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The Essence of Japan by Rail

Along the Katsura River, Kyoto

Snow-capped Mt. Fuji

The Imperial Palace
by Nick Walton

[From Winter 2011] Slow down, soak in the sights; after all, travelling by train is as much about the journey as it is the destination. And with its blend of sleek, modern cities, colourful sub cultures, postcard-perfect rural landscape and villages steeped in ancient traditions, the essence of Japan is best sampled by rail.

In an age where most travellers often see whole continents at 40,000 feet from an aircraft window, the romance of rail travel continues to seduce those looking for a real connection with their surroundings. Japan, with its extensive rail network and high-speed locomotives, is a great destination to explore by train. You can criss-cross between major cities like a speeding bullet, or take slower local trains to discover somnolent, yet beautiful rural landscapes.

Although train travel is efficient and safe in Japan, it can also be expensive and complicated. Japan Railways itself is made up of six rail companies, and there are other private rail travel providers too, so your first step should be to get a Japan Rail Pass, which covers the vast majority of train routes and the various services which run on them. For intercity trips like Tokyo to Osaka, it’s best to jump onto one of Japan’s iconic Shinkansen "bullet trains." These super-sleek, high-speed trains first started in 1964 and today, a total of 2,459km (1,528 miles) of high-speed track links Japan’s major cities. The Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka line is Japan’s busiest, with several companies all offering different services. One way fares for the JR Shinkansen start from ¥13,000 (approx. $158 US) for the full route; not cheap, but you’ll be in Osaka in one hour and forty minutes and have an exhilarating ride along the way.

Despite the cost (and the excitement of travelling so fast), for many people this is a normal commute and passengers flick open newspapers or talk seriously on cell phones while the ever changing landscape streaks by like a melting watercolour. Often, the few westerners on board find it hard to unglue their faces from the windows as the towering commercial buildings, shopping streets and the massive suburban sprawl of Tokyo give way to towns, villages, open-air markets and farm fields, all of which flash by at a seemingly impossible pace. Despite the speed, trains like the JR500 Shinkansen are remarkably quiet and elegant, with passengers relaxing in comfortable airline-style seats, complete with bar car service.

Tokyo is a natural starting point for any train journey. The mega-city has a unique vitality, and every one of the 12 million inhabitants seems to be in a quiet, urgent rush. Fortunately, getting around the capital’s attractions is easy; the Japan Railways (JR) East network, two subway systems and various private lines, make exploring the city’s four corners affordable and efficient. The Tsukiji Fish Market, with its tuna auction at dawn; Sensōji, the city’s largest Buddhist temple, located in Asakusa; and the 12-square kilometre Imperial Palace, are all easily accessible by Tokyo’s clean, modern, and incredibly punctual subway.

From Tokyo, the JR Shinkansen train passes between awe-inspiring Mt. Fuji and Mt. Hakone, easily visible from the banks of Lake Hamana further south, before pulling into Nagoya Station, the world’s largest, and the headquarters of Japan Rail.

Nagoya is Japan’s forth largest city and home to its car giants. Unfortunately, much of the city was destroyed during the bombing of WWII, but a few gems from its Tokugawa Dynasty heritage remain, stored at the Tokugawa Art Museum, which displays treasures once owned by a dynasty which ruled for 250 years. Another great spot in Nagoya is the Nittaiji Temple, home to the 15 metre Gandala-style Taian Pagoda, which houses relics of the Buddha, gifted to Japan by the King of Thailand. In summer, residents and visitors alike come together for the Nagoya Castle Summer Night Festival, when the city’s iconic landmark is lit up with lanterns and circle dances honour family ancestors. There is also the Nagoya Groovin’ Summer, a series of free outdoor jazz concerts. Both events are held in August.

From Nagoya it’s a quick, straight journey down to Osaka over the Kumozu River. The JR Shinkansen bullet trains complete the route in just under an hour for approximately ¥6,380 (approx. $77 US), while local trains, which stop many times as the route rarely leaves urban development, can take up to three hours. If you’re looking to spend a couple of days in Osaka, dedicate at least a morning to Kaiyukan, one of the world’s largest aquariums, with 11,000 tons of water hosting several species of shark, otters, dolphins and seals. In the afternoon, visit the National Bunraku Theatre, one of the last places offering intricate Edo-era style puppet shows. Each puppet character is operated by three technicians and plays are set to traditional music from the 1600-1700s.

And if you’re in town in mid-March, you can’t miss the Sumo Spring Grand Tournament, the grand slam of sumo wrestling. Held at the Osaka Prefecture Gymnasium, this is the proud home of Japan’s most iconic sport and although tickets don’t come cheap, it’s a unique insight into Japanese culture and heritage. Not only is Osaka a great city in itself, but a further short train ride takes you to Kyoto, Japan’s main temple town. You can get there on the cheap by using Japan Rail’s slightly slower Shinkaisoku service or on the private Hankyu or Keihan lines, which take about an hour and cost ¥6,000 (approx. $73 US). Kansai Travel Through passes are also available should you want to explore around Osaka and across to Kobe.

Kyoto is the former capital of Japan and the residence of the Japanese emperor between 794 and 1868. His homes are among the city’s 17 Unesco-protected world heritage sites, including two imperial palaces, and two imperial villas, surrounded by sprawling gardens. If you’re a real history buff, register online with the Imperial Household Agency for English-language tours of the imperial palaces before arriving in Kyoto.

In March and April, join the city’s residents and check out the seasonal cherry blossoms on the Philosopher’s Path between Nanzen-ji to Ginkaku-ji, before shopping for jewellery and art made from Damascne, an ancient metal created by a process of embedding other metals together, that first originated in Syria, and now is only continued in Kyoto. The process includes rusting, corroding and boiling metals in tea, to create beautifully intricate pieces. Kyoto is also home to the Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Originally built in 1387 as the retirement villa of a powerful Shogun, it was converted into a Zen Buddhist temple by his son and features extensive lacquer and gilding work, making it literally golden.

The R-East Shinkansen bullet train from Kyoto towards Yokohama, at the southern outskirts of Tokyo, skirts back around Mt. Fuji, and heads north towards the famed marine city and the craggy eastern coast. Yokohama, the first port in Japan to open up to foreigners is only a short 30-minute train ride from downtown Tokyo (under two hours from Kyoto), yet possesses its own unique identity. Take one of the quirky Velo rickshaws for a tour of the waterfront and Chinatown and be sure to take in a ball game at Bay Stars Field, Japan’s baseball hub. To cap your rail journey through Japan, take a soak at the Manyou Club, with its wide range of hydrotherapy pools and views across the city in the evenings. After all, there’s no rush. Tokyo is only a 30-minute train ride away.

If You Go:
For information on Japan's rail system and the Japan Rail Pass, visit
Click here for Map (pdf) of Japan Rail System

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