Saturday, April 18, 2009

Transport in Japan

It's hard to be fully prepared for the east-meets-west experience of Japan. You can read about it but it's so much more.

In this first shot we were sitting in a Costa-like coffee shop in central Tokyo, watching the western-dressed, ethnically mixed passers by, the flashing neon signs mainly in English and the cars driving on the left. We could have been in Regent Street. Go into one of the shops and the quality of the greeting, the tidiness of the place and the appearance of the staff leave you in no doubt this is another world. And that's before anyone opens their mouths to thank you for visiting.

Despite the press suggestion, not everyone wears a face mask in urban Tokyo. About one in twenty do, I'd say. This is less to do with the air quality and more to do with avoiding hay-fever (bad at blossom time). It is also about not spreading germs if you have a cold. It is a courtesy. One of many.

Cars drive on the left because the first batch of Fords delivered to Japan were from the UK not the USA and thus right-hand drive. The sign in this next picture says TOKYO MARATHON 2009.3.22. It is the course Jon and Carys ran.

Public transport is excellent and so there are few cars in the suburbs. Most people get the train or cycle.

Trains are crowded at rush hour and people board them by flinging themselves through closing doors and settling to the floor like retiring stage-divers. Everyone is too polite to criticise and simply shuffles around until there is space. In Japan personal space is smaller than in the UK so two people having a conversation will have their faces much closer together than we are used to. That said, few people talk on trains. Using a mobile phone is frowned upon. Many simply feign sleep. Most passengers had very clean shoes, I noticed. Pride again. Look at how clean this station entrance lobby is.

The announce-ments on an underground train are in crystal-clear American English. For instance 'The next station will be Oji the doors on the right hand side of the train will open.' A computer display over each door tells you the names of the next seven stations or so and the exact time of arrival.

Trains are very punctual and stop exactly so that the doors are alongside platform-marked boarding places. At one point we boarded the 1232 from Kyoto to Tokyo in error when we should have caught the 1229. We were asked, politely, to leave it at the next station and board the correct train. This meant waiting at a station 250 miles down the track for 12 minutes while the slightly slower train we should have boarded caught up with us. Two trains going one 400 mile journey at slightly different paces leaving within three minutes of each other. Both pretty full. Journey time, including change, was 2 hours 45 minutes. Brilliant.

At the mainline stations, armies of immaculately-uniformed cleaning staff come on board and take away litter. At the front of one of the underground trains for one journey I noticed through the glass panelling of the cab that it was incredibly clean and tidy and the driver wore white gloves. No half-eaten pasty or rolled up Sun here.

There was an amazing contrast between the efficiency and tidiness of Narita Airport and Heathrow. On the outward journey our plane failed a security check because a can of drink was found which had not been brought on board by any of the passengers. We all had to disembark again. Delay of one hour and a half. Despite this the service at Narita was perfect. Baggage handlers and maintenance staff were positioned in line at various points around the plane's final resting place to get on with their work. We taxied straight into position despite arriving at a non-scheduled time. A long queue for passport checks was dealt with efficiently and fairly - no guessing which queue would go down quickest here. We were in a single queue at the end of which we were escorted personally to the next free position of six or seven. We were finger-printed and photographed and our bags were on the carousel waiting for us by the time we reached it.

Returning to Heathrow we left Narita on time but on arrival had to wait because our stand wasn't free. The queue for passport control was unfair, the checker chewed gum at us (this would appear very rude to a Japanese visitor), the carpets were held together with tape and a coach driver called Scott on the Heathrow to Reading shuttle was extraordinarily rude to a bunch of Americans (first experience of the country? Sorry guys) and then drove like an idiot.

As a contrast to long-haul flights and bullet trains one touristy thing to be done, especially by the natives, is to be made up like a geisha and pulled through the streets on a rickshaw. These two girls in Kyoto were clearly having a ball doing so.

And when you finally shuffle off this mortal eastern coil? Here's the hearse. Some style.

We probably walked more miles in our eleven days than we usually do but they had a zen-like quality as we observed our surroundings. Buses were pretty good too.

Back in the UK a train manager on the reading to Bristol service took some time out to show two bored children a card trick, then phoned ahead on behalf of a stressed customer to find out the platform number for the connection they were going to find it tight to make. We spoke to strangers on the train. It felt good to be home.

By the way there is a lot of Siberia. I looked out every half hour for ten hours and it was still there.

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