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Waiting for the first train on the trip

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.

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A woman slept here.

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.

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Luckily I can read Japanese

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.

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That's a beer

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.

10 Replies to “Long Transit Trips”

  1. When my wife and I travelled to Japan in the 90’s, the gaijin rail pass was essential and a revelation. We bought it here in Seattle at a Japanese travel agency, where very little English was spoken but good attitudes and lot’s a smiles prevailed. They ran about $600 bucks for a three week pass and bought us about $1400 worth of rail ravel in three weeks.

    With the passes in Country, we were able to ride the shinkansen for our long pulls (Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto); then the local over to Nara; reverse track and then out to Jomo Kogen in the countryside where we met friends with a car.

    We also rode JR, regional heavy, and local heavy rail and the only time I remeber paying cash to get around was in the Tokyo subway. Killer trip and fun travel experiences. Having some basic Japanese helped as we did have to use the pass to “buy” tickets for the stretches of trip that required ‘reservations’ (shinkansen) and the men that staff the ticket offices tend not to speak English and were uncomfortable serving the gaijin dumbass (me).

    All in all, I fully recommend the tourist rail pass, for railfans and nonrailfans alike.


  2. If 9 hours seems like a long trip, I’m guessing you’ve never been to China, where 40-hour train rides are nothing out of the ordinary. Yes, sleepers are available, but many more people crowd into the “hard seat” section. Hard sleeper was always my favorite: Padded bunks stacked 3 high, all completely open to the corridor. Lots of interesting conversations, card games, food sharing and landscape viewing – really a great way to travel.

    1. I have been to China, twice in fact, but I never had a 40-hour train ride there. I did go there after I finished college and was employed so rather than having more time than money I had more money than time.

    2. nor on the zepher from SF across the rockies. to denver its a 36 hour trip most certainly to be delayed a couple extra hours. Sleepers are also available, but why pay the cost of a plane ticket for a 36 hour trip?

      1. Well, the views are pretty awesome.

        I took the train from Seattle to New Orleans and back in the mid-90s. The Empire Builder between Seattle and Chicago, and the City of New Orleans between Chicago and New Orleans. *That* was a long trip. 3 days each way, with a short break in Chicago. A sleeper for that trip would have cost way more than a plane ticket, unfortunately.

        The main frustration was not the lack of beds — I could sleep fine in the coach seats. It was the lack of showers. And on the way back, the woman who insisted on praising the Lord very loudly and constantly the entire time she was on the train. Luckily she wasn’t going all the way to Seattle.

  3. The Public Bus connections in the Northwest run from Sechelt, BC to Pacific City Oregon. I have personally ridden the entire route at different times. The only gap is the 1/2 mile at the Canadian Border between Blaine and White Rock. I have made a photocopy NW transit schedule illustrating all of the commuter transit connections in Oregon, Washington, and BC. A young fellow named Evan Siroky has online versions of some of the more popular routes. Check it out :

    I think that the WSDOT should not be subsidizing their “Travel Washington” Intercity bus lines. These connections, with minimal transfers ALREADY exist within the transit agencies. Encourage interagency cooperation!

  4. Enjoy!! I was in Kobe for a few weeks in November, had a wonderful time on the trains, busses … visited many of the towns you name. I do NOT read Japanese, so had to decode. Only got on one train that was obviously NOT what I’d been looking for. Have some okonimiyaki before you come home.

  5. I did overnight from Sendai up to Hakodate. I had a sleeping berth, but I remember not getting much restful sleep… I have fond memories of riding some local trains around Japan where vendors at the stations would walk right up to the windows to sell hot soup, rice balls, and various others snacks. Yum!

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