the year, sake companies each donate a barrel of sake to notable shrines in the hopes of receiving good luck, prosperity, and fortune in the coming years. If you were to look closely, brands like Kirin beer even had given barrels. Quiet a site!

We then proceeded to the main area, where before going in we stopped at the purification trough where we washed our left hand, then our right, then drank (and/or spit) from the right, and then washed our right hands again out of respect (we would want the same respect to be shown at our holy places too!). We took a photo outside the main building before going in and passed by a small shop where amulets and charms could be purchased on our way. These have always been interesting to me as you could buy any from protection against evil and luck in romance to good luck in passing an exam or traffic safety. There are a whole bunch!

Inside, the center of the Shrine was mostly bare, with the exception of Ema (a place where wishes could be written on wooden blocks) (絵馬), Omikuji (fortune telling slips) (御神籤), and two trees supporting a large Shimenawa (標縄) meant to mark a sacred place.  Up at the main structure where the offering hall was, people went up and tossed coins in, after which they would pray.

After walking around a bit inside the main area, the three of us departed, ending our journey into the shrine. It had been a relatively short visit, but it meant a lot to me being able to appreciate a peaceful place in the heart of Japan's capital with the Sisters. It made me feel that much more connected to Japan than I had before for some reason and thus it remains a very good memory to me.

More than once I've visited this Shrine and it is always a nice experience. It is enjoyable because it is one of the best places to have a chance to gain exposure to Japanese Heritage and Culture as well as gain a higher respect and understanding of the Japanese and part of their Identity. I highly recommend taking time out of your schedule to visit this Shrine if you get to visit Tokyo in the future. It's a good break from the noise of the city to enjoy the peace and serenity of Japan.

Till I write you again,