A series of orderly queues form on the platform several minutes before the train is due to depart, each queue corresponding to the carriage numbers stamped on the platform floor. On the train an army of cleaners is seen running from seat to seat, cleaning, polishing and even vacuuming between the seats. They step off the train together, line up and deliver a deep bow to the waiting customers before disappearing into the station building below. The signal is given to board and the queues quickly shuffle on board and find their seats. So begins a journey on the shinkansen (bullet train). By providing a service that is reliable, comfortable and convenient Japan Railways propel millions of people up and down the spine of the country on what is widely considered the best railway system in the world. It is hard to believe that the first bullet trains began service in 1964.


On board the bullet train

Once on the train the quality of the service is just as impressive. A regular trolley service offers food and drinks at similar prices to the convenience stores. The immaculately dressed girl in charge of the trolley (it’s always a girl) bows upon entry to each carriage and again when leaving. The conductor (always a man) does the same. Announcements are always given in English on the shinkansen services and even on some local trains that are rarely used by foreigners.



Punctuality is taken for granted. With train drivers required to explain delays of over a minute and in some cases of over 15 seconds, if your watch suggests a late arrival at your destination it might just be time to get yourself a new watch. The phrases ‘points failures’, ‘signal problems’ and ‘insufficient driver numbers’ do not form part of the Japanese railway vocabulary. When delays do occur (on one journey our line was blocked by a landslide caused by a typhoon) a well-oiled system swings into place and you can rest assured that somehow the staff will get you to where you need to be.  As for the on-board toilet facilities, they are spotlessly clean and even after a six hour journey can be used with none of the dread associated with train loos elsewhere in the world.


Backpacking and Japanese trains

The rail system in Japan is set up well for the rucksack-wielding traveller. Coin lockers are available at every station and the overhead racks on the train are big enough to accommodate all but the most bulky backpacks. When leaving the train you need to have your wits about you as some minor station stops are very brief. Fortunately every station name is printed in English as well as Japanese.



Rail travel in Japan comes at a hefty price and a three hour journey can easily cost in excess of £100. Most visitors to Japan will get good value out of a Japan Rail pass with the cost of a one week pass pretty much the same as a return journey between Tokyo and Kyoto. Two and three week passes are available for those wishing to see more of Japan. You need to plan in advance as these rail passes can only be purchased outside of Japan.  Rail travel in Japan is a real pleasure and allows you to see every corner of a fascinating country where pretty much everywhere is off the beaten track to western folk. A word of warning however to British travellers: after travelling on the Japanese rail system for a while it may take a long time to acclimatise once again to the traumas of train travel in the UK.





David Whitley discovers unexpected cultural influences in the Taiwanese capital – and ends up eating his dinner from a toilet bowl.


Anyone who called Taipei a beautiful city would have to be both blind and deaf to the noise of a billion scooters swarming over identikit intersections. But sometimes it’s the, erm, ‘not conventionally attractive’ ones that are the most interesting. Culturally, Taipei doesn’t quite fit where you expect it to. I arrived expecting it to be essentially Chinese with a Hong Kong-esque westernised twist that comes from escaping the communist system. What I didn’t expect was for Taiwan to have a significant indigenous population which is of Austronesian origin – closer to the people of Papua New Guinea than the Asian mainland.


A 50 year period of Japanese rule between 1895 and 1945 has also left significant links to Japan. But, surprisingly, that seems to manifest itself more in the younger generations than the older generations. The historic ties mean that Japanese is often spoken better than English for older Taiwanese people, but while the youngsters may tend towards English as a second language, the cultural leanings seem to be towards Japan.


That would seem to be the case judging by the lively Ximending area of Taipei, anyway. It’s a brash blizzard of neon and flashing lights, where seemingly every shop, café and fast food outlet has a smiling cartoon character on its signage. The dress code seems to follow the Japanese take on individuality – ie. absurdly try hard – as well.

Another thing that seems to have crept across from Japan rather than China is the ridiculous theme restaurant. And Taipei boasts perhaps the most absurd theme restaurant on the planet.


It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say I came here just to eat at Modern Toilet. It has been mentioned to me a few times, and I rather wanted to see it with my own eyes. For, you see, Modern Toilet is a restaurant themed around going about your bathroom business.


Tucked into a little laneway off Xining South Road, the exterior of Modern Toilet has a giant lavatory protruding from the wall. Get upstairs, and you’re ushered towards a table that’s essentially a bit of glass on top of a bath. The seats – technically stools, but that would be unfortunately ambiguous terminology in the circumstances – are rather familiar, however. They’re loos, albeit with the flushing mechanism and tank removed. The lids have been given an arty makeover so that they look like aquarium scenes or portraits.


But it’s not just the decor that gets the loo look – the food does too. My chicken curry arrives in a bowl of a very different kind. It’s basically a mini-bog, cleverly designed so that the chicken curry sizzles on the underside. With it, I receive a urinal-shaped drinking vessel full of brutally sickly strawberry stuff that’s somewhere between a milkshake and a cordial mixer. I can’t help but feel that they’re missing a trick by not serving apple juice instead...


The piece de resistance is the dessert. The chocolate ice cream comes in a miniature squat toilet and is presented to look like a steaming, coiled turd. It tastes like sh... oh, hang on, that joke’s just too obvious, isn’t it?


The acid test comes in the loos themselves. How on earth do you novelty-up the toilets in a toilet-themed restaurant? The answer, of course, comes with the wash basin. It is, of course, yet another toilet – a tap has been fixed to the upturned lid for your sanitary needs. Bravo.


More photos for your amusement here



Taipei accommodation: David stayed in Taipei as a guest of Preferred Hotels (Preferredhotels.com). He stayed at the rather excellent Palais de Chine and Landis hotels.




By David Whitley