Life in Japan: Transportation

From October 2012 to August 2013 I lived in Tokyo. Specifically, I lived in a town called Tama, inside Fuchu, within Tokyo, studying abroad at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. Japanese was my major and I was stoked to travel to Japan! It is one of the coolest things I've ever done. Spending a year in Japan taught me a lot, and I think it'd be cool to spread my knowledge with the world, just for fun. I wanted to kick this series off by talking about transportation in Japan. This was one aspect of Japanese culture that really impressed me. I had no idea how well the Japanese transportation system ran, and I really miss it sometimes, especially in a city like Boston, not particularly know for it's fabulous public transportation.

Cars

Let's start off with cars in Japan, since I really didn't have much experience in them. Japanese people drive on the left side of the road. Why? Well, among other countries, Britain approached Japan and was selected to build a railway system. The British practice of left-side driving was adopted by Japan, and that's they way it remains today. As an American, it was a little weird to be on the opposite side of the road, and also in the driver's side of the vehicle when riding in a car, but otherwise it was the same as the US. 

The same is true for most traffic signals and laws in Japan, although Tokyo was never designed for car traffic. Many of the roads are super narrow, and I often wondered how I never witnessed a car accident. Many intersections and driveways have a mirror at the end, so you can see around corners of walls and buildings, because everything is so compact. Like I said, I was only in a car a handful of times. Most of the time I was on a bike, bus, or train. 

Trains

Trains in Japan are really impressive. Not just the bullet trains, which I unfortunately never got the chance to ride, but the train system in general. Japan has two types of trains, public and private. The JR line, Japan's public railway, is a little more expensive, but it is expansive. It can get you anywhere you need to go in the entire country. In fact, the Japanese government encourages student travelling via the JR line during school holidays, offering a "Seishun 18 Kippu," which translates roughly to the "Youthful 18 Ticket." Despite the name, anyone can purchase a ticket, which allows you to travel on any JR line, to anywhere, at no extra charge, all day, for 5 unique days. The ticket is pretty cheap, too, so I made sure I took advantage of this, and traveled to the Kanto region. Although the ride was 10 hours long, and it involved switching from station to station, it was actually a great experience. I got to see different stations and landscapes along the way, and the trains are extremely reliably.

The reliability of Japanese trains is one of their best traits. Every station lets you know when every train will arrive, to the minute, and it is always accurate. If there is a delay, you are notified as to where and why. Sure, being on a delayed train was never fun, but at least the atmosphere inside the car was comfortable. Every train I rode in Tokyo and Osaka was well-kept and quiet. Very quiet. Being loud and disturbing others on the train is strongly discouraged, as it should be. You won't find anyone gabbing on the phone or playing drums for money. All of this comfort and reliability comes at a price, though. Unlike some American systems like New York's subway or Boston's T, the cost to travel varies by destination, and it can get a little pricey. This is why I was very keen to invest in a bike.

Bikes

Anyone who's played Pokemon knows that bikes are awesome. Bicycles are all over Japan, and it's really cool to see so many people using them. Just like cars, though, the streets of Tokyo were not designed for cyclists, and it can be somewhat dangerous to travel around. I never had any issues, but often you'll be off the sidewalk on a narrow street, avoiding cars. However, it is more common to ride on the sidewalk, which is safer, but you still have to watch for pedestrians. Fortunately, almost every bike in Japan is designed with this in mind.

That was my bike in the photo above. Notice the basket, and if you look carefully the bell on the handlebar. This is what's known as a "mamachari," which is short for "Mama Chariot," since it is designed for mother's to ride, with a bag or other contents in the basket, and a seat for a child attached to the fixture on the back.  At first I didn't know if I'd want a bike like this, since I am a big fan of cycling and my bike back home is sleek and built for speed. Luckily, everyone in Japan rides a bike like this so I didn't feel out of place, and I found the basket and bell to be extremely useful for grocery trips and warning pedestrians that I was behind them. The best part? I bought it brand new from the school store for only about $100, and it lasted until I left Japan, when I sold it used for about $20. Not bad!