I used to think of railway stations as somewhere simply to transit through. But since visiting Japan, I’ve come to think of them as destinations in themselves. They can be remarkable, both in innovative design, history and what they include.
Think excellent restaurants, shopping arcades, wonderful bakeries, sweet shops, amazing food halls, in-house classy hotels, museums, art galleries, sculptures, stained glasswork – even multi storey major department stores. And meccas for train spotters, of course!
Japanese railway stations are places I am still exploring – thanks to Covid I’m temporarily stopped in my tracks in that quest! So I’m reflecting on some of what I’ve discovered so far.
They come in all shapes and sizes from charming tiny stations with open platforms and intimate waiting rooms through to magnificent mega complexes such as Kyoto railway station with its cutting edge architecture and the timelessly classic that is Tokyo Station.
How you deal with Japanese railway stations is a matter of good planning, timing and observation. Many major stations have their own websites where you can access guide maps and a load of information. These stations can be like multi level ‘cities’ – so getting to know the lie of the land before you enter them is my best advice. They are worlds unto themselves and I find them great fun to explore.
So, study the websites of major stations before you tackle them, and when in doubt, ask a railway official for directions. Four important words: Do not be afraid! Japanese railway stations are to be embraced, not feared.
I know many of you are daunted by images of masses of people moving through Japanese railway stations. It’s true – hundreds of thousands of people pass through the major stations every day. But those photos are usually taken at peak hour and what they don’t show is that Japanese railway stations are very organised, with lots of signage in English and assistance available. If you have planned ahead and studied Station maps, then you’ll find it fairly easy.
There are many super big railway stations in Tokyo. Shinjuku Station is the word’s busiest railway station. Odds are you will need to transit through Shinjuku to access places both within Tokyo and other areas of Japan, as I have on many occasions. I found it fairly streamlined and easy to navigate.
The Station I am most familiar with is Tokyo Station, about a 15 minute train ride from Shinjuku. Tokyo City Station is central to a lot of places I like, and provides easy access to others. It is a stop on the (JR) Yamanote Line – a loop line connecting Tokyo’s many central city centres and other important transit railway stations such as Shinjuku.
The Yamamoto line is like the London Underground Circle Line – though it is an above the ground railway line. So it’s a great way to see the central city.
There are various different entrances/exits to Tokyo Station. The two you need to know is the original red brick Marunouchi side to the west and the extended side of Yaesu to the east. Taking that a bit further, both Marunouchi and Yaesu have North, Central and South Exits. Find out ahead which exit/entrance you need. And look up at signs – Yellow signs are for exits, and white signs are for information on station facilities.
Tokyo Station has direct access to Narita Airport via Japan Railways (JR) Narita Express, and is surrounded by beautiful suburbs with a relaxed feel. I love wandering their streets with my camera as the city awakes at dawn, and always feel perfectly safe doing this by myself.
These suburbs, such as Nihonbashi, Kyobashi and Marunouchi look ultra modern. But, in fact, they are some of Tokyo’s oldest areas, serving as the downtown commercial area for the city in the Edo period back as far as the 1500’s.
Like much of Tokyo, they were largely destroyed in the World War 11 fire bombings, in particular in the 9–10 March 1945 raids, the single most destructive bombing raid in human history. More than 40 km2 (10,000 acres) were destroyed in these couple of days, leaving an estimated 100,000 people dead. Rivers near the Station were choked with the bodies of civilians, including children, who desperately threw themselves into the water after being caught on fire.
The raids were worse than the Atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the raids on Germany’s Dresden. Tokyo Station did not escape and was severely damaged.
Today it presents as a fabulous Station and the areas surrounding it are pristine. The Marunouchi side is a very beautiful building opening onto the expansive Marunouchi Plaza which, in turn, leads to an avenue that’s a short walk to the Imperial Palace. Part of the Marunouchi building houses the very upmarket Tokyo Station Hotel – a little too expensive for me, but I have wandered into the impressive foyer/reception for a quick look. Worth a peek just to see the hotel staff uniforms! Bring on the successful lotto ticket!
