Faster Than a Speeding Bullet Train

By Ernie Witham   |   July 21, 2018

Every now and then (daily), a little voice in my head says: “Oh-oh, dude…” 

This time we were on the Shinkansen, the 200-mile-per-hour Japanese bullet train that is so smooth you could probably give yourself an intricate tattoo without risk of injury.


“What are you doing?” Pat asked.

I pulled the tip of the pen out of my palm. “I just had a brilliant thought that I wanted to write down right away, but I couldn’t find any paper.”

“Does the brilliant thought have anything to do with ink poisoning?” 

We were on our way to Kyoto, seated in plush comfortable seats, watching the world pass by in a blur, nary a care in the world. 

That’s when I looked up at the front of our car and noticed two things. One, most of the people on the train were wearing business attire, not Levis. And two, the sliding door between cars opened, the conductor bowed and entered the car. All train employees bowed to the passengers upon leaving and entering the car. 

After bowing, the conductor began checking tickets. First time on any train we had seen that. We had our Japan Rail Passes of course, but no one was holding those up. Instead, they were holding up something that looked like black credit cards. 

“Probably daily commuters,” Pat said.

“All of them?”

My wife always exudes an air of calmness, so I relaxed, and as the man approached, we simply held up our rail passes. He glanced at my splotchy hand, then he took Pat’s rail pass, opened it and pointed at some red type in the middle of the page. I leaned in close enough to read: Transport services and routes NOT covered by this pass.

“This is the express train,” he explained. “You should be on the other Shinkansen.”

I thought about trains in the Old West. In the movies, they used to just throw sidewinders who snuck aboard without a ticket off the train – while it was still moving. Seems like they would always tumble down a hill and roll into some cowboy campsite, where they might be given a cup of rotgut coffee and a plate of hash. If they tossed us off at this speed by the time we stopped tumbling and rolling, we would be a plate of hash.

“What should we do?” Pat asked.

“Hold on to the door handle as long as you can,” I whispered. “And roll toward a hospital if possible.”

But the conductor simply told us to get off at the next stop and get onto the proper Shinkansen. Just like they would have done in New York City, after they took all our money and stepped on my Boston Red Sox cap.

I still half-expected to be met by a couple of Samurai bouncers at the stop, but we made it safely onto the correct train and, in a whoosh, we were in Kyoto – where we caught a shuttle to our hotel. 

After much bowing by the shuttle driver, the entry person, the lobby staff, and the young 90-pounds-at-best lady in a kimono and wooden shoes, who insisted on carrying our bags to the room and explaining how everything worked, we sat down and looked appreciatively at our king-sized hotel bed. 

Our Japanese exchange home had a master bedroom that consisted of two-inch-thick futon mattresses laid directly onto unpadded, non-plush tatami mats on the floor. Took a few minutes that first night to figure out how to get down to bed. It was even harder trying to figure out how to get up in the morning.

“Try rolling onto your stomach, pushing up to your knees, getting one foot beneath you, and standing quickly.”

“Okay, you find the number for a Japanese emergency room.”

The other great thing about our Americanized hotel room was that we had a view of Nijo-jo Castle, built in 1603 on the orders of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Shogun of Tokugawa Shogunate.

“Are we going to visit the castle?” I asked.

“Of course,” Pat said. “I have an entire itinerary for Kyoto. All we have to do is figure out the subway system.”

“One more opportunity to end up in Japanese jail,” the little voice in my head said.


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