Worth watching out for.
— John Cleare
WHY TAKE THE TRAIN?
Think of Japan and one of the first images you’re likely to conjure up is that of a bullet train speeding past snow-capped Mt Fuji. For many, what lies beyond this image is a mystery. But hop on board that train and you’ll quickly discover what the country has to offer.
The fascination of Japan lies in its diversity: remote mountain villages contrast with huge neon-lit cities that never sleep; the vast natural landscape of unspoilt forests, volcanoes and hot springs more than compensates for the occasional man-made eyesore; the silent oasis of a Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple is not far from the deafening noise of a virtual-reality games arcade. Nowhere else in the world do past and present co-exist in such close proximity as in this relatively small country.
The ideal way of seeing it all is by rail, whether on one of the famous bullet trains (shinkansen), on the wide network of local trains, or even on one of the many steam trains. An early 20th-century guidebook advised visitors to ‘make travel plans as simple as possible. The conditions of travel in this country do not lend themselves to intricate arrangements’. Today, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Trains run not just to the minute but to the second, so itineraries can be as complicated or precisely timetabled as you wish. Or you can simply turn up at the station and plan your journey as you go.
The real secret to touring the country is the Japan Rail Pass, deservedly recognised as the ‘bargain of the century’. Rail-pass holders can travel easily almost anywhere on the four main islands.
Japan need not be too expensive as, apart from your rail pass, you can cut costs by staying in hostels, minshuku (Japanese-style B&Bs), or business hotels (mostly Western style). For those with a larger budget, staying in ryokan (upmarket minshuku) can be an amazing experience, but if you prefer there are world-class five-star hotels throughout the country.
Unexpected pleasures also await the traveller: where else do railway staff bow to you as they enter the carriage and also look as smart as they do in Japan? And where else can you buy cans of hot coffee from a vending machine at the top of a mountain, or sip sake whilst sitting in an open-air hot spring bath?
It’s said that no gaijin (outsider) can ever fully know Japan but only by visiting and seeing for yourself can you discover what the country is really like: somewhere between the images of traditional past and hi-tech future which flicker worldwide on the small screen.
- Routes and costs; When to go
- Rail Passes
- Sample route guide: Tokyo to Nagoya by shinkansen
- Side trip to Miyajima
- Off the beaten track sightseeing
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