Back at the main entrance/exit of the Marunouchi building, ensure you look up at its exquisite dome ceiling where you’ll see eight sea eagles – part of the amazing restoration effort bringing back the original design.
Historically, there’s been a few dramatic political moments at the Station where Japanese Prime Ministers have been attacked as they arrived to board trains. In 1921, Hara Takashi was stabbed to death by a right-wing railroad switchman as he heading for a train going to Kyoto.
And in 1930, Osachi Hamaguchi was shot in the stomach by a member of an ultra-nationalist secret society as he walked along a platform to board an Express train. The right wing opposed him following his attempts to force the powerful military to yield to civilian leadership and his acceptance of the terms of the 1930 London Naval Treaty limiting armaments.
His policies also supported domestic economic reforms over overseas military campaigns, the reduction of naval armament, strict fiscal measures, and equitable social policy. This included giving women over the age of 25 the right to vote in local elections and to be able to stand for office (with their husbands’ approval). Though he initially survived the assassination attempt, he died of his wounds the following year. With his death, women subsequently didn’t get the right to vote until 1947 and military power strengthened. I can’t help but wonder how history would have been influenced had he lived.
There are plaques within the Station showing the sites where the two Prime Ministers were attacked.
The Station’s Yaesu side was named after 17th century Dutch explorer Jan Joosten van Lodensteijn (Jan Joosten), whose ship was stranded in Japan in the 1600’s. His name was pronounced ‘yan yosuten ‘in Japanese. If you’ve read James Clavell’s book Shogun, then you will recognise that the character Johann Vinck is based on him.
Although Shogun is a fiction, Clavell did his Japanese historical research well, so I recommend the book to anyone planning to visit Japan as many of the events and characters are based on real people and real events. An easy and interesting way to learn a little about Japanese history, if you cross reference with the actual facts.
Wander up the main street from the Yaesu entrance and you’ll spot a memorial for Jan Joosten. You’ll also find yourself in the suburb of Kyobashi and close to both historic Nihonbashi with its famous bridge and the fabulous Ginza ‘bring your money’ shopping area with its eye catching window displays. All within walking distance.
Within the Yaesu side of the Station you’ll also find the multi storey Daimaru department store and the Shinkansen (bullet train) lines. The Yaesu shopping mall is one of the largest in Japan with more than 180 shops, including about 60 restaurants/cafes.
The beautiful Marunouchi side includes the excellent Tokyo Station Art Gallery. The architecture at the Gallery is worth viewing, joining older and newer parts of the building.
The path around the nearby Palace grounds is a popular exercise route, so if you’ve got your running shoes with you, go for it.
To the left of the Marunouchi exit, as you come out, you will see Kitte Post office building. It is another place with a museum, loads of shops and restaurants, a multi-lingual tourist bureau – and the bit I like best – a wonderful terrace overlooking Tokyo Station and the forecourt. I highly recommend taking a look! You can train spot Shinkensens as they move in and out of the Station from here.
Keep going left past the Kitte Post Office building and you will see the line up of HATO buses. Prior to the Pandemic, this 70 year plus old company offered an excellent little one hour tour of central Tokyo in an open top double decker bus for around $A20. The tour started and ended at the Station, with an audio translation system in English, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, French, and Indonesian. I understand a lot of their tours have been curtailed, so hopefully they will be back in full strength after the Pandemic.
I adore Kyoto Station. This is the second largest station building in Japan, and it features magnificent innovative architecture. It also offers extensive shopping malls, restaurants, a hotel, a movie theatre, and a 13 floor department store.
The original station opened in 1877, evolving over the years with buildings of various designs. In 1950, the Station burnt to the ground, replaced by an uninspiring concrete facility two years later.
What you see today was opened in 1997 – a stunning futuristic design of glass and steel by one of Japan’s most imminent architects Hiroshi Hara. It has stood the test of time and still presents as the latest cutting edge design. The building is 70 metres high and 470 metres from east to west, with a mass of plate glass over a steel frame.
Banks of escalators rise up to the open sky, like a stairway to heaven – actually to an expansive roof garden called the ‘Sky Garden and Happy Terrace’. It is certainly worth going up there, and a bonus is wonderful views over the city.
