Faster than a speeding bullet
There are Strauss waltzes playing over the public address system and announcements are in Japanese, English and Mandarin with merry jingle-jangles of bells as railway stations are approached. This means a lot of taped talking as stops are frequent on the Kintetsu rail route between Nagoya and Kashikojima.
Welcome aboard the Ise Shima Liner, a train with the feel of a holiday on wheels as it rattles at a stately clip south towards the Ise Shima peninsula, home to forested walks, sacred shrines, lovely beaches and boat-filled bays. The conductor, as is the way in Japan, bows deeply before entering a carriage and apologises for his intrusions. The female announcer doing the English commentary tells us the name of the next station, the one beyond, and the official railway numbers of all. As every syllable is pronounced in the Japanese language and diphthongs are unheard of, her enunciation is precise, with an almost Welsh lilt to close her sentences. All pretty mesmerising, really, after my overnight flight from Australia.
The urban sprawl of Nagoya gives way to conurbations of flat-fronted houses with upturned temple-like eaves and pots of bonsai on steps and ledges. Soon the train is curtained with green as we pass close to stands of firs and ferny glades. Mountains are smudged blue against the horizon and wild grass grows between the tracks. Some stations, such as Shima Shimmei, have but one central platform and no infrastructure. Toba is a busy, grand entry point to attractions including a popular aquarium and Mikimoto Island, which celebrates all things to do with cultured pearls. Many settlements take the prefix of shima, meaning island, and excitement grows among fellow passengers as we near the end of the line. Most are wearing sunhats and have brought bundles of food to pass around and flasks of green tea. I gratefully accept a sandwich from a lad of about eight who, pressed by his mother, asks me, “Who are you?” Seeing my puzzled look, he blushes madly and tries again. “How are you?” I rely that I am very well indeed, arigato gozaimasu.
It is a slow but relaxing journey and one that is at odds with my other train trips in Japan last month. From Tokyo to Nagoya and Kyoto and return I am zipped by a series of sleek, rocket-nosed Hikari Shinkansen, which is not the fastest of the bullet train services, but goes at the lightning pace of 270km/h. The later generation of Nozomi Shinkansen whoosh along at up to 320km/h and have helmet-like heads, like Star Wars stormtroopers. Shinkansen connect the islands of Japan, including by sea bridges and, since 2016, via the Seikan underwater tunnel from the north tip of Honshu to Hakodate in Hokkaido.
Meantime, tests on the new generation of Chuo Shinkansen magnetic levitation trains scheduled to run on Japanese railways by 2027 suggest speeds of about 505km/h, the world’s fastest. The journey between Tokyo and Nagoya would take only about 40 minutes, less than half the present time. Crikey, hold on to your picnic boxes and holiday hats.