We Love Japan, but….

We’ve been so thoroughly enjoying every day in Japan that we haven’t had much time or energy left to Blog. It’s a fantastic place to travel. But no place is perfect, and Japan has its weaknesses too, especially in the bike and pedestrian realm.

Exploring the hills and stairways of Nagasaki was a joy in the crisp spring weather.

We’ve been travelling our preferred way by train, bus, ferry, streetcar, subway, and bike. With a lot of walking to the beach to explore and get to our lodging. We’ve been luxuriating in the clean, punctual, and extensive intercity train system. And the local public transit is always clean and reliable, if not always fast.

A shiny new Shinkansen on the recent extension to Kagoshima – marvelous and so fast
A single car train on the Shimabara railway, operated and conducted by one person! Many small lines in Japan have shut down, and how long can the last private lines survive?

So here are a few transport observations. For you transport wonks and mega walkers, they may give you the same joy and a maybe bit of frustration if you visit.

You can enjoy great connections in Japan, like the end of the line in Shimabara, with a ferry across the street that will take you to a bus and a Shinkansen line.

1. JR Rail Pass- Unless you are going to only visit a few cities or rent a car, then it’s a no brainer to get one of these passes subsidized for tourists. We bought two three-week passes and planned our trip to max its benefit to a 4 week visit by setting the activation for the day we left Tokyo and expiring when we get to Fukuoaka, where we are spending our last 3 days. This way we were able to exchange our vouchers at off peak time at Shinjuku station and avoid the mob we saw at Narita airport trying to exchange them to use immediately from the Airport. We instead bought $20 local rail tickets to central Tokyo. It was then easy and cheap to get IC (tap) Transit cards to get around for a few subway and loop rail trips in Tokyo until leaving Tokyo for Kanazawa.

JR Raíl stations are always clean, orderly, and the major ones have lots of food and shopping options and lots of vending machines

2. IC Card – Good for transit in most major cities. There are a dozen or so “brands” by region and they can mostly be used in other cities, although acceptance is a bit hit or miss outside the home zones. Don’t put too much on it initially, 5,000 yen ($40) is my recommendation, as you can always top it up but it’s hard to get a refund. You can also use them at many convenience stores.

Buses run EXACTLY on timetables, so real time predictions really aren’t needed. And you may have them to yourself in more rural areas

3. Train Seat reservations – With your JR Pass, you can make free seat reservations for most higher speed trains (and Shinkansens). I found that I could get our choice if I booked at least 2 days prior to our next trip. You can do it at green JR Ticket machines in almost all JR stations. So I’d often get our seats for our next leg when we arrived to a city. If you book too early and want to change your trains later, you won’t be able to do it at a machine if the new journey overlaps with the old one. You will have to go to a JR ticket office which could take some time at busier times and stations. But, you can alway board in the unreserved cars, so no serious worries other than maybe sitting apart or standing for a bit.

The worlds skinniest tram boarding platforms in Kagoshima next to 3 underutilized traffic lanes….hmmm
These poor tram passengers have lined up to wait for the lights to change, just to get off the narrow tram platform to the sidewalk.

4. Buses and Trams – they run on schedule (especially buses). You board at the back door and tap your IC card if available or if not, take a little paper ticket from a dispenser that indicates your boarding zone. You always pay at the front door as you leave, calculating your fare from the easy digital sign at the front. Put your stop ticket and fare in the box or machine. They can always make change. This also applies to some of the small independent (Non JR) local trains. Once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty straightforward (Especially with IC Card), but it seems pretty inefficient at crowded times as many people still pay cash fares. There is a flow from the back of the bus towards the front door, but it doesn’t match the ease and speed of a proof of payment system.

Navigating the local systems can be challenging
Google maps can really help as it has most timetables (but not all) available in navigation, but you still often need to id your bus in Kanji script or just be at the right place on time, because the bus will be.

