Japan is known as one of the most homogenous nations in the modern world, but that is not to say that they have complete equality nor homogeneity across prefect boundaries. With each unique prefecture culture comes a unique perspective on sustainability, and going from the middle of the world’s largest mega region to a town beginning to rebuild itself after a world-shattering disaster proves this more than anything. Environmentally speaking, of course, Fukushima, a city which experienced a nuclear disaster in 2011, faces an uphill battle- rebuilding a whole region after eight years of evacuation- but it is facing the challenge with resilience and incredible new ideas that the whole country could learn from. Despite being plagued by physical radiation alongside emotional devastation, the people are trying to be a model for renewable energy with a solar focus. Tokyo also has a unique take on environmentalism, though they do unsurprisingly have an upper hand in sustainability overall as the world’s largest megaregion and a long-standing technological hub. One thing that I found very impressive was Tokyo’s ability to be as populated and large as it is and yet still manage to incorporate nature in their urban lifestyle. It was not uncommon to see rooftop gardens or architecture which involved some green element; even some of the trains and public boards had the UN Sustainable Development Goals posted.
While this concrete/nature combination was relatively exclusive to Tokyo, however, general respect for nature was not, as everywhere we visit is filled with parks and natural landscape at every turn.
Economically speaking, too, Fukushima is currently in a serious rut, as most of the people who have moved back thus far are above the age of sixty. Tokyo is privileged to be the capital and have the most draw for foreign investors and workers, a huge advantage as the Japanese workforce diminishes. Though the population as a whole is older in Japan, their megaregion is the most likely to draw in young workers from other regions in Japan and around the world, so it is more fiscally sustainable as a general rule. That said, however, it is worth noting that Tokyo's privilege has not been without damage to others. In fact, the nuclear plants which exploded in Fukushima actually created energy for Tokyo, keeping little of the benefit for itself and experiencing near obliteration to keep the megaregion running.
Having said this regarding Fukushima, the extent to which they have already rebuilt their town a short eight years post nuclear breakdown is beyond admirable, and their resilience should stand as a model for the whole world to follow. Though eight years is not long in the grand scheme of life, it felt like a lifetime for residents forced to uproot their lives after a disaster which should not have involved them in the first place. However, rather than giving up on their home and moving on or accepting the injustices they faced, the people immediately began rebuilding their town to a point where a new government building has already been established and residents, though few, are already moving back. Former residents have rejected all statements that Fukushima will never be as good as it once was and have bounced back to make it better and more environmentally sustainable than ever; even our own tour guide designed solar panels which now supply a large portion of the city’s power.
Even beyond the physical rebuilding of the region, there is an impressive movement to rebuild the social environment. We visited a high school in the surrounding area and heard about projects that students there had been working on, one of which was a café designed to be an open area for people to come exchange ideas with dishes inspired by Fukushima’s best-known foods.
The people of Fukushima are incredibly welcoming to outsiders: the mayor himself thanked us for visiting, and our tour guide’s father, one of the residents already back in Fukushima, allowed us to come talk to him about the disaster. Their desire to share their story with anyone who will listen will likely prove as a great strength in the future, as Fukushima tries to break tensions between regions and encourage all people to visit their rapidly developing area.
In just two weeks, I’ve had more pleasant public transit experiences in Japan than I’ve had over the course of my life in the United States. Effective transit is the vessel that drives all of Japan’s productivity and innovation. The type and frequency of transit systems differ slightly throughout the country in order to meet the needs of specific regions. In Tokyo, we relied heavily on the Tokyo Metro and its extensive network to get us around the city. During the travel leg, we have primarily been riding the Shinkansen bullet train to cover longer distances more quickly. We also purchased bus passes in Kyoto and used their bus system to explore opposite ends of the city. In Hiroshima, we even rode the electric streetcar a short distance to get to the Peace Park faster. While these forms of transportation certainly have differences, the key elements common to all of them are what make Japanese transit efficient and sustainable.
