It’s almost ridiculously easy to not end up visiting a place simply because it’s right there – I managed not to visit Shaanxi Province’s iconic Hua Mountain, located near to Xi’an, because I lived there for twelve years and figured I could go whenever I wanted. Also I hate trekking up mountains, which may have been a contributing factor.
For similar reasons, I never got around to visiting Japan. In my teen years I had a borderline weeabo fascination with the language and culture, and got into TEFL teaching with a view to doing a bit of time in China before moving there, but it simply never happened. Perhaps the rise of aforementioned weeabo culture (for those who don’t know what a ‘weeabo’ is, it’s basically Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons but obsessed with anime and samurai swords) deterred me somewhat. Whatever the reason, I never did go. When the opportunity to visit cropped up earlier this year, however, it seemed like as good a reason as any to tick the box.
Being a judgmental prick, I obviously had my preconceptions about Japan firmly in mind before going: neon-slicked cyberpunk streets, overly polite yet secretly xenophobic people, and perhaps more rape tentacles than I – or anyone – might be comfortable with.
Another thing that I was expecting, which I thought quite reasonable, was a futuristic, super-efficient rail system. Japan is often painted as being far technologically superior to its ostensibly backwards neighbour, China, so it seemed logical that they’d have a rail and metro system that would put the Middle Kingdom’s to shame.
I was very much mistaken in this.
What the fuck is a ticket
The first thing that struck me as I arrived in Osaka, found a metro ticket machine and bought my ticket, was that it was (a) comparatively expensive compared to China and (b) an actual fucking ticket. Like an old-school paper raffle ticket deal. Coming from the land of QR codes and plastic swipe cards, this was like trying to download an MP4 and being handed a tape cassette.
Why have one integrated rail system when you can have several?
In any major Chinese city, the metro system is, well, one system. There are a number of lines, but your metro card is good for the entire system, no matter how big it is.
Not so in Osaka.
In Osaka, for reasons that very much escaped me, the system is separated into arbitrarily discrete networks. If you buy an all-day ticket, you will be dismayed to learn that it applies to only one part of the city’s network. If you cross over into another network, you may be required to pay a ‘fare adjustment’ or else buy another ticket altogether. This renders the system somewhat confusing and more fiddly than it needs to be.
You need a degree in cryptology to figure out the timetables
Let’s say you’re feeling brave and want to venture to nearby Kyoto. Firstly, resign yourself to buying multiple tickets – you’re going intercity here, and even intra-city requires more forethought and planning than the invasion of Normandy.
Secondly, try to wrap your head around this:
Once you reach the Osaka-Kyoto station, you need to figure out which ticket you need. Semi-express? Express? Regular? After you’ve chosen what sort of ticket you’d like, for the love of God do not mix it up with other trains that, whilst looking extremely similar to the one you chose, may not necessarily be the correct train. This means dealing with the above mess of information, which I assume is daunting even if you happen to read Japanese.
They do have one thing over China…
Now I realise that I’m making it sound like navigating Osaka’s metro system is an absolute nightmare, and it certainly has its challenges. But there is one thing it has over China, it’s that China is exhibit A in the #ThanosWasRight movement, and Japan is not. Not only do metro officials not need to physically pack you onto the train with a giant people-prodder, but you can actually get a goddamn honest-to-god seat quite often. To anyone who’s ever been on the Beijing metro at 5pm, this is heaven-sent. Bemoan the archaic paper tickets, but also luxuriate in the fact that you’re commuting on something slightly more luxurious than your average cattle train.