17m 37s

Enjoying Japanese trains

Living in Japan

Broadcast on November 6, 2022 Available until November 6, 2023

For those who like to ride the rails, this is a year to celebrate. It’s the 150th anniversary of Japanese railroads. John Daub, an American enthusiast, has travelled across Japan by train, north to south and east to west. He shares some of his lasting impressions with us. In the latter part of the broadcast, we introduce a program from NHK WORLD-JAPAN, "Journeys in Japan." Our MCs, Ruth and Stuart, recommend particular episodes that offer glimpses of the country not found in guidebooks.

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【Guest for the main section】 John Daub: Social media influencer
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The last regular sleeper train in Japan
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The Gono Line

[Transcript]

Living in Japan. Hello everyone. Thank you for tuning into our show. I'm Ruth. I'm Stuart.
Living in Japan is a program for international residents in Japan, whether now or in the future.
We share hints and tips to make the most of your life in Japan.
 
It is the season of beautiful autumn leaves. You can go out to see the leaves on weekends.
Indeed, and for such an outing, trains are very convenient with no traffic jams and accurate times. In fact, this year is the 150th anniversary of the railways in Japan.
 
Perhaps you can enjoy commemorative events and exhibitions at stations and other places.
That's right, and today we welcome a train-loving guest to hear about the enjoyment and culture of Japanese trains.
OK, let's welcome today's guest.

HINTS FROM SENPAI

It's time for our main section, Hints from Senpai.
Senpai is a Japanese word for whoever has more knowledge or experience. Every single show, we will invite a different senpai that can give us tips and hints and how to do things better.
 
And today's senpai is none other than John Daub, an American who has lived in Japan since 1998 and is a social media influencer and reporter for NHK WORLD-JAPAN. John loves trains and has used them extensively on his three trips around Japan. Today we asked John about the enjoyment and culture of Japanese trains.
 
Welcome, John. Hi, John.
Hey guys. Nice to meet you. I'm a train fanatic and thank you so much for having me.
 
OK, now you have completed three all-around Japan trips.
Did you basically travel by train the whole time?
 
I did. At the time, I used a special ticket which allowed discounted unlimited local train travel on all JR trains. It's available only seasonally now. And you can't take the bullet train with that ticket, but it is very convenient to travel all over Japan, especially when you are new to the country and don't have a car.
That is totally right. And I am sure you have ridden on more trains than you can count. But what is the best thing about trains? I know it's hard to answer, but what's the best thing?
Oh, what a question.
 
Well, there are various types of trains. And trains like the Shinkansen where you can get to your destination in a short time while enjoying a box lunch on the train are really fun. However, I prefer local trains that run through various regions. Local trains are considered daily transportation for the residents of that area. And for visitors to the area, the train ride itself is a journey. Although local trains are slower than the Shinkansen, they allow passengers to fully enjoy the scenery of each area. In addition, stations are in a sense the cultural center of the area. When you get off the train, you see the people who live there, the stores and restaurants, the lifestyle of the area. I am really attracted to that kind of adventure, seeing daily life in Japan.
 
Me too. Actually, my favorite train is called the Enoshima Electric Railway or Enoden. It's called Enoden. And the thing that I love about this is that you come around a corner and you're right on the ocean. It's a local train that leaves from Kamakura and goes sort of along that way. And it's just such a beautiful ride and it's very slow, which is actually good because you get to see the scenic views even better. So yeah, I love that and people wave to you as you go by, and it's really fun.
 
I also love local trains. I do like Shinkansens for the convenience, but I much prefer to go on something that stops at every station in-between A and B. Now I know you have many memories, John, many different local trains, but what train has left a lasting impression on you?
 
Wow, there are just so many of them. The first one I would like to introduce is the last regular sleeper train in Japan. OK.
Departing from Tokyo station, the train separates at Okayama, going to Shikoku. The other half goes to Tottori and Izumo on the Sea of Japan side. Oh.
Right, again, it separates at Okayama. The train departs from Tokyo station at 10:00 pm exactly, allowing passengers to reach their destination while sleeping.
 
I think I've seen that pass by.
Probably you wouldn't see the passengers in the seats. No.
Well, what makes this really unique is that there is a floor sleeping setup called "Nobi nobi zaseki" and a train shower on board. What?
 
Yeah, I know, right? You need to get a ticket for that shower when you board though, because they're limited. The shower is about 6 minutes long, which isn't a lot of time if you like to lather up. Woosh, woosh, woosh, woosh.
What felt weird about that was showering while the train was moving, swaying side to side. That rolling movement of the train always puts me to sleep fast. Now it departs 10:00 pm daily, as I said from Tokyo Station. But there's no dining car on board, so you have to bring your own bento. OK.
 
The Shinkansen is also quite impressive, almost like riding in an airplane, right? Yeah, I like the Shinkansen.
But I'd say there's another train that I prefer for experience wise, the super luxury train. There's one running down in Kyushu, and it's probably the most memorable train I've ever ridden. Really?
 
