How sleek, swift and reliable shinkansens look! The impression they give is of an arrow pointed at its destination, hurtling forward at speeds that were astonishing when the “bullet trains” debuted in 1964. Even today they remain a vibrant symbol of the postwar “Japanese miracle.”
Just don’t get stuck on one in heavy rain, warns Spa! (Aug 15-22). Or in peak travel seasons.
Shinkansens were not designed to withstand “guerrilla rain.” It’s a relatively new meteorological phenomenon, linked to global warming – what used to be considered a month’s worth of precipitation falling in an hour. On June 21 a guerrilla storm grounded the Tokaido Shinkansen to a 6-hour halt, condemning passengers to a night in the “shinkansen hotel” – in their seats, in other words. It’s not a life-threatening experience but it is unpleasant in the extreme – “living hell,” as one passenger put it. Supplies of food and drink soon run out. If the constricted space and unnatural position your seat confines you to doesn’t keep you awake, the snoring of your fellow passengers probably will. Adding insult to injury is the unceremonious gusto with which station staff hustle you out when, first thing next morning, you finally arrive – just in time for the departure of the morning commuter throng which has usurped your claims on the staff’s courtesy.
Guerrilla rain is a rising phenomenon, up 34 percent since the 1970s. Keep alert for it, Spa! advises. Bring emergency supplies of food and water. If a storm is forecast, you might consider postponing your trip, or traveling by ordinary train. Not that a storm wouldn’t stymie it too, but at least the distances between stations tend to be short, permitting stopover arrangements.
The Obon holiday just past was a reminder, if one is needed, of how unpleasant a packed shinkansen can be. Carriages fill to 150 percent capacity. It’s like a morning rush hour train, with the added annoyance of restless, squalling children among the passengers. This is a vacation?
Speaking of vacations, foreign tourists have lately discovered Japan en masse, with good results for the economy and international brotherhood, less good ones for shinkansen travel. One finds one’s tolerance strained by what Spa! calls “culture clashes” – with foreigners carrying large space-consuming luggage, foreigners taking the wrong seats, foreigners not speaking the language and therefore impossible to communicate with, and so on. “We’ve been hiring more English-speaking staff,” a Japan Railways (JR) official tells the magazine, “but of course many foreign visitors don’t speak English. Quarrels can arise not only with station personnel but also on the trains, with fellow passengers.”
The influx has resulted in long lines – up to half an hour at times – at shinkansen ticket wickets. “Only in Japan!” grumbles an American visitor. “Everywhere else in the world, you can reserve a ticket on the Net and print it up at home. Standing in line at the ticket wicket? How Japanese!”
Japan’s famed omotenashi (hospitality) is under strain. This past June the number of foreign tourists was 18.2 percent above that for June 2016. When the July and August figures become available the rise is expected to be even more impressive. Impressive, but also challenging. Can Japan adapt?© Japan Today