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Life on a (Japanese) Train

Yesterday we had a very agreeable day travelling up to Takayama, a neat old town famous for its grid streets and hot springs as a stop off before getting to Kyoto, the final point of our Japanese adventure. This entailed driving to Mishima and getting the famous bullet train to Nagoya, where we would change and catch the mere “express train” to Takayama.

As you will all now be aware, I am a bit of a train nut and I was really looking forward to seeing the Japanese system – it would be impossible not to compare it to the Trans Siberian. (The Japanese have a word for a train buff – tetsu-chan – loosely translated as “Ironboy”, sadly very appropriate for me after going up and down Fuji and sitting/sleeping on floors for three days). The journey time (two legs each of two hours) was quite wimpy compared with my Russian trek, but it was more than enough time both to assess the trains and also to see something of the Japanese interior. The first thing to note is that the bullet trains are bloomin’ bullety: standing on the platform at Mishima at least 5 bullets whistled past, all 16 carriages through in an instant. The second thing to note was that the whole operation was delightfully precise. Shoko, our guide, plonked us on a little square painted in the platform, saying that would be where the door for carriage 10 would be. And so it turned out. You got the feeling that the driver would fall on his throttle bar if this had not been the case. To my great relief it turns out that Japanese trains have seats, you don’t have to sit on the floor.

As we left Mishima the aforementioned driver put his foot down and we were whisked up to a cool 270kph in no time at all, with barely a murmur from the track. You could have built a house of cards on the airline table in front of you, it was an incredible feeling. The trains are wide (almost as wide as Russian ones) and very comfy – sadly no sign of a restaurant car where I could have treated the staff to endless cognacs, nor any bossy provodnitsii, the ladies who lorded it in each Russian carriage. Mind you, the Japanese railway has a similar attachment to uniforms: the conductor was wearing a delightful cream double breasted suit with multiple pieces of gleaming gold insignia, with the swankiest pair of beige mock crock moccasins you have ever seen (mind you, have you ever seen a pair?). The outfit was rounded off with a military style peaked cap and issue faux leather briefcase similarly heaving with matching gold badges.

Actually the express train was more comfortable, with huge windows: you felt like you were in a conservatory with at least two feet of legroom. What of the Japanese countryside between Nagoya and Takayama? In a word, breathtaking. With so many people based in the three big sea side cities of Tokyo, Yokohama and Kawasaki, you forget about the mountainous hinterland, with steep slopes leading down to rivers that bear an astonishing resemblance to their Scottish salmon counterparts, interspersed with small hamlets on the tiny areas of flat land, tending their rice paddies as the English would their lawns.

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