The charms of rail travel, and why everyone should go for one
We have reached the end of 2020, and I would assume that many of us are aching to travel overseas. With our travel plans being stalled due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, many of us can only wonder when we can travel again, or for someone like myself, use the time now to plan for the next travel. Personally, if you ask me what kind of travel would I want to go on next, it would have something to do with rail travel.
In Singapore, the only trains we have are those on the mass rapid transit (MRT) system, which is one of the main modes of transport in the country. As an island with more than 5 million people, Singapore is extremely small so we don’t see the need for trains for long-haul travel. As a Singaporean, I grew up thinking that rail travel is just another mode of transport… until I took my first train in Japan when I first travelled there more than a decade ago.
I used to think rail travel is just about getting to my destination by train, until I learned it’s much more than that. (Image credit: 橋本翔也)
For this article, I will share with you the joys and charms of travelling by rail, and why I personally want everyone to go on a rail journey (鉄道の旅 tetsudō no tabi) in their lifetime. By the end of the article, I hope you have many ideas to plan your next journey and be off on your new rail adventure!
① An all-round sensory experience
Let me ask you a question: what does “rail travel” mean to you? In the past, I used to think that rail travel is simply about getting from one place to another by train. A mode of transportation, no more, no less. As a Singaporean, I used to think so. Rail travel doesn’t mean much in the local context; as an island smaller than the size of Tokyo’s metropolitan area, a country as small as Singapore would only need trains for pragmatic purposes.
What does “rail travel” mean to you? (Image credit: JR Times/Sue Lynn)
My worldview for rail travel had an overhaul when I set foot on Japanese soil for the first time more than 10 years ago. It changed the way I see travelling by train as a whole: not just a mode of transportation, but an entirely new experiential journey in itself. Rail travel can take on a whole different meaning in Japan, and over the years I gradually learned how fun—even life-changing—rail travel can be.
Oykot (left) and Resort View Furusato (right), two Joyful Trains I rode earlier this year. (Image credit: JR East)
Back in February this year, I had the opportunity to hop on two Joyful Trains by JR East: Oykot and Resort View Furusato. Joyful Trains are unlike your regular trains: JR East’s collection of trains embody special themes and interiors to showcase to passengers that rail travel isn’t just about getting to their destination; it’s about how they get there, whether it’s by enjoying some of Niigata’s best sake on the Koshino Shu*Kura or indulging in Fukushima’s finest fruits and desserts on the FruiTea Fukushima. For Oykot and Resort View Furusato, it’s about going back home to the countryside, far away from the hustle and bustle of urban life.
(Note: if you like to know more about JR East’s Joyful Trains, you can have a look at the article here).
Different sights and sounds
The winter landscapes of Nagano Prefecture. (Image credit: JR Times/Sue Lynn, JR East)
Both trains depart from JR Nagano Station (JR長野駅), and I hopped on them without knowing what to expect. I was delighted by Oykot’s retro interiors and warm reception of the train staff onboard, a stark contrast to more sleek takes of the modern trains I usually see elsewhere. Sitting on the upholstery seat designed to invoke memories of visiting grandma during summer, I looked out the window as the train made its way out of central Nagano and into the rural areas of Iiyama (飯山)… and it’s then that I realised one of the biggest pleasures of rail travel.
Rail travel allows me to witness spectacular views, such as that of the Nagano Basin from JR Obasute Station. (Image credit: photoAC)
When I travelled by train, I learned how it enabled me to witness sceneries I never thought I could see. As Oykot made its way through Iiyama’s countryside, I got to see majestic snow-covered mountains and massive rivers, all of which I might not have been able to see if I had gone on a self-drive or a bus ride instead. The elevated railway lines, and the train’s large windows enabled me to have an obstructed view of the entire surroundings right from the comfort of inside the train carriage. The breath-taking sights and soothing sounds of the chugging train are foreign yet familiar, and it made feel like I’m discovering a new unexplored area, a place completely unfamiliar to me but the locals would call home. Sometimes, even the same place can look entirely different depending on the season, so there’s a surprise at different times of the year.
Rail travel is the best way to enjoy the changing colours of the seasons, such as that of Geibikei Gorge in Iwate Prefecture. (Image credit: Geibi Kanko Center)
If there’s one outstanding feature of Japan, it’s the four seasons. Visitors who travel to Japan repeatedly can vouch for the country’s sheer colourfulness of each season, be it spring, summer, autumn or winter. Personally, no matter how many times I travel to Japan, I am always taken aback by how vivid the seasonal colours are. For example, when summer approaches the snowy highlands of eastern Japan, the snow melts and young leaves begin to sprout on trees. These leaves are vibrantly emerald, and is unlike most leaves I know when I first laid my eyes on them.
