When the driver of a bullet train momentarily applies the brakes, passengers greet the reduction in speed with a slight, G-force-induced nod of the head, and not much else.
Unless, of course, the passengers in question are trying to break the Guinness World Record for the furthest distance traveled by train in 24 hours.
In that case, their reactions include quickly exchanged glances, anguished looks out the window and, if the braking continues, the burying of heads in Japan Rail train timetables.
Just ask Corey Pedersen and Mike Kim. As it happened, these two young passengers on a Nozomi shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Hakata in the southern island of Kyushu in late August were trying to travel more than 2,842.5 railroad kilometers in 24 hours, thereby bettering a record that has stood since 1992. (The trains must be open to the public and no backtracking is allowed, dictates Guinness.)
The third time their train driver hit the brakes it was preceded by an onboard announcement, which I didn’t have the heart to translate for these good-natured travelers oblivious to the meaning of what was being said.
By that time, they had been traveling nonstop for most of 16 hours — having set off from Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture at 9:30 p.m. the night before. With the exception of one unscheduled stop on the first train up north to Aomori (“I think we hit a squirrel or something,” Kim explained, rather unconvincingly) everything had gone more or less according to plan. The record was within their grasp — all they needed was for the remaining three trains in what was a meticulously planned five-train odyssey to run on time.
Then came the announcement: “Due to torrential rain between Hamamatsu and Mikawa Anjo, all trains on the Tokaido shinkansen line will be stopping indefinitely,” it said, in Japanese.
Coming from the United States via South Korea, where both are currently living, the announcement carried no import to the pair. The train slowly pulling to a halt, of course, did.
“We have 30 minutes to make our next train from Hakata,” said a nervous Pedersen, peering forward down the center aisle as if to urge the shinkansen to surge forward.
Just 20 minutes earlier, as Kanagawa Prefecture zipped by, he had happily explained why he had decided to attempt the record.
“Well, ever since I was young, I was always reading the Guinness Book of Records,” the 24-year-old said. “I kind of stopped in college, and then, a few years ago, I was reading through a copy and I found a record I could maybe better.”
That was the record for the most holes of golf played in a year — an attempt he eventually abandoned because it would cost too much money. (For the “record,” you needed to play about 27 holes per day.) But, Pedersen also had a thing for trains — he’d spent two months traveling by train (and cruise ship) from South Korea the longer western way round to his hometown in Montana — and when he came across the 1992 train record he thought: “That’s 16 years ago, so the trains must have improved by now.”
After investigating locomotives in China, Europe and the United States (“way too slow”), he realized that it would be possible to break the record in Japan — and the use of a JR rail pass would put the total cost at a not inconceivable $600.
Once the route was set, the next task was to make it official. “I was surprised at how much paperwork is required,” said Kim — a 23-year-old work buddy of Pedersen who joined up for the ride because he “likes a challenge, a mission like this.”
Not only did the pair have to get their record attempt approved by Guinness in advance (a process that takes about six weeks), but, along the way, they had to collect sworn witness statements.
Getting somewhat ahead of myself, I asked Pedersen who he would thank in his victory speech — if he bagged the record.
“The guy at the information counter at Kanazawa Station,” he said without hesitation.
“Yeah, we handed him this letter we have in Japanese explaining the attempt and requesting a witness statement,” explained Kim.
“He looked really serious as he read it, and then looked up at us and said, ‘I would be honored. Today is a good day. I’m so glad I was on duty,’ ” Pedersen finished.
After 12 minutes, our train lurched forward as the conductor informed us that the rain had abated.
“Yes!” said Pedersen, exhaling with relief like a Puffing Billy from an earlier age as he put away the timetable.
“As long as we don’t stop again, then everything will be all right. We still have 18 minutes till the connecting train at Hakata,” he said.
Not much inspires confidence like a shinkansen streaking at 270kph through the flat suburbs of Shizuoka Prefecture. I thought I’d ask the world-record-holders -to-be for some tips on long-distance train travel.
“It’s a good chance to catch up on reading,” Kim said. “We’re both reading ‘The House of Leaves’ by Mark Z. Danielewski at the moment. Corey’s three chapters ahead.
“We also downloaded some episodes of ‘Arrested Development’ on the trusty iPod,” he added.
Did they go through any physical training for this?
“We’d practice sitting up straight on the subways in Seoul — feet on the floor, good posture,” Kim laughed.
“Running between trains gets the blood circulating,” added Pedersen.
When I asked them if they knew about the ekiben concept — the boxed lunches offering unique local fare at each train station — their expressions turned blank.
“We had Pringles and M&Ms for breakfast — not the healthiest 24 hours of my life,” Kim said.
“We’re a little too nervous to eat,” explained Pedersen.
Half hoping to distract their attention from the ominously darkening clouds outside, I adopted a more philosophical line of questioning. What is this Guinness thing really about, I inquired? Is it just a vanity trip — getting your name up in lights and all?
“It would be nice to get the record — and to get listed in the book,” Pedersen said, before Kim made a more diplomatic correction.
“It’s the sense of personal accomplishment,” he said.
Pedersen continued: “It’s just very fulfilling. Even if it’s not in the book we can tell our friends about it.
“We could tell girls, too,” he realized, before reconsidering how their train antics might sound to the fair sex. “Actually, maybe we shouldn’t tell girls.”
As it turned out, he didn’t have to decide.
“Oh, no,” said Kim as the train lurched to another unplanned halt. Rain was battering the window now, businessmen were reclining their seats for a snooze and a child pulled out his little computerized game machine. It was as if they knew right away that the train wouldn’t start again for a crucial 66 minutes — so ensuring the demise of their world-record attempt.
As I bade farewell to the disappointed challengers at Nagoya Station, Pedersen assured me they’d be back again sometime for another try.
“I’m sorry you came out all this way,” he said.
“Not at all,” I answered. “I’ll just write the story of a world record that, this time at least, was derailed by Mother Nature.”
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