I’m starting to write this a week after our jet lag day coming back from Japan, sitting on a commuter rail train at a station as far from DC as Yokohama is from Tokyo.  This train is sparsely populated compared to the commuter rail in Tokyo, but then it is a holiday weekend, and not rush hour.  Plus, I get a seat and can type this.

Japan got a late start in rail and motorized transportation.  The first bicycles did not endure Japanese dirt roads in port cities until the 1860s. By the 1890s, Japan was already renowned for making cheap versions of western bikes.  My current bike, a Fuji, was probably make in Taiwan, but by a Japanese company.  Most of the components on it are Japanese made.

The first rail line was not until 1872, four years after Japan opened to the west.   The Tokai-do Main Line, Japan’s Northeast Corridor between Tokyo and Kyoto, was not completed until 1889, over three decades after the US had completed the NEC.  Within 90 years, Japan was building one of the fastest passenger trains on earth.

The first streetcar in Japan, in Kyoto, was in 1895.  They avoided issues with tracks in the street and horsecars by developing so late.  We saw this contrast on our trip.  In my home state of Virginia, the rail transit message boards were developed in the 1970s, and they have remained committed to the “technology” ever since.  The systems in Japan were just newer, reflecting later development but also a commitment to updates.

Disparate local rail networks were nationalized bu 1907, forming the foundation of the JapanRail network that we used so much while there.  Tokyo’s ring commuter line, the Yamanote, opened in 1925, while Philadelphia and Cincinnati were building their north-south subway lines.  The first subway in Tokyo, and the East, the Ginza, was completed across Tokyo in 1927.


The heavy rail transit map for Tokyo is daunting mess for the uniinitatied, like me.

This map doesn’t tell you that each of those colored lines is run by a different, profitable business, that leases the real estate and retail properties around and within the stations.

There is one pair of these lines that runs in the same tunnel, with different stations staggered along the line. I’d expect people use the same line every day, but never see each other because they use different stations.

We rode the Ginza line briefly to get from Oeno to Asakusa on the NE side of town. 170 Yen, or about $1.60. That is comparable with the bottom price for a short trip on the DC Metro. The ticket prices are distance dependent, but the price bands are simple, with no more than four price tiers.

I will see if I can get some GIS of these. I know FakeistheNewReal has this in their list of Subways at scale, but I didn’t look hard at the different lines because they are all the same color there.


Tokyo Subways


Paris Metro


Atlanta MARTA rail

Subway networks, at scale

The real star of transit in Tokyo, for a tourist who has no idea what to see and doesn’t particularly like museums, is the Yamanote line, indicated by a gray dashed line on this map.

That’s dashed line is not even a Tokyo Subway. That is commuter rail run by Japan Rail. There are a few lines that I think make a similar circumferential route.
Like Philadelphia, New York, or Chicago, Tokyo is served by a much wider web of commuter rail in addition to this heavy rail.


Like American cities, there are commuter rail networks far beyond the reach of the heavy rail “subway” networks.

Japanese population density and planning means that commuter rail is available for most of the nation.  A century ago, Americans could travel from Washington to Boston on interurbans, with a few transfers.  In Japan, that’s been a matter of fact since thenINTERCITY RAILWe could have traveled between Tokyo and Yokohama using intercity rail (LOOK UP SCHEDULE) but why do that when they’ve had a high speed rail network in place for over 50 years.  Our JapanRail passes allowed us rides on their oldest fleet of Shinkansens, which are still better engineered and faster than the Amtrak Acela line.  A funny thing about the Shinkansen is that they reviewed our “Black Beetle” high speed rail program for track engineering while developing the Shinkansen in the early 1960s.  As our passenger rail technology was dying, theirs was blooming.

Black Beetle 1966

Shinkansen, 1964

The Shinkansen train is a consist of 12 cars that does not get mixed and matched.  The cars are buttoned together with skirts to minimize drag,  There are two pantographs with a very large conduit between them, which I assume provides all the power the train needs to travel 200 mph.  The undercarriage of all the cars is skirted to avoid air turbulence and lift under the train.  At that speed, the aerodynamics should be about keeping the train on the ground as much as reducing drag.


