Today (Sunday, June 12) I'm headed to San Francisco, to put my son (in the blogging realm, I call him The Junior, though he's starting his senior year this autumn so that might have to change) on a plane for Tokyo. He's spending the summer working at a children's home (essentially, an orphanage) just outside the Japanese capital.
I must confess, I'm more than a little jealous.
Admittedly, my jealousy has less to do than spending eleven weeks surrounded by small, demanding humans than with the weeks before and after the internship, which my son will spend traveling in Japan.
|This is what he'll be seeing.|
In honor of his departure (and also in anticipation of my next research trip, which will fall sometime in the next 18 months), I thought I'd share a little about the joys of travel by Japan's most popular mode of transportation . . . high speed rail.
|The distinctive nose of the "bullet train."|
The shinkansen (or, in English, the "new trunk line"), also known as the "bullet train," is the world's busiest high-speed rail line, carrying over 150 million passengers per year. Although the shinkansen can operate at speeds in excess of 325 miles per hour, the maximum operating speed on public lines is "only" 200mph (320 kilometers per hour).
|The Japanese countryside at 200mph|
The original shinkansen rails were laid in the early 1950s, and by 1957 the Odakyu Electric Railway set a world record of 90 mph (145 km/h) with its high-speed narrow-gauge train. The Tokaido Shinkansen line opened for service in October 1964, and the high speed trains have been one of Japan's most popular (and most famous) forms of transportation ever since.
It takes about two hours--including stops--to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto by shinkansen (a distance of just over 300 miles).
|Another shot of that lovely, aerodynamic nose.|
Travelers can either opt for "reserved seating" or "open seating"--and travelers with a Japan Rail pass (think Eurail....for Japan) can either hop into any open car or reserve a seat at the ticket counter for a specific train. During last year's research trip, we opted for reserved seats, and realized fairly quickly that it's a fantastic way to ensure a quiet ride:
|Apparently, we're the only ones who plan ahead...|
(Truthfully, Japanese train etiquette requires silencing mobile phones and either reading, listening to music via headphones, or talking at whisper levels so as not to disturb or inconvenience those around you. Japanese trains are thus a delightful, quiet way to travel.)
Although the landscape rushes by, the train is silent and surprisingly still--you hardly feel it moving.
|Again - taken at almost 200 mph.|
Periodically, the door at the front of the car will open to admit a uniformed woman pushing a "snack cart" laden with a breathtaking array of treats, everything from cookies, candy, and sodas to entire bento box lunches. (One variety of travel lunch even includes a "heat pack" that warms the sesame beef and rice inside to restaurant-quality temperatures in less than three minutes. Japanese travel food technology is something I dearly miss in the U.S.A.) If you've ever wished to partake of the snack trolley on the Hogwarts' Express . . . the shinkansen snack cart offers an excellent stand-in.
|Chocolate matcha (green tea) sponge. DELICIOUS.|
Electronic signboards at the front of every car announce the name of upcoming stops and, in between, gently remind travelers to silence mobile phones and show respect for those around them. "Thank you for traveling on the shinkansen," one message reads, "we hope you have a pleasant day."
|Some lines have these messages in English, too.|
I never thought I'd consider an afternoon on public transportation "pleasant" but the shinkansen always proves me wrong.
Any day when I get to cross Japan by train is a pleasant day, indeed.