Header image for That Shinkansen Whoosh

My Walking Peoples —

What day is it? Honestly, I didn’t even know a Monday had passed until this morning when I thought: Wait? Has Monday happened? I am living only in space, time means nothing anymore. I know only kilometers and terrain and projected elevation gain and the next inn to get to. Days of the week, holidays, weekdays, weekends — all have evaporated in the wake of steps. How many steps tomorrow? Are my feet properly iced?

And so, here is this week’s Ridgeline, a few days late and few hundred kilometers later.

If you’ve been following my SMS adventure, you’ll know that I recently emerged from the glorious Kiso Valley. Out of the valley, into pachinko row. Rows of pachinko parlors, walking alongside highways, ever closing in on Kyoto.

In fact! Tomorrow I arrive at Kyoto. It’s not even surreal anymore, arrival by foot — as it turns out steps add up, and if you throw enough of them down on the ground, they get you places. Even far away places. And so, just like that, the world turns and Kyoto appears.

The pachinko parlors faded about two days ago and a nice string of rice farms and well-kept villages have taken their place. And alongside this scene — the tiled roofs, the flooded paddies — runs the Shinkansen tracks. And those Shinkansen rumble the world something magical.

I’ve been reading a lot on this walk. One book I’ve been blowing through is Sam Anderson’s brilliant Boomtown. It’s about two topics I couldn’t care less about: basketball and Oklahoma City. Which is a testament to Sam’s amazingness. I am now very into basketball and Oklahoma. Well, sort of. Enough to get through a substantial book.

The book covers the founding “land run” from which Oklahoma City (or Oklahoma Station as it was technically called its first few decades) was shanked into existence. There are all these little moments of the city becoming more and more “real” or “official” and streets and trains and banks and capital status all play into that. But just listen to how Oklahoma City was made:

Oklahoma City was born in an event called, with extreme dramatic understatement, the Land Run. The Land Run should be called something like “Chaos Explosion Apocalypse Town” or “Reckoning of the DoomSettlers: Clusterfuck on the Prairie.” It should be one of the major events in American history — dramatizations of it should be projected onto IMAX screens with 3-D explosions, in endless loops, forever. Because the Land Run was, even by the standards of America, absurd. It was a very bad idea, executed very badly. It would be hard to think of a worse way to start a city. Harper’s Weekly, which had a reporter on the ground, called it “one of the most bizarre and chaotic episodes of town founding in world history.”

Everything I’ve been walking by has been around for ages. When Oklahoma City was founded in the cageless Thunderdome of the Land Run, these villages I’m walking through had already seen millions of walkers walk through them.

Which means: The Shinkansen sticks out. How long do you think the Shinkansen has been around for? It feels like … not that many years? Twenty years? Thirty? I mean, it just feels contemporary. Even the name — “bullet train” — is oddly fresh. And they keep updating the cars into ever more sleek tubes that look like they belong on massive space stations orbiting Venus. But the Shinkansen is pretty damn old in modern technological time. It’s over fifty years old. First launched in 1964 in tandem with the Tokyo Olympics. Back when we still hadn’t even landed on the moon. When computers were the size of warehouses. When Oklahoma City was still, basically, seriously Jim Crowed.

As I walk through these rice paddies — as I was this morning — seeing, hearing, and feeling the thing whoosh by, I can’t help but wonder how these towns felt. If they felt like they had arrived. Had achieved some next level of townness.

The Shinkansen hubs instantly became more important than they were the day before the Shinkansen opened. September 30, 1964? Maibara was just Maibara. October 1st? It was Maibara, Shinkansen stop.

And these fly-by towns, do they feel left behind? Does that noise drive the farmers insane? Or does it fill them with pride of having the future right here, right in their back yards?

