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Saturday, May 3, 2003

JAPAN LITE

Shinkansen: shared stink, flying fruit


This is a followup to an article I wrote a few weeks ago on how to ride the shinkansen. As many readers pointed out, I overlooked some very important aspects.

Reader Paul Clark wonders how I could have failed to mentioned the "Whumpf! Whumpf! Whumpf!" the shinkansen makes as it enters a tunnel. No, Paul is not referring to the hoboes on the top getting knocked off, but to the sound the train makes as the force of the wind rocks the carriage back and forth, similar to the way your toy train used to rock back and forth before it derailed. Not to worry though. The shinkansen has an impeccable safety record, as long as you don't count the time one of the drivers fell asleep for eight minutes. Despite being entirely too comfortable driving at high speeds, I hope that guy has given up any hopes of becoming a race car driver.

It does seem that all that wind generated by the shinkansen should be able to be used to power electricity or "o-bachans." Couldn't we recycle that wind to scoot old ladies up the stairs in the train stations or to help them go a little faster on their bicycles?

Reader Mike Bay asked if eating an "o-bento" box lunch on a train going 300 kph would qualify it as "fast food." And, should the train stop suddenly, wouldn't that produce flying sushi, passengers skewered by chopsticks or, at the very least, train walls with a splattered "tempura" motif?

Yes. Food, being naturally aerodynamic, would be very dangerous at speeds over 200 kph. And, I might add, there is a danger of flying peaches. You see, my first o-bento on a shinkansen was served to me in a plastic peach container. (Surely nutritionists should be up in arms about such fruit substitutes.) When I took the lid off the peach, I almost passed out from the smell. Since o-bentos contain fish, opening any o-bento on the shinkansen is equal to announcing, "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to my o-bento." There is no way to avoid nostril-sharing your o-bento with all the passengers in the carriage.

Why do o-bento have such a bad smell? That fish has been inside that box producing fishy smells for several hours already and has probably already started to decompose. Add to that the smell of shocking-pink ginger and wilting plastic grass, and it makes you wonder why they don't include a pair of gardening gloves with your o-bento. Now, imagine that entire peach box flying through the air and exploding on impact.

Reader Bob Nash says, "Don't assume that you can buy a reserved ticket at the last moment, especially during holiday periods." True. During holiday times, reserved tickets are often sold out days in advance. There's nothing more humiliating than paying a few hundred dollars for a shinkansen ticket only to have to stand and share the same square of floor tile with several other people. There is hope, however. With the economy these days, we may soon have shinkansen ticket scalpers.

Bob also warns against trying to feed your tickets into the turnstile at the exit. "You'll be sure to insert the wrong ticket, since you probably won't be able to decide which of the several tickets is the magic shinkansen ticket." I couldn't agree more. This is just one of the many mysteries of riding the shinkansen, in addition to figuring out the symbols on the train schedules and the difference between a limited express and a super express.

As reader Glen Kenner put it, "You'll always get to where you're going on time, but you'll have no idea how you got there!"

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


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