Posts Tagged Shinkansen

July 5, 2005 pt1 – Himeji Castle

A front view of Himeji Castle

A front view of Himeji Castle from inside the castle grounds

This morning I woke up early and headed west towads Himeji to see the famous castle. Himeji is about 500km west of Numazu, so I took the shinkansen (bullet train) instead of regular trains. The closest shinkansen station is in Mishima, which is convenient because I could use my regular work commuter pass to get there. At Mishima I bought an unreserved ticket to Himeji. Each shinkansen has several cars with unreserved seats.

The Tokaido shinkansen has three options: Kodama, Hikari, and Nozomi. The Kodama stops at all shinkansen stations, but has the most unreserved cars. The Nozomi only stops at major stations and has the fewest unreserved cars. I struck a balance and took the Hikari. Three hours later I arrived at Himeji station.

Upon exiting Himeji station, you can instantly see the famous Himeji castle. It looks close but only because the castle and grounds are HUGE. It’s actually a solid 1.7km walk (thanks Google). The castle is one of Japan’s many UNESCO world heritage sites. It was built in the late 1500s, and unlike many castles in Japan, is still the original building. Somehow the castle survived 400 years of wars, earthquakes, typhoons, people, and a modern city springing up around it.

Himeji front side

Himeji castle is probably the best thing I have seen in my almost 2 years in Japan so far. I could literally write about it for hours, describing in detail the different buildings, the steep stone base, the arrow ports, the crests built into the roof, and other awesome details. Words really don’t do Himeji castle justice – it’s something that needs to really be experienced in person. My favourite part was when I finally got to the top of the castle and looked out the window. I could see the castle grounds below and the city all around while feeling a nice cool breeze. I would have been happy to stay there until they asked me to leave.

A view from the top floor of Himeji castle

A view from the top floor of Himeji castle

If you are lucky enough to visit Himeji castle, I have one word of advice: wear comfortable shoes. The only way to get around the sizable castle grounds is on foot. I won’t soon forget the fashionably dressed woman sitting on the ground complaining to her boyfriend about how her feet hurt. Seriously, who wears heels to a 400 year old castle? Wear comfortable shoes with good support, you’re going to need them.

Not only is Himeji Castle an impressive structure, but all of the displays and information are available in both Japanese and English. Most famous tourist spots in Japan have good information available, but Himeji truly raises the bar. Himeji is truly a must see place in Japan.

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December 8, 2004 – One Year (and a bit) in Japan

Today’s column is a few months overdue. I had the best intentions to write about my Japaniversary when it happened, but life got in the way. Anyway, here goes.

I have officially been in Japan for 1 year (and 2 months). The last year has gone by entirely too quickly. I have managed to meet about a zillion people, work in a completely new job, see many interesting things, and do things I never imagined before. It has been a great year, and I am looking forward to (possibly) another year in this great country. Of course, with the good comes some bad as well. So without further delay, here is the official “Drinking in Japan first year in Japan Highlights and Lowlights List”, presented in alphabetical order.

Highlights

  • Australians – I have never seen so many Australians in my life. They are generally really cool people. They are like the Canadians of the Southern hemisphere, if Canadians lived in a warm country. Maybe Canadians are the Aussies of the Northern hemisphere, who knows.
  • Drink Bar – Many “family” style restaurants have self serve drink bar with free refills. Great for hot days!
  • Food – The selection and quality of food here is unbelievable. Everything tastes good!
  • Japanese people – Japanese people are great! Overall, they are very friendly and helpful to visitors, and are really fun to party with.
  • Kamakura – There is a GIANT Buddha here. What more do you need?
  • Karaoke – I LOVE karaoke! I love that most karaoke is in a private room with friends, and that you can get food and drinks delivered.
  • Koban – A Japanese police box. Instead of having a few centrally located police stations, there are many small police boxes scattered throughout the cities. The police are able to patrol a familiar area, and are great for giving directions to lost travelers. The Koban system works really well for densely populated areas.
  • Kyoto – You can experience Japan’s history in a city where you can’t walk down the street without tripping over a temple or shrine.
  • Mt. Fuji – Impossible not to like. A snow covered Mt. Fuji is beautiful.
  • Nikko – Probably the most breathtaking place in the country for sightseeing. Allegedly there are monkeys there too.
  • Niku man – (niku = meat, man = steamed bun) Chinese steamed meat buns are sold for 100 yen each in convenience stores and are a great snack. You can also get pizza man, curry man, and bean paste man.
  • Shinkansen – A.K.A. the bullet train. Cruising across the country at 250km/h rules!
  • Tokyo Nightlife – Wow. There are so many places catering to everyone’s liking, it is really impossible to see it all. I haven’t even scratched the surface of all of the options.
  • Skirts – Skirts are popular here, and they are great. Seriously great.
  • Skylark Express – What can you say about a restaurant that serves you hamburger steak, rice, soup and a vegetable in 60 seconds for five dollars?
  • Students – One of the best things about being a teacher is actually seeing someone improve over time. Giving a level up recommendation to a student is one of the highlights of my job.
  • Visitors – I had two sets of visitors this summer which both provided incredibly fun times and great memories.
  • Winter – A winter without snow and with temperatures that stay on the happy side of freezing are okay by me.
  • Yen – Japanese money is worth a lot in other places.
  • Yokohama – It’s big, fun and has everything Tokyo does, but a completely different feel.

