7000 Wonders

7000 Wonders

ArticleKey #2; Trains

Edward Porper

Edward Porper

5 min read

Upon their invention about 200 years ago, and as compared to horse carriages, trains were a major technological wonder. As time passed, they became ubiquitous in Europe, while taking a backseat to planes and cars in the New World spanning over much larger territories. As for Japan, trains never ceased to be a wonder - in many more than just a technological sense.

Japanese railway system is a complex network of subway, local, regular Intercity, and high-speed trains, and riding any of them is a unique, all-inclusive experience. Each kind of trains provides that experience in its own way. High-speed trains are famous for exactly what their name indicates, yet they offer more than just speed. The above picture might not explain why those trains are nicknamed “bullet” (in fact, they are shaped like one) but it's sufficient to see how aesthetically pleasing those streamlined, sleek, silvery entities are (strictly speaking, they should be referred to as “machines” but they exude such a strong sense of personality that calling them “entities” or “beings” seems more than justified). An ancient philosopher believed that “the three most beautiful things in life are: an open fire, a dancing woman, and a sailing ship”. Had he been our contemporary, he wouldn't have hesitated to add Japanese “shinkansen” to the list.


Then there is speed. No, SPEED - the top-speed of 320 km/h is quite mind-blowing but 265 km/h being the “bullets”' average speed is truly out of this world. Any runner who could maintain their average speed at about 80% of the top one would be a perennial champion not only of the world but probably of the Milky Way - and “shinkansen” do that day in and day out. As a result of that “daily routine”, riding a “bullet” turns into something it has presumably never been meant to be: a sheer corporal experience. When the train hits its top speed, gravity seems to lose its grip, and one can't help feeling pushed out of the seat and gently levitating over it. Eventually, as the body adjusts, that effect fades away but the moment it occurs for the first time is unforgettable. As is a strange sensation that objects passed by the train disappear before they appear - as if the flow of time were reversed! The following real time video gives some idea of the effect in question, while also providing what must be one of the most dynamic representations of the famous Mount Fuji.

The other types of Japanese trains might be lacking the “bullet”'s elegance and agility but they fully share in everything else - first of all, precision, and the depth and scope of available information. If a train is supposed to arrive at, say, 12:03:00, it will pull into the station between 12:02:58 and 12:03:02, be it while traveling across the city or over 500 kilometers. Another example of that uncanny precision is Japanese gate system. Most subway stations and some local ones have security gates preventing passengers from incidentally falling onto the tracks. The gates are numbered, and so are train cars - and the doors of each car should open in front of the gate of the same number. Based on my subjective observations, not only they do but the central doorline never deviates from the corresponding gate line by more than a millimeter or two!


Striking as Japanese precision is, the amount of information offered to passengers throughout any journey is even more impressive.  It starts with extremely detailed, bilingual screens and signs


DSCF3685.JPGbut quickly upgrades to what might be called “train live TV” - a pretty sophisticated screen right above the doors. The screen silently broadcasts various news (and, alas, occasional commercials) between stations but once the train is about to pull into a station, the screen explodes with loads of valuable information. Some of it is usually available in most places around the world - the name of the station, train changing options, possibly even the side of the door opening. However, there is at least one type of information that must be completely unique for Japan - namely, the list of attractions in the vicinity of the approaching station. Gardens, museums, sports facilities, and such - all that is meticulously listed and brought to passengers' attention in any city, on any line. Such "trifles" as constantly refreshing subway maps highlighting the current station and using arrows to indicate the next one go without saying. Last but far from being least, a comprehensive number system. The above-mentioned cars and gates are part of it but probably not the most important one (even though in case of “shinkansen” car numbering is necessary because passengers without reserved seats can ride only in cars 1, 2 and 3 - out of a 8-to-10 cars' train). What really revolutionizes the experience of train riding in Japan is numbering of all stations on each and every line. Even complete strangers having no idea where they are, have no trouble finding out where and how soon they should get off - all it takes is one look at the number of the current station, provided they made an effort to find out the number of their destination in advance…

While trains in Japan is a remarkable phenomenon in its own right, the roots of the system in place aren't likely to be limited to Japanese culture alone. There is at least one other utterly important factor responsible for having shaped the Japanese society (which trains are part of) into what it currently is.