After writing a post absolutely excoriating certain aspects of Japanese culture (and rightly so), maybe this is a good time to post about something I really love about Japan.
One of my favorite things to do of late, especially as I’ve been a little ill lately, is to watch YouTube videos of the Japanese rail system. No talking, no narration, just hours of trains going through the Japanese countryside and cityscape.
America really could never make such a system work. It’s simply too big. Even as we’re planning to build a shinkansen-style high speed rail in Texas, even that’s just from Houston to Dallas. Which, I suppose, is about the same distance (give or take) from Tokyo to Nagoya. That gives you an idea of the scale of America – just two cities within Texas are about a third of the distance throughout the entirety of Japan. Japan is a small, dense country. The United States is a very large, sprawling country
So I don’t think to myself “why does Japan get such a comprehensive rail system and we don’t?” I already know the answer. But that doesn’t mean I don’t absolutely love the Japanese rail system.
As a child, I used to be a roadgeek. Still am, to some degree. I would judge a city by two criteria: the size of its downtown, and the complexity of its freeway system. I few up in a city in Ohio that didn’t have much in the way of interesting roads, so I would love to go to places like Detroit or Cleveland that had cool roads and interchanges. The country has changed a lot lately, and we have taken to favoring aesthetics and social concerns over complexity and sheer impressiveness. I understand the reason for that, but something special has been lost. The cities in America just aren’t what they used to be.
Japan’s road and rail system still has some of the aesthetics of American cities that were list decades ago. Dense, narrow roads criscrossing all over each other. Rail stations, one after another, teeming with people. In densely populated areas like Shibuya and Shinjuku, the rail lines go underground, overground, left, right, crossing over and under, expresses, locals and even shinkansen jockeying for position and yet somehow managing to make it work with almost clockwork precision. It’s damned impressive. Here in America we have… Amtrak… and a few light rail and subway lines in cities that don’t even come close to the comprehensiveness of Japan’s rail system.
The sad thing was, at the turn of the 20th century, we were well on our way. We had streetcars and passenger rail systems that were the envy of the world. But auto manufacturers paid cities and states off to remove the rails, and switch to an automobile-based infrastructure. That’s why we have such good roads and such horrible rail.
Something was lost. But not in Japan. There, it’s still going strong.
I don’t know if I’ll ever go to Japan. It’s not looking good for that eventuality. But I can’t imagine not taking a Shinkansen across the country, hopping the enoden or the “romance line”, taking a rail line around Mt. Fuji, or even the nichinan line around the south of Japan. Seems like a fun thing to do.