Don’t call it a Bullet Train. It’s a Shinkansen.
No one in Japan calls it bullet train. The signs don’t. Asking for a bullet train would not get you a train.
This particular one is the Asama 614 from Kanazawa to Tokyo. We hopped on at Nagano – of winter olympic fame and the reason it has a shinkansen line – and are getting off at Ueno (Tokyo). It’s a 12-car behemoth: smooth, pretty darn fast and – from this seat – like flying low in a spacious 1990s passenger jet. Porthole style windows, airlinesque seat design, tray tables etcetera. In fact going through the incredibly lengthy tunnels on the run down to Tokyo you might as well be on a jet at night.
They are so quiet and so fast because they run on special tracks. Lines laid in concrete troughs that cut swathes through the countryside. When you consider all the fuss about London-Birmingham HS2… The Japanese would’ve simply built it by now. You can’t hold back progress. As the scenery flashes by you are always accompanied by the same lower view of pale concrete and the stations all but identical. It’s an efficient, relaxing way to cover big distances: point to point outstripping aircraft due to frequency and route choice. It’s all reserved on this service so calmness prevails. Calm is how the Japanese travel too. Quietly, almost invisibly, following procedure, playing the game. The whole thing just works.
On the other hand, as Alex Kerr notes in his book Lost Japan, they tend to, well, say bugger to the environment. Need power? Chuck in pylons. Shifting slope? Concrete that hillside. Need speed? Throw a Shinkansen viaduct across the valley. As one Kobe local lamented: “Japanese always in a rush to get there.” This land is criss-crossed with arteries: utilities, transport. The streets/townscapes/architecture are higglety pigglety, cheek by jowl.
All at once I have shining admiration for the engineering, the scale, ambition and execution. Then I lament the environmental damage, disregard for non-built aesthetics, the natural world ranking way behind progress in the risk registers.
But then we are spearing toward on of the mightiest conurbations on the planet. 31 million souls? (Give or take.) Half the population of the UK in one town? [Stares out of window at the endless built environment and blinks.] That’s a fair old swarm of creatures isn’t it? How do you deal with that much humanity without simultaneously trashing the place?
Okay, okay: a bit weighty.
So at (an estimated) 250kph we quietly, undramatically whoosh into Tokyo and I am already missing our train journeys here. We have covered a lot of ground. (Around 1500-2000km in little more than a week.) All of it on time. Most of it in comfort. (Yes, yes, we had to stand on an unreserved rush hour Shinkansen, but just the once.) Then again (in holiday mode), it made for great people watching. (Unlike a similar stand-up-ride to Reading from Paddington on the 18.17.) We have ridden all manner of different train flavours. All of it interesting, fascinating and highly functional. (The former for those of us who can tear themselves away from a screen.)
And now Tokyo. 782 stations. 14 subway lines (not counting railways). 8 million+ passengers a day. Try Googling “Tokyo Subway Facts” and boggle away. What could possibly go wrong?