A porpoise-noised Shinkansen bullet train lies dormant on the platform at Tokyo station, resting after its lightning journey from Sendai in Japan’s Tohoku region. From within, a cleaning crew in pristine red uniforms appears, arranges itself in a line before the sombre grey and black of the commuter throng, and proudly takes a bow. Content with a job well done, they disappear into the seething crowd leaving behind them a sparkling mass of metal now ready to make the return journey. Just as well since I’m going to be spending a lot of time on board one of these things over the next few days.
Japan was the first country in the world to introduce high-speed rail with the introduction of the Tokaido Shinkansen in 1964, connecting Tokyo and Osaka. But now the bullet trains run all over the country – the 300kmph speeds make virtually any journey across the small islands a rapid one. They are synonymous with the modern age of Japan’s technological and economic boom, becoming a fundamental thread of the country’s fabric and a major source of national pride.
Once on board, I’m wowed by the immaculate interiors, comfortable upholstery and soundless, smooth motion. But mostly I’m wowed by the snack cart. Dried scallops, green tea, noodle bowls and beef tongue jerky are on the menu, but I ease myself in with a coffee.
As I sip, I chat with my neighbour who tells me that she never travels any long distances by car. “It’s just so much quicker by train,” she says. There is no longer any need for business travellers to stay overnight when making a trip to another city, reducing demand for capsule hotels, once so popular.
Even during the tragic earthquake of 2011, the trains remained largely unshaken. Although 27 Shinkansen were in service in the Tohoku region at the time the quake struck, not one person was injured. Japan Rail East has attributed the astonishing outcome to a range of safety measures put in place by the rail network in the years leading up to the event. Reinforced pillars, a sensor that could detect the first wave of the earthquake and emphasis on education of staff ensured that all passengers emerged unscathed.
The trains were all back in service within 50 days of the disaster and have since played a key role in the country’s recovery, wooing foreigners back with special promotions and deals as Japan turns to tourism to help it rise again from the disasters of 2011.
I arrive at Kyoto station expecting to head straight to my hotel, but the 15-floor futuristic construction is much more than a transit point for travellers. The vast building is packed to its intricate steel rafters, known as The Matrix, with ramen shops, boutiques, department stores and even a theatre. As tour guide Emiko Takahashi leads me around the grey glass and metal edifice,constructed on the 1200th anniversary of the capital’s foundation in Kyoto and opened to the public in 1997, she talks about it with pride.
“There was lots of opposition to it before it was built because Kyoto is a very traditional city,” she says. “But now that we have it, we can’t imagine it any other way.” Strict rules prevented the building from ascending too high and it remains lower than the city’s tallest building, the Kyoto Tower, which stands at 131 metres.
The building has become an integral part of city life, although it is a far cry from the traditional Japanese architecture of the famous Gion area, where tourists stalk the lamp-lit streets hoping for a glimpse of a geisha. “That’s the old Kyoto,” Takahashi tells me as we step on to the top tier of a seemingly endless escalator down to the bottom. “This is the new face of the city.”
We fast track our way down, passing a flight of 171 steps that descends past cafes and shops to a tree-lined courtyard. At intervals, we spot young couples sitting side by side on the smooth concrete, holding hands and whispering conspiratorially into each other’s ears. “It’s a popular place for dates,” Takahashi tells me, smiling.
As the escalator finally nears the end of its journey, we spot a bride in a gleaming ivory dress disappear off the courtyard with her new groom and wedding party in tow. It’s one of the numerous weddings held here, Takahashi tells me, with many Japanese couples now opting for Western ceremonies over traditional ones.
We stay overnight at Hotel Keihan, a fuss-free business property adjacent to Kyoto train station, owned by the Keihan railway company, which operates a number of trains in and out of the city.
In Osaka, the next evening, we also stay at a Keihan hotel. The no-nonsense property is located within the Kyobashi Station complex and provides easy access to the subway and a profusion of shopping malls.
But it’s at Osaka City Station where the full potential of the railway terminal is taken to the extreme. The seemingly endless 131,000 square metre space in the heart of Osaka represents a 10-year construction effort and an investment of 2.1 billion yen by Japanese Rail, the sole national rail provider before privatisation began in the 1990s.