But here’s the twist: The Shinkansen doesn’t really generate a noise. It’s more a presence. A kind of wonderful presence, the Shinkansen. Most definitely in the category of whoosh. Not like the sonic booms that were being tested on Oklahoma City:

The FAA wanted to study everything: underpressure, overpressure, pounds per square foot, boom signature, superbooms. It wanted to push people’s tolerance to the limit. The Saturday Review published a partial list of residents’ complaints that sounded like an incoherent nightmare: “a schoolroom ceiling lamp had dropped and knocked a boy out of class for an hour…plaster from a bedroom ceiling had cut a three-inch gash in a sleeping woman’s head…flocks of chickens had been crazed into erratic flight with considerable loss of egg yield and some loss of life.”

In the end, the tests stopped, OKC wasn’t the supersonic flight center of the world, and that magical new technology never made it further than the Concorde and the Atlantic Ocean.

But the Shinkansen made it. Cutting Osaka to Tokyo train times from 6 hours 40 minutes, to 4 hours in 1964. And now, today, to 2 hours 25 minutes. And did the noise craze the nearby inhabitants? A little bit, because a lot of time and money these past fifty years has been spent on noise reduction:

Rolling noise was then significantly reduced thanks to the application of rail grinding. In addition, sparking noise was also virtually eliminated by connecting multiple pantographs with extra-high voltage bus line wiring and thereby preventing contact breaks. It also made it possible to reduce the number of pantographs required.

As a result, the contribution of the remaining aerodynamic noise from vehicle upper bodies including pantographs became prominent in 1991. Since then measures to counter aerodynamic noise, which is highly dependent on train speed, have been indispensable. These include surface smoothing to reduce vehicle aerodynamic noise and the mitigation of such noise from current collectors, through the adoption of low-noise pantographs and insulator covers, which were introduced in 1999.

So that presence I’m hearing/feeling as I walk is one of tremendous refinement and minimization. It’s a design element.

Sean McDonald interviewed me for MCD Books’ newsletter and the Shinkansen came up. He asked: How do you feel about the Shinkansen now?

This was meant to be a joke. Since I had just walked the length of the Shinkansen. But I was typing through half-opened lids, a full day of walking behind me. And I had been feeling that damn thing all day. And so he got this answer:

When the trains shoot by they have a total resonance, a primal, birth-of-the-universe vibratory overtone. I’ve listened to more than 200 of them now. They just keep whooshing by. They’re like womb-makers. Suddenly everything is back in the womb. Everything rumbles — the air, the land. But very softly. It feels nice. Womb, bobbing consciousness.

I love the whoosh. (I suspect it may be a little full-world ASMR.)

Kiso Valley became Pachinko Row became Shinkansen Alley. And the walk continues. Kyoto tomorrow and then down south to the mountains of the Kii Peninsula. Thanks, as always, for hanging with me.

Until next week (if I can remember when Monday is),

Your gentle weekly reminder: This newsletter is made possible by members of SPECIAL PROJECTS. If you’re enjoying it, consider joining. Thanks.

Fellow Walkers

“I’m the product of a happy life in New Zealand with two loving parents and an annoying-at-first-but-then-much-loved younger sister, punctuated by travel in England, France and India and the loss of my mother when I was in my early 20s, which changed me immeasurably in so many ways, and culminating here, still a work in progress, with a partner of 22 years, and two lovely little kids.”

“Grew up in a city of 100 thousand souls. Moved to a town of a few thousand. Now living in a village of a few dozen. Slowing retreating from society. And embracing nature more and more in the process.”

“Talking aloud during those walks created a place of solace where all the bullshit fell away and I slowly found way to comfort myself through casting my words out like seeds to the prairie grass and trees. Slowly, good things like happiness, peace, and understanding began to grow. One thing that I’ve learned from my many walks is, in enormity of the universe above and the wide world wrapped around me, my emotions are small and most of my troubles are insignificant. Nature has a way to show the world as it really is.”

“I never really recovered from watching my mother pass away when I was fifteen, but the fifteen years since have been a constant struggle to walk it off.”

(“Fellow Walkers” are short bios of the other folks subscribed to this newsletter. In Ridgeline 001 I asked: “What shell were you torn from?” and got hundreds of responses. We’re working our way through them over the year. You’re an amazing, diverse crew. Grateful to be walking with you all. Feel free to send one in if you haven’t already.)


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(A weekly letter on walking in Japan)