Near Yellow Mountain

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Well Trained

One of the joys of living in Japan was access to the best train system in the world (sorry to my European friends but overall Japan is #1 - end of story). I rarely flew domestically in Japan, preferring to get from city center to city center via the shinkansen (aka “bullet train”). I still try to arrange a shinkansen trip each time I visit Japan.
When I first was learning Japanese I made certain my sensei taught me how to order shinkansen tickets with an aisle seat on the Fuji san side of the green (first class) car. I had a little trouble with the pronunciation of “aisle” but since the trains always run so the the same side faced Mt Fuji - if my pronunciation of “tsuuro” drew a quizzical look; I would quickly follow up with “C seiki” as in ABC..... and to give finally confirmation I would say finally reconfirm by saying “a seat that is not a window seat”. After six months of this, my tongue finally mastered tsuuro and I stopped holding up the line at the ticket window.
Another one of my favorite things was asking for a receipt when I bought a shinkansen ticket at JTB (Japan Travel Bureau). Seemed a simple enough request but the amount of labor and paper generated from the receipt request was mind boggling. Out came a ledger book and small stamping tools. A flurry of activity ensued and I was finally presented with a proper, stamped and signed receipt which I, of course, didn’t really need. I always paid with my American Express so that receipt was enough for my expense report but the process of getting an official receipt was to me like an abbreviated tea ceremony. I didn’t have patience to sit through a full tea ceremony so getting a receipt a JTB became my substitute for the longer cultural ritual. I became one of the few regular gaijin customers at the Rokko Island Sheraton Hotel JTB. I think they enjoyed my visits and I was quite unhappy when the person in charge informed me that the office was closing down in a JTB “restra” - the Japanese version of “restructuring”.
Since Japan Railways apparently does not care too much about making a profit, it seems a shinkansen departs the major stations every five minutes. Except for peak travel seasons around the main holidays, the shinkansen is rarely crowded. The fastest train is called Nozomi. Just over 2.5 hours from Shin Osaka station to Tokyo station. Given the airports are not centrally located it was faster for me to take the train to Tokyo than it was to fly. 
Once on the train, I settle into the very comfortable seat, plug in my headset and enjoy watching urban sprawl, rice fields, mountains and the next big city in turn whiz by. I have traveled the Tokkaido line between Osaka and Tokyo more than 150 times but have gotten an unobstructed view of Mt Fuji only about 20 times. Normally enshrouded by clouds I know to the minute when Fuji san will appear on a clear day. I am not sure why but I never tire of seeing Fuji san. 
Another aspect of the shinkansen culture I enjoy is eating on the train. Although there is a food cart available on board most savvy shinkansen passengers, purchase a bento box or other sustenance for the ride. If you board in Tokyo, the department store at the station has two floors of food options you can take on the train. Nothing I like better than enjoying a sushi bento or a katsu sandwich normally accompanied by a box of chocolate covered almonds or perhaps ice cream from the food cart. My elder daughter claims that shinkansen ice cream is the best in the world. 
Should inclement weather force the shinkansen to slow down and be late by a few minutes (a rare event); the conductor will come on the PA and apologize as if he has just run over your family pet in the driveway. 
When I lived in Japan domestic business travel was fun and relaxing. Now that I am back in the US and often use US Airways to get where I need to go in America - I can only daydream about comfortable seats, smiling service, and a timely arrival as I am jostled by the mass of unhappy fliers that compete for overhead space before packing 
into their increasingly close together seats hoping the plane isn’t more than an hour late.