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Arts feature

My addiction to the bullet train

The wonders of Japan's Shinkansen are enough to make you look forward to HS2

16 August 2014

9:00 AM

16 August 2014

9:00 AM

In 1963, Dr Richard Beeching, an ICI director with a PhD in physics, a qualification that clearly boondoggled his credulous political patrons, published a government report called ‘The Reshaping of British Railways’. It identified 8,000km of painstakingly created track for closure.

At the time, road transport seemed just the thing. Lorries? Bring them on! Commuting by car? What could possibly be the objection? Beeching was a tragic case-study in mandarin myopia. It was not so much that he did not hit the target. He couldn’t even see it. The year after Beeching, Japan inaugurated its Shinkansen, the world’s greatest high-speed railway.

The year after the Shinkansen, work began in Bristol on the prototype Concorde. Transport systems always betray the beliefs and preoccupations of their sponsors. Take Roman roads: what better insight could there be into the Imperial Latin psychology than an absolutely straight path? A Cadillac convertible? The Eisenhower years!

Concorde was high-speed, costly, exclusive, romantic, beautiful and practically useless. Of course, it has long since been abandoned, an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. The Shinkansen continues to evolve and expand. Quite rightly, it excites fierce pride among the Japanese.

It is one of the most powerful symbols and one of the most precious assets of modern Japan, linking the entire archipelago with popular high technology. The northern island of Hokkaido is not yet on the system, but it will be. A fast, efficient and comfortable railway, and one that oozes confident style, has a value that is beyond the cold calculations of Beeching-era physicists or today’s transport economists — and maybe beyond the comprehension of today’s timorous HS2-deniers.

Shinkansen is always known as the ‘bullet train’, although the word actually means, more prosaically, New Main Line. The service was inaugurated on 1 October 1964, the year of the Tokyo Olympics. The Games showed the world a confident new Japan: there was Kenzo Tange’s monumental architecture; Toyota would soon begin exporting cars to the UK, while Honda was already industriously undermining the British motorbike industry; Sony and Pentax soon became eponyms for sophistication, precision and desirability.

But when you look at photographs of the launch of the original Tokyo–Osaka service, the Shinkansen does indeed look like a snub-nosed bullet from the sepia-toned Meiji era. Subsequent versions have exploited different semantics, from wedges to snakes, but always, always, always in coruscating white, just like the heroic neck scarves of Divine Wind airmen. Along with Mount Fuji and the Rising Sun, a train has become part of Japan’s identity.

In myth, reality, spirit and geography, Japan is isolated. The Shinkansen idea originated in the 1930s and intended to cure that ill by linking Tokyo with Seoul, Beijing and even Siberia. That never happened, but the idea was resurrected in the 1950s as a highly self-conscious gesture in the national revival.

Plans were uncompromised: new track was laid and there were no level-crossings to inhibit progress. The tracks also have a high level of physical security, which contributes to reliability and safety. Automatic systems brake the trains in the event of one of Japan’s recurrent earthquakes. Suicides apart, in half a century there has never been a Shinkansen fatality.

Let me describe the ride from Tokyo to Kyoto, a trip with special symbolism as it connects Japan’s new capital with the old. Tokyo station is vast and frantic yet achieves a level of cleanliness that’s best described as ‘laboratory-style’. Since journeys are so fast, Shinkansens do not have restaurant cars. On board, there’s a trolley service with bad coffee, green tea, rice crackers and excellent cold beer, but the clever thing to do is to self-cater. Right next door to Tokyo station is a Daimaru department store with a spectacular and blindingly bright basement food hall. Here you buy a bento box and as much beer as you need for a journey of 164 minutes. Precisely.

On the platform, a stainless-steel guardrail separates passengers from the train. The Shinkansen is so precise in all its movements that your assigned carriage arrives, silently and inevitably, at exactly the spot where a gap occurs in the railings. Imagine now a light hiss. This arrival, whose overture is a digital countdown on an overhead monitor, is preceded by an excited anticipation, even among regular travellers: people lean over the railings to photograph the approach of this dramatic, serpentine machine. It stops noiselessly, but before you board, a crew of shuffling, giggling and bowing pink-uniformed cleaners swoop. They do their work in perhaps 90 seconds.

It is assumed that Shinkansens are reservation-only, but there are always three carriages with free seats. But best to make a booking in the Green Car, a euphemism for ‘First’, as even in meticulous Japan there are inadequately deodorised, snoring and litter-strewing oiks in the Standard Class cabin. But the Green Car is lovely, with seats that could be described as aircraft-style if only any aircraft had ever had anything so comfortable.

Acceleration out of the station is rapid and entirely without vibration or unwelcome intrusions of any sort. A version of pressurisation contributes to the feeling of integrity the train maintains even as you swoosh through paddy fields at nearly 300km/h. Post-Beeching Britons may find it difficult to imagine a train journey without bumps, rattles, lurches, stops or smells, one that within minutes puts you into a Zen-like trance of satisfied contemplation… even before you crack open the Asahi Super Dry and nibble on some octopus.

The ticket inspector has the costume of a full-dress admiral in the Japanese Imperial Navy and bows gravely. Every few minutes a girl with a bin-bag comes down the carriage collecting rubbish. She bows, too, but a little more frivolously. Withal, the sense of perfection and control is absorbing. And addictive.

So addictive, in fact, that in June I spent a week travelling on the Shinkansen up and down Japan. I am not doctrinaire about HS2, but its opponents might make a trip there before they double-down on the Beeching effect and commit Britain to primitive travel. Japan’s Shinkansen has not only radicalised business life, but greatly enhanced social life as well. Everyone loves it.

Of course, a lot of the opposition to HS2 is founded in a Ruskinian unease about the intrusion of machines into the pastoral idyll. Urban Japan has no such thing. Inevitably, you reflect on this as the Shinkansen speeds you through the endless, densely packed, cheerless nationwide industrialised conurbation that is eastern Japan. This train of exceptional beauty and thrilling usefulness was produced by factories whose ugly grimness its own magnificent elegance so sardonically mocks: Zen paradoxes suffuse Japanese life.

Modern Japan has also been defined by calamities. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 was so violent that the seismograph at the Central Weather Bureau was broken. What wasn’t turned to rubble was consumed by fire. (There were mad rumours that enemies had invented an earthquake machine.) Hiroshima, of course. The Shinkansen stops there ever so briefly. Recently, Fukushima and the decline of trophy industries. The Shinkansen remains uncontaminated and superlative. Perhaps one day we will say that about a British train.

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