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Wednesday
Nov232011

Insider guide to Japan's Bullet Train

Anybody wondering exactly how far Japan is ahead of the West should ride the Shinkansen, the bullet train, remembering –soberingly – that it has been in operation for nearly 40 years. 

Everything is, without saying, immaculate; the trains shiny white, silent and polished to a gleam. The ticketing operation is flawless, with not just easy and helpful reserved seating, but with conductors who bow, dressed in creamy beige uniforms with gold trim and matching beige shiny patent-leather shoes – the whole snazzy outfit in male and female versions. They know exactly which seats to approach after people have got on and off at the various stops along the line. No, “Tickets, please,” while lurching blindly from seat to seat as they do in the West. Nothing lurches in Japan, even at 200 miles per hour. 

In Tokyo Station, the stately terminus and turn-around station (spotless, of course), the action is pared down to the second. At precisely 10.00am a Shinkansen glides in and people get off through gates that perfectly align with numbered doors, which also match your ticket number. A small corps de ballet of cleaning ladies, immaculately attired in very becoming baby-pink suits with little flower trim and white shoulder bags, board the train and the doors close as they whisk through like little pink bees, each with a specific assignment, hoovering and sweeping, (not that there is really anything to clean, this being civil, polite, refined and immaculate Japan). At 10.05am the doors open to let them leave and then close again. At 10.06, after a swift inspection, doors re-open and passengers get on. At 10.10 on the dot, you leave. It all took ten minutes, to the second. 

And you are going very fast before you even clear the platform. But smooth as silk. A woman’s gentle, reassuring voice in a sort of intimate stage-whisper that sounds as if she is sitting right next to you, says, in a voice of beguiling English seductiveness, "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome. This is the 10.10 Shinkansen Super Express to…". To Kyoto, in my case. 

I had a window seat on the right, the 'Mount Fuji side'. I had specially requested a view of the mountain. No problem. All part of the service. On the return ticket, I noticed that my seat was on the left side, so that I could gaze at the icon in both directions. How thoughtful. I had not even asked for it. 

At the super-modern Kyoto Station on the return trip, the routine is, if anything, even more impressive, because this is just a stop, not a terminus, so the action takes place in only three slick minutes instead of the leisurely ten. My ticket says 11.16. Ambitious, precision-wise, to say the least. But I have complete faith. 

At 11.13 the shiny white snake slides in. They’re very long, by the way, these trains, 15 or so coaches. And they're almost always full, despite running every few minutes, every day, all year, and costing a lot. 

People get off. There’s a short pause. A subtle electronic sound goes off and my co-riders and I are allowed to embark to our assigned seats. At the dot of 10.16 we’re gone after three minutes, to the second. 

We pull up to an imperceptibly smooth stop in Tokyo at exactly the stated moment. And there waiting for us is the politely-smiling pink fairy brigade, cute little hand-held mini-vacuums at the ready. 

And this bullet ballet has been going on smoothly, helpfully, politely, stress-free, unruffled, immaculate, non-stop and as casual as you please, every few minutes for nearly forty years. 

As far as Japan's superiority in logistics, technology and civility is concerned, I rest my case. It's a Louis Vuitton case. And it’s a real one, not a fake, because this is Japan.

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