Today was a very busy day.
We started off with breakfast at the McDonald’s just up the street from the hotel. I know, I know, what in the world are we doing going to McDonald’s in Japan? Because it was 9am by the time we got out of the hotel room and we didn’t feel like searching out somewhere else to have breakfast. Plus, for the same reason the first few beverages I’ve had here were Pepsi: Japan has different varieties of things found in North America. To wit, I had a breakfast sandwich that I hadn’t seen before: double sausage patty, egg, cheese, bacon, and ketchup. Mmmmm.
The first order of business was to head to Tokyo Station to exchange our JR Rail Pass vouchers for the real deal. We strolled up a neat hill to head to the upper entrance of Ueno Station (the only one where my brother could get both into the station and onto the platforms). We sat there staring at the system map for a while trying to figure out which ticket to purchase. We knew where we wanted to go (Tokyo Station) but the entire map was in Japanese. My brother had an English version of the system map on his iPod touch, but it was back at the room because we had initially figured on heading back after breakfast before going to Tokyo. Though my brother was nearly certain which station was the right one on the map, he wasn’t 100% sure. A lady noticed us staring at the board and came over to ask if we needed help. After a brief exchange, we knew which station was ours and went to get our tickets.
The fare system in Japan (at least for the JR lines) is calculated based on how far you travel on a given excursion. In our case, Ueno Station to Tokyo Station is fairly short, so the cost was only ¥150 each.
After just a single day experiencing JR’s train system, I can say that North America is so very badly behind the times. The interval between trains is as brief as two minutes, so if you miss one it’s not that big a deal. Each train is between 10 and 15 cars (depending on the line) and can thusly hold a significant number of people, even when they’re not crammed full. They’re all electric, and their non-light rail design means high speeds. Each car has eight sets of doors (four on each side) and you can travel freely between the cars.
At the stations themselves, each train comes charging in and stops in the same spot each time. The platforms have markings showing where the doors of each car will be and people line up waiting to get on in an orderly fashion. If only people in Edmonton acted like this at LRT stations instead of clumping around the entrances. During rush hour, you can see nice, neat lines at each “door stop” along the platform. Very cool. Each train has a conductor at the rear who steps off in each station and presses an On button on a pole nearby which starts, depending on the station, either a little musical chime or something that sounds like a ringing cell phone. This is the indication that the train is loading and will be leaving soon. When it’s time to go, he presses the Off button and gets back on the train. Overhead, there are video monitors showing live closed-circuit feeds of the train so he can ensure that all the doors are clear, at which point he signals to the driver and the train continues on its way.
And for finding your way in the stations, the signage is fantastic. Overhead signs clearly point you in the right direction, whether you’re heading for a platform or an exit. Some stations even have the supports for the elevators colour-coded to the platforms they take you to. For example, if you wanted to go to Lines 1 and 2 at Tokyo Station, you’d take the blue and green elevator.
Kudos to you, JR, for building a wonderful rail transportation system!
JR Rail Pass
Tokyo Station is big, really big. It’s a large hub with dozens of lines passing through. It’s also where we picked up our Rail Pass.
The JR Rail Pass is provided to non-citizens of Japan and can only be purchased outside the country via a voucher that you then redeem for the pass itself once in Japan. There are various options to choose from, but since this is a 3 week trip, we went for the 21-day ¥57,700 option (current exchange makes that $704.78 CAD). What it gives us is unlimited travel on all lines of the JR Group: Ordinary Cars on Shinkansen (bullet trains), limited express, express, and local trains. It’s even good on a bunch of bus lines as well as the ferry from Miyajima and Miyajimaguchi, which we’ll be taking later on in the trip.
Considering that some of the trains rides we’re taking on some day trips are over ¥10,000 each way, the pass easily pays for itself. And all we do at the stations is head to the “disabled gate” at the access terminals (which we would’ve had to use anyway), flash the pass, and walk on in.
Once we got back to Ueno, we decided to hit up Ameya Yokocho which starts just outside the station. It’s a narrow labyrinth of streets that run parallel (as well as under) the JR lines and is home to, well, just about anything. Here you can shop for fish, electronics, clothes, shoes, and much, much more.
Next up was the large Ueno Park. Tall, lush trees abound here, but unfortunately they hadn’t all started turning their fall colours yet. Our last night in Japan will be spent back in Ueno, so hopefully by then there will be more to see in the foliage than mostly green with a few hints of colour.
There are all manner of things to see and do at Ueno Park. There’s a zoo with an amusement park for the kids, and major attractions such as the Tokyo National Museum, the Orient Museum, the National Science Museum, the Shitamachi Museum, the National Museum for Western Art, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Fine Art Gallery.
The park spans two primary “levels” with most of the large buildings in the upper section and about 1.5 storeys below lies things such as Shinobazu Pond which extends next to and beyond our hotel (we’re right across the street from lower area of the park).
