Man on the tracks: The trains we ride and stories we tell on them in Japan

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Japan has the best trains in the world. In terms of number, accessibility, promptness and speed, no other county lets you get around as fast or as far. On the most remote peninsula where there’s only rocks and herons, you’ll catch an old passenger train cranking past. In Tokyo different train lines stack on top of each other, breezing by at so many speeds, so many colors, it’s dizzying. Japan, a country which changes so dramatically as it moves from the rural to the urban, the train is the running link, the operative symbol. It’s a story-telling machine.

They’re immensely proud of their trains. With over 18 million daily users, Japan has the world’s busiest train network. New trains, like the new Hokkaido shinkansen, get rockstar status, with tickets for its opening run selling out in 20 seconds. Like convenience stores and bureaucracy, trains are one of those staples in Japan that, though coming from the West, ended up being done so much bigger and better here, that you have a hard time believing the technology doesn’t begin and end with Japan.

Trains are Japan. Whether in the mountains, the city, the sea, or a village right out of an ukiyo-e, the one consistency will likely be that there’s a train running through that image.

They’ve been everything to my year here. Buses might’ve been cheaper and often got me places faster, but I’d always opt for the train when I could. And why is that? It’s not like I’ve had this schoolboy crush on trains my whole life—it was my brother who was really into Thomas the Tank Engine, while I was always lost away in one of my fantasy (Disney, Star Wars, Harry Potter) inspired worlds. And though I’ve always loved subway systems for getting me places, it’s got nothing on the drawn-out love affair with Japanese trains.

When I’m on the train, I feel just a little more at peace with the world. Even when it’s a tiny train that has to stall at numerous stations to let the faster trains go by. The destination? The real adventure’s been in the getting there. It’s the creaking of the rails, the wide seats, the occasional old man who will start chatting to you and giving you sweets as you pull along. And then in Tokyo it’s the speed, the reliability, the chance to watch a city unfurl.

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Through trains, I’ve come to understand what is now, probably, my favorite country. Trains, especially in the deep countryside, slip through Japan’s backdoor: rice fields, sheltered Shinto groves, and thatch-rooved farming communities. This becomes all the more apparent since going through the country in a car with my parents, where you’re forced to use freeways and the most interesting thing you’ll see is a particularly long tunnel. Real Japan lies a couple miles past the concrete. The train, meanwhile, rubs right against it.

In Tokyo, the above ground lines, particularly Yamanote, lets me understand the workings of the world’s largest, mostly unplanned, city, the bubbles and bursts of people and towers or street art and temples. If I didn’t have trains, life would be made of snapshots, a collection of scenes interspersed across the island—over here, a lighthouse on the pier, over there, Shibuya at its most crowded. The train has been my way of knitting those things together, make a story out of it.

I don’t think I’m alone in the tendency to tell stories on trains. I get the feeling Japan does it too.

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On the one year anniversary of arriving here, I finally got to ride the bullet train from Osaka to Tokyo. The verdict? Life’s never been smoother or more thrilling. Watching the city melt into the mountains, the sky into the sea, I started to understand the country I’d been bumming through this whole time in a different way. Kyoto’s pagodas, the fields cushioned by mountains and stilt ponds, the Tokyo tower, and that fleeting glimpse of Mount Fuji: this is the way Japan wants to be seen. It explains why the JR Pass has got to be one of the best packages for tourists in the world, since as you travel it, you’re watching a presentation on what Japan is. The train knits national myth across the landscape.

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The shinkansen is more than just the jewel in the Japan Rail crown; to many it is the crown. The government pours significantly more money into it than local lines. For all Shinkansen lines, it covers 35% of local maintenance costs, while local government covers 15%. The Guardian’s Philip Brasor discusses how the unveiling of the first shinkansen in 1964 was a crucial symbol of Japan’s post-war recovery, helping start its stratospheric boom period. Thanks to the shinkansen, Tokyo turned “ into the monster it is today,” by restructuring the country around a singular place—where before, Tokyo was just the largest city across a network of industrializing zones, it became the city in the post-war boom. Now, all roads lead to Tokyo.

This came at the expense of local communities who saw an even faster population-drain and small-train deactivation thanks to the shinkansen. Train lines are not chosen at random: how they’re made and where they go says so much about what’s deemed important by those in charge. It’s a network, it’s a hierarchy.

