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Saturday, 15 June, 2002, 11:44 GMT 12:44 UK
Riding the rails Japanese style
shinkansen - bullet train
The bullet train - symbol of Japan's economic progress

The white arrow, the blue sky, the thunder bird, the salt breeze, the sunrise express, and the super view dancing girl. The names of just some of Japan's express trains are unashamedly romantic and make it easy for me to admit that I have become a trainspotter in Japan.

I don't stand on the end of platforms with my telephoto lens and notebook, but collecting as many different train rides as possible has become an obsession. For me, travelling by train in Japan is a window onto the soul of this country.


Japan's train bentos are neatly packed boxes of local delicacies and the source of a distinct breed of Japanese trainspotter

If you ask someone in Japan where they live, they're likely to reply with the train line that takes them there. Everyone travels by train and trains go nearly everywhere. As such, they are the social glue of the country.

Commuters have their train passes paid for by their companies. The distance you live from the station is usually a good indication of your wealth - the nearer, the richer.

Premium

Train lines are the ultimate political paybacks, new bullet train lines to the back of beyond are the classic way to reward faithful supporters and trains play a central role in some of Japan's most popular literature and films.

My trainspotting all started with the Tobu line, a small private railway which connects Asakusa, Tokyo's bustling down town district, with points directly north.

New generation bullet train
The new-generation bullet trains were built with customer comfort in mind
This is the line that took me to my first home in Japan. It's not a fast or a particularly essential line - it goes to small towns with small industries - but there's nevertheless a choice of a comfortable express, a semi-express and a stopping train.

The difference between the fastest and slowest is just 25 minutes, but it costs more than double the price for the express ticket. In this small, crowded nation, breathing space and a guaranteed seat are charged at a premium.

Romance

The Tobu line's name for such luxury is the romance car, because it ends its journey at a distant hot spring resort - the site of torrid assignations.

The romance is perhaps fostered by the mushroom-coloured velvet pairs of seats which are so narrow that you have to become cosy with your travelling companions.


Of course, all these trains are on time - the object of envy the world over

But it also has a retro air - the guards are dressed in distinctive orange-brown uniforms the colour of maple and walnut pudding.

The scenery outside the window is first of the unfashionable tightly packed northern suburbs and then the searingly green rice fields and ramshackle farmhouses of Japan's inaka or countryside.

It's always either freezing or boiling on this train.

"It's a country train," says my friend Take, who lives halfway down the line. "They like to show they have air-conditioning that works."

Inflexibility

On the stopping train, the automatic doors let in the swooning heat of summer, and in winter the icy winds straight from Siberia.

There are hundreds of similar lines crisscrossing Japan, each with its own character, and of course its own lunchbox or bento.

Japan's train bentos are neatly packed boxes of local delicacies and the source of a distinct breed of Japanese trainspotter - the lunchbox pilgrim who travels the country just to try a certain train line's bento.

There is an unwritten rule of train travel in Japan - if you are on an express train you have to start eating as soon as the train departs. Drinking beer is also mandatory - even if it's early in the morning.


One station manager famously committed suicide last year because his trains were late

Of course, all these trains are on time - the object of envy the world over. But while I relish that reliability, I also see it as a feature of Japan's rigid inflexibility . There's no holding a train to let a struggling mother with two small children jump on, and woe-betide the guard that lets a train miss its departure time by a nano-second.

One station manager famously committed suicide last year because his trains were late. Delays of a few minutes on the famous bullet trains are the subject of national news bulletins - only earthquakes, typhoons and blizzards are seen as reasonable excuses for lateness.

Economic progress

Bullet trains, by the way, are not called that in Japanese. They are known as the Shinkansen, the direct translation of which is the rather more prosaic - new, high-speed train.

Riding the shinkansen, you can feel Japan's economic progress since World War II in the train's the speed and efficiency. But you can also feel the resistance to change which ties this country down when you can't use a credit card to buy a ticket costing hundreds of pounds - the train company accepts only cash or its own credit card.

But nothing can take away from the sheer pleasure of gliding along in a green car as the first-class section of the shinkansen and seeing the white-gloved guard bow to the train as it leaves the station exactly on schedule.

The passengers lean back on their starched antimacassars. Beer cans are popped open and you can hear a rustling as bento boxes are neatly unwrapped in unison.

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13 Jun 00 | Business
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