5. Walking – You will do a lot of walking in Japan which is mostly great, and wandering the alleys, hidden temple stairways, and quiet back streets is one of the great joys of Japan. One downside though is that the arterial traffic signal timings are long, so get ready to wait for for 2-3 minutes at some crossings. It’s very annoying, and really delays walking trips across town. The only time you see Japanese run is for crossings, as they know it’s a long wait if you miss the light.

The cats and temples are always worth the long pedestrian lights
A series of historic stone bridges line the Nakashima River in Nagasaki.

Also, pedestrian crossings can be spread out on major arterials, with occasional overhead or underpass ped crossings in lieu of at grade crosswalks. It seems like a legacy of 1960s traffic engineering that continues in philosophy today, but stairwell underpasses are not good for an aging population.

State of the art ramen ordering machine. Automation and an aging population go hand in hand as labor is getting scarcer every year in Japan
A unique pork and lemon broth at Menya Always ramen in Nagasaki

So what about Jaywalking? A few people, especially in larger cities will jump a signal or cross midway, but 98% of Japanese wait until the light is fully green. As time has gone on in our travels here, we are getting less and less patient, and will cross at will when it makes sense and traffic is clear. We are surely going to incite a pedestrian revolt here!

The main shopping arcade doubles as a cycleway in Takamatsu. It does provide weather protection to cyclists but is hectic in the evening rush hour when shoppers are out
Happy walking; riding bikes is not allowed in the busier hours or areas of the arcades

6. Bikes: There are many more than you think, especially in flatter cities. But the bikes share most sidewalks and it’s all a bit chaotic, which could be solved by more on street protected lanes. Cyclists routinely cut corners and swerve across intersections and are an outlier to order on the streets. (Yeah cyclists!)

Amazing underground automated bike storage in Takamatsu.
“Hello Cycling” bike shares were located in underground bike parking facilities in Takamatsu and the App was (mostly) English and foreign credit card friendly.

So my quick transport report card for Japan based on our scientific analysis:

Trains – A-….ok, amazing at a high level, but deductions for lack of App based e-tickets/seats please…and stringent bike policies keep it from A+

There are themed trains too, including a Hello Kitty Shinkansen (missed it) and our train to Takamatsu
And the theme continues inside…Apanman is a beloved TV series based on Takashi Yanese’s picture books that he produced for over 40 years.
Even to the WC

Trams – C+. Mostly old, narrow platforms, steps, clunky ticketing…. Few dedicated signals.

The trams are so cute, but less functional.

Buses: B+ Reliable; on schedule, and fair pricing but they get stuck at long traffic lights too, so can be slow in cities. And there are few express buses. BRT?

Buses in rural areas are reliable, but sometimes only run hourly or a few times a day

Walking: B- Wider sidewalks are needed in many places. Alleys and many quiet urban streets are very pleasant and low stress to walk, but many arterial sidewalks are a bit narrow or degraded by detectable rubber strips. I appreciate that these assist the vision impaired, but sidewalks are just not wide enough to accommodate them and side by side walking space. There seems to be a legacy of traffic lanes and road capacity. Giving more road cross section to peds, bikes and tram boarding is needed. Smart traffic signals could be used to mitigate lane reductions. Many heavy pedestrian neighborhoods in Tokyo and other larger cities have nice wide sidewalks in a new generation of streetscape designs, but many places still have a 1970s-1990s feel.

Rush hour on the sidewalks of Matsayuma. Wide here, but a slick rock surface makes cycling in the rain a bit dodgy.

Cycling: C+ Quiet back streets and sidewalk cycleways do the trick, but more on street protected bikeways are needed everywhere

Yashima National Park – nice beaches on Shikoku but a little chilly to swim yet
Cycling to Yashima NP from Takamatsu was pleasant on sidewalk paths and quiet roads

But enough nitpicking. As a traveler, the lack of personal safety concerns and good transport frees you up to focus on the unique culture, sights, and most of all, the food and friendly people. And oh man the food is SO good.

