Riding the Bullet Train into the Future

Riding the Bullet Train into the Future

A great deal can be learned about a country from a single train ride. If the eyes are the window to a person’s soul, then the train is the window to a nation’s heart. The truly remarkable thing about Japan’s train system is that, depending on which train you catch, where you catch it, and where it’s going, you can either find yourself stepping into the future or falling back a few decades.

This is the story of my train ride from Tokyo to Nozawaonsen.

Tokyo, home to 35 million people, is the largest metropolitan area in the world. There are 882 train stations in the city, 282 of which are underground subway stations. The Shinjuku station is the busiest train station in the world, with roughly 3.64 million passengers passing through daily.

Nozawaonsen, on the other hand, has a population just shy of 3,500. It was home to the biathlon event for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, and the village has no internal railway or subway service – only one bus line.

Whilst they might seem worlds apart, in reality, they are separated only by a four-hour long train ride. And what a ride it would be.

My first mode of transport is the Shinkansen (also known as the bullet train). Standing on the platform at Tokyo station, the approaching train looks less like a train and more like a rocket without wings, handcrafted by God himself. It’s glossy finish and perfectly rounded nose is a feat of engineering in itself, but the real genius is its speed – soaring to a top speed of 320km/h, it truly is a machine from the future (much like Tokyo itself).

The inside of the Shinkansen looks just like a set from a Kubrick film. Each cabin is perfectly composed – perfectly lit, each seat perfectly aligned, completely symmetrical. In the few minutes between arrival and departure, a small army of dusting bandits swarm each cabin to ensure everything is cleaned to within an inch of its life – they succeed.

The following couple of hours are truly an eye-opening experience. Between these two cities (which are polar opposites of each other), this train ride joins the dots. Soon after the departure from Tokyo, the skyscraping concrete jungle slowly fades into a remarkable countryside. Forests and fields take the place of banks and shops, and the houses become further and further apart from each other. The houses themselves are remarkable fixtures, true testaments to a nation that adores its heritage. Nearly every house has those famous Japanese curved roofs, just like the temples and shrines for which this country made its name. These houses look as if they’ve been stood in those fields for generations, and I see no reason to doubt otherwise.

But the truth is that these houses in these fields in these towns remain mere footnotes. Footnotes to a country aiming for something bigger, yet in fear of losing its past. These are the people and the towns that got left behind in the quest for the future, a quest that – as long as these houses still stand – can never be won.

Japan’s big cities, with all the people and money, are some of the most forward-moving and innovative places on the planet. But the further away you move from the people and the money, the more towns you pass and dodgy train rides you take, it is easy to wonder if Japan has forgotten its past entirely, or simply turns a blind eye. Soon enough, more houses appear, the towns get bigger, and the Shinkansen arrives at Nagano.

Next stop – the skiing hot spot of Nozawaonsen. Unfortunately, the next train is nowhere near as glamorous as the Shinkansen. It looks like it’s been coated in scrap metal from the local junkyard. On the inside, it doesn’t get much better. The seats look incredibly similar to those on the dodgy school bus everyone hoped wasn’t theirs. Likewise, the curtains running along the windows are almost identical to the ones hanging in my grandma’s kitchen – the same ones that have been hanging there since 1971. What’s more is the squeaking – the unbearable squeaking that becomes the soundtrack to an all-too-long train ride. The Shinkansen was as futuristic as Tokyo and this junker was archaic, much like the town of Nozawaonsen.

Eventually, our rust-bucket of a train rattles into the Nozawaonsen station. It’s a town in the middle of nowhere, situated in a valley surrounded by snow-covered mountains that never end. In Japan, it is pretty standard for entire cities to have a free Wi-Fi network. But in Nozawaonsen, you’re limited to the Wi-Fi in your accommodation. As soon as you leave the warmth of your hotel, you’re effectively cut off from the rest of the world.

The town is small, the roads are narrow, and the shops are cosy, but it has everything you could ever need. In fact, there are some people who spend their entire adult lives in this village (there are few children because there isn’t a school), and the luxury of this cut-off lifestyle is nothing new to them.

One night, searching for somewhere to wet our whistles, we stumbled across an underground bar. Like everywhere else in Nozawaonsen, it was warm and cosy, so we placed our orders and took a seat. It turned out that the bartender was from Australia too (just like us), and was working there as part of a working holiday. We talked about travelling, we talked about Japan, and we talked about home. If you were a nearby eavesdropper, I’m sure you couldn’t tell which one was spoken of more fondly.

These train rides form the perfect metaphor for modern-day Japan, a struggling balance between the past and future; a country reaching for the future with one hand, whilst holding a firm grasp of its history with the other.

Cover by Usamah Khan