Shinkansen from end to end

Waiting for my train to Hachinohe at track 21 in Tokyo station.

I hadn’t even time to settle into Iwakuni when it was time to hit the road again. Or, should I say, hit the rails, because I traveled by train. The Shinkansen is called the bullet train for good reason. It’s FAST! I envisioned spending my day leaned back in a comfortable seat, gazing out the window and watching the Japanese countryside roll by.

Instead, I had to restrict my time gazing out. Things whipped by so quickly, in and out of tunnels (bright! black! bright! black!), view blocked by buildings, then wide open for miles, then blocked by a fence, then a short view to a hill, etc., that it was easy to get a headache while my brain tried to make sense of the quickly changing scenes and my eyes tried to adjust to the constantly shifting depths of vision.

Security guard plays a little air guitar to pass the time

Though I am primarily based at the Marine base at Iwakuni, in the southern part of the mainland of Japan, I am also responsible for providing VA benefits information to the Navy base at Sasebo (south of Iwakuni) and to the Air Force base at Misawa. I am currently in Misawa, which is at the very northernmost tip of the mainland. It took me two taxis and four trains to get here!

Students waving to me when they spotted my camera
Inside the Iwakuni train station
Need a travel brochure?

It was a long day of traveling, and I was wise to put my supplies for a whole week into a small carry-on suitcase. No one told me to do this, but my instincts were good. Though I must wear the same pair of pumps with every outfit at work this week, and the same pair of jeans for all my leisure time, it was worth it to be able to easily drag that small piece of luggage all over the country instead of trying to manhandle a regular-sized suitcase on and off trains and up and down stairs all day.

Rice fields in all the flat areas, and houses tucked against the bases of thousands of lush, green hills
Looking directly at the sun from my room on base is not a problem in the haze.

Though I stepped into the first taxi at 6am, it was already fully bright out. It starts getting light in Japan at about 4:30am. I say “bright” not “sunny” on purpose. It hasn’t been truly sunny since I arrived, because it’s so humid here. Like east coast summers, the sky is white, and even if there were clouds, I would not be able to discern them because it’s so thick with airborne moisture.

I have learned a little trick about giving gifts to Japanese people: keep things on me at all times and look for opportunities to hand them out. My taxi driver wouldn’t accept a tip (I was warned ahead of time not to insult anyone by offering a tip), so instead I brought an extra pastry and gave him one. He brightened up so much, with a huge smile, I have to believe I maneuvered through that particular custom appropriately. On my second train of the day, I sat next to a woman who set to work applying makeup as soon as she sat down. She had bags and bangles, rhinestones on her cell phone, and the most incredible sculptured roses on her fingernails. So, I pulled out a fashion magazine (I never read those myself, but I bought a bunch to bring here.) and flipped through it for awhile, then gave it to her. It was funny watching her puzzle out the front of the magazine, which in western publications is with the binding to the left, and open pages from the right. Not like Japanese magazines, which have the binding on the right, and you open pages from the left (in our minds that would be starting at the back).

A typical valley scene from the windows of the train

From end to end, Japan is mountainous and green, with rivers galore. Beautiful, beautiful country in every direction. The cities are more congested than I prefer, with things smashed together and stacked up high, and signs and fences, railings and wires criss-crossing all through and over and in front of the buildings. A cacophony of objects in a city becomes too much white noise for me and it’s tiring to look at.

So, I mostly took photos of the countryside. That is, when we weren’t going through a bunch of tunnels. John Henry would have met his end if he was building a railroad in Japan, I think, even if he wasn’t trying to race a machine.

View from the Tokyo train station

I also took photos at train stations because they fascinate me. Partially, because Tara and I just went to see Ocean Waves at a Studio Ghibli festival in Portland, and the train features in the movie. And also because I had a little anxiety at each train station, worrying about getting onto the proper train (I made no mistakes due to the reliable kindness of strangers). Train stations here are filled with things that are new and mysterious. There are little glassed-in cubes where people are allowed to smoke. In an open-air train station! Ha! There are vending machines with coffee in cans and milk tea and peach juice and lime water. There are sushi and noodle shacks on the platforms. Some people are dressed in $2000 suits and some are in flip-flops and capris and floppy hats.

Smoking hut, filled to capacity

My last train of the day was not the Shinkansen, and the ticket was an easy 550 JPY (about $7). It was a cute little two-car train, that goes clackity-clack, clackity-clack, and stops at every single station, like the train in Spirited Away. I had to watch out the windows carefully for station signs, to know when to get off, since everything on board was in Japanese. Then, I stood at the door like an idiot, waiting for it to open for me, before learning that I must touch a button to make the doors open. Ha!

Up north, I was able to see snow on the distant peaks

My sponsors from the base picked me up, helped me get checked into billeting, and then invited me out with a group of women to a ramen noodle house for dinner. By this time, mind you, I was hungry enough to eat my napkin while waiting. All those train stations had food but I was too concerned with making my connection to get in line and buy any. My huge bowl of ramen was incredibly delicious and I knew my Tara girl would be jealous! I took home the leftovers.


7 thoughts on “Shinkansen from end to end

  1. Wow, Iwakuni to Misawa in one day! Quite an adventure! Too bad it’s summer, if it were winter, you could ski in Misawa. Lots of fun! The last time we rode the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto, we were heading there to dress up like Gesha’s, and on one of the stops, my mom was looking out the window and noticed the guy who was sitting behind us a few minutes earlier, was just outside her window, fondling himself. He had opened his pants, pulled open his coat, and pulled it out to proudly display for her. Then… he got back on the train (and sat right back behind her). I had heard of these experiences many times before by my friends but it was the only time I actually witnessed it. Keep your eyes open… Japanese business men do strange stuff… it probably has to do with their long hours and commutes as many work in the city all week and only return home on weekends. On the flip side, if you have the opportunity, go to Kyoto and dress up as a Gesha. It is a lot of fun and you’ll never forget it! Plus seeing the shrines and temples in Kyoto is a must! Brian says be sure to eat some horse meat while you’re in Misawa – it is a delicacy there.

    1. Ha ha, horse meat! Ok, I’ll keep it in mind. I’m already planning a three-day tour of the Kyoto shrines the end of July, so I’ll tell the tour group we have to eat horse. I’m glad I didn’t see anything like you describe on the trains, it would have freaked me out on my very first trip. I sat next to quiet normal people! Including a baby that was so sweet I almost begged her mom to let me hold her (and I am *not* a baby person). I don’t know if they will make time for us to dress up, but I’ve seen advertisements for that in magazines, so I think I’ll get opportunities here and there before I go.

  2. Did you get the Shinkansen bento? They have special bentos on the train and in stations.

    When you go to Kyoto, go rent and wear yukata! Usually tour guides can help you rent a yukata to wear for the day =D (just that going to the bathroom will take some effort)

    1. ha ha ha! Good tips, thank you! I will definitely try the bento on the return trip on the Shinkansen this Thursday. I was nervous the first time, and my Japanese is terrible and doesn’t include any food-related words. Ha! Hopefully I can look at what there is and point. I am going to Kyoto soon, so I will find out how to wear a yukata (and I’ll use the restroom first). arigato goziamasu!

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