Celebrating its second birthday this month, the revamped station has seen the number of people passing through it on a daily basis climb steeply. And it’s not just packed with commuters. Shoppers swarm through the complex to enjoy the retail therapy and culinary treats of its three major department stores, even at the weekends. From sake bars to wine lounges and patisseries, this place is all about the good life.
There’s even a Japan Rail shop, crammed with primary coloured plastic trains, rail conductor uniforms in kids’ sizes, Shinkansen socks, pencils, key rings and more. Of all of the shops I visit, this is by far the most hectic. The little ones are going crazy for this stuff, frantically vying for a spot around a model railway, while their parents egg them on. It’s hard not to get sucked up in the railway frenzy – even I leave with a bag of souvenirs.
At one of the station’s many cafes, I meet with a group of JR West executives who explain that tourists have become highly sought after in recent times. The decline of corporate travel to the region as many of the big businesses relocate to Tokyo has left a void; one which the local power brokers hope tourists will help to fill.
Although the western region of Honshu did not feel the impact of the 2011 earthquake nearly as hard as Tohoku, with visitor arrivals from Asian neighbours China and Korea remaining relatively strong in its aftermath, Australian numbers did drop off considerably.
But they are coming back. Rail Plus, a distributor of the Japan Rail Pass in Australia recently revealed that sales of the product had climbed back to 85% of pre-earthquake levels in 2012.
After the executives bid us a long and elaborate farewell, then disappear into the vast maze of the station, Takahashi turns to me and raises her right eyebrow approvingly. “It’s very hard to get a job at JR,” she says. Parents aspire for their children to work for the company when they grow up – it’s up there with professions such as law and medicine.
We make our way to the South Gate building where we are mesmerised by the shimmering water display that appears as a dot matrix clock one minute, then an elaborate floral graphic the next. Designed by local firm Koei Industry, the effect is created by a digital printer that releases the drops of water in carefully controlled patterns to create the ever-changing images that are illuminated by overhead lights.
But the innovation doesn’t end with the design and architecture of these super stations. The trains themselves are also evolving.
JR Tokai, the railway company for central Japan, has designed a new Series Lo Maglev train, with no wheels. Instead it is propelled by an electromagnetic pull. The new train will be implemented in 2027, linking Shinagawa Station in central Tokyo with Nagoya. The new technology will slash the time of the trip from the current 90 minutes by Shinkansen to just 40 minutes.
The rail firm hopes to extend the line to Osaka by 2045, with the cost of the new lines expected to total 8.44 trillion yen. But the firm insists the upgrade is a necessary one – in 2025, the Shinkansen technology will already be 60 years old and these new trains will pollute less than the direct air services that also link the cities.
Laden with goodies, we enter the train station and take a seat as we await the next loop line train. It’s running slightly late. “The trains always used to be on time,” Takahashi says. “But now lots of people like to jump in front of them to die.” Horrified, I am flummoxed by the matter of fact expression on her face. It takes place all over the world, but has it really become that commonplace in Japan? “Yes, it’s happening more and more – mainly in Tokyo, but also in Osaka,” she nods. “I think because things are difficult economically.”
Japan has the highest rate of suicide in the world. In 2012, the figure dipped below the 30,000 mark for the first time in 15 years to 27,766, but it remains disturbingly high with around 80 people taking their lives each day. Train suicide is one of the most popular methods with the problem so great that it has prompted rail companies to implement measures such as the use of blue LED lights and soothing music in stations to calm potential jumpers.
Fortunately, we experience no such incident.
Back in Kyoto, I head to the western suburb of Arashiyama where I take a ride on the JR West’s Sagano Sightseeing Railway from Torokko Saga station to Torokko Kameoka for 600 yen. The Torokko Ressha, also known as the romantic train, is an old-fashioned tram-style train with polished wood interiors and an immaculately dressed driver. The tourist train winds for 25 minutes through 7.3km of moist mountainside as pink bursts of spring cherry blossom flash sporadically past among the vivid green foliage. It chugs surprisingly fast along the banks of the Hozugawa River.
It’s a far cry from the Shinkansen, but the well cared for shiny red train drives home once again the sense of national pride in the railways and trains.
And although domestic air services from low cost carriers such as Jetstar Japan are expanding their reach, the railways look set to remain the arteries of Japan as the country’s way of life, and sometimes death, continues to pulse around them.