Hiroshima Electric Railway
Source: Wikimedia Commons
My experiences with the passengers on the Tokyo Metro and Shinkansen have been largely the same. Riders arrive to the platform early and line up, then quickly file on and off of the trains. People are extremely cleanly, quiet, and respectful. A major perk of the Shinkansen is the assigned seating, which makes the ride more comfortable and prevents you from bothering other riders. This is very different from the transit I have experienced in Western countries. While riding Marta at home or traveling in Europe, I’ve experienced pushy crowds, loudness, and uncleanliness. The user-friendliness of each of these forms of transportation entices people to use them and consequently reduces the number of private vehicles on the road, even in less densely populated areas.
Additionally, the various transit we’ve used during the travel leg has been nearly as timely as the Tokyo Metro. The one exception was a delay coming into Kyoto – an issue with the tracks caused several trains to get backed up, causing us to miss our connecting train – but one holdup out of countless perfect trips is a much better track record than that of American transport. The rest of the transit systems have been excellent, with the trains and buses arriving exactly at their expected arrival time.
Subway arrival information at Tokyo Station
One thing that has decreased since leaving Tokyo is the accessibility of transit stations. With 179 subway stations, you can’t walk very far in Central Tokyo without finding a metro stop. The Shinkansen, however, is designed to cover larger distances more quickly, so its stations are further spread out across inland Japan. To access the Shinkansen so far, we’ve either had to walk or take a separate train to a bigger station. The Kyoto bus line had many frequent stops, but the system was difficult to understand and required several connections. Overall, transit is easier to access and understand in Tokyo, but the other networks of transportation outside the city work just as well once you get the hang of using them.
Shinkansen cars on display in the Transit Museum
In general, the various transportation systems throughout different regions of Japan all possess shared elements of timeliness, reliability, and accessibility. I haven’t yet had much firsthand experience getting reserved seats on the Shinkansen or coordinating connecting rides because of the travel leg itinerary, but I hope that over the course of weekend trips I will learn how to navigate new transportation systems.
Over the course of the travel leg around Japan, I took the high-speed Shinkansen from city to city, and within each city, I experienced various modes of transportation such as Kyoto's city bus system to Hiroshima's streetcar. While riding the Shinkansen in particular, I observed the convenience and advantages that intercity train travel provide for the Japanese. The patrons are all respective of each other's space; everyone stands in a line at the platform while waiting for the Shinkansen to arrive, and the first person always waits for all onboard passengers to get off before boarding him or herself. Additionally, the train always arrives two minutes before its scheduled departure time, and if the train is said to leave at 1:22 PM, it will do so at precisely that time. I am extremely grateful for the punctuality (except for the delay from Tokyo to Okayama due to a track inspection), but I do admit that I always get anxious when boarding the train, in fear that I do not get on in time. The train station is also extremely accessible; from every hotel we stayed at or tourist attraction we visited (with Fukushima being the one exception), the train station was easy to reach since it was located in the urban area. There are also numerous helpful signs, overhead screens displaying invaluable information, as well as information centers - all to help you navigate your way around and to locate the exact platform your train will arrive at. If you ask for help, you will immediately get a helpful response back, and if you do not understand the first time, the workers there will not hesitate to explain again. Aboard the train, there is also a digital screen at the front of every car, which reads out the next station so that you know when to get off. A few minutes before the Shinkansen approaches a station, an announcement plays along with a euphonious tune, alerting passengers that train is about to stop and awakening anyone who's asleep.
In the United States, however, high-speed trains simply do not exist. There are intercity train systems under the company Amtrak, but I had never heard of it until recently when I searched it up on the internet. The company claims to reach 500 destinations and 46 states with its railway system, but I have never heard of its advantages over the course of my entire life. My family never thinks twice about what transportation system to use when traveling around the country; it is always either by plane or by car, which I find to be more reliable modes of transportation available in the United States. Having no knowledge about intercity train travel in my home country, I cannot assert whether or not the Amtrak transit system satisfies the seven components of good transit service: connectivity between stations, frequency or span, fares, civility, reliability, simplicity, and speed or delay.
