My favourite, most bestest thing about Japan so far has been the Shinkansen, the bullet train. Or, as son would pedantically point out, not THE bullet train, because there isn’t just one, there are hundreds. I have to admit, even I didn’t realise just how many there are. I thought it was a relatively special, once-a-day service or something.
They’re all over the place, gliding in and out of major train stations every few minutes. I won’t bore you with statistics but if you’re a fan of numbers, I strongly recommend you read the link here that tells you about them.
It is said that the Shinkansen’s cuspidate shape and predatory manner were inspired by the kingfisher but I swear it’s a shark. It flows silently and regally along the rails, sliding to a halt at the platform and gobbling up passengers. It’s either a shark, or the designer had something small on his mind for which he desperately wanted to overcompensate. If you get my drift.
I’m going to stick with the shark. The Shinkansen is beautiful. A work of perfect aesthetic engineering. Ironically, it was built with the help and guidance of British rail engineers, who had a ton of knowledge about how to construct and manage successful railways and engines…
The bullet train now well surpasses Britain’s ancient and poorly managed system. It is a thing of beauty. Not only is it silent, it is smooth, clean, and manned by a workforce so evidently proud of their association with this Japanese icon. The snack trolley crew and the ticket inspectors bow as they enter and leave each carriage. When I took a photo of the children standing beside the prominent nose of the beast, I could see the driver in his cabin sit up that little bit straighter, his chin held high.
Travelling in standard class on the Shinkansen is like flying first class with British Airways. (I would imagine. I never have.) The seats are huge, the legroom capacious, the cushions comfy. A bride and groom could walk up the aisles. The snack trolley frequently rolls past (though without any decent hot tea…). The approach to each station is heralded by a delightful tinkling excerpt of lift music; on one occasion by a ditty similar to Yankee Doodle. You can’t help smiling nearly the whole time.
Maybe it’s the desire to see people smiling that is the reason for the tinny birdsong piped out of the tannoy speakers at many train stations. The Japanese, with their delightfully serene and meaningfully designed gardens and quiet spaces in the centre of this teeming, concrete, admittedly utilitarian city, are very aware of the therapeutic benefits of nature, peace, and tranquility. So while they pump cheesy music and garish messages at you from every street corner, they counter this with sudden tastes of sweet, natural sounds in the unlikeliest of places. Stressfully running down the stairs to catch a train, you are greeted on the platform by the trill of a bird and can’t help be reminded of the greater world. It’s quite disarming.
I could have done with some of this disarming, tranquil trilling when I got lost in Shinjuku train station, the world’s busiest. Heading off to the area for a bit of retail therapy, I decided to catch the train one stop from our nearest station. “You could walk,” said husband. “It’s not far. You do know how mad Shinjuku station is, don’t you?”
I don’t know what possessed me to disregard his suggestion. (Of course I know. I’m pig-headedly obstinate.) “I know the area,” I said jauntily. “I’ll just pick an exit and then let Google Maps do the rest.”
I know the area. Three freakin’ weeks we’ve been here, in a city of 13.62million people, and I think I know the area.
Half an hour it took me to escape that station. Half a bloody hour. Well, in truth, I picked an exit, followed about a hundred signs, and emerged on the pavement behind my husband’s office. The opposite side of the station from the one I wanted. I consulted Google Maps, which seemed to suggest I walk through an eight-storey shopping mall, which I tried doing but got lost in there.
I returned to Shinjuku station and started again, only to find myself walking round in circles, eventually attracting the attention of both taxi drivers, who eyed me like hawks, and policemen, who eyed me with suspicion. It was like a nightmare become real, the ceaseless circling of an exitless building, crowded with strange faces. Eventually I spotted a staircase that led up to daylight and raced up it. This time Google Maps pulled its finger out and I managed to find my way to the department store I had been aiming for.
I feel like I really do know the area now, except for Shinjuku station. That will always be an Escher-esque nightmare.
My second or third favourite bestest thing about Japan is the Cup Noodles museum in Yokohama. Seriously, if you are ever in the area you should pop in for a visit. I thought husband was being his usual eccentric self when he suggested it. As it was, I walked round it oohing and ahhing, pointing and squealing like a child. The Japanese really do know how to do modern celebrations of stuff.
So this was the story of Momofuku Ando, inventor of the instant ramen noodle – obviously we know them as Pot Noodles in the UK. Old Momo was apparently something of a crazy professor-type entrepreneur, with a slew of failed ideas before he came up with this one which hit the big time. The museum takes you through Momo’s philosophy, reveals his inspirations and engages the visitor in some bonkers fun interactive exhibits, including the Cup Noodles factory, where you can make your own noodles, and then decorate your Cup and fill it with your very own Cup Noodles ingredients.
I have rarely had such good fun as a family. Go. See it. Do it. Eat the noodles for dinner. As Momo himself said, “Never give up!”