Car-free travel in Japan is wonderful and easy. I’m certain it’s one of the best places to visit without a car.
Everything you’ve heard about train travel in Japan is true: it’s fast, punctual, frequent and comfortable. Japan’s trains, including those in the transit systems of the places we visited, were the highlight of our vacation. Our 14-day Japan Rail Passes (about $580 CAD each) were useful for intercity travel and even hopping around Tokyo on the famous Yamanote Line.
We zipped between Tokyo, Nagano, Nagoya, Kyoto and Hiroshima using the super-fast Shinkansen bullet trains, which easily exceeded our expectations. Zooming from Hiroshima to Tokyo (800 km) in a mere five hours is impressive, and puts to shame Amtrak’s eight hour travel time between Vancouver and Portland (500 km).
Even the train station architecture is amazing in some places. Kyoto Station is a marvel from top to bottom, so much so that we decided to have our anniversary dinner there. We found a quiet corner on an upper level of the station, and we munched on takeout while enjoying a perfect view of the orange and blue lights of nearby Kyoto Tower.
Trains within cities, particularly the legendary ones in Tokyo, were easy to navigate and often very fast and frequent. Taras Grescoe’s chapter on Tokyo in Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile is the perfect introduction to the city’s transit system and helped me to appreciate the astounding flow of people at busy stations like Shinjuku and Shibuya.
We wandered around cities using a combination of transit and walking, which is an ideal way to explore. Walking seems safe thanks to thoughtful pedestrian crossings, separate facilities (such as the many car-free walkways in Tokyo), and quiet side streets where vehicles are rare and attentive.
Walking in Japan reveals the joys of serendipity. We got lost. A lot. We learned quickly that it can be very frustrating to find a particular address in parts of Japan. We enjoyed ourselves much more when we let go of searching for specific places and needing to know where we were. Wandering, exploring and discovering were consistently more rewarding.
The bonus of combining walking and transit is that you can never be really lost. Eventually you find a transit stop or station and you can usually at least navigate back to your accommodation from there.
Walking is the best way to experience Japan’s large cities since there is so much to see everywhere, indoors and outdoors. Department stores aren’t just for shopping — if you walk through them you will find food (often on the lower levels), restaurants (often on the upper levels), and maybe even bowling alleys or rooftop gardens. In, over and around transit stations are shops, restaurants, and pachinko parlours.
Japan also reminded me of something very simple that makes it easy to travel car-free: abundant washrooms. I’ve never understood in Vancouver why our transit stations, particularly our new Canada Line stations and Waterfront Station with all its amenities, don’t have public washrooms. There are washrooms everywhere in Japan, and travellers can reliably count on finding them at transit and train stations. It’s a simple thing, but something Vancouver is strangely reluctant to provide unless you consider the often-broken soaking wet automatic toilets in the ad-laden metal boxes adequate.
We only rode bicycles on the Shimanami Kaido cycling route, but we loved observing all the people riding bikes everywhere we travelled in Japan.
The weather was sticky, humid and in the 30s every day, but this didn’t seem to stop anyone from riding their bikes in everyday clothes.
In North America, we often hear that when children enter the picture it will be time to get a car or at least drive more, and Japan showed us that families can stick to bicycles for most of their transportation needs. When I saw a mother with one child in a front seat and one in a back seat on her bicycle, I thought, “right on!” because I don’t see this very often in Vancouver. I soon realized she wasn’t doing anything extraordinary. Over the course of our two-week vacation, we saw many parents (mostly mothers) travelling with multiple children on their bicycles and they didn’t need fancy cargo bikes, trailers, bakfiets or other expensive equipment to do this. Bike shops in Japan sell a variety of bicycles that are already equipped for carrying children.
Japan changed my opinion on sidewalk cycling. Prior to travelling there, I was known for grumbling whenever I would see someone riding their bike on the sidewalk. Now I see that sidewalk cycling can work, even in a busy city like Tokyo, if people pay attention to each other and the cycling is slow.
OTHER HIGHLIGHTS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
If you’re planning a trip to Japan, you may be interested in some of the other things we enjoyed:
- japan-guide.com – an unbelievably helpful and accurate website, particularly if you’re planning day trips where you need to do some transportation research
- Magome-Tsumago Trail, Kiso Valley
- Cho Bali Bali Restaurant, Nagano
- Accommodation at Capsule Ryokan Kyoto
- Nishiki Market, Kyoto
- Eating delicious vegetarian food in Kyoto
- Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
- Eating huge portions of okonomiyaki in Hiroshima
- Yakult Swallows baseball game at Jingu Stadium, Tokyo
- Grand Sumo Tournament at the Ryogoku Kokugikan, Tokyo
- Wandering around Shimokitazawa, Tokyo
- Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo
- Eat More Greens Restaurant, Tokyo
- Exploring the world of food equipment and plastic food on Kappabashi Street, Tokyo
- Being able to speak and understand a little Japanese thanks to the UBC Continuing Studies Japanese Beginner 1 course I took prior to the trip