Last week Japan’s national dailies and TV news anchors worked themselves into a frenzy over a train. To be fair it was a new Shinkansen. This handsome rolling stock, with its blue-and-bronze stripes, will make the 450km trip between Tokyo and Kanazawa go by a lot quicker.
It is a big deal for obvious reasons: commerce, tourism and the proof that high-speed rail (Japan’s network, built over a half century, extends 2,600km) can still make a difference. Just a few days ago the journey would have taken you four hours by train – that is, if you were lucky with your transfers. A flight might have been marginally faster. On Saturday, the Hokuriku Shinkansen became the more attractive option.
From Tokyo you can now be in Toyama in two hours and in Kanazawa less than half an hour after that. These are two cities that, unless you really needed to go, you probably would not have made the effort to get to. Maybe you will now that two of the country’s biggest railway companies have ponied up roughly €14bn for new tracks and train cars. Think of all the time you will have saved.
A new Shinkansen route is not something that gets done overnight. Building the Hokuriku line took a decade; planning it took much longer. Back in the early 1970s the government decided to move ahead with plans as a way of skirting disaster, literally: if a massive earthquake or something else were to disrupt train services along Japan’s Pacific coast, the main business corridor, there would still be a backdoor route to get from Tokyo to Osaka, though it will be some time before that work is finished.
As disaster-contingency plans go this was never going to be a bargain. So was the spending justified? It will be years, maybe even decades, before anyone has enough data to make a case one way or the other. But Kiyotaka Isono would be able to give you an answer. He was a fifth-grader when he first heard that the Shinkansen would be coming to Toyama, his hometown. This past Saturday the 52-year-old was with his wife Taeko at Tokyo Station to see the very first Hokuriku Shinkansen train arrive just after 06.00 and then depart a few minutes later. He had been up hours before dawn but said he had been waiting for this moment for more than four decades.
Thanks to the new Shinkansen, Kiyotaka can now hop on a train and go home for just a day, which wasn't possible before. It's hard to imagine though that convenience was the reason for the tears that streamed down his face as the train pulled into the station. There must have been something romantic about the possibility that the next time he’d be taking the Shinkansen to go home.
Kenji Hall is Monocle’s Asia editor at large.