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EAST MEETS WEST/ Fast track: Overnight, bullet trains bridged the cultural gap between eastern and western Japan.
The Asahi Shimbun

`Airplanes are sometimes 20 to 30 minutes late, but you don't have to worry about the Shinkansen.' MANAGER For Osaka-based comedian Tomonori Jinnai, a frequent traveler to Tokyo

Editor's note: This is the first of two articles marking the 40th anniversary of the introduction of the high-speed Shinkansen network in October 1964, just in time for the Tokyo Olympic Games.

What a long, fast trip it has been. And what a difference it has made to the way we travel.

Yes, Shinkansen bullet train services have been with us for 40 years already.

Now, the service is taken for granted. But four decades ago, those sleek rides transformed a sleepy yet industrious Japan from a land divided by regional and cultural differences to a nation of speedsters zipping to and fro on one of the globe's most punctual and reliable high-speed train systems.

When bullet trains made their debut on the Tokaido Shinkansen Line connecting Tokyo and Shin-Osaka, they were considered a technological marvel that much of the world wanted to emulate. The Shinkansen was a symbol of a new Japan. Yet, strangely enough, only Taiwan has imported Shinkansen technology. Operations there are scheduled to start next year.

For years, too, there wasn't much difference in price between bullet train runs and domestic air travel.

When the 0-series Hikari Shinkansen was launched on Oct. 1, 1964, it was called the ``Dream Super Express.'' Its snub-nosed, long white trains covered the 515 kilometers between Tokyo and Osaka in just four hours, traveling at speeds of up to 210 kph. The following year, that time was shortened to three hours and 10 minutes.

With the 1992 introduction of the 300-series Nozomi, which tears along at a top speed of 270 kph, the travel time was cut to an unheard of 2 hours.

There are plenty more runs now, too.

Initially, only one Hikari express and one Kodama, which makes more stops, ran each hour. Since autumn 2003, 12 trains run per hour in peak times, including seven super-fast Nozomi trains. That's a frequency that rivals a subway schedule.

It's a popular ride: A total 130 million passengers now travel on the super-dependable Shinkansen annually.

They know they will be on time. In fiscal 2003, the average delay per run on the Tokaido Shinkansen line was a mere 10 seconds-an improvement that makes Shinkansen operators beam with pride. From fiscal 1972 to 1986, the last 15 years of operation by the now-privatized Japanese National Railways (JNR), the average delay was three minutes.

The Shinkansen arguably leads the world in prompt service. In comparison, the French TGV cross-country service does not even begin to consider services delayed until trains are 14 minutes late.

Indispensable to all Shinkansen drivers is their timetable, which lists the exact times trains must arrive at, depart from or pass by each station-marked down to a level of 15 seconds.

Operators must keep a beady eye on the ticking clock, noting to the second when a certain spot is passed and comparing it to their timetable. Minute speed adjustments are made accordingly to ensure prompt arrival at stations.

This takes a bit of brainy calculation: Say a train is scheduled to reach the next station in six minutes and still has 20 kilometers left to go. How fast should it travel?

A driver will calculate the train would need to run at 200 kph.

Although a high-tech automated system to adjust speeds to meet the schedule was introduced with the Nozomi bullets in 1992, drivers must still rely on their own calculations because the device does not take into consideration the effect of rain, snow, tunnels and slopes.

For one particular group of people, punctuality is no laughing matter. These passengers are entertainers working for Osaka-based Yoshimoto Kogyo Co., whose comedians are nationally renowned.

Tomonori Jinnai, 30, a Yoshimoto comedian, rides the Shinkansen regularly. Early one recent Thursday afternoon, he hopped onboard a Nozomi at Shin-Osaka Station after appearing on a TV show in Osaka that morning. He was to appear on stage in Tokyo and tape several TV appearances before returning to Osaka in time for a Sunday night program.

For entertainers, missing a cue could spell the end of their careers.

``Airplanes are sometimes 20 to 30 minutes late, but you don't have to worry about the Shinkansen,'' said Jinnai's manager.

Yoshimoto provided a list of about 100 of its entertainers who regularly ride the Shinkansen, complete with their preferred seats.

Jinnai, for instance, chooses window seats because he finds them comfortable for napping.

Bringing Kansai brand humor to Tokyo-and thus to network television-is just one way the Shinkansen has narrowed the gap between the two rival cultural centers.

Prevalent opinion once held that comedians and programs from Osaka would never make it in Tokyo. But Jinnai now sees no difference between the laughs he gets in either metropolis using the same jokes.

The same goes for consumer trends.

Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living (HILL) regularly conducts surveys of 2,000 men and women in the two areas. In a 2000 survey, it found that people in Tokyo and its surrounding prefectures and in the Osaka-Kobe area gave similar answers for about 80 percent of a total 1,231 questions covering lifestyles and values.

``Advances in Shinkansen transportation have increased exchanges between the nation's east and west, which means people now influence each other regardless of distance,'' said Ryuichiro Hara, a senior researcher at HILL.

Hara also noted that when he worked in Osaka in the early 1990s, he thought Tokyoites would never take to the colorful, flashy clothing worn by young people in the Kansai city. It had been long accepted that Tokyo fashion tastes were for subdued colors and patterns, where Osaka's were bold and glittery. But eight years ago, he was surprised to see kids in garish attire on the streets of Tokyo's trend-setting Shibuya district.

This fall, many fashion shops that started out in Kansai opened outlets in the capital's Shibuya and Shinjuku shopping havens.(IHT/Asahi: October 15,2004) (10/15)


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