In March I went to the massive JR Museum in Nagoya. In addition to getting to tour 14 discontinued trains and to recognize I was the only adult there who didn’t also have a kid with them, I was amazed by their sprawling train model that encompasses all of central Japan. Detailed models depict both the people and villages encountered along the way. The trains, cars, scooters are motorized. There’s a rock concert and a town festival. There’s a pool party.

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And everything has its place: up in the hills cut the speedy shinkansens, while the local trains chug below. All is loved in its own way. You get this weird feeling of rightness following the whole picture, as if you want to believe that this kind of order through technology could actually work in the real world. I’d forgotten about this feeling until riding the shinkansen, when suddenly everything was ordered again, just the way it’d been imagined in the model.

Maybe when I get on the train, I’m not just using a method of transportation, but rather using a method of seeing, of representation. I get to pretend, behind the glass on the comfortable seats, that everything’s right in the world and particularly Japan; there’s no recession or birth crisis, and this temperature is definitely normal and not terrifyingly high. The train keeps going, and so do you.

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Then it goes beyond the speed or reliability: everything about the train system, especially in the cities, gives a vision of order and balance to the world. The stations are immaculate glass fortresses with reliable bento stores and vending machines. Guards with felt vests and white gloves direct you throw with a smile and nod. People wait for the trains in straight lines and always wait for people to get off first. In Tokyo, most of the trains sing a happy tune for you when you get off. This is life in straight lines and right angles. Glass houses for the mechanized age.

This is always most noticeable in a Tokyo rush hour: follow the long line of people filtering through Roppongi station, which snakes through seven floors of escalators; life is orchestrated so completely that there’s almost no movement between these lines, almost no one to rock the boat by trying to get ahead. If you conform and accept your place in this clockwork, everything will be okay.

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Inside the trains, only tourists will talk. Everyone else keeps their eyes politely glued to their phone. In Vancouver, people often criticize bus culture for the habit of staring the other way when someone wants to talk to you; in Japan, this kind of silence is heavily encouraged—by the conductor, the posters, and just about everyone else on the car who hazards an annoyed glance your way if you, God help us, seem to be enjoying yourself. It’s on these mid-points of a Tokyo rush-hour, when the heavy sky looms over the grey towers and the suits fall asleep on their newspapers, that I realize I’m countries away from my backcountry trains and Ojisans giving me candy.

The only time Tokyo’s veneer ever really gets scratched is during the minutes before that first train. 6 AM. Shinjuku’s filled with garbage. The clubbers are stumbling past the early morning commuters. The guards let themselves admit—it’s painted across their faces—that this job sucks. And people are standing in a loose, broken line up near the yellow line, looking for the train that should’ve come by now. Everyone’s teetering in their exhaustion. Rumpled dresses and crooked ties.

Across the platform a man lies slumped across the platform, foot hanging over the rails. His tie’s off, button’s open, and there’s a stain across the left side of his shirt that might be vomit. When the station attendant comes to wake him up and prod him along, as he will do three times while I wait, he opens his red eyes angry swats him away. His doneness is well past 100%. And he’s left there while Tokyo wakes up for the day.

And I’m reminded of Tokyo’s greatest contradiction: however much you try to mechanize order and perfection, the human will always slip through the cracks. Often in violent, explosive ways. Let’s not forget that although Japan’s promptness is unchallenged, that rare time your train is running late usually means that someone’s jumped in front of it. Or that the deadliest terrorist attack in Japanese history was via train gassings.

These kinds of things almost never happen; never, at least, when you consider every day you’ve got 18 million success stories. But sometimes when a story’s told of a perfect world, when clean rail lines mean clean hearts, that story collapses. Maybe only I notice it. Maybe only now, after 13 months of loving each moment of the trip. Leaving Japan means leaving the trains. That life of glass and straight lines.

            You’re in your line. You’re by your seat. Everything’s in its right place. And you’re screaming.

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2 thoughts on “Man on the tracks: The trains we ride and stories we tell on them in Japan

  1. Thank you! That was a very interesting post as I live in the UK and have never been to Japan. Really enjoyed reading this. I especially like your point where you say: ‘These kinds of things almost never happen; never, at least, when you consider every day you’ve got 18 million success stories.’ That is a very good way to look at life when the world seems full of disasters.

    1. Thank you so much Gilly! So glad you enjoyed the post, yes the trains in Japan are very wonderful, I highly suggest getting a rail pass when you finally make it over to that part of Asia!

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