Nevertheless, I have also taken a high-speed train from Barcelona to Madrid. In Spain, the high-speed rail is called Alta Velocidad Española (AVE), and I found it to be pretty similar to Japan's Shinkansen when looking at the aforementioned factors of a good transit service. I would say that the number of train rides offered each day can amount to those offered in Japan, and the spacing and comfort of each passenger seat on AVE are equivalent to those on the Shinkansen. If I can recall correctly, I believe that there were different seats to choose from when purchasing your ticket, but they, of course, vary in price. The more expensive tickets provide you better quality seating and services, and the lowest available option gave you a non-reserved seat. The patrons are also pretty respective of everyone's space, and they stay relatively quiet during the train ride. It was easy to navigate my way around, but if I got lost, the workers typically gave pretty helpful responses. Getting to the train station in Barcelona was relatively easy, especially if you take the local subway or walk by foot since it was located around many hotels, shops, and restaurants. My family and I personally chose to take a taxi from our hotel to the train station, just for convenience purposes so that we did not have to lug around our heavy suitcases. Furthermore, I had to get my ticket stamped at a machine, which can be found at every platform, because the train conductor later checks your train ticket. On Japan's Shinkansen, however, I noticed a conductor walking down the aisle while carrying some device, but they never personally go by each person in a reserved car to check everyone's ticket.
Unfortunately, I do not know enough about Spain's high-speed rail system to suggest that it is as good as the Shinkansen. In all honesty, it was hard to recall what it was like taking AVE, even though I was in Spain just last summer, because I never really paid attention to the services provided by various train systems until I came to Japan two weeks ago. I can say, however, that there was never a time where I was unsatisfied while taking Spain's transit system. Through this travel leg and study abroad program as a whole, I have paid great attention to Japan's leading transportation systems, and have gained valuable insight into Japan's transit system and where it stands globally. I hope that in the future, the United States can follow after Japan and develop high-speed rail systems, which would become a huge turning point for the country's transportation industry.
Over the course of the past two weeks, I have utilized public transportation more often than I ever have before. From trains to buses and even a ferry, I am consistently impressed by the efficiency and punctuality exhibited by the transit systems of Japan. The form of mass transit that we used most often during our travel leg throughout Japan was the Shinkansen, or the bullet train, which allows individuals to travel easily from city to city.
On the topic of intercity travel, it comes as no surprise that Japan’s intercity transit system surpasses those of other countries. Never before have I experienced intercity travel like that offered by the Shinkansen. The capabilities of American intercity transit systems come nowhere near the Japanese Shinkansen’s capabilities, which is exemplified by the fact that the first thing that came to mind when I thought about “American intercity travel” was the Greyhound Lines bus service. Although Greyhound buses and the Shinkansen both boast Wi-Fi access, power outlets for passenger use, and considerable leg room, the Shinkansen system possesses the advantages of timeliness and availability. Like the majority of American mass transportation systems, one can not always depend on Greyhound Lines to arrive at its destination at the projected time, which is due in part to the buses not having their own designated road lanes for travel. In contrast, the Shinkansen system, like the majority of other Japanese transit systems, is predictable and almost always on time, which is shown by the fact that Dr. Woodall was able to give us the exact arrival and departure times for each of our shinkansen trips approximately two weeks in advance. Furthermore, the Shinkansen has its own designated tracks, which allow it to move unhindered from city to city.
As with other forms of Japanese mass transportation, the patrons of the Shinkansen are generally quiet and respectful. Compared to local train systems, such as those in Tokyo and Kyoto, I noticed more people of other nationalities utilizing the Shinkansen, which makes sense considering that the ease with which one can travel from city to city with the Shinkansen makes it perfect for tourists. As I stated previously, the Shinkansen is almost always a timely service; however, we had the misfortune of experiencing one of the few times when it was delayed. On the way from Tokyo to Kyoto, our train was stopped due to a track inspection, and we were forced to wait for almost an hour, which caused us to miss our connecting train to our final destination. Despite the anxiety that occurred because of this incident, we were able to acquire tickets for a later train to Kyoto, which demonstrates that the Shinkansen system can be flexible and provides users with the freedom to change travel times if desired.
