Thursday, April 12, 2012

Clockwork trains

Beloved Wife and Goat didn’t go to Paris for BW’s birthday treat. Instead, she spent her birthday surrounded by immature children of all ages, screaming: “He’s behind you!” at the Doha Players’ pantomime, in which production the Goat had a part.

So when BW’s employer decreed a two-week holiday on the run up to Easter (so that it wouldn’t clash with the Easter holidays and allow parents and children to have the same fortnight off) the Goat booked a week’s annual leave and set about finding flights to and from Japan.

Beloved Wife used to live and work in the Land of the Rising Sun, way back in the previous millennium. She loves the place, and assured the Goat that he would too. A quick surf of the interwebs revealed that Qatar Airways would be by a huge margin the cheapest way to get between Dubai and Tokyo. That’s Qatar Airways; the airline that uses Doha as a hub. If the Goat simply booked Doha to Tokyo, his ticket would be almost double the price. That’s right: $1700 as opposed to $900. The airline pays each passenger $350 to fly between Dubai and Doha. It was therefore cheaper for the Goat to buy a separate Doha-Dubai return and spend a day in Dubai at each end of the holiday, and to hell with the carbon footprint.

The hop across the Gulf left Dubai on time, but the plane was left hanging in the air by Air Traffic Control for half an hour. By the time the passengers had disembarked and been driven around the airport in the slowest shuttle bus ever, the connecting flight to Tokyo was due to take off. Beloved Wife and Goat ran the entire length of Doha Terminal 1 (because the flight left from gate 37, which is naturally as far as possible from where the bus stops) and then everyone sat for a further half an hour in a packed Boeing 777 to await the leisurely transfer of checked bags. There was such a rush that airport security was completely bypassed. 

The Qatar Airways flight doesn’t go straight to Tokyo. It stops first at Osaka, where all passengers disembark, go through airport security, walk around the block, and then re-board the same aircraft for a further hour of air travel. The ticket costs more for anyone who wants to get off at Osaka. Or else the airline pays people to fly KIX-NRT.

Narita International Airport, at last. And there are trains to Tokyo City Centre. Beloved Wife had applied for a thing called a JR Pass, issued by Japan Rail. This entitles the bearer to a week of unlimited rail travel anywhere on the JR network. But in order not to have it expire a day early, BW decreed that separate Narita Express tickets would be purchased for the trip into Tokyo. The Goat doesn’t generally do rail travel; he’s been conditioned by UK rail practices that include missing a train where the ticket cost a fiver, catching the next one ten minutes later and being fined because he didn’t have a valid fifty-quid ticket.

The railway station was spotless; the train – with allocated, pre-booked seats, no less – was likewise, and it left to schedule. On the dot. To the second. The Goat was impressed.

Metro at Speed

Less impressive was a map at the destination that failed to show the hotel. An embarrassingly short taxi ride later (in the rain and in the dark), and it was time to hit the world’s narrowest double bed and become unconscious.

Travelling around Tokyo by train is eminently sensible. There is a comprehensive metro network. Confusingly, several metro companies operate in the same area, and Japan Rail criss-crosses too. Irritatingly, the JR Passes didn’t work on the metro, and it was necessary to decipher the Japanese script to figure out how much cash to stick into a machine to get a ticket. Of course, it had to be the machine appropriate for the metro system to be ridden. Some, but not all, maps had English as well as Japanese, and some, but not all, trains had video displays to let passengers know the current and next station.

Orderly Queue

To the Goat’s delight, not only do the trains stop at marked positions on the station platforms, but at each one an orderly queue forms. And yes, everyone does let passengers off first. Inane electric glockenspiel jingles play. When the music stops, someone will snap the doors shut and take the train away.

The primary purpose of obtaining JR passes was to use the Shinkansen. This is the famous bullet train that gets between Tokyo and Kyoto (which is near Osaka) rather faster than an aircraft once security and being at the airport at least two hours before your flight are taken into consideration. The Shinkansen belts along at 300kph or so. Sadly, Mount Fuji was obscured by low cloud. On the return journey, night had fallen.