We had a late lunch which was a simple stop off at a nearby convenience store to grab some Pepsi White (Pepsi & Yogurt), some “pizza” chips, and a noodle bowl.
We jumped on the subway for a ¥180 ride to Yokohama. On leaving the station I picked up some grape Calpis which was really good and some Hi-Chew to snack on as we walked around.
The big draw for us in Yokohama is the 70 storey Landmark Tower, the tallest building in Japan, and home to a 5-star hotel we were thinking of staying in on our final night in Japan. The hotel runs through the upper floors of the building, so the view would be amazing.
In the mall attached to the building, there were Christmas displays all over and carols playing over the sound system. They start almost as early here as they do back home, and there’s Christmas stuff to be seen in most of the major centers.
Near the Landmark Tower there is a big ferris wheel and other attractions, including a full-size sailing ship harboured inland. Also nearby – in fact, just at the base of the tower – there is an old dry dock that’s been converted into a nice alcove of sorts. It’s awash up with accent lighting and the stairs that take you down to the bottom of it have their fronts covered in LEDs displaying an animation loop. The old access ways out of the bottom of the dry dock have been turned into entrances into the mall (there are stores all along the “outside” of the dry dock) and some of the upper access ways are now office windows.
On the way back to the JR Sakuragicho Station to head back to Ueno, we came across a live performance being put on by a band named Baricang. It was a really good show and at one point, their portable generator (which they were using to power a surprising amount of stage gear) ran out of gas. While the guitarist ran to their van to get some more gas for the generator, the rest of the members handed out stickers to the crowd that had gathered to enjoy the show.
We got in line to buy their CD and when we got to the front of the line, they had just sold their last one. Quick thinking prevailed as they grabbed the demo CD they were playing after the show and offered it to us at half price! So now my brother has a Baricang CD, signed by all the band members.
The trains were fairly busy at this time of night, but hours worked in Japan are very different so you get office workers heading home at all hours of the afternoon and evening.
Back in Ueno the elevator that we take to get down to the street after heading down the hill beside the station was closed (shuts down at 10:00pm each night) so we had to head back up the hill and go through Ueno Park to get back to the hotel.
We got back to the hotel around 11:30pm, where I transferred and reviewed the rest of the day’s pictures. I started writing this post and gave up due to being tired and jotted down the rest of the content as point form notes to be fleshed out later.
… a short while later …
Well, here I am on Day 7 sitting in the Shinkansen on a two hour ride to our next stop, Nagoya, and am finally getting to work on finishing this post. When I had a spare minute here and there, I’d work on it a bit, but never had the time to really sit down and type.
Since that night, I’ve been jotting down notes on my iPod touch as each day progresses and transcribing them into MarsEdit when I can, hopefully getting to writing up the full posts at some point. The way it looks, though, is that many of my posts will be delayed until after the trip is over as I just don’t have the time to write them up each day (let alone select, tag, and explain the photos that I want to upload). I could just write less, but these blog posts are acting as more than just info for friends and family, but also as a journal of the adventure.
As I’m currently writing this on Day 7 of the trip, I’ve had some time to take in the culture here. There are some things that have struck me as interesting.
Tokyo is a very clean area (Tokyo isn’t actually a city but a prefecture made up of 23 districts). It’s incredibly hard to find garbage cans when you’re walking around, even in large parks and malls, and yet there’s very little litter … anywhere! Plus, since Japan as a country is so physically small, they burn a lot of their garbage. As such, there are two primary garbage cans: one for plastics, and one for combustibles. In some cases I’ve seen five cans clustered together: combustibles, incombustibles, empty cans, empty bottles, and empty pet bottles.
There is a downright ingenious system of navigation aids in Tokyo, and they can be found almost everywhere from streets and stations to walkways and alleys. They’re guides for those with vision impairments that use canes to navigate their surroundings. They walk alongside these yellow tiles sliding their cane into them as they go. When the feedback changes (parallel bars to dots, for example) they know it’s time to turn a certain direction. Double blocks of dotted tiles mean stairs ahead. We managed to see someone making use of these tiles inside the station, and it was pretty remarkable to see. She just walked along at normal speed the entire time, turning when she needed to. When you look around a place like Tokyo Station, it makes perfect sense why a system like this was devised; huge open spaces with large support columns would make it very difficult for the visually impaired to find their way without such a system.
Finally, and this is something that didn’t occur to me until a few days into the trip, but the people here are very trim! There are heavier people here, but they’re few and far between. You look around and all you see is people in fairly good shape. Goes to show you what diet and lifestyle can do for a people (I’m looking at you, USA, where I saw significant numbers of overweight people on recent trips to Orlando and San Francisco. Polar opposite here in Japan.
As for now, I’m going to sit back and enjoy the last half hour of the Shinkansen ride and post this once I get to the hotel in Nagoya. Already got some great shots of Mt. Fuji from the window, but that’s a story for the Day 7 post (if I ever get to it!).