I made an error in my earlier posts. I wrote "shinkansen." That's erroneous. Why? Shinkansen is a proper noun. It should be capitalized.
What is it exactly?
Simply put, it's the Japanese bullet train. The word Shinkansen translates to "New Trunk Line," but it's pretty much synonymous with "big pointy white train that moves like the dickens." Today I'm going to teach you how to ride on one properly.
August 4 was a day of great excitement. I would depart the 35 million-strong metropolis of Tokyo and head south for warmer (and stickier) climes, unexplored cities and howling adventures. I had survived four days in Tokyo with nothing but a Lonely Planet travel guide and a T-shirt which I somehow failed to realize had an American WWII fighter plane on it. "Confident" was not the word to describe my state of mind. I was feeling godly. It was time to get off the grid. I had no guidebooks or maps of anything west of the Japanese capital. Everything from here on out would be totally new and unexpected.
I got up at some outrageous hour—6:30 if I recall—unlimbered my suitcases, and marched on Tokyo Station. It was another warm, humid, cloudy Japanese morning, and I was already sweating by the time I walked through the station's Central Entrance and into the nearest Japan Rail office. Thank goodness they had the A/C running full blast, fit to give a polar bear frostbite. It was time to activate my Japan Rail Pass.
|Picture taken ex post facto, but what the heck.|
This was convenient, for I had no less than three rail journeys planned for my Japan junket. Today's jaunt would take me from Tokyo to Kyoto. With the excitement only the promise of a new train trip can bestow, I took my newly activated pass over to the ticket window and booked a window seat on the 7:33 Hikari (which runs on the Tokaido and Sanyo lines). After 40 minutes in the air-conditioned waiting room, I moseyed up to the platform to meet my intended steed. I wanted to get a look at the shovel-nosed engine when it glided smoothly into the station. And I got it:
|Isn't she a beaut?|
Cock up your lugs, because I have something to explain to you: there are eight different Shinkansen lines and sixteen kinds of bullet trains that run on them. They differ in how fast they go and how many stops they make. For obvious reasons, I won't go into their various names and destinations here, but just know that "Hikari" is the type of train in the above picture, and they're one of the types that does the Tokyo-Hakata run.
The interior of a Hikari car (reserved seating) looks like this:
|And this was my seat, 7E. Envy me.|
Pretty cushy. The wicked thing is that the seats automatically rotate to face the new direction of travel after the train pulls into the station and the previous passengers disembark. I saw this happen on the blue Skyliner train from Narita Airport to Ueno on July 30, and could hardly believe my eyes. Oh, those Japanese. What will they think of next, rear doors on taxicabs that open and shut by themselves? Oh, wait, they had those too.
Anyway, I stowed my luggage in the overhead rack, plunked myself down, and readied my camera for some shots of the countryside. I kept a notebook and pen on my tray table and made careful note of the stations where the train stopped and the time we arrived (just for future reference). Seven thirty-three rolled around and before I knew it, the Tokyo skyline was zipping by.
|I've yet to encounter a city (particularly an Asian one) that looks inviting under grey skies.|
Twelve minutes after that, we hit Yokohama.
After a further sixteen minutes, we arrived in Odawara.
|Take note of the weather. There are shadows. The sun is out.|
It was between Odawara and Nagoya that I received the first real disappointment of my trip. The day, as you can see from that final photo of Tokyo above, was overcast and sullen. The ceilings were pretty low. I was worried that I wouldn't be able to see Mount Fuji in that soup. Then we hit Odawara, the last stop before Fuji-san, and the sun was out. All seemed well. But when the foothills hove into view outside the porthole and the summit was swathed in a grey mantle, I couldn't help but feel blue. What a bummer. It's only the most iconic freakin' mountain in all Japan. And I was missing it because of some cheeky atmospheric water particles.
This, I believe, is Mount Fuji, or what I could glimpse of it:
The train sped on. And, wouldn't you know it, but the sun came out again after that. We hit Nagoya and it was shinin' bright. Lazy bastard.
I may or may not have caught a glimpse of the second thing I wanted to see on the Tokyo-Kyoto run, though: Lake Biwa. I think this is it. I could be wrong:
Can you believe I nabbed this room for fifty bucks?
Dude, this is friggin' suite (see what I did there?).
Plush accommodations secured, it was time to sally forth and hit the items on my Day-One-of-Kyoto to-do list...but that's a story for another time. Tomorrow: NISHIKI MARKET.