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Saturday, July 5, 2008

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Deja vu . . . or biting the bullet train


They say deja vu occurs when your brain burps and somehow interprets what is happening now as a memory.

But it can also occur on the Shinkansen — Japan's renowned bullet train. Just glance out the window and you will swear you saw the exact same scene one minute earlier. No matter what minute you look.

"Is this the way to go, or what!?" The speaker is a friend of mine, long enamored with bullet train transport. Of which I am not.

"It's like riding on a jet, right?!"

I give him that. Peeking out from 9,000 meters all you see are clouds, a picture that doesn't change. From the Tokaido Shinkansen it's instead the sprawl of urban life. The inland scene shifts from a sea of buildings to a sea of buildings interspersed with hills and trees. And then it stays that way. Moments of splendor — like the sight of snow-capped Mount Fuji — swoosh by far too fast.

I crack open a can of beer and toast the endless clusters of homes. Draped with an overcast sky, the view invites a drink. Make that drinks.

Meanwhile my friend gushes with enthusiasm to rival our speed. "Only jets aren't as smooth, are they?! Nor as roomy! Nor as frequent! Nor as precise!"

I give him all that too. Yet they do go to more exotic locations. Travel is a destination, I want to tell him, not a journey. But he then plays one more card.

"Plus, it doesn't crash!"

He's right again, for I just hate it when my plane crashes. I suppose I wouldn't care for a Shinkansen collision either, but that is far less likely to happen.

Which is his point, I know.

"But don't you think it's overhyped?" I say. "In the end, isn't it just a train ride? A long, boring train ride? With the same scenery now as there was 30 minutes ago?"

"Are you daft, man? It's the bullet train! The bullet train!"

There lies the root of the romance — the name. If it were called the Dew Worm, the draw would surely decline. They might not charge as much either.

But for many tourists, the Shinkansen is a prime Japan experience all by itself. The various parts have always added up to a grander whole.

Until the French put their pedal to the metal, the Shinkansen was the fastest train on earth, an aerodynamic wonder, a true bullet, propelling up and down the archipelago, with that secondhand precision that many Westerners find as startling as a rabbit yanked from a hat. Just how do they do that?

The train also serves as the blazing symbol of high tech. It's not Nagoya or Osaka that it's speeding to, it's the future. The times are a changing and the bullet train represents the way of tomorrow, already here today.

Automobile-dependent visitors from North America all stand agog at the way it can eat up real estate.

Plus it is comfortable and has grown more comfortable through the years. And it takes people where they want to go. For many guests, a ride on the Shinkansen is the thrilling preamble of a lifetime excursion to Kyoto or Hiroshima.

Yet, for me the mystique has never disguised the monotony. The grander whole is not that grand. For the ride is as wearying as any ride on any long-distant conveyance. And can be much worse if the cheap seats are full and I have to stand for hours on end.

"How can you say that?" My friend says. "It's the Shinkansen!"

I tell him of a TV show I used to watch when I was new to Japan. It was a detective drama set on the bullet train. Each week featured a new crime, often involving some poor sap found bludgeoned in the john. The good guys would end up rushing through the cars, throwing open doors and crawling over pushcarts, as the bad guy did the same thing one step ahead. That was the basic plot week after week. The show lasted a month or so and then disappeared.

"And do you know why? Because it was deja vu every episode. It got old fast and viewers learned to turn the channel even faster. That's what I'd do with my Shinkansen rides, if I could. I'd turn the channel. Yeah, it's nice. But it's also boring. And not what it's cracked up to be. It's a necessary evil, not a treat.

One I would discard in a heartbeat if I had a better way."

He glares at me. Then says, "Are you daft, man? It's the bullet train! The bullet train!"

Like I said — deja vu. Now both inside the train and out.



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