Japanese don’t do luggage as a rule and, while bicycles are absolutely everywhere, they seem to keep themselves to the streets, so the challenge of penetrating Japan Rail with a fully loaded Brompton is considerable compared to the ease of taking your bike and luggage on trains in, say, Britain or the Netherlands. However over my two week trip I had used local commuter trains, expresses and the Shinkansen Bullet trains without any exceptional difficulty.
In theory you should have your bike packed in a bag on the train, and I did so on the longer trips but I also took it several times naked on Tokyo’s Yamanote line (the equivalent of London’s circle line) which comes close to the perfect Brompton multi-mode experience – a bike is the best way to get round Tokyo and the Yamanote line gets you to all the main areas of the city. On foot you would have to pound a lot of pavement – with the bike you have easy access to the whole of central Tokyo, plus the delights of cruising effortlessly around the side streets and feeling yourself a real part of the life of the city.
The previous time that I visited Japan I had hired a bike for a couple of hours in Takayama, an attractive traditional place in the mountains, and I had seen a group of intrepid girls in Takayama station, assembling touring bikes that they had brought bagged on the train. They seemed to have an industrial scale toolkit and were cheerfully re-fitting front forks and pedals and, for all I could tell, building wheels and overhauling their bottom brackets for good measure.
This inspired me to decide that next time I came I would have a bike, but it needed to be a folder since I didn’t want to get into a major production every time I travelled anywhere. One of the great pleasures of visiting Japan is the freedom of the Japan Rail Pass, only available to visitors, that allows you to hop on almost any train, any time, and is a real bargain. For anybody used to lesser rail networks it is hard to realise how comprehensive, efficient and convenient the JR system is, especially as you can use it without any knowledge of the impenetrable Kanji alphabet that makes foreigners illiterate and cuts them off from many aspects of Japanese life.
My rail experience started with a bang the moment I arrived in the country. I needed to get from Tokyo’s Narita Airport to the town of Tsukuba where I was attending a conference but there was no direct rail service and the last bus to Tsukuba left Narita less than 60 minutes after my flight touched down, too tight for comfort. To add to the pressure I needed to exchange my Japan Rail Pass voucher for an actual pass before I left Narita, even though I did not want the 7-day pass to start for several days. You can only do that transaction at certain main stations and this would be my only chance.
I had consulted the excellent online timetable for Japan Rail and found that I could get to Tsuchiura, about 10km from Tsukuba, by taking 3 local trains. The woman at the train ticket sales desk wanted to sell me a ticket via Tokyo on a “proper” train but that would have taken even longer and involved lugging all my stuff across the rolling acres of Tokyo’s Ueno Station so I held out for the local option.
This was an adventure in several ways – first of all, to my great delight, all three trains were late, giving the lie to the widespread belief that Japanese trains always run on time, although I must admit that the express and Shinkansen trains that I used later on were completely punctual.
Japanese people who speak English will often go out of their way to offer help to a foreigner and when I arrived at Narita Town station for my first change of train a young woman passenger asked me where I was going and told me that I could board a delayed train waiting there that saved me waiting for my scheduled train (also delayed).
These suburban trains were noisy, harshly lit stainless steel boxes with bench seats running the length of each side and plenty of room for standing passengers. In the late evening they were full of people who had not had 2-day journeys across 8 time zones but still looked as shattered as me.
Some trains had helpful electronic displays and bi-lingual announcements but my last leg was on an older train with none of these refinements and I was glad that I had printed out the schedule of stops from the internet timetable. Japanese station signs have station names in three different scripts, including our own “Romaji” type, and they also show the names of the next station in each direction, so it’s not too difficult to keep track of where you are.
I arrived in Tsuchiura around 11:15 pm and was mightily relieved to see that there were taxis waiting. I had intended to cycle the last 10km but by that time I was truly exhausted and glad to collapse in the back of a classic Nissan Cedric Sedan (the standard Japanese taxicab) with a full complement of lace seat covers and a white-gloved driver who looked just like every other Japanese cabby, with the usual air of slightly seedy, sinister competence.