Because Japanese cities are essentially constructed around the mass transit system, it is incredibly simple to locate stations. Stations are usually surrounded by shops, restaurants, and convenience stores, which makes it easy for commuters to amuse themselves or find amenities before their train departs or upon their arrival. In addition, the stations have always been within walking distance of our lodging, which was greatly appreciated as we lugged our suitcases around on our travel leg. Not only are stations easy to locate, but finding information for navigating between cities is also quite straightforward. Although the local train system and the Shinkansen system exist within the same stations, clearly-marked signs point to the area containing the Shinkansen platforms. Overhead displays list the time and platform number for each train, and the tickets inform passengers of their reserved seat number as well as which train car that seat is located in.
The Shinkansen process is designed to make intercity travel as effortless as possible so that passengers are able to journey from location to location with minimal hassle. People are able to ride contentedly due to the provision of internet access, tray tables, and significant leg room; I had to sit next to the tallest student on our program for one of the Shinkansen rides, and even he was able to sit comfortably. If countries like the United States gain inspiration from Japan and improve upon their intercity travel systems, this could promote their usage in the contexts of both business and pleasure, thus increasing the sustainability of intercity travel.
After being in Japan for two weeks, I have become familiar with many types of transit such as Shinkansen, subways, and buses. The main one we have been using more recently is the Shinkansen. These are the faster trains that take you from city to city.
Compared to the other transit systems I am familiar with, which is basically just MARTA, the Shinkansen is far better in many ways. First off, it is just as punctual as the other trains in Japan even though it travels much farther. Secondly, it also feels as safe and clear as other forms of transit, especially when compared to something like MARTA. The other people on the Shinkansen tend to be even quitter than on something like the Subway. The main thing, however, that stands out to me about the Shinkansen is how comfortable it is. The first thing I noticed is how much leg and seat room I had, which is something that has always been a problem for me as a tall person. The ride itself is always smooth and calm and there is plenty of space to sleep, eat, or do work. Overall, I feel like the Shinkansen is an incredible way to travel long distance in Japan.
When it comes to navigability, the Shinkansen doesn’t lack there either. It is very easy to gather information and find your way around, especially for someone who doesn’t know Japanese. The tickets, seats, and cars are numbered clearly, and the announcements get repeated in English. Despite how different it is, the Shinkansen is definitely the best form of intercity travel.
Having been in Japan for two weeks and traveling for a week, I have spent my time on various transportation systems. The various methods of transportation I have used are the train, Shinkansen, bus, ferry, cable car, and streetcar.
We used the Shinkansen a lot this past week to travel between cities. The Shinkansen are bullet trains that reach upwards of 200 mph which makes them a quick and cost-efficient method of intercity transportation. As someone who has spent a lot of my life in India and traveled using their train system, I can say that the Shinkansen system is the ideal system for intercity travel. The Shinkansen is just as timely as the rest of the Japanese transit system, something that Indian trains are not. The Shinkansen also offers a level of comfort that makes you feel almost as if you are flying, which is something I appreciate since Indian trains are nowhere as comfy. The people using the Shinkansen are also less aggressive than the people I have seen that use Indian trains, especially when it comes to getting onto the train, and the patrons on the Shinkansen are also a lot more reserved and tend to be on the quieter side.
As we left the Tokyo area, the amount of English signs in the trains are the stations still stayed the same, making navigation from place to place easy for English speakers. Even the signs and announcements on the streetcar and ferry came in English. One thing that I found interesting was that the JR west company had designed departure times for their ferries to Miyajima in such a way that people from trains that arrived had enough time to walk over to the dock. I think this method of maximizing the ease of use for passengers is what makes the Japanese transit system so spectacular.
The streetcar and bus rides that I used were not as precise in time as the train system but that is because they do not use transitways that are dedicated entirely to them. Overall, all the methods of transport that I have used in Japan have been unique in their own way, but I liked the railway system the best as it is the most developed and is an almost perfect right-of-way type A transit mode.
Walking into the JR West Miyajima Ferry. Owned and operated by the same company that operates a majority of trains of the region.
Two different types of bullet trains developed by JR Rails. These were on display at the railway museum.
During the travel leg of our trip, I was able to notice some big differences in sustainability between the interior and exterior of a megaregion. Even though there were differences, I wouldn’t say that one area was more sustainable than the other. However, I would say that sustainable development practices were easier to notice in the exterior of the Keihanshin megaregion.