Lowlights

  • Being illiterate – It is a shock to go from being an intelligent, functional person to being almost completely illiterate. It is frustrating to have trouble doing basic everyday things. I am improving, but it is still difficult.
  • Crowded trains – There is not much more uncomfortable than being wedged into a train that is 200% over capacity while trying to carry a bunch of bags.
  • Garbage collection – The rules for garbage collection are annoying and difficult to understand. Garbage must be separated into about 500 categories, each with their own collection day. And there is always one cranky neighbour making sure you are doing it right.
  • Getting lost – Only the largest streets have names, and most seem to have been designed completely at random. Someone’s mailing address is no help at all when it comes to finding anything. With my meager Japanese skills I can ask for directions, but understanding the answer is still challenging.
  • Hangovers – Cheap alcohol, all you can drink, the Japanese party spirit, and my rubber arm make for some serious overindulgence. I have had 2 of the worst hangovers in my life here.
  • Japanese style toilets – I am still scared to death of these things, and have managed to avoid them for any “serious” business.
  • Kids classes – I still don’t feel completely comfortable in a classroom full of children.
  • Loneliness – Being far away from home can be incredibly lonely. It sucks knowing that your friends and family are enjoying life as usual while you are stuck in a small room on the other side of the planet. No matter how much you fit in and how many friends you make, it’s jut not home sometimes.
  • Missing Last Train – Last train comes way too early, and if you miss it you are committed to an expensive taxi ride or staying out till first train.
  • Movies – I like Japanese movies, but without subtitles I am lost. Watching Jackie Chan movies is nearly impossible because only Japanese subtitles are available.
  • NOVA Usagi – Man, I really hate that thing!
  • Size – Streets are narrow, rooms are smaller, clothes are smaller, cars are smaller, everything is smaller. It’s a big adjustment for me, and I am not even a particularly large person.
  • Summer – Too hot, way too humid.

It’s been a good year, and thanks for reading!

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July 2, 2004 pt1 – The long road to Hiroshima

Noborito to Hiroshima

My parents, sister, and I got up nice and early, had a quick breakfast, and then set out for what would be our longest day of travel. Our goal was to go from Kawasaki to Hiroshima to see the Peace Memorial Museum, then back to Kyoto to set up a day of sightseeing.

My dad is not a fan of crowded trains, but due to the amount of distance we needed to cover we had to get on a busy rush hour train. It was my family’s first time to see the famous train pushers in action. My family stood by in wonder as they watched the uniformed rail staff pushing all of the arms and legs into the crowded train car. We were not looking forward to getting on one of the busy trains with our suitcases.

When we got on the train, I told my dad to stand by the door and look out the window. This way he could attempt to ignore the crushing crowds of people behind him. The technique worked, but he was still happy that it wasn’t a longer train ride.

We took Odakyu line from Noborito to Machida. At Machida we switched to Yokohama line bound for Shin-Yokohama. Yokohama station serves 11 different train lines, but not the shinkansen (bullet train). For that you need to leave from Shin-Yokohama station. Fun fact: when Shin-Yokohama station was built in 1964, it was in a rural area. It is now completely surrounded by city.

The Tokaido Shinkansen offers three different trains; the Kodama, the Hikari, and the Nozomi. The Kodama stops at every station along the way. It also features the most amount of unreserved seats. The Hikari stops at fewer stations and has fewer unreserved seats available. The Nozomi only stops at the biggest stations, and has very few unreserved seats. My family was using JR rail passes, which allow for free reserved seats on everything but the Nozomi. Since I live in Japan, I am ineligible for a JR rail pass. My parents generously treated me to all of my train fare.

Traveling on the shinkansen is one of the coolest things about Japan. The electric trains are quiet, comfortable, and blast through the countryside at over 250km/h (150mph). The seats have more than ample leg room, which is convenient if you are bringing luggage. All of the announcements are in Japanese and English, and there are vending machines, pay phones and washrooms available at the ends of the cars. Shinkansen is truly the best way to travel long distances in Japan.