The main difficulty of using Japan Rail with a Brompton is that, unlike my home country, you cannot wheel the bike to the train. There is a shortage of lifts and escalators, particularly in the access to stations themselves and within the smaller stations, and I don’t recommend negotiating a long staircase with a loaded Brompton – it would certainly be worth finding a way to temporarily prevent the rear triangle from folding before you attempt it.
The final handicap is that you cannot take the bike unfolded through the ticket barrier, which is some distance from the train. In the end I was so fed up with lugging my full load across the station that, on my rail trip to the airport on the last day I decided to see if I could get on to the platform before packing the bike up – to find out how I got on go here.
Once you are on the platform there are a few things that you need to know. First, if it is a “Limited Express” or “Shinkansen” service your ticket will show your seat number. (If you have a Japan Rail pass show it at the ticket counter, say which train you want to get and they will give you a reserved seat ticket free of charge, if you don’t want to go by the next available train, write out your train time to ensure you get a seat on the right service) The ticket will show which car you are in (they are numbered) and which seat you have (letter and number just like airline seats) At first it’s difficult to work out which is which (there is another code on the ticket that looks just like a seat number) so it’s worth getting somebody to help you the first time you use it.
If you don’t have a reservation you have to work out which cars are non-reserved – often the only place you can tell is on the display or sign inside the main part of the car itself.
You have to stand in line at the point where the door to your car will stop when the train is due to arrive. At some stations there are electronic displays over each door position showing car number, whether the car is non-reserved and whether it’s non-smoking. Other stations have a huge number of painted signs on the platform floor, or little hanging signs overhead. unless you are very confident you need to ask a kind person to help find your spot, showing them your ticket and looking lost is usually enough. If you can’t sort that out then just get on at the nearest door and sort things out once you are on board. Stops are very brief so don’t waste time wandering about looking for your car once the train has arrived – just get on it.
Once on board the priority is to stash your bike and any other luggage. Most trains have very little luggage space especially the newer ones. However there is one good bet – all the seats face the same way and there will always be a good luggage space – ideal for your Brompton etc – behind the rearmost seat in each car. To make this even easier, almost every Japanese train has amazing revolving seats and the crew turn the seats to face the direction of travel at the end of each journey. It’s worth staying on the train for a few minutes at a terminus to see this happen – but you have to get out of the way quickly once the attendant has started down your car, these are men on a mission and you could get crushed by a spinning three-abreast recliner if you get in the way of their efforts to beat the depot record for a quick turnround.
The result of this passion for facing forward is that you can always be sure that if you enter the car by the rear door, your luggage space will be the first thing you find as you enter the car.
The one train for a loaded Bromptonaut to avoid is the double-decker. The double-deck Shinkansens are called “Max” (the timetable always tells you what kind of train it will be) and the reason to avoid them is that you will have to lug your gear up and down little steep staircases – there’s no luggage space in the vestibules. If you are not in the right car, that could make for a real struggle before you get yourself and your kit settled. There is often an alternative single deck train that you can get by waiting a little longer so don’t go by Max if you can avoid it.
On the other hand you can still find a few of the old “Toki” Shinkansen – the original 1970s bullet train with a nose borrowed from an airliner. They are looking a bit tired on the outside but the interiors are beautiful and immaculate period pieces with highly polished floors and original 70’s decor. And they still go as fast as they ever did.
So, on the whole, train travel with a Brompton is pretty easy. You can get wonderful lunchboxes called “ekiben” at most main rail stations and Japanese travellers usually turn their journey into a treat by tucking in as they speed along. If, like me, you get on the wrong train and end up almost in Hokkaido before you realise, you can usually get off at the next station, hop on one going the other way, and be back on your route within an hour or two. The only drawback to the Shinkansen is that it has taken the sense of distance out of travel in Japan – almost everywhere is an easy hop from Tokyo – but there are plenty of slower trains for anybody who would like savour their journey.