The main difference in sustainability that I noticed was transportation. On the outside of a megaregion more people own and drive cars than in a place like central Tokyo. There is less of a reliance on public transportation, so there aren’t as many trains, stations, and rail lines that run in the outside of a megaregion. Although quite small, another difference I noticed was a lot of domestic greenhouses in the outside of the megaregion. Smaller greenhouses like these have multiple sustainability advantages as opposed to a large commercial greenhouse. They often aren’t constantly being supplied with heat, so they use little to no energy to run. Also, the plants produced in these aren’t usually treated with large amounts of damaging chemicals. The last main difference in sustainability between the parts of the megaregion I noticed was the abundance of solar farms as well as homes that were powered by solar panels on the roof. Obviously, this reduces the use of nonrenewable energy as well as reliance on imported energy.
While in Fukushima, I also learned about resilience and how the March 11th disaster affected and still affects that area. Before I got to Fukushima, I was expecting to see nothing but a ghost town as all I heard going into the visit was about how the place was abandoned. However, now I can say that is not the case at all. There were areas that were definitely still abandoned, but for the most part, Fukushima was surprisingly resilient compared to what I was expecting. The area was being cleaned up by over 400 workers and many structures such as houses and roads have been rebuilt and reopened. One thing I really enjoyed learning while there was how the people of the area are using the disaster to learn and help prevent future disasters. Their goal is to never forget what happened but also never stop working to recover.
Branching out from the heart of Tokyo and venturing further into the country’s mainland during the travel leg has allowed me to experience a very different side of Japan. Tokyo, the heart of a bustling megaregion, is packed full of people and skyscrapers, with clean streets and efficient transportation. Its infrastructure is made to be sustainable – their population density allows for effective public transit and their culture promotes cleanliness and minimalism. Further outside the city, however, there are obvious differences in transportation and land use.
Flooded rice paddy
Source: A Matter of Taste
As we switched over from the Tokyo Metro to the JR trains, we got a better feel for life outside of the city. The buildings are still compact, but are more spread out and shorter than in Tokyo. The transit system has less centralized hubs, so people more frequently drive cars or take buses. Additionally, a much smaller proportion of the land appears to be used for residential purposes and instead is utilized for agriculture. Much of the terrain we passed on the way to Fukushima from Tokyo was covered with smaller and likely less wealthy villages surrounded by rice paddies. I thought that this difference highlighted an important point that some aspects of sustainability are contingent upon the wealth and resources of an area. Outside the megaregion, cities don’t have the same financial resources or built-in infrastructure to achieve the same sustainable development that Tokyo and nearby major cities have.
Trashbags full of radioactive soil
Visiting Fukushima and meeting with the residents was very moving and inspiring. I had heard of the disaster when it happened in 2011, but never truly understood the scope of the nuclear meltdown or the extent of the citizens’ displacement. I was also especially struck by the social justice aspect of the story – TEPCO, a massive corporation from inside the megaregion, was exploiting a less wealthy village to provide energy for Tokyo. After their failure, the residents of Fukushima have been left to pay the price of an extensive exclusion zone, decreased agricultural market value for crops, health risks, and overall loss of livelihood. They are also forced to bag up and compile what has grown to be 19 million bags of radioactive soil that TEPCO has no real plan for disposing of.
Fukushima’s resilience is incredible – even after being exploited in this way, they are determined to rebuild their hometown and do so even more sustainably than before. Instead of turning to fossil fuels after the nuclear disaster, the city has invested in safer clean energy technologies. They have recently opened solar parks and installed wind turbines to generate energy locally. Their emphasis on future-building education is very impressive and will raise a generation of impassioned locals working to revitalize the area. I am hopeful that this generation will continue to grow and foster renewable energy technologies and help Fukushima become self-sufficient and sustainable.
J-Village in Fukushima (if you look closely you can spot a wind turbine!)
Exploring different regions of Japan has shown me how life varies inside and outside a megaregion. It has also shown me that the ability to practice sustainable development relies on a number of factors that are often harder to achieve with sparser populations and lower GDP. However, Fukushima’s resilience and commitment to revitalize sustainably gives me hope that when a community unifies in support, sustainable development approaches can be attained anywhere.
