Al Jazeera Correspondent

Off the Rails: A Journey Through Japan

A personal look at how the country’s railways reveal so much about Japanese culture and the changes in society.

Filmmakers: Micah Garen & Marie-Helene Carleton

Al Jazeera’s Ramsey Zarifeh first travelled to Japan soon after graduation to teach English. Fascinated by the futuristic bullet trains and the country’s unique train network, he got to know Japan through its railways. He travelled on nearly every rail line and ended up writing a guide book based on these experiences.

Web extra: Scenes that didn't make it into 'Off the Rails
Web extra: Scenes that didn’t make it into ‘Off the Rails

Japan’s railway, stretching across big cities and connecting rural communities, is a window into Japanese society and culture. Nowhere else on the planet do trains run not just to the minute, but to the second. The need for speed, focus on accuracy and technological innovation are all facets of Japanese society manifest in the railway system.

Almost two decades after he first travelled there, Ramsey journeys through Japan to rediscover a country at a crossroads: at once both upholding tradition and rushing headlong towards the future.

Web extra: In Pictures - Off the Rail
Web extra: In Pictures – Off the Rail

Ramsey’s travels take him to rural lines – once important lifelines for remote communities, now struggling to survive as the birth rate falls; to the station synonymous with a famous cat; and to a remote line devastated by the 2011 tsunami. He meets an old friend at the sacred Buddhist site, Koya-san, revisits his old school, travels to Tokyo to delve deeper into the culture of punctuality, and explores the sub-cultures, literature and music inspired by a love for trains.

This film recalls Ramsey’s initial journey, and is an exploration of contemporary Japan through the story of its railway and distinctive train culture.


By Ramsey Zarifeh

My fascination with Japan began as I grew up listening to BBC Radio 1 DJ Steve Wright’s daily feature ‘Amazing But True’, which frequently included items on Japan: its technology, gadgets, futuristic trains and crazy game shows made me want to see the country for myself, and find out what life was really like there.

When, years later as a teacher and later as a journalist in Japan, I became a regular contributor to Steve Wright In The Afternoon , things came full circle . Steve introduced me as the ‘weird Japan guy’, and I became his eyes and ears in the land of the rising sun.

Japan’s railway in particular was a wonder to me: its intricate network, lightning-fast bullet trains, and precision-clockwork timetable were like nothing I had ever experienced before. If a Japanese train leaves more than a few seconds behind schedule it is officially clocked as late, and an investigation is launched. I was born in the UK, where we are lucky if trains turn up at all, so writing a guide book to Japan by Rail was a unique experience.

It’s said that no foreigner can ever truly understand Japan, but get to know its railway and you’ve come close to understanding what binds the people of this island nation together.

by Ramsey Zarifeh

With over 27,000km of track criss-crossing the country, Japan’s railways carry more passengers annually than any other nation on earth. I made a point of travelling on virtually every rail line across the country: the network of high-speed, local and overnight sleeper trains opened my eyes to Japan in a way that would not have been possible by road or plane. Japan by Rail was published in 2002, and is now in its fourth edition. 

Over the years since I first visited I have wanted to find out not just when and where the trains run, but how and why the country’s rail network has become the envy of the world, and whether the railway – from its birth in the steam age to the high-speed technology of the post-war years – is reflective of Japanese society and culture as a whole.

I have harboured no great desire to make a film about Japan and its railway, and thought nothing of the idea until the Executive Producer of Al Jazeera English’s ‘Correspondent’ series cornered me, and asked if I would be interested in turning my interest in the country and its rail network into a film.

It’s been a wild ride. I thought I knew a lot about Japan, and its train system. But nothing prepared me for what we found: a railway that charts the rise of Japan as an economic superpower, from the steam engines of the 19th century to 21st-century experimentation in 500-km/hour magnetically-levitating trains which will one day shuttle commuters between Tokyo and Osaka in one hour flat.

Along the way we found that construction of the railway reflected not just the the birth of a modern-day nation state, but also the slow demise of rural life. 

And we discovered a unique sub-culture of railway fans, musicians and television personalities who are passionate about preserving sections of the railway in danger of disappearing for ever.

Off The Rails: A Journey Through Japan is the story not just of a railway, but of an entire country, a nation and its people, emerging from the feudal era to become the pre-eminent regional economic and technological power.

And what of the future for this island nation of 127 million people? Does the state of the railway today hint at what lies in store for Japan, as it stands at a crossroads, contemplating its future in a region increasingly dominated by China?

Very little about the country’s future direction can be said with any certainty.

But what is surely true is that Japan – even as it ponders its past and its place in the world today – is not just a country around which a railway was built, but the home of a rail network around which the modern-day Japanese nation was born.

Off the rails Japan