Once again, pre-booking at no additional cost produced allocated seating in a quiet, clean carriage. And by now it goes without saying that the trains do indeed run on time. Not so much like clockwork; more like an atomic clock. The only really tricky bit is in deciphering the scarily alien information boards.

Alien Sign

A slower express from Kyoto took Beloved Wife and Goat through the mountains on a picturesque journey to Kinosaki Onsen, a hot-spring spa town just inland from the Sea of Japan. “Slower express reads like oxymoron, but after the Shinkansen, everything seems slow.

Near Kinosaki

A day later, amid the foul windy and rainy tai-fun weather brought on by a low-pressure weather system, Beloved Wife and Goat headed back to a very wet Kyoto. As it turned out, the hotel was literally (yes, really literally) a stone’s throw from the railway station, and there was a lot of embarrassed apologising to the taxi driver. According to the local news, some trains were actually delayed. Being less than absolutely punctual appears to be outwith the Japanese psyche. One can only imagine the shamefaced bowing and apologising being repeated umpteen times all over Japan.

As the weather had cleared up by the following morning, the Goat decreed that a trip to Osaka Castle was required. Yet more rail travel. What a splendid thing is the JR pass!

Osaka Castle

And more sightseeing back in Kyoto later that day, specifically Kiyamizu-Dera temple followed by Culture in Gyon. The bus trip was extremely crowded, and as it was Pay On Exit, the Goat can only imagine some destitute beggar starving to death and unable ever to get off. The bus system was exactly the opposite to other bus systems. In Kyoto, you get on at the back, and off at the front, paying the driver upon exit. It was a single standard fee. Frankly, the metro back to Kyoto Central Station was a lot more comfortable, and at least the maps showed where the train was going to go. Unlike the Magical Mystery Bus Tour.


Gyon illuminations

Having got some idea about how the bus system worked, on Thursday the Goat obtained “ride as many buses as you like for one day” passes, mainly because the Golden Temple of Kinkaku-ji is nowhere near a metro station. Just as well, really, for the weather turned cold and wet, and buses were all packed. It really was a case of grabbing the first one and riding it until it ceased to go in a useful direction. The bus passes made getting off without fumbling for change so much more convenient, and cheaper to boot.

Golden Temple of Kinkaku-ji

When it finally became necessary to head for the airport, it occurred to Beloved Wife that the JR passes could buy tickets for the Narita Express, and having got to Narita, it was even possible to obtain a refund for the unused return N-EX tickets. Only at this point was it revealed that the cards handed over a week previously were pre-credited smart cards that could have been used all over the Tokyo metro system, instead of rummaging for change. D’oh! But Japan Rail was quite happy to refund the unused metro rail credit, much to the Goat’s astonishment.

As for the return flight, it took off to schedule. Additional passengers boarded at Osaka so the aircraft was packed back to Doha. And guess what. The flight was delayed in the air for half an hour, so there was a huge mad rush to go through transit security in order to catch the flight to Dubai. Unlike on the outbound leg, this time Beloved Wife and Goat were obliged to remove all their metalwork and be X-rayed. It would be unthinkable to allow anything illicit from a Qatar Airways flight into the transit lounge of Doha International Airport.

Fair enough that Qatar Airways held flights for incoming connecting passengers and their checked bags, but it’s not a patch on the precision ballet of rail timing that seems to occur all over Japan, tai-fun excepted.

This blog post has dealt mainly with Japan's generally impressive public transportation systems. More will follow once the Goat has further meshed his detritus.



Anonymous said...

I rode the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka in the early 1970s, and in those days the indicator in each carriage really was clockwork. We were (most unusually) delayed at Yokohama, and the little train on the indicator map kept on going. When we finally restarted, an attendant came through the train, apologised, inserted a handle and wound the indicator back to the correct position.

Eric the Boat

Grumpy Goat said...

And bowed. You forgot to include that the attendant bowed.

Every railway official on every train paused at the end of the carriage and bowed to the passengers.

And that bowing is infectious.

Mme Cyn said...

Let me just say that BW absolutely ADORED her birthday treat. Thank you, darling Mr Goat!

Anonymous said...

great pictures, too. tmil


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