Some things in life don't come around twice. So, when it does grab it with both hands.
As a young boy growing up in a small market town in the North of England, he would never have thought it possible that this kind of opportunity would come his way.
He remembered his first memorable train journey which had taken him from the northern city of York to Llandudno, North Wales. It had been a slow journey via steam train, but the breathtaking architecture of the station built with colossal amounts of steel and glass all beautifully and intricately brought together along with the Mr.Whippy ’99 ice cream with flake by the seaside had placed this high on the list of childhood memorabilia.
Then there was the slightly faster train, the intercity 125 to London Kings Cross, another magnificent building. He had taken this train only a couple of times over the course of his childhood as part of our family days out. Those were special trips, as his family did not have a lot of money.
It was on one of those North to South trips that he had enjoyed his first taste of McDonalds. There as a small boy overwhelmed by the size, loudness and generally hustle and bustle of Piccadilly Circus, walking into an effervescent McD’s packed with tourists and families alike noisily eating their Big Mac and fries.
“What was a Big Mac?”
“These French fries are not really chips!”
“Why does this cucumber taste so different?”
Culture shock in your own motherland. The North-South divide topic is one that can still fill a “Landlord, 2 Pints of your Best Bitter please” drinking session on a rainy afternoon by the fire in his local.
Later in life, he’d work for a number of years at one of the most famous institutions of England, maybe even the world. He had proudly stood on the yellow line at the edge of platform, PA in hand, wearing a high visibility red and blue jacket and kindly but authoritatively told all and sundry to “Mind the Gap”; “Please move right down inside the cars” and “This train is ready to depart, mind the closing doors.”
So, many years later when the words “Would you like…..Japan….Bullet train?” were uttered in the same sentence then, of course, his mind boggled as he tried to absorb the enormity of the invitation he had received.
Did things like this really happen to people like me?” he questioned himself. “There must be a catch.”
Ultimately if not predictively the reply was “Yes…are you sure…that would be amazing.”
As the day drew closer and preparations were in full flow grown men, his friends, and associates were beginning to return to their youth and would salivate over the opportunity to take a bullet.
“I would take a bullet for you”
“I would take a bullet every day for you.”
Of course, they were definitely not offering to give their life on his behalf, but would do anything to swap seats. Travelling on the Hokkaido Shinkansen train from Hakodate to Tokyo was only possible if you had a reserved ticket.
He remembered watching the original version of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. He’d read the book too, many times. He was now having his own “golden ticket” moment. Rather than being invited to Mr Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory instead, he was preparing for a 4 hour and 9-minute journey, at the speeds of up to 320km to effortlessly traverse what is about 863km.
Over the course of growing up from teenager to an adult, he had experienced many disappointments. So, he had learnt, sometimes to his own detriment to not have too high expectations. He was never really one of those people who would get so excited that it would interrupt his sleep or move him to start every sentence with Japan or Bullet. Yet, he was emotionally intelligent enough to perceive that this wasn’t a small thing. It was a memory, an experience that would be glued into his “life scrapbook”.
His anticipation had been heightened since his arrival in Japan. When you arrive in Heathrow it isn’t long until you see a picture of the Houses of Parliment, Buckingham Palace. You come through immigration in the Charles de Gaulle airport and you’re welcomed by posters of the Eiffel Tower, or breathtaking displays promoting the beauty of the Dordogne. JFK paired with Empire States, Times Square and Central Park goes without saying. So, upon his arrival in the land of the rising sun, he had been greeted with large posters of a ‘turquoise with pink streak’ thing of beauty. The train’s name was Hayabusa.
Hayabusa was different to what he’d had in his mind. He thought the bullet was a “white” one. As it flew through the middle of the Hokkaido mountains, sakura and silver birch trees, he imagined it would resemble that of a real bullet fired out of a pistol in an early morning duel like on Bonanza; fighting over the bestness of the Eurostar or the “Bullet”.
The originally “white” now turned ‘turquoise with a pink streak’ bullet penetrated the heart of his opponent and chastened any egotistical or ‘higher than your station’ ideas that the Waterloo to Paris choo-choo train was better.
From his visit thus far, turquoise seemed to be the colour chosen to represent all that’s good in the Japanese transport system. The taxis are also turquoise, cheaper than the turquoise buses and come with automatic doors. Well, not quite automatic but the driver pushes a button to both close and open the rear left-hand side door. Now, he finds himself repeating those famous words that he would utter whilst standing on those warm, sleep inducing platforms announcing “Mind the closing doors.”
He smiles to himself as he thinks of the Japanese Transport System setting up a department that only deals with “Fingers trapped in door’s” claims. They must have a special insurance policy for these likeliest of events occurring.
The previous night he had taken the cable car from Hakodate to the top of Hakodate mountain. From there he could see just below, the depot with the other turquoise every day trains bedded down for the night.
“Those trains will always wish to be as famous as the “bullet”; they’re honoured to be wearing the same uniform but they know their “station”.”He chuckled to himself at his play on words.
As the train pulled into the Hakodate station the aesthetics of the train left him a little unfulfilled. It wasn’t as pleasing to the eye as he had wished for. He had allowed him to expect, want to be blown away like the time you “catch the eye of the beautiful girl” and you know immediately you’ll grow old together.
However, he rallied the onset of disappointment, so not to start this relationship off with a bad first impression. He quickly analogized that the front of the train was more like a dog hound with its nose to the floor, swiftly and decisively making his way through the woodlands, mountain ranges, rivers and suburban areas. It’s nose trained to pick up the scent and stay on it without distraction until completion. Maybe, not as strikingly pleasing to the eye like your beloved childhood sweetheart, nevertheless faithful to the end like any other “man’s best friend.”
As the seconds on the digital clock flashed to ’00’ the hound was released from his kennel and within seconds, he knew that the hound meant business. Hayabusa’s nose pressed to the ground was only interested in one thing: The Seikan Tunnel.
The tunnel would transport him from Hokkaido island to the main island. He was reading in the glossy magazine that every passenger got as they took their “reserved”seats that the Seikan tunnel was about 53km in length. He quickly calculated that they would be under the Tsugaru Straits for about 12 minutes, plunging to depths of 240 metres.
As he stepped off the train at Tokyo he wanted to pat Hayabusa on the side like you would your own dog and give him a treat for being a “good boy.” But, he didn’t.
He was already quite overwhelmed that he had reached Tokyo, another one of those places that had felt far out of reach to a market town northerner. He could tell people that “good things do happen to people like me.”
Yet, the reason he neglected to give his hound the recognition it deserved was because his head had been turned. There on the opposite platform as bold as brass, clear as day was Hayabusa’s great ancestor pulling into the station. He had been “blown away” by the “original white”.