Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Deep Japan

I'm writing this while rolling under the Tsugaru channel on Japan Railway Hokkaido's Super Hakucho ('Super Swan'), en route to Hakodate. We're in the Seikan Tunnel, 53.85 km (33.46 miles) long, 240 m (787 ft) below mean sea level, hence my title, "Deep Japan".

There are several reasons why I've come to Japan. The largest concentration of humanity in the world is the Tokyo-Kawasaki-Yokohama conurbation. The total land area is about the size of California, but only one fifth of the land is flat enough to farm - the rest is mountainous. The countryside is really beautiful, deeply revered, and lovingly cared for. It's the second largest economy in the world, and the standard of living compares well with that of other indistrialized nations. These folks must know something about sustainability.

The Japanese also have remarkable rail service, and I'm convinced this is a big part of their secret. This Seikan tunnel is only one of many remarkable feats. We all know the Japanese had the first truly high-speed rail service, the Shinkansen "bullet trains" that entered service between Tokyo and Osaka in 1964. The train I'm on now is not a Shinkansen, just a "limited express" running between two provincial cities. It's still fast, and incredibly quiet.
I've been in Japan now for two full days and have ridden on several electric multiple-unit trains, two Shinkansens, a diesel multiple-unit train, and a steam-hauled excursion train. Every one of these has been on time, to the minute. Every one has been clean and staffed by friendly, courteous, helpful people.

Japan also has at least twenty private passenger railways. All suburbs of major cities are served by railways, and all the major cities have more than one railway company serving them. Thousands of tiny towns are served by passenger rail.
All cities and towns have bus service. Many medium-size cities still have streetcars running, though unlike Europe these mainly run "antique" streetcars. Although there are lots of automobiles, they are not necessary, since public transportation, walking, and bicycling are available and fostered everywhere.

I spent last night and this morning in the city of Sendai, which is two hours north of Tokyo by shinkansen, and about the size of Detroit (1,028,214 in 2005). The downtown area is centered around the railway station, which has Shinkansen service, several local rail lines, a city subway line, and many bus lines. Our hotel and several large stores are connected with the station complex by an elegant elevated walkway. There is a shopping arcade that totals six blocks in length. The buildings are densely clustered throughout the city and high rise buildings are common, but there are several large parks (including a ruined castle). It's a city I'd enjoy living in.

OK. This blog entry is long enough. More about Japan later.


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