Re eating on trains in Japan

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My wife, Rita, and I returned on Nov. 21, 2006, from a tour of Japan with Overseas Adventure Travel (625 Mount Auburn St., Ste. 200 North, Cambridge, MA 02138; 800/493-6824, www.oattravel.com), the best group tour we have ever taken.

The land portion was $5,458 for two for 13 days. We bought only the land tour because we had frequent-flyer miles with which to upgrade; we flew over three days early to see more of Tokyo.

We heartily agree with the enthusiasm and comments of Susan Benton in her article “Traveling Solo in Tokyo” (Jan. ’07, pg. 46), except for one important point. While the Japanese indeed have many strict rules of etiquette, they not only do not frown on eating in trains, they positively encourage it. On our trip, attendants were selling food and drinks from carts they pushed down the aisles of railroad cars.

However, the selection was much more spectacular in the shopping arcades of train stations. They sold bento boxes (trays with several compartments) of the most varied fare, chopsticks included, for consuming during travel. Many locals ate such food or sandwiches which they brought aboard.

THOMAS G. FISHER

Des Moines, IA

ITN sent a copy of the above letter to the Japan NTO and received the following reply.

Traditionally in Japan, it was polite to sit down when eating, so eating while walking or even standing was considered bad manners. Exceptions to this rule today include food bought at outdoor food stands or things like ice cream cones. Some people even will finish a drink bought at a vending machine before walking away from it to avoid drinking while walking. Eating and drinking in public (for example, on the train) was also frowned upon. These attitudes are changing, though.

The difference between Susan Benton’s experience of disgusted, incredulous stares and Thomas Fisher’s experience is most likely the type of train each was riding on.

On local trains and subways, where seats are nonreserved and people often have to squeeze in, any behavior which might bother others, such as conversing loudly or eating, is frowned on.

However, on long-distance trains, such as the shinkansen (bullet train) or limited express trains, everyone has an individual seat with a tray table much like on an airplane and there are vendors who come by with carts selling food and drink. In this case, it is perfectly acceptable to eat and drink, even alcoholic beverages such as beer (that’s one difference between the U.S. and Japan!).

So the conclusion about eating on trains in Japan is that if you have your own seat and a tray table, then it’s okay to eat. For commuter trains, subways and other trains that tend to get crowded, eating may be frowned upon, but you likely will see many Japanese children eating or drinking — and perhaps receiving the same incredulous stares from older Japanese people.

CHRISTOPHER BISHOP, Japan National Tourist Organization, Los Angeles, CA

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

My wife, Rita, and I returned on Nov. 21, 2006, from a tour of Japan with Overseas Adventure Travel (625 Mount Auburn St., Ste. 200 North, Cambridge, MA 02138; 800/493-6824, www.oattravel.com), the best group tour we have ever taken.

The land portion was $5,458 for two for 13 days. We bought only the land tour because we had frequent-flyer miles with which to upgrade; we flew over three days early to see more of Tokyo.

We heartily agree with the enthusiasm and comments of Susan Benton in her article “Traveling Solo in Tokyo” (Jan. ’07, pg. 46), except for one important point. While the Japanese indeed have many strict rules of etiquette, they not only do not frown on eating in trains, they positively encourage it. On our trip, attendants were selling food and drinks from carts they pushed down the aisles of railroad cars.

However, the selection was much more spectacular in the shopping arcades of train stations. They sold bento boxes (trays with several compartments) of the most varied fare, chopsticks included, for consuming during travel. Many locals ate such food or sandwiches which they brought aboard.

THOMAS G. FISHER

Des Moines, IA

ITN sent a copy of the above letter to the Japan NTO and received the following reply.

Traditionally in Japan, it was polite to sit down when eating, so eating while walking or even standing was considered bad manners. Exceptions to this rule today include food bought at outdoor food stands or things like ice cream cones. Some people even will finish a drink bought at a vending machine before walking away from it to avoid drinking while walking. Eating and drinking in public (for example, on the train) was also frowned upon. These attitudes are changing, though.

The difference between Susan Benton’s experience of disgusted, incredulous stares and Thomas Fisher’s experience is most likely the type of train each was riding on.

On local trains and subways, where seats are nonreserved and people often have to squeeze in, any behavior which might bother others, such as conversing loudly or eating, is frowned on.

However, on long-distance trains, such as the shinkansen (bullet train) or limited express trains, everyone has an individual seat with a tray table much like on an airplane and there are vendors who come by with carts selling food and drink. In this case, it is perfectly acceptable to eat and drink, even alcoholic beverages such as beer (that’s one difference between the U.S. and Japan!).

So the conclusion about eating on trains in Japan is that if you have your own seat and a tray table, then it’s okay to eat. For commuter trains, subways and other trains that tend to get crowded, eating may be frowned upon, but you likely will see many Japanese children eating or drinking — and perhaps receiving the same incredulous stares from older Japanese people.

CHRISTOPHER BISHOP, Japan National Tourist Organization, Los Angeles, CA