I’m here in Japan, and it’s got me reminiscing about when I lived here and took a cross-country trip on only local trains. Since I was a resident at the time, I couldn’t buy
a Rail Pass, which allows tourists to get discounted bullet train tickets*. So together with a bunch of classmates, I bought a 青春18きっぷ (Seishun Juuhachi Kippu, or youth 18 ticket) during spring break.
For about $60, we got five tickets each worth a unlimited rides on Japan Rail trains for one day, but the tickets were restricted to trains that weren’t the Shinkansen, Limited Express, Express, or sleeping cars. The day-tickets didn’t have to be used on sequential days, so we were able to stay for a couple of days in each of the cities we stopped in. We left Tokyo at midnight and went to Shizuoka and then Nagoya on our way to Osaka (we arrived after midnight) on the first day, to Kobe, Himeji, Okayama and Takematsu on the second ticket, from Takamatsu to Hiroshima on the third, Hiroshima to Fukuoka on the fourth, and the after a flight to Sapporo and out-of-pocket ticket from Sapporo to Hakodate to Misawa, the last ticket was for a trip from Misawa to Sendai and back to Tokyo.
The trips were brutal, however; nine or ten hour rides on trains that stopped at every village, hamlet or muraon the way. Here’s an example: on an over-night trip from Misawa to Sendai, two places that were memorable only for being the two places in Japan where I literally couldn’t understand a word anyone was saying due to their strong dialects, I was supposed to sleep in the chair pictured on the left. Except the lighting was like that picture the entire time; all the lights were on and I couldn’t sleep. And because the train had over-sold, there were not enough seats for all the riders. A woman even crammed herself into the little area between the seat and the wall, a space no more than a foot wide at the bottom.
The train rides themselves are now a part of the fond memories from the trip, but at they were pretty boring at the time. These weren’t Amtrak-type trains with dinner cars and comfortable seats. These were standard commuter trains for the most part, and many of them didn’t even have bathrooms. To entertain ourselves for the six-hours a day of rides we had Game Boy Advances (it was 2003), books, conversations with other riders and occasionally beer (see the photo). The surprisingly the beer was never a problem for us, we expected someone to tell us to stop drinking on the trains, except for the trains without bathrooms.
On this trip, especially with a three-month-old baby, I’m glad I’ve got enough money to by Shinkansen tickets, even if I have to pay full price*. But if you do go to Japan and I have more time than money, I would recommend the Youth 18 ticket. But make sure you have friends along or you are going to be very bored.
*Unfortunately, my resident visa is still in effect, so I still can’t get a rail pass until 2012.