Underside of our tray table in Shinkansen, helpfully indicating where to find things in your car and adjacent cars. Car functions are fixed enough in the consist to put permanent decals on the seatbacks.

I was disappointed that they no longer brag about the speed of the train in the onboard message signs.  I suppose its old hat now.  The 700 series we rode on from the 1990s was probably pushing 170 mph, much faster than the 125 mph that the rounder 0-series Shinkansens were driving before I was born.The Shinkansen we rode on were the bottom of the fleet actually.  Passenger train technology has continued to progress well beyond the one we rode.   We got to ride ours as tourists on the JapanRail pass.  It was still faster than any train I’ve ridden on before.

Series 0


Series 700

Possibly the same train station (Kyoto), 50 years elapsed.


There were roads everywhere we went.  Like all cities that were vast before transit and traffic, like Istanbul and Delhi, the roads are arranged in a spider web of desire lines and tourist surprises.  Though the map reads with local, collector, and arterial roads, even many of the arterial roads are still two lanes, with a stripe of paint delimiting the traffic way from the walkway.  In the US, the lack of curbs on an arterial, collector or even local road would be considered criminally negligent.  Narrow Japanese arterials are low speed roads because they can be.  There’s enough to see and do on them that things are within walking distance.  Driving would be nonsensical.  Especially when there’s no parking space guaranteed at your destination.I am writing this in a coffee shop near an interchanged that has been here since 1927.  We made a point of seeing an interchange that had been there since 1600 or before.

(Still figuring out the Google Maps, API, so I can only provide links.  Apologies)

c. 1927, USA ; c. 1600, Japan

Here is that same place, Shinagawa Station on the Tokai-Do road, in 1832.


In Tokyo, to register a car you must prove that you have a parking space for it.  The parking lots that I did see were no more than a dozen spaces, and each parking stall had a anti-theft device on it it.  This may not be an anti-theft device so much as an anti-parking device, made to exclude all but the keyholder from parking in a space.  I should have checked to see of those plates were spring loaded.


(BTW those are older houses next to this lot in Shinagawa, probably built in the 1950s or 1960s.  Fire has bad associations for Tokyo.  Funny that we saw so many people smoking anyway)


The freeways that I did see were unanimously up on piers, away form the urban fabric, and in the middle of the few multilane arterials in Tokyo.  They did get congested in the afternoon rush, but there was little recourse to widening, as commonly called for in the US.  They were up on piers after all, and widening them would have been a major inconvenience to the streetcar below.  Unlike the elevated highways and railways of America, these freeways did not take up the entire width of the street.  The street below was not a room, or a cave, but a street.  Just as buildings are stepped back to allow light to the street, a freeway was held back from blocking the sun to the valuable land uses below.


Note 4 lane freeway over the walk bridge and surface streets at lower center of this picture of Shibuya, SW Tokyo.


Tokyo and Kyoto residents, understanding that so much was within a short distance of where they lived or worked, took to bicycles more often than cars.  See the Parking section above on parking for how deliberately onerous it is to own a car in these cities. There were not that many infrastructural concessions to bikers, but they took their place in the street anyway.  Looking through Google Streetview before this trip, I did see many neighborhoods where bikeways were separate streets parallel to busy traffic arterials.  We also saw plenty of bike parking facilities with over a dozen bikes for every car parking lot with a handful of spaces.


2-foot wide bike lane in Kyoto.  Nice, but not neccesary


Mix of bikes, walkers, and traffic at a signalized intersection.


Soccer Moms waiting for their Elementary School kids, Tokyo


Soup Delivery Motorbike with self-leveling platform


Bi-level Bike Parking we saw several times in Tokyo and Kyoto.  Did not get to see the automated bike parking, but you can look it up on youtube.


We walked a lot in Tokyo, but not as much as in London.  The transit was too good and our tourist goals were too local to those stations.  I leave you with this.


The Tokai-do road, Tokyo.

The trafficway is wide enough for trucks, but requires consideration, the curbs are stripes of paint, the land use is diverse enough that a lot of commuters just walk or bike anyway.

Compare with our US-1 (Boston Post Road), approximately the same age.