Don’s Arrival: An Introduction to the Japanese Transportation System

In the next set of posts I’ll backtrack to Don’s arrival in Tokyo and our travels through Central Honshu.

After studying Japanese in Tokyo (to be discussed in future posts) I met Don one Friday afternoon at the Narita airport. Even though he was arriving rather late in the day, 3:30 PM, I had us staying in Inuyama, about a 30 minute train ride out of Nagoya. This meant we had to first get to Tokyo from Narita airport, catch the shinkansen (bullet) train to Nagoya and then a commuter train from Nagoya to Inuyama. Seemed daunting after a long flight but we thought it would be nicer to have a rest day in Inuyama than have two travel days. I didn’t pre-book anything in case there was a delay with his flight or getting through passport control, so we winged it. It mostly went surprisingly smoothly despite Japan’s enormous and confusing train stations.

At the Narita airport we stopped at the Travel Service Center and got the Narita Express tickets to Tokyo and the shinkansen ticket to Nagoya. The staff spoke good English and were quite efficient. The tickets can be confusing because they issue you 3 tickets for the 2 legs. I didn’t quite figure this out because of a mix-up that I will explain in just a moment, but I think one ticket was for the basic fare all the way to Nagoya and the other two were the seats reservations on each of the trains, one for the Narita express and the other for the shinkansen.

I had planned to change trains at Shinagawa station instead of Tokyo station because I had left my bag at a locker at Shinagawa on my way to school that morning. That way I wouldn’t have to lug the bag to and from the airport. Shinagawa is a smaller station than Tokyo station, but it turned out not to be small enough.

It was easy dropping the bag off and I thought I knew exactly where the lockers were, right next to the Narita Express gate, so I didn’t hesitate when the clerk at the Travel Service Center said that we only had an 11 minute transfer at Shinagawa. My mistake was that this station is huge and I didn’t remember which hall – north, south, or central – my bag was located at.

When we arrived at Shinagawa I left Don at the shinkansen gate and ran to get my bag, running from gate to gate asking attendants where the lockers were. I finally found the locker with my bag, ran back to the shinkansen and was about to board just in time when I realized Don was probably still waiting for me upstairs. We didn’t know there was more than one entrance to the shinkansen plantforms and thought I would have to pass him on the way down to the track. So we missed the train.

Out of breath we went back to the ticket gate. I showed the attendant all the tickets. Panting, I explained that we had missed the train and she said calmly in English that it was no problem and that she could get us on another train. She walked me to the shinkansen ticket gate and had someone swap out the tickets for the next departure which was only 20 minutes later. If I had known it was that easy I wouldn’t have run. Or maybe she just took pity on a panting foreigner.

The rest of the trip to Nagoya was an easy hour and half. We didn’t have seats together, only middle seats were left, but the person next to Don never showed up so we swapped seats and sat together and celebrated our good fortune with beer and nuts on the train.

At Nagoya, after asking a few people we found the Meitetsu line to Inuyama. We bought the 550 yen tickets in a machine. You select the ticket by the cost to the destination not the destination itself. Above the machine, there is a map with prices to various destinations.

The platforms at the Meitetsu station are a bit confusing so just follow the signs to your destination. They have both local and rapid trains and we were advised to wait for the rapid train. Take care as trains to different destinations use the same tracks. I asked the attendants and they got us in the right queue.

In Inuyama we took a short taxi ride to the hotel and were in our room by 8:30. It was a great introduction to the Japanese transportation system, albeit stressful at times.

September 22, 2017

For links to all the posts in this series see the Japan page.