On the way I showed my parents my cell phone. Phone technology in Japan is at least 6 months ahead of Canada. My mom was very impressed that she could use my phone to send an email to one of her friends.

We arrived in Hiroshima just before 1:30pm. In the five and a half hours since we left Noborito, we had traveled about 900km (560 miles). This is even more impressive when you consider our half our stop in Shin-Osaka to switch trains.

One of the best things about visiting a new place is that even the most mundane things like public transportation become an adventure. For my family and I, our train trip was the most fun we ever had traveling for 5 hours.

(2014 Update) My phone at the time was a flip phone with a camera that could take pictures 120 pixels x 120 pixels. I could send emails and browse a very limited Vodafone network. I could send texts or emails using the letters on my 0-9 keys. It was primitive by today’s standards, but better than most people’s phones in Canada at the time.

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Return to Japan 2013: July 7 – arrival

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Landing in Japan in always fun to watch out the window. The first sights are the fields of Chiba, followed by some industrial areas and increasing density. The approach also goes over several beautiful looking golf courses, which are no doubt incredibly expensive. At this point I usually notice that all the cars are driving on the left side of the road. When I first moved to Japan in 2003 this took quite a long time to get over. It’s not quite as confusing anymore.

Narita airport is huge. I mean massively monstrously huge. Seriously. From the plane it’s about a 5 minute walk to the immigration lines. At the immigration lines people are divided into Japanese passports and all other foreign passports. One of the big improvements in the past 10 years is the increased number of foreign passport lines. I only had two people ahead of me in line and was processed through in less than a minute.

From immigration the next step is the luggage pickup. These areas are the same in any airport. Still at this point nothing looks really Japanese. The customs check is next, another quick pass through with no bag checks. I guess I look fairly harmless. All in all,  this was the fastest arrival to Japan that I had ever experienced.

After leaving the arrival area I logged into good free Internet (suck it Vancouver) and sent a message to my parents. Then a quick call to my wife’s parents. No matter how old you get or how many times you travel, always let your parents know you arrived safely.

In the basement level I got in very long line for Midori no Madoguchi, the train ticket window. An airport worker walked up to me and asked me, in very good English, if I was buying a ticket for the Narita express and paying cash. I said yes, so she took me directly to the ticket machine. She helped me buy a ticket for the Narita Express and the Shinkansen to Mishima. At some point I told her in Japanese that I had lived in the country before. She started talking to me in Japanese and was very surprised that I was an accountant. Some days I am surprised that I am an accountant too.

Due to lack of space in the city and capacity at centrally located Haneda airport, Narita airport is about 60km east of Tokyo. The Narita express is the fastest (and most expensive) train from the airport to Tokyo or Shinjuku. Occasionally the train will split up and go to other stations as well. Other than the Narita Express you can take the Keisei line to Ueno for about half the price. Keisei line works well when your destination is in Tokyo and you don’t have a giant suitcase with you.

I took the Narita express to Shinagawa instead of Tokyo at the recommendation of the friendly airport lady. This was a mistake. The Kodama and Hikari Shinkansens both have cars with unreserved seats. The Shinkansen always starts from Tokyo station and the unreserved seats fill up quickly. Shinagawa is the next stop on the Tokaido Shinkansen, and when I tried to get on with the a fore mentioned giant suitcase I found that most of the unreserved seats were full. I ended up finding space on the smoking car.

Winnipeg has a smoking ban in indoor public places (bars, restaurants, etc) so I had forgotten what it was like to sit in an enclosed space full of smokers. Despite it being Sunday, the smoking car was full of salarymen on the way home, chain smoking and chugging canned coffee. Yay stimulants!

I disembarked at Mishima and got my first full blast of Japanese summer. The temperature was in the 30s and the humidity was in the high 80% range. The effect was that of walking into a sauna fully clothed, which I don’t recommend.

My in-laws met me at the station and took me to Kappa Sushi, a very popular kaiten sushi chain. The tables are all laid out beside a conveyor belt which transports plates of sushi though the restaurant. Whenever anything good comes buy you simply grab it and start eating. You can also make special orders from the screen at your table. Special orders are sent to your table on a train track just above the main conveyor. If you don’t mind the wait to get in, Kappa Sushi is a great place to stuff yourself on sushi.

If you are expecting my day to end with some exciting stories of staying up all night,  drinking beer and rocking out at karaoke then I am sorry to disappoint you. After dinner we returned home, I had a shower and went to bed at 8:30pm. And I am okay with that.

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