Of course, if you prefer some good exercise tackling an actual stairway – then go for it. Lots of steps will take to the top! The “Daikaidan” or Grand Stairway runs from the 4th floor of the west wing of the station up to the Sky Garden. At various levels en route you can get off to explore shops etc on those floors. Make sure you return to see the staircases at night when they are lit up with changing designs!
Kyoto Station took my breath away when I first saw it 20 years ago, and I still find it just as awesome! It was coming up to Christmas on that first visit, and the most massive Christmas beautiful tree I have ever seen soared up towards the roof. I will never forget it.
A major bus terminal is outside the Station on its the Karasuma side – or as I like to think – the Kyoto Tower side of the Station. The famous Tower is just across from the Station. The buses go to many major attractions in Kyoto and are easy to use. Bus passes are available from within the Railway Station.
Again – check the Kyoto Station website for maps and information. If you arrive and haven’t done that, then locate the Kyoto Station building booth where you can get a free English language Guide Map. It’s on the second floor on the north side of the building and has a multilingual staff. A Tourist Information Centre is also on the second floor pedestrian walkway.
There are endless good restaurants and cafes within the Station and close by. I’d be here forever trying to review them. But my personal favourite is the Grill Capital Toyotei in the underground Porta Dining shopping mall on the North side of the Station.The first Toyotei restaurant apparently opened in Kyoto back in 1897 and they introduced a lot of Western dishes to Japan. I am particularly partial to their Hamburger steak, which comes to you bathed in a delicious sauce in what looks like a big aluminium balloon. I tried to replicate it in my kitchen at home – but no success. I simply have to keep returning to Kyoto and this restaurant! Their deserts are excellent too.
An article written about the huge gate and dome at Kanazawa Station so impressed me that I was persuaded to include this area on my 2019 Japan itinerary! The Station did not disappoint! Nor did the gorgeous city of Kanazawa that is full of wonderful attractions including the beautiful Kenrokuen Gardens, Kanazawa Castle and the historical Higashi Chaya district – a traditional area with tea houses and an array of high end shops selling local quality crafts. Kanazawa is definitely a place I will return to, and highly recommend.
Kanazawa is about 2.5 hours train ride by bullet and express trains from Tokyo and Kyoto, and its train station is regarded as one of the most beautiful in Japan. The tourist information centre just opposite the main gates of the JR Shinkansen (bullet trains) has helpful staff who speak english.
The Station was originally built in 1898. An overhaul in 2005 introduced the stunning glass and steel dome and a giant Tzuzumi-mon gate made from Japanese cypress that apparently resembles a traditional drum.
Once more, please check the Station website – and big hint – look for the German Bakery within the Station! It was my first indication that this city, also influenced by French cuisine, takes its bakery goods very seriously!
Takayama Station in the mountainous Hide region of Gifu was a small country bumpkin station when I first saw it. But Takayama’s increasing popularity with visitors saw a flash new Station built by 2016, presenting a modern entry to this great little city known as ‘little Kyoto’. It’s not a big station, but modern, compact and efficient with spacious waiting rooms, shops, a cafe doubling as an information centre, lockers, and a skybridge where you will find some interesting artifacts from Takayama’s past on display. A lot of tourist hotels are also close to the Station, and Takayama’s famous ‘old town’ is about a 15 minute easy walk away.
About a 15 minute ride on local trains from Takayama is the station for the small town of Hida Furukawa. It’s typical of charming tiny country stations, with an open platform and a small waiting room. Country stations often offer something a little special to bring in a few extra yen. The waiting room at Hida Furukawa has an icream vending machine and a cardboard cutout of its town mascot which I made use of for a photo! It’s a place where you find yourself exchanging smiles with the locals and have the opportunity for a chat. Furukawa is a small very walkable town that offers a lot to see for tourists, and I’ll review it in another post. I suspect as the word spreads about its attractions, the little station might be replaced by a shiny new building … and I’ll be a little sad about that.
I’ve passed through many other railway stations in Japan. The ones I’ve detailed above are just a few of them. Some are very plain. Some are very grand. And mostly, they are interesting.