It's a special train that offers cabins and fine dining for trips of three to four nights cruising around Kyushu, departing from Hakata, which is Fukuoka. The food is all prepared by famous regional chefs, and the food is also locally sourced. The chefs on board, they board and depart the train with all the food and the equipment. OK.
 
It's incredible to see them cutting and cooking while the train moves, right? Yeah. That's a great skill in itself.
I love the rolling landscape, especially the massive back window of this train, which is floor-to-ceiling. Wow.
Sitting in the lounge car with a drink, listening to live music. Live music.
Right, with live music, and the countryside is just rolling out that window. It really was a dream come true to ride that.
Oh, live music. I like the sound of that on a train, oh yeah.
 
And I think that a lot of the design in these trains is also local kind of authentic design, right?
That's right. A lot of the designs, especially on the walls, they were made by Kyushu artists from all seven prefectures down there.
 
Well, you've been introduced to two impressive trains. But I'm sure you have more recommendations. What are they, John?
Yes, there are so many to choose from. One in particular is the Gono line, which runs from Akita to Aomori.
It's not no go, it's Gono, right? I remember that.
Not go to. It's Gono.
 
Right, Gono, and this line includes special trains for sightseeing and local one-man trains operated by a single driver who checks the tickets, makes announcements, and drives. Oh.
Unfortunately, due to damage from torrential rains this summer, most of the trains on the Gono line are currently out of service. But it is a wonderful line, and I hope that it will be restored so everyone will be able to ride it again.
I definitely want to. Hope so.

What I loved about it was the experience: the scenic views through forests along the coast of the Sea of Japan, through mountain cities. They have local sake on board the special tourist trains, right? Oh Aomori, Akita, hello.
And Stuart, also live music as well.
That does it for me. Sake and live music. Yeah, you've got me. I'm going. When do we go?

You're right. That's the experience. Many of the stations are also quite memorable. One in particular was called Noshiro, which is famous for basketball here in Japan. Oh.
And the train stops here for a few minutes. Passengers can get off and shoot basketballs on the platform. Are you kidding me?
No, this is a real thing. If you make a basket, you win a prize. You gotta hurry though. You gotta hurry because that train is going to be departing again in a few minutes.

So, you've only got a few minutes, right? So not everybody can enjoy that unfortunately. But it's great. That's fantastic.
If you know about it, you can get in line first. Yeah.
 
It's also really hard for me to narrow down the train recommendations, right? So, there's just so many amazing lines and locations to travel by train.
The more I hear from you, it's kind of like the train itself can be the destination, you know? Yes.
I mean, it's going that. I love that about Japan. Going to the place is fun, but getting there can also be such a cultural experience. It is fantastic.
 
Today we have as our special guest, John, who is a fellow train lover. Fanatic.
Fanatic indeed, yes. Finally, do you have any useful advice for enjoying Japanese trains?
 
Well, I would say that one of the things I'd like people to try are something called ekiben. Now, these are boxed lunches, almost always with regional ingredients to make it special when eaten on a train. It's a chance to eat local on the move. Oh.
 
Yeah, as I said, they use regional ingredients, but it's also seasonal too. Ekiben will change with the fresh ingredients that are available at the time. For me, sitting on the train watching the view go by through the window while eating an ekiben, it's just part of the train experience in Japan, and exciting for all the five senses. Yeah.
 
Make sure not to eat ekiben on subways and crowded trains, though. You have to say this typically… You do.
… they're eaten when you have a tray in front of your seat, those kinds of situations. But you may see people eating them on local trains when they're not too crowded. Right.
I really love, my favorite would be the unagi freshwater eel bento. And you can usually get it from Tokyo station where they're shipped in every morning from localities, like Shizuoka or Aichi Prefecture at 5:00 am.
 
They also have the self-heating gyutan ekiben.
I've seen that. You pull the cord, right?
Yeah, you pull the cord and it self-heats. Gutan is beef tongue. It's a specialty from Sendai, which is also quite good. The Yonezawa Wagyu beef bento is also very delicious. Oh, don't get me started on that one. And they do have some vegetarian options too. Oh good.
 
So that's what I wanted to add is that some of the ekiben recently, you can find ekiben for vegans. Vegan ekiben, basically, you know, lunch boxes. So, all you vegans out there, don't give up. Keep searching for that vegan ekiben. It is there. And there are also in-train sales where you can enjoy eating special ice cream that's only available there, but you can also buy bentos, drinks, and, you know, sometimes that little cool beer that you might want to buy too. So, if you didn't have time to buy an ekiben, I would definitely recommend the in-train sales.
 
But just make sure they actually have it before you depend on that.
Yeah, some of them have been stopped because of the COVID situation, right? Yeah. Now in my case what I like to do is I like to go in and buy local specialties, take them on the train with me, and eat and drink them on the way.
 
