Friday, October 01, 2004

Japan Land #5 - Shinkansen

You'd probably search long and high to find someone who dislikes public transportation as much as I do. Riding around on buses and trains in the states (at least in the Midwest) usually means loading up on, at best, a semi-clean vehicle that contains some sort of 50 year old wet wipe stink. If you're lucky, it will be empty, if you're not as lucky, it will be full of business people on their way to work, and if you're even unluckier, you'll be on a crowded Greyhound bus with it's typical load of recent parolees. No matter what your luck level, you'll wind up leaving at some wierd time that's only convenient for hungover hobos.

I'd heard good things about the public transportation system in Japan, but I figured it would be similar to England's: slightly cleaner and more efficient than the U.S. system. I was, however, mildly surprised, the regular trains were cleaner and ran more smoothly than any rail car I'd ever been on. When I got on the Shinkansen (bullet train), it was nothing short of amazing. It's almost impossible to overstate this, but the Shinkansen is the fastest, cleanest, smoothest, and most comfortable ride on the whole friggin' planet (and not too hard on the wallet either). I couldn't help but be jealous.

The Shinkansen pulls into the station.

I threw this jealousy into the same bucket as my love of Japan's many huge shopping areas and copious electronic gadgets: these are things which can only be brought about by Japan's well to do, highly urbanized society. For instance, if I sell a product that maybe five people in 10,000 might be interested in, would it be easier to sell it in a Cleveland storefront where maybe a thousand people go in front of every day, or by a busy Tokyo station where maybe 100,000 people might pass by. In the first case, the product simply won't exist; only in tight, urbanized centers can sufficient market forces be brought to bear to make such nicities possible. I couldn't help but think though: Wouldn't it be cool if even just in Ohio I could hop on a train and go to Cincinnati and be there in two hours, and then take the commuter train for a short trip out to...well, out to where? Even Cincinnati doesn't have the population to make a Shinkansen work, and the outlying areas (with the exception of rush hour) don't have the population to support even bus travel.

However, it's on this note I should bring up another reason why the Japanese trains are so frequently used. Owning and driving a car is expensive in Japan. As well, I got the definite impression that roads are not subsidized nary a lick. When we took the bus from KIX (Osaka) to Tokushima, it was $40 a head and we hit tolls incessantly the whole way out. I learned later that the toll to cross just the (rather large) bridge between the island Tokushima is on and prefecture that Osaka is in, was $30. When we were later taking a train to the Shinkansen station, we went over an absolutely gargantuan bridge that would cost you fifty big ones if you wanted the privilege of crossing it in your car (which you no doubt would have just filled up with $4 a gallon gas).

In this matter then, the rail transportation competes with the road transportation. The market is distorted in the U.S. since rail lines must always compete with essentially free road traffic. The public monopolies established by the government to conduct rail traffic only make matters worse. Of course, road traffic is hardly free (at 40 cents a gallon in Ohio, it's nearly extortion), but I've know of several people who enjoyed hopping in their car and driving to Florida at the spur of the moment. We're spoiled in this sense since, but would Americans go for an all toll solution that competes with free market rails? I'm not holding my breath.

Anyway, it's the 40th anniversary of the Shinkansen, so my hat's off to this fine, fine piece of transportation.


Jill said...

Thanks for the article.. very interesting. As someone who spends a lot of time in Cincinnati traffic, I can appriciate that. Although I doubt I'd want to shell out the big bucks for it. Plus I'm one of those inconsiderate people who absolutely hate having to leave the comfort of their own vehicle. I can't stand public transportation, and very rarely do I even allow others to drive. I'm the D.D. even when no one is drinking! ;)

TrappedinJapan said...

Just for the record I hate the Shinkansen. Not too hard on the pocket book did you say? Have you been to Japan recently!! That stupid thing is expensive. I would much prefer a cheaper, slower, less fancy alternative. That's the trick though. Once they put in a Shinkansen route there are no other cheaper alternatives. The express trains disappear and you are left with two choices- the damn expensive bullet train or the slightly cheaper (but way too expensive for the discomfort suffered) buses. You call those choices! In order to keep that nasty thing running they have to force people to use it by eliminating more reasonable options. Not to mention the fact that it is always uncomfortable. The seats are designed for typical Japanese sized humans (which any more is actually not as typical Japanese as they would like to think) and the temperature is freezing cold in the summer and roasting hot in the winter. Japanese extremes. And let's not even talk about the smoking cars. Then there's Golden Week or anytime a week before or a week after Golden Week for that matter. You know they never stop selling tickets to that thing. So, you could end up paying a hundred dollars or so and standing crammed into the door with someone's luggage up your ass for two or three lovely hours. But, that's just my opinion. Be warned: it's not as good as it seems.