Smiles allowed, but ramen is serious lunchtime business at Ramenya Mass in Nagasaki
Small izakayas are the souls of Japan. Dedication to craft and coziness abound
Pure soba and dashi heaven

And it’s good value for most lodging and food, as long as you are willing to give up western norms and keep some distance from the tourist hot spots. The yen has weakened against most currencies over the past 5 years, so it’s a great time to travel here. Except in Tokyo, there are great 3 to 4 star Hotels in the $100-$125 range, and a bit more on the weekends, especially Saturday nights. And most include breakfast.

Wonderfully cozy 3rd floor jazz bar in Nagasaki . The owner played us his tenor sax music while we chatted. The Japanese love classic jazz. And so do I.
In addition to hot and cold drinks, vending machines in Japan are used for almost everything; even fresh soba noodles

If you go for more modest 1-2 star hotels, then you can find many in the $70-$90 range. Remote or resort area hotels (often with Onsen or Rotemburo baths) are definitely higher in the $150-$300+, so will be a splurge if on a budget. It’s definitely better value than most of the US, and similar to Europe, although I think a bit cheaper overall. A few other lodging tips. Book some nice Ryokan or Onsen properties well in advance as they are lovely, but don’t do anything but go up in price or sell out. Small or exclusive places are not into last minute bargains.

A Western-Japanese hybrid room in Shinabara. This hotel had lovely Onsen and Rotemburo (outside baths) and more spacious rooms than most urban hotels
Naoshima Island
Instagram of Instagramers on Naoshima
More bikes to explore Naoshima…these with a bit of eboost

And big western brand hotels in major cities here often 2-3x as expensive as local alternatives for a similar (or better) product. Avoid them, unless you only have a week and a surplus of loyalty points to burn. (For example, during the Sakura of late March, Marriott properties in Tokyo ranged from $600-$2000/night!). Big waste of money.

Kochi on Shikoku is a bit off the beaten track but worth the effort for its friendliness
Kochi’s famous seared Bonito (Katsuo) has ruined us for life for lesser fish. Delicious.

Another tip. Many western style rooms are cosy in Japan, at 120-180 sq ft, but if you book a twin instead of a “double”, the rooms are larger at 180-250 sq ft. They have two full or queen beds that can usually be pushed together. So you have a lot more space, often for just a bit more money. “Twins or Quads” seem to sell out first as locals know this too,

We found a small traditional house to rent on Naoshima Island. Wood and Tatami mats were a refreshing break from city hotels (and it had a washing machine!)
Even a basic meal is pleasant in Japan

But as great as it is to travel here, it’s not all easy, as travel in Japan has its own breed of travel stress due to constant language and cultural nuances. And the country faces a battery of challenges, including rural depopulation, economic stagnation, and a location in an increasingly volatile region, just to name a few.

You have to open the doors to know what awaits you in Japan
Cats seem to guard popular spots such as Unzen National Volcanic Park, and are looked after by the locals.

But we are judging against a high bar, as we are already talking about coming back to bike tour, renting an apartment for a month in Tokyo, or even a car tour to see more rural sights that are tough or impossible by public transit. If you do want to rent a car in Japan you will need an international driver’s license.

Zen, spring water, and Coi at a tea house in Shimabara
Always ask for the local Sake as we did at this family run Izakaya in Shimabara

We are excited to head to South Korea next week, but first we are going to eat as much amazing food as we can in quirky and cosy settings, served by some of the most dedicated and friendly people in the world.

My favorite travel companion enjoying some cozy afternoon tea
Japan makes us smile

Happy travels!

Published by

TravelRich

Embarking on the next phase of my life after working as a full-time Civil and Transportation Engineer in the San Francisco for 30 years. My wife and I will be following our shared passions for world travel, culture, and sustainable transport.

3 thoughts on “We Love Japan, but….”

  1. This was a thinking-person’s travelogue of high order. I’d never seen the strengths and quirky flaws of the urban Japanese experience spelled out like this, and it all only compels me to want to visit more. Especially to try the seared bonito!!

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