Photo/IllutrationJapan National Railways officials take part in a ceremony at Tokyo Station on Oct. 1, 1964, to mark the start of Shinkansen (bullet train) service. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Even to this day, the image I immediately associate with the Shinkansen (bullet train) is still the distinctively round, flat "bulbous nose" of the 0 series.

After serving the Tokyo-Osaka-Hakata route for 44 years, the 0s retired at the end of November 2008--already 10 years ago.

When the Shinkansen service started in 1964, a newspaper article gave the train an unexpectedly flattering description, calling it "streamlined" and likening it to "a handsome man with a well-defined, shapely nose."

"The streamlined design was hailed as revolutionary at the time, as all trains were boxy and angular until then," explained Kuniaki Yamada, 71, a retired West Japan Railway Co. (JR West) worker.

While Yamada was an engineer with the now-defunct Japan National Railways (JNR), he was tasked with developing new bullet trains that would replace their conventional counterparts.

Nicknamed "Yume no Chotokkyu" (Dream super-express), the 0 series, however, was not without bothersome flaws for engineers because of its high speed.

One was that passengers invariably experienced ear discomfort when the train entered a long tunnel. The cause was a sudden change in air pressure, and it was dealt with by improving the cars' airtightness.

Another was the often-heavy snowfall in the Sekigahara area of Gifu Prefecture. Chunks of ice, formed on the train's undercarriage, scraped and scattered gravel on the tracks, and the flying gravel pelted homes along the route.

As snow that has become icy can also cause car breakdowns, every train pulling into the local station was met by a big team of attendants, who would scrape the snow off with sticks. A snow-melting sprinkler system was also installed nearby.

I was recently reunited with a 0-series train at the Kyoto Railway Museum.

Seen from the front, the train's "face" appeared much gentler than how I remembered it. Inside the train, the familiar shape of the windows and the narrow, hard seats filled me with nostalgia.

Fond memories came rushing back of my travel on the Kodama with my grandparents, and of the Hikari I rode on the day before my university entrance exam.

As someone born and raised during the Showa Era (1926-1989), I have especially strong feelings of nostalgia for the 0 series.

A poem by Tetsuko Miyano goes as follows, "Shinkansen depot/ Where tired cars sleep/ After being spurred to run faster."

Having contributed to Japan during its era of rapid economic growth by running itself ragged, this long-distance runner now seems to be enjoying its peaceful post-retirement life.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 29

* * *

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.