How to: Train around Japan

Catching a train may be one of the easiest ways of getting around between cities and prefectures due to the amount of trains that run throughout the day, and due to the beautiful scenery that you can see during your ride.  However…  For a country that is known for being organised, the train system in Japan is terrible.  I mean, trains do run by the timetable, and everything is clear cut, but that is only within each section of train system.  When you begin to overlap systems… that’s when it gets confusing.

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Tokyo, this is not okay | JR Metro | randomwire

I mean, there is the national railway network, JR, which controls most of the train lines around the country.  Then there are the local city subway systems, and then private train systems like the Keioh and Odakyu in Tokyo, Nishitetsu trains (and buses!) in Kyushu, and countless others that I don’t know the names of all around Japan depending on the region that you find yourself in.

They all run independently of each other, they have stations located close to each other but that may not necessarily be connected to each other, and if it’s your first time catching a train in Japan, you might find yourself on the wrong platform of the wrong train line and the train you wanted to catch leaving from an entirely different station.

So how do you actually go about training it around Japan?

Looking up routes

If you want to look up your train route by inputting your departure and arrival points, Google and Yahoo will both come up with route options for both shinkansen and non-shinkansen travel.  I usually use Google, and it always gives you services with options for time of travel, the cost of the trip, etc.  Yahoo is actually more reliable, but only if you use Japanese.

You can also get the HyperDia app or the MapsWithMe app, which will both show you accurate train travel route options from any city in Japan.  However, HyperDia needs an active internet connection to use, so if you’re not planning on getting a wifi egg or a short term SIM card, then MapsWithMe may be the better option.

All these search options also work if you need help navigating a city’s subway system, so try them all out and see which one works best for you!

IC Cards

All trains in Japan can be paid for using IC cards, which are used in the same way as the Octopus system in Hong Kong or the Oyster in London.  It costs ¥500 for the card, and depending on the area and the train company of your IC purchase, the design of the card will be different.  However, although using IC cards are useful and can be used to pay for most train trips, the money that you charge on there will run out very quickly if you start straying out of the bigger cities, and especially if you decide to put in a sneaky shinkansen trip across the country (a normal one-way trip from Tokyo to Osaka by shinkansen costs ¥14250).

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Why does one country even need this many cards…? | Suica| JR East

JR Passes and the Seishun 18

As mentioned before, JR runs most of the inter-prefectural train lines in Japan.  On these lines you have, from fastest to slowest, the shinkansen, limited-express, rapid services, and local services.  If you want to explore Japan cross-country and you happen to be a temporary visitor (or normal tourist), you can purchase a JR pass that will save you  A LOT OF MONEY because it gives you unlimited access to all JR trains and services (including the shinkansen).    This pass can only be bought overseas, so if you’re planning on using it, be sure to purchase this before you get to Japan.

If you forget to buy one, or if you’re only planning on exploring smaller areas of Japan, then you can buy JR-area specific passes after you arrive, which usually last less than a week and cost a lot less than the actual JR pass.

However… I am an international student right now, and therefore am not a temporary visitor… so how do I travel around Japan without breaking the bank on all these expensive train rides?

During specific holiday periods (summer, winter, and March-April), JR sells a ticket called the Seishun 18 which allows you unlimited travel on JR trains for any five days within its activation period.  I used this over the Christmas/New Year holiday, and I managed to get myself to five prefectures using just this ticket  (I will post about this trip soon!).  The Seishun 18 costs ¥11850, which equates to less than¥2200 of train travel a day.  However, you are not allowed to ride on shinkansen or limited-express trains, so definitely give yourself plenty of travelling time when you plan your train trips.

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One stamp for every day of travel you activate~!

And if you find yourself in Kyushu, you can get the JR Kyushu International Student Pass to explore and travel around (I did this and it was worth every yen).

Note: The Okinawa monorail doesn’t operate on any of these systems, so just buy the tickets individually… or invest in the Okinawan card

Despite all the confusion, I actually do think training it around Japan is more worth than flying in and out of the cities, or just staying in Tokyo or Osaka or Kyoto for a week.  There’s so much to see and do in Japan, and Japan is one of those countries where the process of getting to a place is half the adventure.

Just be sure to thoroughly research your routes before you board a train to anywhere.

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Recommended: Hiroshima Bugi

Hiroshima Bugi, by Gerald Vizenor, was introduced to me through my professor for one of my exchange classes, Contemporary Japanese Literature.  The whole class is about reading Japanese science fiction and then breaking them apart and thinking about how it deals with society and life, but I have no idea now for which story Hiroshima Bugi was used as an example.  I only know that, when it was put up on the screen, the format, the writing style, the content was so very innovative, so original, that I wanted to read more.

First page to Hiroshima Bugi

First page to Hiroshima Bugi

So naturally, being a fanatic reader, I asked my professor where I could find the book so I could read the rest.  It turns out that it got a super limited print because it was an independent publication by a university press (the University of Nebraska), and somehow or other a copy landed in the hands of my professor, so I ended up borrowing the book to read.  And the read was so worth it.

