Tag Archives: Shinkansen

Tokaido Trailing

Every Sunday since the end of January I’ve been dragging my sleep deprived self out of bed at six a.m. to crawl into the shower, quickly shave, wrap up warm for the twenty-five minute walk down the street to the local train station to hop on the early morning bullet train bound for Tokyo.

It really isn’t that far away, in reality I probably spend almost as much time walking to the station and changing to the Tozai subway line in Tokyo as I do on the bullet train to Tokyo itself.

But for Tokyoites?

Well I might as well live on another planet. The shock and awe that I come from a different prefecture is entirely at odds with just how pleased Japan is, and rightly so, with their wonderful bullet trains and remarkable local train services.

It’s a wonder, a marvel I say!

You traveled for more than thirty minutes?! Good lord man, was it entirely necessary?

This is not an accurate translation or reflection of the people speaking by the way. This is how I translate it in my head for my own amusement. If I’m particularly bored I might translate it directly into the Yorkshire dialect…

Tha came from over yonder that there hill? Ecky thump!

Anyway, I’m drifting off here, back to the case in point.

I’m on a teaching course over in Tokyo every Sunday for the next few months and so I’m spending an awful lot of time heading up and down the Tokaido line.

My journey along it could not be more unremarkable despite the protestations and shock of those who call Tokyo their home. As far back as 1700 it has been endlessly traversed and is now the most traveled route in Japan as it links Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe.

Unlike the original travelers along the Tokaido though I’m heading by train, shaving a nice twenty-two hours off the journey by foot in the process. In that context my 230km weekly round-trip journey seems both remarkably speedy and yet utterly ordinary in regards to my own effort.

But therein lies its charm to me.

My morning commute by shinkansen (Bullet Train) seem to flash by in a haze of coffee and mini-croissants purchased on my amble down to the station.

I take the time to tweet or facebook my sleep deprived state, because if I’m suffering, then well, I want you dear followers to know about it. Comedic suffering that is; I’m far too English to reveal actual suffering… not that I do have any of that… sod it, you get the point.

Then provided I’ve hooked up my IV drip of black coffee, mainlined straight from coffee can to my veins, I will quite jauntily bound through Tokyo station to transfer to the Tozai subway line. At nine-ish on a Sunday morning it would be fair to say that I bound somewhat out of step with the rest of the early morning populace, hardly aware they exist beyond some imagined bonus level of Tokyo 3D Frogger: Dodge the Commuter!

In contrast, my journey home by local train, if I’m not too tired, is a fine opportunity. I’ve chatted to families returning home from a visit to the grandparents’ place (the daughter doing her English homework on the way), observed all manner of sleeping positions, been slept on/against by an innumerable number of strangers, almost fallen asleep and face planted into the carriage floor while leaning forward to read my kindle (a rookie mistake a Japanese would never make), snickered too loudly at The Bugle podcast (much like the Tube in London, one should remain an emotionless zombie whilst riding on public transport here) and drawn undue attention to myself as a result.

While the journey may at times be productive, more often than not it seems to take an age. After close to two hours heading south I change at Atami for the next step of the journey and fifteen minutes later exit my local station. I begin my walk home, buy a nikuman (Chinese style steamed bun) from the Konbini (Convenience store) along with a couple cans of beer in all likelihood and shuffle in the front door at around nine o’clock having left the classroom around six. I make dinner, box up the next day’s bento for the day job and hopefully crawl onto my futon before midnight.

On a good day, I feel like I’m getting the hang of the commute, moving from amateur commuter to professional in no time at all.

The next day I arrive at work around eight fifteen (ok more like eight twenty…five…ish) and immediately see the P.E. teachers who’ve been at school since seven, who’ll be there until nine that night.

They’re smiling.

I don’t know how they do it.

Compared to these teachers, I’m just a rookie. I do that long day once a week, they do it every day and they do it while working their socks off.

Think I best keep my amateur status.

I’m not ready for the big leagues yet.

tokaido shinkansen

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Quality Rail Service? No Thank You, I’m English.

It’s too efficient. It’s too clean. It’s too stable, too fast, too damn everything. It’s just too bloody sanitized. Where’s the romance of it? The grit, the grime and the inevitable screw-ups. The human element if you will.