The changing colours of the leaves during different seasons. (Image credit: JR East/Carissa Loh)
When travelling on a train, you can see such brilliant colours before my very eyes as the train passes by, from the pinkish hues of cherry blossoms in spring, and vibrant emerald leaflets of the summer, to the fiery red falling maple leaves in autumn, and the milky-white fresh snow of the winter. It’s a refreshing voyage that excites the senses and cleanses the soul, and also a reminder that Japan’s natural beauty is something that’s always to be amazed.
A good time for self-reflection
Rail travel allows you to be lost in your thoughts and surroundings. (Image credit: JR Times/Sue Lynn)
Unexpectedly, rail travel allowed me to do the one thing I love during any travel: to be lost in my thoughts and surroundings. The amazing views of the outside world from inside the train, and the soothing sounds of the chugging train, enabled my mind to meander to places it doesn’t usually do in daily life. There’s something about looking at the outside world from inside the train that makes me wonder about things I don’t usually do, whether it’s about my life choices or even alternative lifestyles: “what would my life be like if I were to live in the countryside?”.
People-watching: a pastime best enjoyed on a train. (Image credit: JR Times/Sue Lynn, JR East)
Another favourite pastime of mine, that rail travel enables me to do? People-watching. People travel on trains for various season: for commuting to work, for leisure travel, for going back home in the countryside. Trains in Japan have served passengers from all walks of life—local travellers, families on vacation, ladies' trip (女子の旅 joshi no tabi), Tokyoites on a short getaway—including myself, a visitor to Japan from another land. The relatively slow pace and idyllic setting of rail travel makes for a conducive environment to observe people getting on and off the train, and I realised how this mode of travel lets me get in touch with my senses.
Rest & relaxation
Imagine watching a scenery such as this along Gonō Line, while relaxing comfortably in a train. (Image credit: JR Times/Sue Lynn)
Another wonderful thing about rail travel is how relaxing it can be. Perhaps even therapeutic. When I’m in the train watching sprawling landscapes outside, I don’t have to be alert about anything around me. Unlike driving in a rental car, I don’t have to keep my eye on the road. Unlike being on a tour bus, I don’t have to worry about motion sickness (I still get it sometimes). And definitely unlike long-haul flights, I can easily stretch my legs and even walk around the roomy train carriage if the journey is long (train carriages in Japan are very spacious and comfortable, mind you). Rail travel, unlike other modes of travel, allows me to kick back, relax, and take in everything around me.
Revolving seats are a thing on some trains in Japan. (Image credit: JR East)
Another thing I discovered when I first travelled to Japan: they have revolving seats. Some long-haul trains have chairs that can be rotated, allowing passengers to be able to be seated in a group, or depending on the direction that the train is moving. Some trains even have box seats, and others even have seats that directly face the windows, allowing passengers to view the outside without having to turn their bodies.
Some trains, such as Resort Shirakami’s Buna, have box seats and even window seats. (Image credit: JR East)
This is the kind of novelty I get to experience while travelling on trains in Japan. It’s a stark contrast to what I used to believe, that seats can only face two ways in a train: facing forward, or inwards towards each other. I never thought how seat orientation can play such an important part in rail travel either: it’s a refreshing experience to be able to sit in a group when travelling with friends, or just divert your whole attention to the outside world pass by me like an art gallery in motion.
Fancy enjoying an ekiben on a train? (Image credit: JR East/Carissa Loh)
Name one motivation for travel. Food, you say? You’re definitely right. People travel to Japan for beautiful sceneries, amazing hot springs, the four seasons. In short, to experience things they can’t back home. As a Singaporean, I can empathise: our sceneries are limited, we don’t have hot springs to dip into, and there’s no such thing as seasons here. But there’s one more thing we also can’t do back home: eat on trains. In Japan however, you can; in fact, visitors to Japan should do it.
Fine dining on TOHOKU EMOTION (left) and KAIRI (right). (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh/JR East)
One of the biggest pleasures of rail travel in Japan is to indulge in an ekiben (駅弁 train station lunchbox). Eating on long-haul train journeys is perfectly fine, and train stations all over country sell all kinds of ekiben. Each ekiben reflects the uniqueness of the region it’s sold at: some showcase the region’s local delicacies—such as Kakimeshi (かきめし) in Hokkaido, or Ebi Senryō Chirashi (えび千両ちらし) in Niigata—while others even exhibit the region’s local traditional craft. In fact, there are even "restaurant trains": passengers can enjoy fine dining on TOHOKU EMOTION and KAIRI, two Joyful Trains by JR East.
(Note: click here for an article I wrote about ekiben in Japan in much further detail.)
