I enjoyed my last good breakfast for a while, monitored the messages about my mom, then checked out of the Mielparque Hotel and rolled my peach-colored suitcase toward the station.
I had figured out that, when searching for a station, I should watch for gusts of salary men in black suits streaming forth at regular intervals and walk in the opposite direction.
Today I was taking a bullet train, or shinkansen, to Nikko. Japan just “revealed” the new Supreme model, which goes 186 miles per hour. I don’t know how fast the one I rode on went, but fast enough that the scenery was a blur.
First I had to figure out the queuing system for boarding. You can reserve seats on the shinakansen but I hadn’t bothered to do that, having been assured by the JR Rail people that this train wouldn’t be crowded, it not being tourist season. The cars were numbered, but how would I know which cars were unreserved? Along the platform about every 10 feet, there were lanes painted on the pavement to indicate where you should line up to board. They were numbered. What did the numbers mean? “1” sounded like it would board first, so I got into a lane marked 1.
The shinakansen arrived, sleek as a space shuttle.
As it slowed to a stop I saw that some cars were marked “unreserved,” and I gave up my space at the head of the line to rush down the track. I didn’t know how long the train stopped at this station—I had seen some trains spend only 30 seconds at the platform before departing.
I was first in the queue for the unreserved car, when a young woman with a giant bag stepped in front of me. Had she not seen me? Was there something about the system I didn’t understand? So far, I had found the Japanese to be polite and devoted to order in the extreme.
“Excuse me,” I said, “There’s a queue.” She appeared not to have heard me as she watched down the platform for her boyfriend, who hurried up to join her. When they spoke I realized they were Chinese.
This would be a theme on the trip, and something I hear about from anyone who has traveled anywhere—that the Chinese do not recognize any system of queuing. It’s survival of the fittest. This explained the women I’d seen walking past long lines at women’s toilets, right to the head of the line. No one had said anything. I had wondered if there were subtle social cues I just didn’t understand which made it okay for some people to bypass the wait and go ahead of everyone who was patiently waiting, including old ladies and pregnant women. But now I knew—they were just Chinese.
I can be a nonconformist in many things, but when it comes to lines I’m a law-and-order person. So I spoke up again, more forcefully.
“Excuse me, there’s a queue—a line,” I said forcefully as I jabbed my finger at the eight people who were now lined up behind me. This time she couldn’t ignore me. She and her boyfriend didn’t look at me but they moved immediately behind me. So they were still barging in, but none of the people behind us, most of whom were probably Japanese, had the temerity to say anything.
I’m sure they were all—Chinese, Japanese—thinking, “Americans are so pushy!” But I was there first, and I was going to get a good seat. I hoped a few of the Japanese were silently cheering me on.
The doors opened silently and a cleaning crew stepped out and lined up in front of us. They must have boarded another car and worked their way down to ours, at shinkansen speed. They were dressed in impeccable pink uniforms and had feathers in their caps. I found these photos of other such crews from a news article.
The crew leader shouted something and they all bowed and smiled at us, then gestured for us to board.
The queue dissolved and a mad scramble ensued as everyone ran for a seat.
Ten seconds later we were off.