Yeah. There's also another topic that I want to discuss. It's the 150th anniversary of railways in Japan. Wow.
Japan's railways opened 150 years ago between Shimbashi in Tokyo and Yokohama. It was an 18-mile, 29-kilometer line using a British-built Class 150 steam locomotive. It used to take 53 minutes to get to Yokohama from Shimbashi, but now it takes only 24 minutes. Wow. Oh, ho ho, it does.
 
The former Shimbashi station was located in the current Tokyo office district of Shiodome. A replica of the station building from that era was built on the site of the former Shimbashi depot. Yeah.
And an exhibition room introduces visitors to Shimbashi station when it first opened. You can see part of the excavated platform remains are there. Wow. Enjoy, yeah.
So, trains started in Shimbashi.
That's the history, right.              
 
Shimbashi was the first place I came to the work in 1988, all the way back there. So, I also started in Shimbashi. So, I feel that even deeper relationship with trains right now.
Yeah, very deep connection. That building in Shimbashi, I always thought was the actual original station though. It's a replica? It is a replica.
It's still gorgeous though. It's kind of made of sandstone. It's fantastic. There are some shops around there. You can buy food there and sit around it and enjoy looking at the fantastic building. It's beautiful. Really recommend that out near, Shimbashi station, yeah.

OK. Thank you very much. John Doe, you've been fantastic. Please come again.
Thank you, John. Thank you, Ruth. Thank you, Stuart. Great.

GOOD TO KNOW

Now we move on to Good to Know. Today we would like to introduce you to a TV program on NHK WORLD-JAPAN that you might want to know about.
 
Today we're featuring a travel show, Journeys in Japan. In fact, today's guest during the first half, John, is also a reporter on the program.
Yes. I've seen him on that. Yeah. Now this program is a well-established NHK WORLD-JAPAN program. It is a program in which reporters travel all around the country, meet local people, and discover traditions and culture not found in guidebooks so that you too can learn about another side of Japan.
 
Great, I actually watched the episode with Isabella Bird, On the Road to Nikko, that aired on October 11 this year. Isabella Bird was a British traveler who travelled to Japan in 1878, about 140 years ago. Yeah.
And wrote her highly praised travelogue of that journey, "Unbeaten Tracks in Japan." This has actually inspired a whole bunch of other writers about Japan.
 
In this episode, a reporter travels from Yokohama to Nikko using her book. Using her book as a guide? Yeah.
So, the year 1878 was only ten years after Japan opened its doors to the West. At that time, there were only a limited number of places people from overseas could travel. I can imagine, yeah.
But Isabella was able to travel across Japan flexibly with the help of various people.
 
However, since transportation was not well developed at that time, she could only take the train from Yokohama to Shimbashi. The rest of the way to Nikko was by rickshaw or on foot. Can you believe it? That's sounds amazing.
 
In addition, Japanese inns at that time were only separated by sliding doors and paper screens.
How brave is that, though? That's incredible. Wonderful.
140 years ago? Yeah.
Wow. Very, very brave woman.
 
Well, I watched something completely different. I watched Ishinomaki: A Decade On - Remembering and Moving Ahead, which was broadcast last August the 17th. Ishinomaki is a coastal city in Miyagi Prefecture. It's long thrived on its fishing industry and was one of the areas hardest hit by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.
 
They actually lost about 4,000 people from the town. Now the reporter for this episode is a guy called Richard Halberstadt, and he's from Great Britain, and he was a victim of this disaster. He's now the director of the city's March 11th information center, which is in the recovery park they have there.
 
And he tells visitors about what happened then. He has lots of overseas visitors as well coming for tours and so on. And a lot of these tourists go to places like Minamisanriku and all, you know, other disaster areas to have a look and learn about what happened to the area, of course, but learn about what it was like before.
 
In this episode, Richard and his friends guide us through the road to recovery. They look back on many bad things that happened because of that disaster, but also they look forward. Richard's a very positive guy, and the people in the town are really, really, really positive. So, they're always looking for ways that they can move Ishinomaki forward, which I found really inspirational. Fantastic stuff.
 
Well, I mean, this whole area of Japan, even now and before the disaster, is like a jewel for Japan, right? It is.
So, it's really important to learn what happened and how people are moving on and also to get reacquainted with these lovely places. Yeah.
So that's a great show that you saw. Fantastic. Yeah.
 
In this way, you too can discover new charms of Japan by watching this program, Journeys in Japan. And it may be a catalyst for your next trip.
True, this program is available on the website. To view past broadcasts on demand, please go to NHK WORLD-JAPAN's website. Click on "On-Demand" and search "Journeys in Japan." Please do.

ENDING

OK, today we talked about trains and travel. I wanna go. I wanna travel trains. I love them already. But I wanna go even more now.
I wanna go to Gono line. That's what I wanna ride.
 
We are looking forward to more and more listeners joining us here on Living in Japan. You can listen to this show on our website too. Go to NHK WORLD-JAPAN's website, click on "On-Demand," choose "Audio," and find "Living in Japan."
Also, if you have any comments or requests, please send us a message through our website. We will be back on December 4th with another edition of Living in Japan. We certainly will. We look forward to it. Bye.

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