Sit back, relax, and have a beer on a train. (Image credit: JR Times/Sue Lynn)
The Japanese society’s affinity with cleanliness and consideration for others allows passengers to dine in on trains and keep it spotless at the same time. It’s one of the privileges of rail travel in Japan: not only do you not have to worry about going hungry on a lengthy train journey, but you can also eat a delectable one at that. Pair it with a beer (if you drink), and you have a recipe for a thoroughly relaxing train escapade.
② Making new discoveries
As an expansive country, Japan has several modes of transport for long-haul travel, including rental cars, buses, trains and domestic flights. For travelling long distances, the most common choice would be taking a plane. Trains are also an option, as though it may be more time-consuming compared to flights, but if there is one thing rail travel can provide that flights can’t, it's discovering places you never thought you’d pass by.
The new and unfamiliar
Rail travel takes me to places other modes of transport can’t. (Image credit: JR East)
Sprawling rice paddy fields, magnificent mountain ridges, seas that stretch the entire horizons. These are the kinds of sceneries visitors from other countries come to Japan for, but there’s another common trait about them: they’re something you can only experience while on a train. Riding on a train enables me to have a full view of the surrounding natural scenery that I can’t back home (plus, there are no rice paddy fields or mountains ridges in Singapore either).
Yatsugatake Mountain Range (left) and Aonuma Station (right) along the Koumi Line. (Image credit: JR East)
I learned how my goal of travelling can change once I discovered rail travel; it opens up new possibilities that flights or self-driving can’t provide. For example, it never occurred to me in the past that I could take a train to a JR train station with the highest elevation in Japan. HIGH RAIL 1375 not only enables that, but also allows passengers to experience the vastness of the Yatsugatake Mountain Range, go up to the highest JR train station in Japan (Nobeyama Station), and even take part in stargazing.
Not your regular train station
The one and only, Tokyo Station. (Image credit: JR East)
When you want to take the train, you go to the train station. Simple as that, right? That’s what I thought too at first: a train station is simply a place where a train makes a stop for passengers to get on or off. But what if a train station is more than just a building where trains make their stop? What if they’re magnificent architectures of historical prominence where some have withstood the test of time for up to a hundred years, and even officially appointed as cultural assets?
Mojikō Station (left) and Kareigawa Station (right), two train stations with contrasting architectures. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
When I visited Japan for the first time, I noticed how larger-than-life some train stations some of them are. Some reflect the country’s historical Western influences, such as Fukuoka’s Mojikō Station (門司港駅). Others exhibit a more traditional architecture, ranging from the imposing to the rustic, such as Kareigawa Station (嘉例川駅). And of course, there’s Tōkyō Station (東京駅), the flagship train station of Japan. Not only is it known for its high ridership, numerous train platforms and extensive underground mall, but it is also famous for its iconic red brick building on the Marunouchi side, which has survived World War 2 and underwent major facelifts over the years.
Tokyo Station at night. (Image credit: JR-EAST HOTELS)
I first came upon Tokyo Station many years ago, and was awed by its sheer grandeur and historical architecture. But more importantly, it made me re-evaluate how I see train stations as a whole. In Singapore, we don’t really have train stations with large buildings, except for MRT stations whose designs are mostly pragmatic. Furthermore, our train stations are relatively young: our oldest ones are only 33 years old.
In Japan however, train stations are a different world altogether. Some have existed for generations, and others retain invaluable cultural heritage, thereby being designated as Important Cultural Properties (重要文化財 Jūyō-bunka-zai). There are also a handful of train stations with spectacular architectures that simply blew my mind (just look at Kanazawa Station).
Kanazawa Station. (Image credit: JR East/Carissa Loh)
I realised that for rail travel, train stations are very much part of the whole experience. A life-changing train journey can start even before you hop on the train towards your destination; it starts with the train station itself. Sometimes, your destination can be the train station itself. In fact, many train stations are located in the centre of towns, so visitors can enjoy explore the surrounding areas and make new discoveries.
When embarking on a rail travel, before getting on board your train, I always remember to take in the surroundings of the train station I’m departing. It might not be a regular train station, and just maybe, the town I’m in has hidden gems that I could’ve missed.
③ Solitary enjoyment
Everyone has their own travelling habits: some people prefer travelling to new countries, others prefer to travel with their friends and families, and there are also those who has a thing for travelling on a whim without planning. I also have my own travelling habit: I love travelling by myself, and as a solo traveller, I will say that rail travel in Japan is one of the best ways of travelling alone.
Trains such as Resort Shirakami's Buna (above) makes rail travel in Japan perfectly suited for the solo traveller. (Image credit: JR East)
I’ve embraced solo travelling ever since going to Japan by myself years ago, and since then I’ve learned to do so in other countries as well. It’s nervous and exciting―come to think of it, being nervous and excited are kind of one and the same―because of the true freedom of travelling without any companionship, and just fully devote my attention to my surroundings. But when travelling alone to another country, one concern remains to this day: transportation.
