Trains keep Japan flowing
I don’t get around much … but recently I found myself on the bullet train to Kyota. At 180 mph, the Japanese country side passes in a blur of cityscapes, green mountains and rice paddies.
The ride is quiet. No whistles sounded; at grade there are no crossing arms. Motor traffic must pass below us.
The long, low, white cars are pulled by a streamlined engine that gathers energy from lines overhead. No smoke, no noise, fewer bumps than the 14-hour plane ride from Minneapolis to Narita, the international airport on the north flank of the great Tokyo megalopolis.
The Japanese, famous for their engineering, are less well known as tunnel builders. But at this, too, they are masterly.
Japan is said to be 75 percent mountainous. The population condenses in the coastal plains and valley floors. Rail beds and highways do not climb the forested ridges but burrow through them.
Periodically, we flash past a wall of white and blue that I take to be reinforcement of a mountainside. It takes some time before I realize these are other bullet trains on a beeline to Tokyo.
The train makes four brief stops in large cities during the two-hour 20-minute trip. The only uninhabited vistas are the verdant hills, which are free of settlement. All that is level is built up with tightly spaced two-story houses (sans yards), shops and factories. Rice paddies fill any opening, like parking lots in Bloomington.
The fields are small, irrigated patches of bristly green that extend to the building foundation — a liquid yard. It is written that rice is the staff of Japanese life: the teamwork, loyalty and respect for others evident in both industry and backstreet restaurants sprouts from the basic sense of the old country of small villages where cooperation to plant, irrigate and harvest the grain was a must.
One of the favorite parts of our 16 days in Japan was riding the intra-urban commuter trains. They are a marvel of people moving. A thousand yen puts a little less than $10 on our swipe card. If team work, harmony and mutual respect are the heart of Japan, the trains are its circulatory system, though this blood stops flowing at midnight. The trains will be a great asset during the 2020 Olympics.
The cars are tidy as a hospital hallway, crowded but not chaotic. A sign, in English as well as Japanese, instructs us to put our phones on “Manner Mode” and to “refrain” from having phone conversations. We did not see this admonishment violated. Most riders study their smart phones, a few read paperbacks or newspapers and some nap. Children and teens, most in school uniform, do visit with frequent giggling.
Hygiene and neatness are valued. Surgical masks are commonly worn in public. Taxi drivers are white gloved. In a packed society, it would seem contagion is a real threat. People do not shake hands; I quickly learn a shoulder bow to express respect or gratitude, which I find quite fun, as it is always returned. I mumble arigato (thank you). Money is exchanged on a small tray.
The trains, which are frequent, run to the minute; anything more is officially considered a delay. I read that a 10-15 minute delay will be a major news story, “similar to a mall fire.”
The Japanese seem genetically predisposed for mass transit. Men and women are of modest stature and trim. In the same train car, 20 percent fewer Americans might fit.
One reason, other than a diet based on smallish servings of rice, noodles, fish, fruit and vegetables, is that Japanese walk much more than we do. Studies have proven this. From home, they walk to the trains, climb three flights of steps (0.1 of a calorie, it’s painted, per step), swipe their card, then trundle down several flights to the proper tracks, and when they exit at their destination, walk on to work.
Or they bike. Bike lots must outnumber surface parking lots in Tokyo 10 to 1. I suspect that many commuters have a bike at each end of their train ride. All this physical activity adds up, allowing them to indulge in beer and pastries, including Mr. Donut and Krispy Kreme. Heavily-marbled red meat is popular in supermarkets and restaurants.
To be sure, cars, buses and trucks (few semis) are very much a part of Japan’s mobility. But, other than the tollways, it’s the slow way to get about. Streets are narrow and stoplights many. What we would call alleys are mainstream residential and commercial areas. The smooth asphalt is shared by pedestrians, bikes, scooters and small delivery trucks. While American cities are designed around the automobile, in Tokyo, trains and subways are the fastest way to get someplace.
Let me add here, that Donna and I would have been lost without a tour guide, our daughter, Carmen, who lives 30 minutes, by train, outside Tokyo. Destinations are many and hard for a Westerner to pronounce, and transfers are a must. The Tokyo metro is home to some 36 million people spread over 240 square miles, the world’s largest metro.
Japan is made up of four major islands, and thousands of tiny ones, stretching from the North 45th parallel, which is on a line with Svea, south to the equivalent of Miami, Fla. Still, it is smaller in land area than California, by 18,000 square miles, but it has more than three times the population (127 million to 38 million). The population density is the greatest on earth. Remarkably, this modest archipelago generates the world’s third largest economy.
One feels safe here. We seldom spotted police. We notice children, even first- and second-graders, traveling alone on the trains. The air is clean, unlike the pictures we see of China. There is not much litter, though there is some, near the bar scene; car horns are scarcely heard, though the streets are plugged with traffic. When the lights go green, drivers do step on it.
I have no explanation for this, but we didn’t see a Japanese flag (the Rising Sun) displayed, except with an American flag in front of an officer’s home at Camp Zama, headquarters of the American Army in Japan, where our daughter teaches at the American high school.
Perhaps, in such an ancient country with a homogenous population, patriotism is a given and overt reinforcement is unnecessary. We saw no war memorials, though we know they exist. One senses the country has put the War in the Pacific on a back shelf in a forgotten closet. Notable exceptions are the Atomic Bomb Dome and Peace Memorial Garden at Hiroshima, site of the world’s first atomic bomb attack.
It’s an amazing culture, largely free of visible poverty. We did see squatters under blue tarps in one of Tokyo’s great parks, but the multiple downtowns overflowing with rivers of shoppers and workers seemed free of panhandling.
And when it comes to shopping, America may be in second place behind the Japanese. Downtown Tokyo on a Sunday afternoon is like Disneyland on a holiday.
But be sure, few shoppers arrive by car. They took the train.