After leaving Tokyo, we saw several different forms of transit that were not used as widely in the megaregion. One of these transit forms was the Shinkansen. While similar to the Tokyo rail lines, the Shinkansen mainly differs in that its stations are farther apart, meaning that the train can move faster, and the wait times between stations are increased. As a result, the ride has designated seats and is overall more comfortable, like a plane ride. When compared to other intercity transit that I have taken, such as the Amtrak, the Shinkansen is cleaner and more comfortable to ride. Other passengers all move to their assigned seats and either sleep or work quietly throughout the ride. The Shinkansen also has a loud but calming jingle that plays whenever approaching a station to awaken passengers who might otherwise oversleep past their station. Finally, there is information available at the front and rear of each of the cars about the next stop, and there are frequent announcements on which cities and areas the Shinkansen is planned to stop.
A Shinkansen station. The Shinkansen doors, as with other forms of rail systems in Japan, always line up with the gates on the platform.
One of the modes of transit we used frequently in Kyoto was local bus lines. This form of transit was slower than the rail lines that we had used in Tokyo due to being in traffic with other vehicles and pedestrians. However, the bus system had the upside of being able to stop at more locations, often almost directly adjacent to the location of interest. While being relatively easy to get to stations, it was more difficult to find information on navigating between bus and subway routes. The bus system is still generally timely, much more so than the systems found in Atlanta and Georgia Tech, and the passengers are accommodating, particularly when the bus becomes crowded.
More personal vehicles are used in places such as Kyoto, often competing with bus systems on the streets.
Another mode of transit used in Kyoto was the local subway system. The subway system in Kyoto was generally not as well-developed as the one in Tokyo, as it was less comfortable and visually appealing, but it was still timely and present where it needed to be. The headway (time between arriving trains) was longer than the rail system in Tokyo, but it was sufficient considering there were generally fewer passengers at any time of the day. The subway system was much timelier than the MARTA system found in the Atlanta region, but did not have quite as many amenities and comforts as the Tokyo megaregion railways.
While Kyoto is an old city that was designed far before modern transit systems were developed, the transit systems are still developed to optimally accommodate the city's attractions. Walking is also always an option to get between nearby locations.
The Japanese transportation systems between cities and outside of the Tokyo megaregion are still much more advanced than those of the United States. While the city of Kyoto is ancient and therefore not as convenient to plan around for transportation purposes, its bus and subway system was still timely and easy to use, even for foreigners who are new to the area. This is in direct contrast to many US regions, where even locals may have difficulty finding bus or train stops, and there is no guarantee those transit systems will arrive within even 5 minutes of their expected arrival time. The United States and other countries can particularly learn from Japan’s intercity transportation system, the Shinkansen, which is both high-speed and easy to access; it has all the upsides of plane transportation without dealing with long wait times for departure and disembarking.
I think I have ridden on long distance trains in Italy when I was younger, but I don’t remember much of riding on the train. I can remember the stations being smaller with less stores and all the trains were on the same floor area. The stations were more chaotic, with similar amounts of people, but everyone walks everywhere. Here in Japan the walkways are more clearly defined and people are generally more organized. I was surprised when our train was delayed because of an issue with the tracks, but getting on another train was also surprisingly easy.
Thankfully, with my luggage, the train stations have all been within a 10-minute walk from our hotels. It is difficult to carry stuff up or down the stairs when there are no escalators. Because the stations are bigger on the inside, it’s been hard to get around especially with all the stairs. I feel like if I had less stuff to carry it would be perfect. Finding the platform has been really easy. I just look for the Shinkansen signs and find the platform for the area we are going. It hasn’t been confusing at all for me and I like how they have time displays and directions everywhere.
In terms of comfort, the Shinkansen is incredibly smooth. My stomach can get a little confused when we accelerate because it’s so fast, but I haven’t felt sick. I also really enjoy looking out the window. I know the new Shinkansen they’re building is supposed to be mostly underground, which is unfortunate, but worth the speed increase. These trains are very exciting to me as an engineering student and riding on them is a lot of fun. I wish I could take trains all the time in the US.