After riding on trains almost daily for two and a half weeks last month in Japan, I have a newfound interest in the rails. I rode several different flavors and without exception they were fun.
I already wrote about the subway system, which is a joy to use. The cars vary in style and age depending on the line you're riding. Some of them are sparkling new, quiet, and have LCD maps showing your position on the line. Some are clearly older, rattle and roar, and have paper maps on the walls. They're all clean.
They all slide into the station platforms at a pretty brisk pace. The newer stations have special automatic gates at the edge of the platform to prevent the accidents that happen at older stations when the platforms are busy and customers get bumped into oncoming trains. Akiho told me that this happens several times a year.
In Hiroshima, I rode on two different kinds of streetcars. One looked brand new and futuristic. The other looked like a holdover from 1955. They shared a rail down the center of the street that runs from Hiroshima JR station to the Atomic Bomb Dome.
The local surface trains that I rode, to Kamakura, Nara, and Miyajima-guchi, were all older trains on narrow gauge tracks. On the way to Nara, I watched, mystified, as the engineer drove the train while making elaborate gestures at invisible friends. I thought he was waving at someone he knew along the route. But I noticed after a while that he would raise his arm and then thrust it forward to formally acknowledge each signal we approached. Occasionally he would raise his arm and thrust it forward to run his finger across what was surely a checklist mounted on the top of the panel. It was a nice, geeky view of train operation.
Japan Rail (JR) operates many surface lines, some ferry boats, hotels in some of the stations, and of course, the marvelous shinkansen: the bullet train. Shinkansen means "new trunk line," not bullet train, but it's an apt moniker nonetheless. Once you're up to speed (300 km/h or about 186 mph), the world goes past in a blur. Anything close to the train disappears before you can name it.
The train is so well balanced that there is no sense of acceleration, even out of the station. It just gently rolls up to speed and then hums along. It's quiet inside but noise pollution is one of the reasons they won't run the faster shinkansens at full speed.
I didn't ride the Nozomi, which looks like a bullet and is about thirty minutes faster than the Hikari to Kyoto and Shin-Osaka. The Hikari I rode used the duckbill 700 series, which still looks like something out of a science fiction movie.
If you go to Japan and plan to visit a few cities along the shinkansen route, the JR Pass is a great value. It cost me a little more than the round-trip fare from Tokyo to Kyoto but I used it to go to Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima-guchi, Miyajima (on the ferry), Osaka, and back to Tokyo. That was using local lines and the shinkansen. You can't get the pass in Japan, as it's only for foreigners. You have to buy it before leaving home.
Overall, I can't rave enough about the rail systems in Japan. They're fast, clean, efficient and fun to ride. If you're a train fan, you can't do better.