Monday, 13 June 2011

Trainhopping In Japan

Travel feature for The Skinny

I could wait tables on this train, I thought. I could serve drinks, heavy drinks in tall glasses, on a tray held on one hand, using only one leg, while drunk, I thought. It’s so smooth! Sitting on a British train is like hatching a nest of pneumatic drills, I thought, compared to the flat-bottomed glide of this gleaming white shinkansen. How can I ever go back? And it’s going so fast, according to the blur of scenery in the window. I stood up, holding my water bottle in my left hand, and scouted. No-one was looking: one suit was transfixed by his laptop, a suit in front was concentrating hard on his bento lunchbox, and the suit at the back was asleep. I lifted my left leg off the ground, crouched, and hopped across a river, three kayaks and a houseboat, without spilling a drop. Take that Jonathan Edwards – you, actually, very nice man – take that jump and stick it!

I exaggerate a little: British trains are okay; what really feels like you're hatching a nest of pneumatic drills is when you're sitting on the bog when a massive earthquake strikes 450 miles away. First thought: am I ill? I can’t sit still, my head is spinning; how much did I drink last night? Then: maybe this is what a faraway earthquake feels like. It wasn't my gut or my head, it was exactly what a faraway earthquake feels like.

Although the calamities in the north-eastern part of Honshu have knocked it off any tourist’s schedule for the foreseeable future, most of Japan is continuing with life as normal. The Japanese are legendarily stoic and hard-working – Hiroshima’s tram system was up-and-running just three days after the city was wiped flat by the A-bomb – they’ll bounce back as quickly as is humanly possible. Japan itself is a beautiful country with a singular culture, more resistant to globalisation than most, and so endlessly fascinating to Western eyes. Ordinarily, this is where I'd say, "There's never a bad time to visit Japan", but the Foreign Office might disagree, so check online for the latest advice.

If you want to get the most out of a trip to Japan, you have to get a Japan Rail Pass. It’s a piece of folded card you show to barrier staff to get on any JR train – including most bullet trains and all local trains – whenever you want. So you can wake up anywhere in Japan and go anywhere in Japan that day, on a whim if you prefer, for the duration of your pass. Presently, the pass unfortunately features on its cover a cartoon representation of a tsunami, towering over Mount Fuji – two images iconic of Japan; one with a painful new association.

On my first morning in Tokyo, I handed my JR Pass receipt to Aika at Ueno station, to receive the pass itself. “Oh no!” she said, her face pained with regret. “Your train will be a Kodama, it’s the slow one.” Sadly, I would not be breaking any land speed records on my first day in her country. The sluggish Kodama is the most common shinkansen between Tokyo and Kansai (Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe). It took 50 minutes to carry me 70 miles to Mishima, where I was to base myself at a friend’s for ten days; that’s 19 miles further than the Glasgow-Edinburgh train travels in the same time. The Hikari stops less, so is faster: it takes 44 minutes to cover 70 miles. But even the Hikari is an apathetic snail compared to the Nozomi (32 minutes), or the brand new Hayabusa (30 minutes), neither of which are covered by the JR pass.

But merely rattling off numbers can’t effectively convey the speed at which a shinkansen travels. Only one word bullets to mind to perfectly describe the bulleting speed of the Japanese bullet trains: “projectilish”.

Tokyo is the biggest and quite possibly best city in the world. There are 35 million people in Greater Tokyo: that’s seven times the population of Scotland; about the same population as Canada, the word’s second largest country; and almost half the number of Celtic fans who say they were in Seville. But it suffers none of the problems that too-many-people seems to cause other megacities: it’s incredibly clean, tidy and ordered, there’s no air pollution, it’s shockingly safe, and public transport is efficient and usually comfortable. It could so easily be overwhelming, but it feels less crowded than London, which has a quarter Tokyo’s people. I went to Shinjuku station, the busiest in the world, to catch an evening rush hour train to Tokyo station, expecting to see the famous pusher-oners – employees whose task it is to push as many commuters on to each train as possible – and perhaps be pushed on by a pusher-oner. Instead, I got a seat.

While Tokyo functions impeccably, its character remains eccentric. I took a stroll through Yoyogi Park on a Sunday and saw normal park activities – badminton, frisbee, picnics, couples hand-in-hand – and less expected sights: an old woman practising keepie-uppies; young girls dressed as Manga characters; groups of competitive rock’n’roll dancers, all dressed like Happy Days characters (mostly The Fonz); an old man with live fish in goldfish bowls hanging from each ear; red-favouring goths; apocalyptic preachers; karate bouts. Around every other corner in central Tokyo is a bewildering and delightful variety of bars, shops and blazing nighttime lights, using inscrutable symbols to make unknown promises. All you can do is wander, wide-eyed, and wonder; and wish to be able to sample it all. But you could live in Tokyo all your life and never sample it all.

With a rail pass in hand, you’re discouraged from trying: it’s time to move on. There are plenty of getaways outside of Tokyo, mostly in the surrounding Japanese Alps. Pelting snow greeted me at the mountainous area of Hakone, so I stripped to the nip and walked outside, into an onsen, a hot bath filled with volcanic water. Back inside the traditional B&B, known as a ryokan, I dressed in a yukata gown, drank green tea, ate a pack of delicious convenience store sushi, and slept on a tatami mat. You could say I spent that evening turning Japanese. Further north – but not within range of the tsunami – is Nikko, another wondrous mountain retreat with beautiful lakes and waterfalls, onsens and elaborate old shrines. Some people use a JR pass to cover as much ground in Japan as possible, but I wanted the pass to serve my holiday, not the other way around. I spent ten days in and around Tokyo, never further north than Nikko, before hopping on a shinkansen to Kyoto.

Kyoto is very different from Tokyo: it’s not a ridiculous size, so it’s less intense, unless you’re a serious scholar of Japanese history, in which case you’d have to spend every waking minute exploring its 2,000 (two thousand) temples and shrines. For the rest of us, we fit in what we can: a golden Buddhist temple here, a zen rock garden there, torii gates and geisha girls almost everywhere. Downtown Kyoto is as clean and modern as any Japanese city, but down its side-streets and alleys you can find flashes of old Japan, as evocative of the area’s history as the Old Town is of Edinburgh’s. Osaka, a convenient half-an-hour westward, is conveniently comparable to Glasgow: twice the size of its ancient neighbour, more commercial and industrial, and with better nightlife. This area, Kansai, also boasts the beautiful former capital of Nara, and Kobe, which you can hop between as you please with a JR pass.

In the days following the disaster, I continued trainhopping around Japan as planned. On the ground, nothing was different; it's odd to see life continuing as normal when the television shows such devastation to fellow citizens; but continue it does. Despite what some media outlets portrayed, Japan wasn't on its knees, and it isn't on its knees now. Don't write Japan off: the shinkansen must go on.

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