Monisha Rajesh catches the Hakata to Kyoto express
Monisha Rajesh gave up her job to travel the world. Her journeys across 45,000 miles through 24 countries became a book, Around The World In 80 Trains, a celebration of rail. Here she enjoys the ingenuity and precision of a Japanese bullet train from Hakata to Kyoto.
We arrived on the platform 20 minutes before the Sakura Shinkansen, or bullet train, was due. Our final destination was Kyoto, but the direct services from Hakata were not valid with our rail passes. In a cruel irony, the fastest Shinkansen, the Nozomi – meaning “hope” – was not available to us, and we were relegated to the relatively slower train which arrived an entire two minutes later.
Part of the N700 series, the Sakura Shinkansen comprised six carriages, three reserved and three non-reserved. Marked out on the platform edge was a pair of blue feet indicating where the door would open and where the queue should begin, and passengers had already formed a line, reading newspapers and tapping phones, with one lady squatting on a foldaway tripod seat, picking at a bento box. Counting them up, I was confident we’d get on.
With just 12 minutes until departure, the Sakura Shinkansen slid up with the stealth of a creep at a bar, and a girl stepped out carrying a bin bag. She stood next to the door holding it open as passengers disembarked, and bowed as each one deposited their litter. So used to the carpet of crisps and cans of Carling on our own trains, I couldn’t imagine anyone collecting their own rubbish, let alone being grateful for someone else’s.
When the last passenger had departed, our line filed through the door, filling the rows one by one. No one broke ranks and tried to bag a window seat, clamber across fellow passengers or hold up everyone by shoving bags overhead. They slipped into seats and swiped their phones in silence. It looked so easy, and yet I knew it would never work anywhere else in the world. We are simply too selfish to be sensible.
From the window, I glanced up at the clock ten seconds before departure and watched the dial turn the moment the train set off. Beside us was a girl with long auburn hair, wearing a pair of Beats by Dre. She scrolled through her music with her thumb, the nail of which was painted with a minuscule vase of red flowers. Humming to itself, the train leant into a corner and passengers opened up laptops and books, the homely, umami smell of cooked food filling the carriage. Unpacking our boxes, we poked at the seeds, sauces, nuggets, shreds, rice and pickles, as the girl pulled out a paper bag and bit into a Teriyaki McBurger, leaving pink lipstick on the bun.
Jem, who had been staring out of the window, turned to me and whispered, “Is it weird that I’m secretly hoping there might be an earthquake while we’re here?”
“Yes, it’s very weird.”
“Do you not wonder what it would be like?”
“No more than I’ve wondered what it’s like to die in a plane crash.”
“I don’t mean a massive, swaying one, like those videos on YouTube where the filing cabinets fling out and the whole room looks like jelly, but a little one.”
“I can’t believe we’re actually having this conversation. We’re on one of the fastest trains in the world and you’re hoping for an earthquake that would probably kill us in an instant.”
“But it wouldn’t.” He held up a magazine article. “It says here that there’s a mechanism in place where tremors are detected almost instantly and then counter measures trigger automatic braking that can stop a train at 187mph within 300 metres. Isn’t that amazing?”
It was amazing. And the trope that Japan was decades ahead of every other country was wrong. No one could ever emulate the way the Japanese designed, lived, ate or travelled. Everything was conceived with ingenuity and precision to make life easier and more enjoyable for everyone. Not only did public toilets have heated seats, they had buttons that played music or white noise for added privacy, and baby harnesses on the backs of doors so mothers could use the loo in peace. Packets of chopsticks contained toothpicks, taxi doors opened automatically, mirrors didn’t fog, shop doorways housed plastic bags for wet umbrellas, takeaway ice cream came with a chunk of dry ice to keep it cool, and hot dogs were served with a joint packet of mustard and ketchup that squeezed out in parallel lines.
Japanese trains were unlike any other in Asia. Used to yelling, delays, hawkers, muck and mayhem, I couldn’t fathom how this single nation had mastered utopian travel: dubbed the “seven-minute miracle”, sanitation teams at Tokyo station took just under seven minutes to clean the Shinkansen from end to end, wiping tray tables and windows, scrubbing toilets, emptying rubbish and turning seats around before the next batch of passengers boarded; the average Shinkansen delay was 54 seconds. At home, a Tesco carrier bag being caught on the overhead wires was enough to bring our trains to a standstill. So punctual were Japan’s services that railway companies issued train-delay certificates – known as chien shomeisho – for any journey delayed by as little as five minutes, so passengers could prove to employers or schools that the tardiness was no fault of their own. But despite the speeds, punctuality and perfect queues, something was lacking, and I realised that it was because of the yelling, delays, hawkers, muck and mayhem that I lived for train travel. From within my bubble, I thrived on the commotion around me, drawing comfort from all that went wrong.
After lunch, most passengers were napping. Some read and others were working when the conductor entered the carriage. He removed his hat and bowed deeply. I smiled as he passed and watched him working his way up the aisle checking tickets. Once he reached the top of the carriage he turned around and bowed again before leaving. No one looked up and I felt bad for him. But in that one small action I realised that Japan’s trains didn’t need to be falling apart or filled with noise to be endowed with a character and soul of their own.
Around The World In 80 Trains
By Monisha Rajesh
Bloomsbury, £20 (bloomsbury.com)