Sunday 28 August 2022

Bullet Train: Burapi, Ekiben, and the Seven Minute Miracle

After almost four rather lovely weeks in the UK, BritishProf was back "home" - after holding my breath to see whether the PCR test, the requirement for re-entry, would be negative. Landing at Narita was like jumping into some kind of time-slip: while the UK has very much forgotten about COVID-19, here in Japan it was the worst it has ever been and I had to quickly get back into mask-mode. For example, breakfast in my Narita hotel involved temperature taking, hand-sanitising, surgical gloves (!), and a Perspex screen. Signs implored guests to avoid talking during breakfast, a rule which most of the Japanese (but few of the non-Japanese) followed as far as I could observe. After almost a month of living as if Corona no longer existed, it was very much down to earth with a bang.

During my time in England, I used the train a lot and was pleasantly surprised at how much things had improved with e-tickets, platform markings, and even trains arriving and leaving (more or less) on time! On the down side, there were a series of train strikes, unheard of in Japan, which I managed to work around. While regular trains were greatly improved, there is still nothing in the UK like the ultra-punctual high-speed Japanese bullet-train (shinkansen in Japanese) which has the remarkable record of never having had a single fatality or injury in over 50 years of running. Indeed, the excellent novel by Kotaro Isaka called Maria Beetle (マリアビートル) is set on the bullet train and the plot relies very much on exact arrival and departure times at stations!

In fact, Isaka's book has now become a (mediocre) Hollywood extravaganza called "Bullet Train" starring Brad Pitt which is due to open on September 1st here in Japan. Burapi (as he is affectionately known in Japanese!) was here last week to promote the film and after participating in a yakuyoke (厄除) traditional ceremony to ward off bad luck, rode a special red-carpet decorated shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto with the cast and director (see here for more). Since I was heading to Osaka to speak at a conference - and had been given tickets to ride the (hopefully assassin free) shinkansen - I thought it would be timely and topical to do a post about the train. My trip was to be a short two-and-a-half-hour trip from Tokyo to Shin-Osaka on the fastest train (called Nozomi which means hope or desire) but the shinkansen tracks run all the way from Hokkaido to Kagoshima in Kyushu (see here for a report by someone who did the full 11.5 hour almost 2100km/1300m journey in a single day!).

Before getting on the bullet-train one thing you absolutely have to do is to buy an ekiben (駅弁), a very reasonably price boxed lunch (bentō=弁当)bought at a station (eki=駅) which contains a variety of small local delicacies. The Japanese take their ekiben very seriously - there is even an ekiben Grand Prix Contest held every year (see here for the most recent winner). So armed with my ekiben and two tickets - as well as the usual jōshaken (basic fare ticket) you also need a special tokkyūken (express ticket) to ride the shinkansen - I queued up in the designated spot to grab my unreserved seat (reserved seats are available but you have to pay more - personally, I've never needed to book except at the busiest times like New Year).

Inside the shinkansen is spacious, with plenty of leg-room, free Wi-Fi, and trolley service (though you should definitely buy your ekiben and drinks in the station - much cheaper with a lot more choice). Top-tip - if you're travelling from Tokyo to Osaka sit on the right and if the weather is good, you might be lucky enough to see Mount Fuji in all its glory - a quite breathtaking sight! The journey is remarkably smooth and bump-free, quite incredible considering the Nozomi's top speed is 285kmh (178mph)! Unfortunately, tourists using the Japan Rail Pass cannot use the Nozomi - instead you'll have to settle for the slower Hikari or the much slower Kodama. Another plus - the bullet train apparently has the lowest emissions per passenger of any mode of transport (apart from walking or cycling)! One final notable thing about the bullet-train is its cleanliness - the cleaners are famous for jumping on and cleaning in only seven minutes meaning train turnover is very quick (see here for a video on the "seven-minute miracle"). I'll finish with my own short video of the Nozomi leaving Tokyo Station and then a clip of it leaving Shin-Osaka Station after changing drivers - note the previous driver staying to check that it departs safely. COMMENTS, as always, are very welcome!

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