When you think of technology, aside from the inevitable coveting of a new Apple toy (the latest being the iDalek), you think quite classically about the whole thing. Computers, mobile phones, great, big, enormous televisions that replace the supporting wall in your house. But ask someone to think about technology in Japan and they think of, in all likelihood, one of two things. If like me, you’re just an oversized child, robots. However, if you’re an individual who has delusions of being a ‘grown up’ then the Shinkansen aka the Bullet Train, is probably what you’ll envisage. Gleaming white and gliding effortlessly into a station at the very second it was due to arrive and leaving mere moments later. Traversing incredible distances in a few hours. Passing through cities with enough stealth and speed to rival the pink panther on his most mischievous of days. Moving so fast as to inspire musicals on roller-skates. Yes I just referenced Starlight Express and yes I’m regretting it already.

Herein lies my problem with the Shinkansen. After that, ‘holy crap this thing is fast’ moment I kind of fall out of love with the thing. A lifetime of shoddy British rail travel and crumbling buses means that I expect a certain amount of wastefulness, cock-ups and poor planning as part of the reality of any journey. In fact if I can’t complain about a journey once it’s over I hardly feel like I’ve traveled at all.

Yet, British rail for all its faults can’t compare to the sheer madness of traveling the US by Amtrak. Which is probably why, two years after I crossed the US by train with a friend, I find myself still telling stories from the journey, mostly about Jeanette.

Now Jeanette was crazy. Caring, scarily devoted to her job, but most of all crazy. With a stereotype, pitch perfect southern drawl she announced her presence to the whole train over the tannoy, ‘This is Jeanette in the lounge car, I’m here to take care of y’all.’ The lounge car was where the poverty stricken of us gathered to buy microwave foods, sweets and beer to eat in our seats as we watched those with more money and sense making their way to the restaurant car. However, we hadn’t reckoned on Jeanette’s uncanny ability to swindle some real food from that very car to dispense to us poor, sugar high, vitamin deprived proles in the non-sleeper cars on this epic three day (note: it should have taken a little over two days but there were flood waters and break downs to contend with) cross country jaunt. She announced with cheery glee, ‘Good news y’all, I have managed to acquire four-tee-two chi-ken din-ners, that’s four-tee-two chi-ken din-ners. If you would like to reserve one of these chi-ken din-ners please come down to the lounge car to sign your name. My name is Jeanette, I’m down in the Lounge car, come on down, I will take care of you.’ What a delightful woman, if somewhat mad, we thought.

Then it happened, in some cruel twist those chicken dinners became a continual reminder of the hell of traveling by Amtrak, who it seems have a rather lax policy in regards to who gets access to the tannoy system. Twenty minutes after the initial announcement she returned to brighten our day, ‘This is Jeanette in the lounge car, I now have thir-tee-nine chi-ken din-ners, I repeat, thir-tee-nine chi-ken din-ners, my name is Jeanette, come on down to the lounge car to sign your name, this is Jeanette I will take care of you.’ It continued much the same for hours, as every twenty minutes or so elapsed Jeanette would return with her rolling commentary on the number of chicken dinners in her possession.

To our and clearly Jeanette’s horror the initial flurry of signatures would not last. The number had declined all the way down to fourteen but demand had ebbed away. We were nearly there, the home stretch in sight and the chicken blocking our path rapidly being placed in the soon to be eaten pile. While the fowl remaining were not disappearing as quickly as wished, we had hope and a determination to survive this variation on water torture. Evidently Jeanette was possessed of similar reserves.

After a brief stop at one of the many little stations we would pause at for smoking breaks and quick fix repairs to the crumbling engine she made another announcement, ‘This is Jeanette in the lounge car. Good News y’all, I have managed to acquire an extra four- teeeeeen chi-ken din-ners, I now have twen-tee-eight chi-ken din-ners. If you would like to reserve one of these chi-ken din-ners for this eve-nin, please come on down to the lounge car and sign your name. This is Jeanette in the lounge car, come on down, we will take care of you.’

Soon after, a young man by the name of Randy, who we had met earlier in our long journey, ambled over to where my friend and I sat and leaned over to whisper his question. His eyes suggested a sense of guilt, an understanding that what he was about to ask us was outside of what society deems acceptable, beyond the pale indeed. He looked at us and muttered his opening salvo, ‘I was just wondering, when was the last time you guys ate some real food?’ Looking at the net pouch on the back of the seats in front of us, at the remains of skittle wrappers and crisp packets, we were forced to admit that real food was perhaps a distant memory now. Leaning ever closer he asked us in the whispered tones of a man looking to get his fix, ‘I was thinking about maybe goin’ to get one of those chi-ken din-ners, you wanna get some too?’

Unfortunately, if such character exists on Japanese trains I’ve yet to experience it. Much of Japanese life may seem a little mad at times, but alas they retain their sanity while traveling. Well, so long as you ignore the old guy admiring the centerfold in his porno mag.