15 July 2008

Getting Around [Japan]

I did not go by either parachute or submarine, but otherwise I think I used lots of different means of transportation. My own two feet (a lot), bicycles, cars, busses, local trains, metro, trams, Shinkansen (a lot), ferries, planes….

I am no car enthusiast. I don’t even own a car myself. I live right in the heart of Copenhagen where it’s faster to walk from one end of the city centre to the other than finding a place to park. But the Japanese have great cars. And they seemed to change them often. In Denmark you see (and hear!) old bangers coming down the road regularly. I didn’t see that in Japan. And my friends drive the coolest cars I have seen in a very, very long time. In the picture above is a Mazda MX-5 near Mount Aso in central Kyushu.
Seeing my friend retrieve her car from the underground deck was another first for me. I had not seen this system before (maybe I don't get around that much, after all?) It reminded me slightly of a system we had on the old car ferries in Denmark before we "paved" the straits and sounds with bridges. Then, cars drove onto a ramp and were hoisted up to another level by a hydraulic system, leaving room for more cars beneath. This parking lot outside an apartment block in Japan was quite clever. A brilliant system, and a beautiful vehicle!

A few differences from what I am used to: All taxis have automatic doors. The rear door on the left opens and closes automatically. So keep your extremities close to your body or you risk getting squeezed by the door. The other difference I noticed is much more important to me: you don’t have to wear seat belt in the back seat, so most people don’t. I reached out for the belt a few times both in private cars and taxis when there wasn’t even one, and I felt uneasy. I was lucky enough to be able to walk away from a dramatic car crash when I was 25. One and a half somersault with half a screw. They don’t even perform platform diving any more spectacular than that. I hurt my knee – that was all. Realizing that seat belts literally do mean the difference between life and death, I made a promise to myself then and there that I would always wear a seat belt when being in a car. This spring in Japan was the first time I broke that promise to myself. And yes, the fact that I felt "uneasy" about this is somewhat of an understatement. I really wish my Japanese friends would make sure to install those belts for their children, in the back seat! [Please read comments for correction!]

As far as I understand, the word "shinkansen" means "new trunk line", but I never heard anyone use this term in English. Instead it was the "bullet train". Around 25,000 horsepower, in other words: d*** fast hoof-beats!
I have been in high speed trains before, e.g. the French TGV which is about 5 to 10 per cent faster than the Shinkansen, and yet travelling by train in Japan felt faster. Maybe because we were in densely populated areas along most of the route and the buildings were very close to the rails. I had a distinct feeling the train speed must be faster than a plane travels on the ground right before take off, and I reminded myself to look it up. I got away from that again, until today. The take off speed is 260 km/h for a Boeing 757, 290 km/h for an Airbus A340 and it was 360 km/h for a Concorde. The Shinkansen travels at around 300 km/h. It took a little while for me to get used to the speed with which the buildings and landscape came flying by. Or rather, the other way around! No wonder they have all those safety railings at the platforms. There was a strong turbulence and suction when these trains passed.

There seemed to be only one thing these trains did not have and that was room for luggage. In a carriage with room for around 60 people there would be space for 4-6 suitcases. A large number of the passengers in the Shinkansen were business men who only brought a small briefcase. Still, I knew there must be something I had overlooked. I later found out many people sent their luggage to their destination the day before they went, themselves. As I moved around so much all the time, I couldn’t do this, or my suitcase and I would have made two completely separate travels.
I like travelling by train. I can relax, read, listen to music or talk to my neighbours. Most Japanese people I talked to on the trains seemed to automatically assume I was American. When they heard where I was from, some of them behaved as if they had just caught a rare butterfly. And I found out what most of them associated with Denmark: (Hans Christian) Andersen or Danish pastry. I later found out that could be one and the same thing, as there was a chain of bakery shops called Andersen.


kazz said...

In Japan, it has become a regulation to fasten your seat belt even when you are in the back seat since this summer. So do not worry, Emenel! We will!

emenel said...

I have only been home for a couple of months and my information was already outdated ... fortunately.

I can't remember a time I was more relieved to be corrected than this! Thanks for letting me know!