Catch a bullet

To catch a bullet in your hand or mouth takes skill and precision timing, or that’s what magicians and performance artists would have you believe. Of course, it’s a trick but as a child, I used to watch in awe and wonder.

What is not a trick, however, is the precision and timing that surrounds the Shinkansen aka bullet train. Its speed, efficiency and the way it STRICTLY adheres to the timetable make it an absolute pleasure to travel on.

Although trains and the rail system date back to the very early 1800’s, the Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train made its debut in 1964. Obtaining its moniker due to the 0 Series resemblance to a bullet and its speed – they operate at 320kph, conducted test runs at 443kph and hold a world record of 603kph. It is an effective and very efficient mode of transport and in Japan, it now carries an estimated 150+million passengers each year.

I have over the years; spent more than my fair share of time standing at train stations, and on more than one occasion I have groaned as ‘delayed’ or ‘cancelled’ messages have popped up on the timetable board. The excuses have ranged from late departure, or Signalling problems to passenger action or leaves on the tracks – Jessie James could have saved a fortune on dynamite during Autumn.

But standing on the tracks in Shinagawa, waiting to catch the train to Mazda Headquarters in Hiroshima, I was amazed at the punctuality of each and every train. Like clockwork, they would arrive (and leave), it really is ‘by the book’.

Alighting passengers stand in an orderly line as the train pulls to a stop, the gates open and we calmly board the train, no hustle or bustle for seats (they are allocated anyway), enough time to stow baggage and take a seat (not a moment more, not a moment less) before the train heads off out of the station again – it’s effortless.

The seats are comfortable with plenty of legroom and space enough to open up your laptop and write (as I am doing now). Coat/jacket hooks to ensure crinkle free attire and a deep luggage rack that runs the entire length of the carriage. It’s clean too, not sure why I’m so surprised about that – after all, I’ve been in Japan almost a week now.

As expected, we left at 9.17am exactly.

The Shinkansen takes its time to gather up speed, but if you listen carefully you and hear the engine pitch get higher as the speedo needle heads north – the anticipation is delightful.

With top speed for the route achieved; I settled back and admired the view as it surprisingly didn’t race past the window. Figuratively speaking, this sensation messed with my mind a little, you see, I’m used to a more sedate form of rail travel where the speed of the train is more in keeping with the days of yore (more or less), therefore knowing that I was on the Shinkansen going at around 300kph and yet still having ample time to admire the scenery, took a while to comprehend – I guess that is the beauty of travelling by track.

Within Half an hour, Mt Fuji appeared in the distance (Got to love, clear and sunny days), great photo opportunity time, its snow-topped peak really is a remarkable sight. This vista was shortly followed by quintessential Japanese countryside including rice fields and lush rolling hillsides – lovely.

Every now and again, the carriage would jolt as we would meet a passing train coming from the opposite direction, and if I was paying attention during maths lesson at school (if a train leaves the station at…) our combined speed would be up near 600kph – that’s faster than a speeding bullet (well two in fact).

Refreshments are served via a trolley cart, with hot or cold beverages – very civilised, there are directions on how to use the toilet (for those that have still yet to master this process) and the ticket inspector bows every time he exits your carriage.

The near four-hour journey has me arriving at 13.08 and I’m checking my watch to be doubly sure  – yep we’re going to be bang on time. Guess I should start to pack my things away.

I’m told that for the price of the ticket, I could have flown between Tokyo and Hiroshima, but think of all the fun and experience I would have missed. Riding the Shinkansen/bullet train has both taken me back in time (the hint of ‘clickity clack’ is still there, only faster) and yet given me a big taste of what modern day rail transport should be like. As I sign off this piece and make my way to Mazda’s design centre and museum, I can happily say; that catching a bullet (train) has once again left me in awe and wonder.


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