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Saturday, April 12, 2003


How to ride the shinkansen (and get off)

After 10 years in Japan, I still haven't figured out the bullet trains.

First-class seats are in the "Green Car," although there is nothing green about it. If there were a few trees inside, or even some "o-bento" grass growing between the rows, I would understand. Then there are super express and limited express trains.

"Limited express" seems like an oxymoron to me. Or at the very least, a regular moron. Perhaps "limited express" refers to the train's limited ability to express itself: It's an introvert.

Then there is the "joshaken," which comes as a part of a set of two tickets, so every time you buy a shinkansen ticket, you get two tickets even if you're only going to one place. If you have to transfer to a different line, you can end up with three tickets.

"Joshaken" literally means "passenger ticket" but instead is called a "fare ticket."

To the contrary, I think it's entirely unfair. After all, you have to pay a fare for all the tickets, whether they're joshaken or not.

There are several types of bullet trains:

The Nozomi hovers at an average speed of 261.8 kph. The Nozomi is the fastest train in the world and reaches up to 300 kph. If you take the Nozomi, however, don't expect to see much of Japan. Unfortunately, the human eye cannot see so fast, so looking out the window is like watching a movie in fast-forward mode. If you ride the Nozomi often enough, however, you will be able to recognize the blurs and their meanings. A big gray blur on the west side of the train, for example, is Mount Fuji. A long pink streaky blur means it's the cherry blossom season.

The Hikari is slower, allowing you to see 220 km of Japan in an hour. The Hikari has 16 cars, which means if you buy a reserved ticket, you may have to hike a few football fields to get to your seat. They really should have ushers at the train stations. Since the trains only stop a few minutes at each station, I advise you to get there early and wait in line in front of your car, or else you will have to hop on the nearest car and walk all the way down the inside of the train to your seat. As you enter each car, everyone will look up and stare at you as you walk down the isle. I always feel compelled to straighten my posture and fix my hair before I enter every car, sometimes bowing as I depart each one.

The name Hikari means "light," and I've met more than one Japanese girl who was named "Hikari" after the train. Thank god the Americans don't name kids after trains, or we would have a lot of accident-prone kids.

The newest train in western Japan is the eight-car Hikari Rail Star. It has no Green Car, but if you get the first seat in selected cars, you can plug in your laptop computer or recharge your mobile phone.

The Kodama stops at all stations. It's a bit tedious for an express train, but may be the only choice if you're going to a smaller station where the faster trains don't stop. The Kodama has up to 16 cars and no Green Car. No purple cars either. The name "Kodama" means "echo," perhaps because of the repetition of the stops, every couple of minutes.

Whatever train you end up taking, if you end up in Hakata and wonder how you missed your stop at Shin Osaka, it's probably because your seat was in the "no announcements" car.

Check out Amy Chavez's new column, "Parents Do the Strangest Things," at www.amychavez.com.

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