Solo travel can be a transformative experience. (Image credit: photoAC)
Transportation alone can make or break any travelling experience. When it comes to trains, the experience can be a mixed bag: trains can habitually run late, the train carriages are not clean, and sometimes it’s not even safe (pickpocketing in trains is a legitimate concern in some countries). In Japan however, it’s a different world altogether: the trains are famous for its world-class punctuality, train carriages are spotless, and safety issues are rarely a concern.
Planning made easy
Running on time is perhaps the most outstanding characteristic of Japan’s trains. Those with plenty of experience in travel planning would intimately know how tardiness can throw one’s plans into chaos, and inevitably messing up their holiday experience. With Japan’s trains known for its punctuality, it makes travel planning much more manageable. In all my travels around the world, Japan is perhaps the one place where rail travel is essentially worry-free; I’d even say, planning for rail travel is pretty enjoyable.
Speaking of travel planning, rail travel in Japan is generally made easier not just because of its punctual trains, but also its readily available information. Many long-haul trains in the country have timetables with predetermined departure and arrival times―made possible because of its affinity for punctuality―so planning for rail travel is much more feasible. This works in favour of travellers with limited time on their hands, and constantly wondering: “Where should I go if I have XXX days?”.
(Note: Learn more about Japan’s world-class railways in my earlier article here.)
The availability of timetables and its punctuality makes travel planning a breeze. (Image credit: JR East)
When you travel to Japan often enough that you’ve gotten used to their train schedules, you might end up even enjoying planning for your next rail travel adventure. There are plenty of rail travel fans (乗り鉄 nori-tetsu) out there who simply enjoy taking trains to different destinations. However, do you know that there are also “timetable fans” (時刻表ファン jikoku-hyō fan) who love timetables? They enjoy the elegance of train schedules tabulated in timetables, and simply appreciate the organisation behind them. Maybe someday I would end up being one myself; the timetables of Japan’s trains are quite a sight to behold.
(Note: if you want an idea of how to cover Tohoku Region and Hokkaido in a single rail trip, you can have a look at my earlier article here).
Unforgettable train window views from Resort Shirakami. (Image credit: JR East)
As a Singaporean, I always find it a pleasure to travel to Japan, for it has many wonderful things that my home country lacks. Since my first experience travelling to Japan, I gradually realised how rail travel is surprisingly one of the best ways to enjoy all the wonderful things in Japan. The carefree nature of rail travel allows me to engage in self-reflection and introspection, a temporal escape from daily life so that I can take a step back and look at life in a different way. Personally, I feel that it’s the kind of life-changing experience that everyone should go on. I was (and still am) charmed by rail travel; I think you, my dear readers, should be too.
Be spellbound by the sheer beauty of Japan's nature on a train along the Tadami Line. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)
Last but not least…
JR trains are run by private companies, so train fares are not always thought to be the cheapest. The truth is, when they were wholly operated by Japanese National Railways (JNR), the price increased on a regular basis. Only after JNR was privatised into JR Group in 1987, and trains began to be operated privately, train fares have been generally stable even to this day (putting aside consumption tax).
Furthermore, there are plenty of rail passes that visitors can choose from, which allows unlimited rides on selected trains in valid areas. In fact, visitors can even stand to save money by purchasing the right passes based on their travel plans.
So, what are the rail passes available for you to consider? Here are some by JR East for your next rail travel adventure to eastern Japan!
JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)
JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)
The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains, within the valid area. It's a 5-day flexible pass where you can choose any 5 days within a 14-day period for your travel, and the 5 days need not be consecutive either. It's ¥19,350 when you buy it overseas, making it a considerable option for those planning to visit the Tohoku Region. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free.
Click here for more information on the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area).
JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)
JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)
The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains, within the valid area. It's a 5-day flexible pass where you can choose any 5 days within a 14-day period for your travel, and the 5 days need not be consecutive either. It's ¥17,310 when you buy it overseas, making it a considerable option for those planning to visit Nagano and Niigata. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free.
Click here for more information on the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area).
JR TOKYO Wide Pass
JR TOKYO Wide Pass, and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)
The JR TOKYO Wide Pass is an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 3 consecutive days. At ¥10,180, you can use it to travel from Tokyo to GALA Yuzawa, and many other places within the designated areas, such as Nikko, Karuizawa and more. You can also make seat reservations online for free, up to 1 month in advance.
Click here for more information on the JR TOKYO Wide Pass.
Header image credit (clockwise from top-left): 橋本翔也, U-Media, JR East, KrobkruengJapan