Travel rail journeys: From neon to cherry blossom by bullet - Travel - The Independent

Travel rail journeys: From neon to cherry blossom by bullet

Your train leaves on time to the second and travels as fast as any other in the world - this can only be one country. Jane Drinkwater takes the shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto

The mafia-controlled area around Shinjuku Station is Tokyo at its most Blade Runneresque; flashing neon, noodle bars, pachinko parlours and strip shows huddle just a stone's throw from high-rise hotels, department stores, and the business district.

I remind myself I am not in Shinjuku to drink or to gamble but to board the shinkansen, or bullet train, and be catapulted to the ancient city of Kyoto. A Japanese friend had recommended a stroll down the cherry blossom- lined Philosophers Path or a few hours of contemplation in the 15th-century Ryoanji Temple rock garden as the perfect antidote to Tokyo excess. Having descended into spend, spend, spend mode after only three days in Tokyo I decided it was good advice.

Shinjuku station is crowded but the two million people who pass through it every day don't seem to notice. They've mastered the skill of gliding effortlessly around each other and in the unusual event of a collision there is endless bowing and apologies. "Shinkansen wa doko desu ka?" I ask a man in my best Japanese where to find the bullet train. He raises his hand to his face and waves it back and forth as though wafting away a bad smell, then walks off. I take this to mean "I don't know".

Relying on common sense instead I head quickly to the platform marked shinkansen, ignoring the kiosks selling chocolate, rice crackers, and sushi rolls. The hotel receptionist told me under absolutely no circumstances to be late for the train because it leaves bang on time. "But what about when it snows, or when there are leaves on the track?" I asked her. She looked confused - why should that make a difference? The punctuality of Japan's flagship train is not really a surprise; even the subway in Tokyo informs its passengers of the exact number of minutes and seconds between each stop.

For maximum efficiency, the shinkansen platform is marked with carriage numbers, and painted yellow lines show the designated queuing spot. People stand in perfect order. When the gleaming bullet train glides into the station, I get a rush of adrenaline not normally induced in me by vehicles. As it draws to a halt its doors align perfectly with the neat queues. The train porters who dash around helping people look sharp in their blue suits, caps, and white gloves. There isn't a beer belly in sight.

At least six bullet trains leave Tokyo for Kyoto every hour throughout the day. This one is set to depart at 11.15am and does so on the dot. It is a silent and smooth take off - no whirring of engines, no sudden jolts, no hastily applied brakes. As soon as we are accelerating down the track the other passengers produce an array of drinks and tasty pre- prepared morsels wrapped in origami-style folded paper.

On one occasion in 1989 during the Upper House elections, the slick professionalism of the shinkansen network was thrown into disarray by Mr Sakurai, a Japanese Socialist Party candidate, who was on his way to a party meeting and boarded the express bullet train by mistake. When he realised the train had passed his station, he insisted it make an unscheduled stop at the next The Japanese media berated him for his complete and unprecedented arrogance.

Reclining in a plush seat inside a spotless carriage I imagine what a pointless exercise it would be to look for graffiti or vandalism. Besides, why stir? The wide and polished windows make this the perfect place from which to view and contemplate the dichotomy that is Japanese modern urban life. In the shadow of high-tech Shinjuku, with its towering gleaming buildings, women cycle down narrow streets and alleyways with children strapped to their backs, stopping briefly to buy beancurd from wooden shacks. Brightly coloured futons hang over the balconies of every high- rise apartment block, airing in the mid-morning sun. The rooms in which they were laid out and slept on the night before have already been transformed into living spaces.

In minutes we are dissecting the central islands of Honshu. Japan is made up of four islands and the 1,200 miles from northern Hokkaido to the southernmost point of Kyushu is brought closer by a fast and efficient railway network. The bullet train, a western term which bears no relation to the Japanese shinkansen (which means "new express route"), was built for the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and soon became a symbol of Japan's redevelopment as a nation. Since then the train has undergone major design modifications and its nose is no longer bullet-shaped. To reduce wind-resistance, it is now designed like a wedge.

I am travelling on the Nozomi, which means hope; it is the fastest of the bullet trains and travels at an average speed of 163mph. Sitting quietly aboard, listening to the gentle whirring of the air-conditioning system, it is difficult to imagine we are howling along at that speed, but we are. The 310-mile journey to Kyoto will take just over two hours. The Nozomi has only been achieving this average since March - the French TGV is still the official record-holder with a highest average speed of 157mph between Paris and St Pierre des Corps. Both trains can reach a maximum of 187mph. The Japanese are already testing the maglev train which is expected to transport passengers at speeds of up to 300mph in the near future.

How long, I wonder, before the concrete towers, billboards and neon will merge into the Japanese countryside? We seem trapped in the huge conurbation of Tokyo. A smiling bilingual Japanese trolley hostess asks in a high- pitched voice if I would like to buy a bento. The pounds 5 lunch box contains neatly arranged pieces of marinated salmon, rice with sesame seeds, Japanese pickles, and fried vegetables. It comes with a miniature bottle of soya sauce, disposable chopsticks, and a napkin. I nibble and resist the temptation to compare these delicacies to a British Rail egg and cress sandwich.

The view improves. There is now a backdrop of distant mountains and rice-fields but it is difficult to find a patch of undeveloped nature in the foreground. The only difference as we move away from Tokyo seems to be that the houses and factories that line the track are better spaced. The apartment blocks built to house thousands of Japanese commuters have gradually given way to small detached wooden houses with pretty but tiny gardens. Pink cherry blossom punctuates the landscape but the advertising billboards don't get any fewer.

As I pick bones from the salmon, a few Japanese passengers nod their heads in appreciation at my mastery of the chopsticks. A Japanese woman comes over, smiles, and points out of the window. "Mount Fuji" she says, smiles again, and returns to her seat. The days when gaijin - foreigners - were a curiosity to be observed from a distance are now over. I am thoroughly grateful. Mount Fuji, snow-capped and decorated with faint wisps of cloud, has a wonderful aura and a majestic quality that captivates me. It defines the Japanese landscape, a reference point that guarantees we have finally left the urban sprawl of Tokyo.

By the time I have finished a cup of green tea and a red bean cake the electronic display map at the front of the carriage indicates that we are approaching Kyoto. Here the exquisite gardens of the houses are dotted with cherry blossom and red paper lanterns hang in the narrow winding streets. Kyoto was saved from being bombed during the Second World War by the American defence secretary, Henry Stimson. He called it his pet city and removed it from the list of targets.

I leave the train and wander off in search of ancient Japan, knowing that even if I don't find it I will be able to console myself at a hanami - a party that combines saki-drinking with gazing at the cherry blossom. Before I embark, I notice the guard in the train is pushing all the seats round to face the opposite direction. On the shinkansen, it seems, no one ever has to travel backwards.

FACT FILE

Tickets

Tickets can be bought at the ticket office of any Japan Railways station, but you are far morelikely to find English-speaking staff at the larger stations like Shinjuku, Shibuya and Tokyo. A return ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto on the Nozomi shinkansen costs pounds 150. The Hikari and Kodama shinkansens make more stops and are cheaper. Trains run six times ever day

Getting to Japan

Japan Air Line Tours flies from Heathrow to Tokyo and is offering a return ticket price of pounds 889 until 17 July. British Airways flies twice daily (once on a Wednesday) from Heathrow to Toyko. Standard economy fare is pounds 1,053 but watch our for offers.

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