Return to blogging: Life after 1 year in Japan

Pictured above: A Compass card next to my personalized SUICA, the IC card used on Tokyo’s transit network.

I neglected to make a formal announcement on this blog before I left, but I’m sure many of you were following me this past year for my journeys in one of the most transit-developed countries in the world. My opportunity to live in this country came with a scholarship study program that I was admitted to last year, and brought with it a form of excitement in terms of not only getting to lived in a country I had dreamed of visiting for personal interest reasons, as well as further my personal ambitions – but to see what I could take back from a country that has developed what may perhaps be the world’s best, most comprehensive transportation network.

As a student without a lot of money (apart from my scholarship money) there wasn’t really a lot to expect, and I didn’t think I would make it much further than destinations near my hometown in Nagasaki prefecture – but I was determined to make it more than just a matter of staying in one city and picking up another language. Fortunately, I was proved wrong and it was thanks to the country’s excellent transportation system.

With the 3rd biggest domestic flight market in the world, the expenses of domestic air travel had dropped to the point where you could fly to other cities with just a few hours of earnings on minimum wage – this materialized for me in January when I was able to book no less than 7 individual flights with an airline for under $200 CAD. Train operators offered deals like the JR Seishun 18 Pass and Kintetsu Rail Pass that helped me cut down on the costs of intercity travel. All in all I was able to amass more than 10 weeks of travel experience, reaching all of the country’s biggest cities, and numerous areas in-between. I did this all with only the resources I had in my pocket and no drivers’ license, no car and no need for taxis to fill the gaps.

For a country with one of the world’s most prominent and largest automobile industries in the world, car usage in Japan is surprisingly low. The Japanese have lived with a built-in culture of utilizing transit options, boosted heavily by the small size and relative density enabling the inexpensive construction of nationwide train networks.

In my view, after a year of experiencing the country, Japan’s transportation excellence primarily comes from its advantageously small size, and its commitment to keeping transit networks around.  There are few areas in North America with the same kind of supporting density as can be found throughout this East Asian country, and you won’t be surprised to find that these areas also have well-built inter-city and intra-city train and transit systems. Many of the rapid transit train lines you’ll find in cities have been around for anywhere between 50 and 100 years, built in advance of developments with developments and communities orienting themselves around transit lines. Stations are meeting places, and are often community hubs with large pick-up and drop-off places and a large congregation of businesses. Often these businesses are built into the station itself.

Plaza 88's shopping district is directly integrated with SkyTrain's New Wetminster Station, and reminds me of a small-sized Japanese community hub. Photo: Foodology.ca
In Metro Vancouver, the Plaza 88 shopping district is directly integrated with SkyTrain’s New Wetminster Station, reminiscent of a small-sized Japanese community hub. Photo: Foodology.ca

We have a few examples of that here in Vancouver, the most prominent being the newly built Plaza 88 and Shops at New West Station, and I would really like to see more of them. Japanese cities have mastered the maximization of the accessibility of a train station. In large cities like Tokyo, major train stations are built under or adjacent to massive, 10-story shopping malls with every single service you can find. Businesses, including shops and restaurants, can set up their shops/restaurants at fewer locations than you would expect, because it’s fast and easy to get there from anywhere in the city. Many smaller businesses set up shop only at or near the busiest train stations, yet have no problem reaching and catering to a large amount of people from faraway places. The versatility, flexibility and cost-savings in having transit has proven to be a strong driver in Japan’s consumer economy.

Akihabara, which is famous for being Tokyo's pop culture district, is located at the intersection of two major train lines. The station itself has several stories of shops steps away from train platforms - and in the surrounding area, stores that cater to anime, manga and pop-culture fans don't tend to exist anywhere other than Akihabara because they don't need to. Akihabara is a community that is truly made possible by transit. (Taken by myself on Aug 4, 2015)
Akihabara, which is famous for being Tokyo’s pop culture district, is located at the intersection of two major train lines. The station itself has several stories of shops steps away from train platforms – and in the surrounding area, stores that cater to anime, manga and pop-culture fans don’t tend to exist anywhere other than Akihabara because they don’t need to. Akihabara and its culture is made possible by high-quality transit. (Taken by myself on Aug 4, 2015)

Japan is famous for not only its trains and what its trains have made possible, but also for its railway innovations and pioneers. The “Shinkansen” or “bullet train” was the world’s first high speed rail system between Tokyo and Osaka, which is now the busiest line in the country and is in the process of being replaced by a 600km/h maglev.

Big cities in Japan have extensive transit systems supported by trains that run skip-stop “express” and local services on the same track, carefully timed to the second, with coordinated transfers between those services to maximize passenger flow and minimize travel time.

Osaka's Nagahori-Tsurumi-Ryokuchi line was the first of numerous linear motor train lines.
Osaka’s Nagahori-Tsurumi-Ryokuchi line was the first of numerous linear motor train lines. During my Osaka trips I usually stayed with family adjacent to a station on this particular line.

In addition to pioneering the systems that have been popularized in other countries, Japanese planners are keen to pay attention to trends from abroad. When our SkyTrain system in Vancouver opened in 1986, it was one of the most innovative transit systems in the world. Many Japanese cities have borrowed the same “SkyTrain technology” we use, best characterized by the linear motor rail in the centre of the track, in high-capacity, big-city subway systems – taking advantage of the tighter radius curves and smaller tunnels to save trillions of Yen in public transit projects.

See also: List of Linear Induction Motor rapid transit systems

Japanese cities have used linear motor propulsion on nearly every subway line built since the 1990s – all of which I have visited during my 1 year stay. In many of the cities the trains are of a newer-generation than the ones used here in SkyTrain. Fukuoka’s Nanakuma Lines trains are not only well-built and modern, but surprisingly quiet going through tunnels.

The latest system, the “Tozai Line” in Sendai, will be opening this December, and will revitalize transit and tourism in a city which in my experience was comparatively lacklustre with its supporting buses.

All in all I enjoyed fulfilling my objectives, especially in transit research. Returning to Canada was a challenge in my realization that many of the Japanese lifestyle things I enjoyed cannot be found in Canada. There’s a lot to say about my time in Japan and how I viewed particular aspects in transit planning topics, but that’s a discussion I’ll be saving for later. I look forward to returning to active blogging on both Metro Vancouver and Japan topics.

Photo of myself at Osaka's Shinsekai district. Taken Jan 2015.
Photo of myself at Shinsekai, one of the many pedestrian-only districts in Osaka; in the background is the famous Tsutentaku Tower. Taken Jan 2015.