To be honest, when I read that first page in class, I thought the work was an independent poem, and not the opening to an entire novel.  The novel separates its paragraphs using indents, and the third indent is always used throughout the novel for direct dialogue, where the speakers alternate lines and the speech is short, staccato and symbolic.  And the most amazing thing was, the writing style is so experimental that I assumed the book was a translation from Japanese, but no.  The author is American, and so the book was already in English.

The book itself is a novel written with alternating chapters between two voices.  The first part is written through the eyes of Ronin Browne, a half Japanese half Native American who recounts the history of Japan using a mainly autobiographical style from the moment of the first atomic bombing, and keeping Hiroshima as its focal point.  The second half is written by Manidoo Envoy, a friend of Ronin’s father, and the one who gives explanations to what Ronin is doing, what historical references we need, and what background story to which character we need to know more of to understand what is going on.  His chapters are written more conventionally, and without his voice, I think the whole book would become super pastiche and experimental and not an approachable read at all.

Ronin’s sections are very poetic, Manidoo very factual.  They are so contrasting, but the author has done such a great job on interweaving the two voices together that I didn’t feel any sense of misplacement whilst reading the book.  However, the content is quite heavy, and even though things are explained to you, it is not a leisure book.  I’m pretty sure that I fell asleep quite a few times reading this book simply because it takes concentration to read.  Although the language isn’t particularly complex, the density of the content meant I couldn’t just skim over the paragraphs and understand what was going on; I really needed to focus on the words.

Regardless, if you manage to find it sometime, this is definitely worth dedicating a few days of your life to read.  Even if only to marvel at how the author has crafted each sentence in Ronin’s sections to show so many things in minimal words.

First month reflections

I arrived in Japan exactly a month ago from today, but it simultaneously feels like I just got here AND that I have been here forever .  It’s weird… and I don’t know what to think about this, but whatever.  I am coping with living out of home for the first time, I am coping with living out of the country for the first time, and my room is still super presentable and not a total mess at all.

Major accomplishments, in my opinion.  I am coping, and I am surviving, and I am having one hell of a time doing it.

So… What have I learnt in this first month living in Japan?  What sort of life secrets have I discovered?

First of all, budgeting is nearly impossible.   Even though they sent me a form that listed all the expenses I would have to pay whilst I’m here, even though I had figured out previously weekly and monthly budgets and all, this DOES NOT help at all.  There are so many hidden expenses when you get here that I am crying at how fast my cash is going.  Examples: bedsheet costs, things that you need for your dorm like soap and bathmats and detergents, field trip costs, textbooks for Japanese class, student-organised welcome parties that will cost you ¥¥¥¥¥…

But all in all, it’s worth it.  All the money I have spent so far, I have not regretted at all.  A few tips that I’ve picked up from the older exchange students and other peoples are:

  • Write down all your expenses so you at least know where your money is going
  • Go to one big event a week. Unless the second event is something you promised to go to or else forfeit your first child, one big yen spending event a week will still get you heaps of funtimes and parties.  After all, everyone else you’re hanging out with are students living on budgets too.  So chances are you may be missing out on some massive party in town, but someone else is having a movie night in their room, and that’s fun and FREE.
  • Control your food money a week. In Fukuoka, food is cheaper to get than in the other big cities like Osaka and Tokyo, so it’s not hard to get a good feed for maybe 500 yen per main meal.  If you want to know what the standards for an expensive meal are…
    • Lunch: over ¥1000
    • Dinner: over ¥2000

This does not include snack money hehehehe

  • Alcohol is really cheap. Don’t go too crazy on building up your liquor cabinet.  EVEN IF THE ALCOHOL IS JUST STARING AT YOU AS YOU MAKE YOUR WAY FROM THE BREAD AISLE TO THE VEGETABLE SECTION, DON’T DO IT.
  • And if you like shopping, go on one trip a month. Everything is cheaper here, but that doesn’t mean you can afford to go out and impulse buy every time you walk past the store.  So dedicate one day where you know you have money to spend and then make it raaaaaaain.

Moving on away from money…

Japanese is hard.  Talking in Japanese is hard.  Unless you make time to go and speak to Japanese people on a day to day basis/have done exchange in Japan before and so you’re used to conversing in it, having Japanese thrown at you 24/7 is confronting.  Just watching anime or dramas all day is not enough, because being able to understand what they’re saying 100% does not equal to being able to respond to what they’re saying 100%.

I mean, I studied for three years before I came here (albeit not really studying as hard as I should have anyway…), and that was just enough for me to have enough vocab to be like ‘Where is ___?’ or ‘One ramen please’.  There are a lot of little phrases that you just don’t learn in class, and for you to pick up conversational every day Japanese, you’ll need to have lived here before.

