faster than a speeding bullet

Like most good adventures, this one began horrendously early, leaving the house at 5am for a ghostly, headlights-in-fog drive down to Heathrow, for the usual near-interminable queue, brisk frisk, and equally near-interminable departure lounge sprawl. I can’t say I particularly like airports, but I don’t dislike them nearly as virulently as my dad does, and there’s a certain odd appeal to a built-up, permanent establishment designed specifically for fleeting engagements, intended to exploit the largest possible number of people in the briefest window of time. A certain odd, impersonal, viciously expensive, let-the-rest-of-the-world-hang jet-setter appeal. Which isn’t terribly appealing, put like that.

Of the giant awful airline conglomerations, I have to say “Star Alliance” is a much better moniker than “Skyteam”; they both sound like low-budget superhero themed trash, but the first sounds like it’s intended for twelve-year-olds rather than six-year-olds. Oneworld just sounds like a marginal late-nineties telco.

I had a window seat for the first leg out to Charles de Gaulle Airport – a window seat directly above the wing, on a day so overcast one would be forgiven for thinking that the world as we know it was actually the inside of a sphere, so not much of a victory. The brief cross-Channel hop passed without event; halfway through they handed out biscuits and cups of mediocre tea, immediately before a bout of mass-scald-inducing turbulence. What I saw of Charles de Gaulle was significantly more swish, modern and well-groomed than what I saw of Heathrow this jaunt, but no less soulless, and a near-empty people-mover with an American robot voice rolled me over to the next terminal, where I joined a gigantic queue of Japanese people next to a parked Airbus A380.

I would love to tell stories about how much more wonderful this thing was than any other plane, and of its endless luxurious legroom and built-in pool and art gallery, but it was just a normal plane only bigger. The cabin crew were great fun, though, and the in-flight meals the most delicious microwaved vac-formed ersatz-nutrition I’ve ever had. Though my ticket said K, it was actually only the ninth seat in the ten-abreast lower passenger deck (I know they usually pull the letter I from these lists to avoid confusion with 1, but J?), and was again above the wing – no views for me this trip. I was sat between a Japanese bloke about my age who didn’t say anything, and one of the five or so non-Japanese people aboard: an extremely tattooed English chap in his late twenties called Sean who was going to New Guinea to visit his mum and then spend six months in a tattoo parlour learning how they do it on the far side of the world.

Naturally, in an Air France jet flying from Paris to Tokyo, with French crew and almost entirely Japanese passengers, the primary language I heard spoken was English. The flight was twelve hours, and sat in the middle in a narrow seat with two angle settings (upright and bolt upright) I had no chance of sleeping, so I watched a couple of films I’d meant to catch up on – The Dark Knight Returns, disappointing incoherent nonsense by people who don’t understand how suspension bridges work, and Bourne Legacy, which felt like an excellent season finale to a high-concept miniseries, but weirdly lost as a film. Then I rewatched Fight Club, which with its constant mentions of the subtle potential horrors of air travel and trippy, insomnia-raddled plot, is the perfect movie to watch on a plane after twenty hours without sleep. At one point we got an announcement that a passenger had been taken ill, and for any doctor aboard to contact cabin crew, but I heard no more about that.

Narita Airport was damn near empty, and I needn’t have sprinted to the front of customs: my bag with its Firewater album-freebie luggage tag was one of the first onto the carousel, and after a brief, polite grilling from a mask-wearing customs lady in a spick and span uniform I was free to go. The only thing which had me doubt whether I’d make my train was the train company itself: in the JR East office, beneath a swarm of posters advertising various parts of Japan and how great the Japanese rail system was, two utterly languid clerks took their sweet time fixing me up with the pass I’d paid £140 for in advance. But I got it eventually, and hopped aboard the Narita Express, a terribly futuristic-feeling train with big comfy seats and combination-lock loops on the baggage racks to appease the paranoid traveller (I didn’t bother.)

The first thing I noticed on the one-hour trip into Tokyo was how hilly everything was around Narita. Not rolling hills like the Cotswolds, or even steep hills like Bristol, where the scenery goes up and up and up, pauses for measured consideration, then goes down and down and down; the landscape here bounces up and down excitedly with wild abandon, and the roads and buildings pretty much have to deal with it. But the second thing I noticed was how weirdly like Britain it felt. Obviously, everything seems more English on a grey drizzly day, and railway embankments are pretty similar the world over, but to my sleep-deprived eye the differences were subtle rather than overwhelming. The flora is yellow-shifted, and if you look closely the leaves are all strange shapes and what you thought was willow was bamboo, but the balance of trees to buildings, of houses to tall apartment blocks is right, the general aesthetic feel of the landscape – it was surprisingly like home.

Tokyo Station just felt like every other giant rail hub I’ve ever been to, except full of weird alien-looking shinkansen and people in peaked caps. The platform is fenced off with specific gaps to alight, and on the platform painted lines delineate the correct areas to queue, which people scrupulously obeyed. Tsubasa 137, my great big JR East train, pulled in and a squad of caretaker types in red fleeces jumped aboard to tidy up and rotate all the seats (which are reversible, mounted on gimbals in pairs).

A shinkansen feels more like an aeroplane than a train, with folding-down tables, the right sort of padded seats, and that careful space-maximising style of internal ergonomics – but the windows are huge, and there’s masses of legroom. Uniformed conductors bustled up and down regularly, as well as people pushing trolleys of snacks, but nobody checked my ticket. I got a few odd stares from people on platforms looking in, and the little girl on her parents’ lap in the seat behind me was very amused by me (which I think owed less to my non-Japaneseness than to the fact that my head stuck up over the top of the seats).

The skyscraper forests shrank down into seas of two-storey houses, then plains of paddy-fields and broad mountain-lined valleys, and quietly, smoothly, Tsubasa 137 ate up the three hundred kilometres to Tendo.

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