What I think really helped me with my speaking confidence (which is still close to zero…) was that Kyudai has a tutor system where a local Japanese student is assigned as your tutor and is supposed to be your new best friend slash mother slash personal assistant slash Godsend, and for the first few days I was here my tutor was amazing and took me to all the places around the dorm and took me out to eat, and hearing what she was saying helped me kind of slide into conversing in Japanese.  Additionally, she went to high school in America, so it has been very easy for her to explain things to me so that I know what to do next time I need to deal with it.

Something else that also helped as well was that when I went on my #tokyolo trip, the friend that I was with most of the time did not speak Japanese at all.  Since I somewhat knew what I was doing, I ended up being the main speaker for the entire trip with no one to rely on to help me translate.  Especially because I had just gotten to Japan and was still like ‘What is Japanese can you eat it’, being forced to approach Japanese people to ask for directions, or to order food really made me think of how to communicate, and I think that made my brain transition into ‘YOU CAN JAPANESE’ faster than if I had not gone on the trip.

And in regards to keigo… no one cares.  They know you’re an exchange student the minute you open your mouth, and they don’t expect you to use it at all.  As long as you know enough keigo to understand what store people are saying to you when you buy things, it’s enough.  If you do use it, that’s just bonus brownie points for you, and you may or may not give off the impression that you’re fluent and so they stop speaking any English to you.  So unless your Japanese is actually somewhat fluent, don’t do it.

I mean, everyone is really friendly in Japan.  I apparently live in a sort of dangerous area in Fukuoka, but I am still perfectly safe if I go on a snack run by myself to the conbini down the road at 4am in the morning.  The other exchange students want to get to know you, local students may be shy because they can’t really English but they still want to get to know you… put yourself out there, and you’ll definitely make friends.

One friend once told me to ‘never say no’ when I’m on exchange.  If someone invites you to things, don’t say no.  This led me to a bar trivia the second night I was here, a comedy night followed by 飲み放題 (all you can drink) the third night I was here, movie nights with the older students, cooking parties with host mamas, drinks, dancing, karaoke…  You can say no, especially if you have an ICS assignment due soon, but it’s a lot easier to get to know people if you’re around and hanging out all the time.

And it’s fun.  If you think this violates my ‘one big event a week’ thing, it doesn’t, because errbody else be poor as well, especially because a lot of them are older exchange students who have been travelling it up and definitely have less money than you, the freshly arrived student, to spend, so I haven’t really missed out on any big events yet~

I’ve learnt this much in one month… let’s see if I still agree with anything I’ve said here in another month’s time.

Recommended: Hyakunin Isshu 百人一首

I recently impulse bought a book of Japanese poetry called the Hyakunin Isshu (百人一首).  An anthology of one hundred, five-line waka (和歌), or now more commonly called tanka (短歌), structured with lines measuring 5-7-5-7-7 syllables, and compiled by Fujiwara no Teika in around 1237 A.D., each is written by a different Japanese poet from the 7th to the 13th century.

Time to start reading!

Time to start reading!

Why did I decide to buy this anthology randomly? Because I had just caught up to Chihayafuru, a manga on competitve karuta which features the tanka in the Hyakunin Isshu prominently.  And being a fangirl, I decided to buy the book so I could understand all the layers of meaning in each tanka.  Such is the life of a fangirl.

At least I’m being educated whilst spending my time in imaginary worlds.

And since reading poetry needs reflection, and reflection comes easiest when writing down thoughts, I thought I would share my reflections.  After all, this blog is a Diary of sorts.

But for sure, these poems I would recommend/10.  Even just hearing the descriptions as I watch the anime or read the manga was enough to kindle my interest in Japanese poetry.  They are so layered, so full of meaning and double meaning, so subtle and yet so passionate underneath all the refinement.  There are online translations of them everywhere, and if you have time, read a few~!  I just like having a book in my hands.

Once I run out of these one hundred poems… I’ll see what I move on to.  Until then… stay with me.

Recommended! The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus

As much as I love Japan and all its quirky, kitsch melting pot of all things kawaii and philosophical, and as much as I know that Japan is full of ancient traditions, respect and honour, I can’t deny that the dark side of Japan is dark.  Often, this dark side is not respectful, not honourable, and definitely not kawaii.  The only thing it shows is just how nationalistic and how self-righteous Japan can be, especially on touchy issues that can cause a huge dent in their political relations with their global neighbours and partners.

This web-based journal, linked to me as a resource for a subject that I took (UTS Communications students, if you have a free elective, Genocide Studies is worth your time to take), has articles that relate to all sorts of current news articles about Japan.  In particular, the articles by David McNeill touch on controversial topics with so much insight and analysis; it makes you really reflect on things other than that Kyary song or cute anime boys as it spreads your vision to think about all aspects of Japan.

If you have time, flick through their articles! It won’t hurt to learn about something you won’t generally read about Japan :)  And if you want to read about other countries, they sometimes do articles about other Eastern Asian countries too!

Take me to David McNeill’s articles now!
Take me to the Asia-Pacific Journal now!