I think Japanese railway stations are designed by plumbers: they consist of tunnels with complex and sometimes contradictory signs pointing down other tunnels to various different sections and occasionally a set of steps to the mythical upper level where trains can be found. To add to the experience they like to make sure you go at least twice the distance you really need to, and put in several ticket barriers just to make sure you have actually paid for your journey.
We’re travelling to Tokyo on the Shinkansen (Lit: new railway), known outside of Japan as the ‘bullet train’, because the first trains had a nose shaped like a bullet. This is a bit misleading as they have new trains now with a nose shaped like a duck. The station is like a military compound, and we’re separated from the lower orders in the normal trains by high barbed wire fences and a lot of track -either to prevent a mass commuter invasion or maybe there are some very determined fare dodgers in Nagoya- and the trains are legendary, not just for their speed but also for stopping in exactly the right place. This is partly because they have to: the stations have very hefty barriers with gaps for train doors, so if they get it wrong no-one would be able to get on. Why Shinkansen passengers are less likely to notice the large drop at the edge of the platform than other train users I have no idea. Mind you, apparently for some people even that’s not enough: at one end of the ‘normal’ station there is a small platform separated from the rest by a sea of track, with a much higher barrier all around it and automatic gates which open when the train comes in. Why this one platform? Is it for some even more dangerous commuters?
Board train. On the back of the seat in front of me a small notice says ‘please do not run for your train’ which seems a little redundant as I’m already on it and being whisked efficiently towards Tokyo.
Travel on a Shinkansen is like being on an plane without wings, engine noise, ‘entertainment’ or intrusive security controls beforehand, but with legroom and decent sized toilets (Ceramic, not plastic, and spotless: are you listening Deutsche Bahn?) and a view if you’re next to the window, although as Nagoya to Tokyo is almost one unbroken sprawl, it’s not always worth it.
Arrive in Tokyo station, also designed by plumbers. We’ve been invited to lunch with an aunt and uncle of Beautiful Wife and we decide this would be easier if we leave on case in a locker. So off we go down escalators, up stairs through tunnels and what I’m pretty sure was a service corridor. No signs so we stop to ask directions. The lockers are down that ramp there. Off we go down that ramp there, take two more turns and just as we’ve travelled far enough to be on the outskirts of Seoul, we reach the coin lockers which are decorated with huge pictures of mount Fuji. Unfortunately they are also all full.
Back through the tunnels, up the ramp, up and down some more escalators, past the platform we just came from and twenty metres further to a local train platform. Get on train. Three minutes later, we get off the train into another underground station, which looks suspiciously like the place where the coin lockers were. Cross road, into a lift and up into a restaurant.
Lunch over, back onto local train, to the main station and on to another Shinkansen heading for Nagano. We get off in the middle of nowhere. It is supposed to be a ‘resort city’ for wealthy commuters to live the suburban dream and race into Tokyo every morning, except that it isn’t working very well and not many of the plots seem to have been sold. We get the solitary taxi on a vast and empty forecourt and head into the hills where Beautiful wife’s Grandma, (AKA Great-grandma-San) awaits.
Evening. We’re in a traditional Tatami room in the mountains, the night sky is unsullied by light pollution, and for the first time since we came to Japan there’s no traffic noise. The mountain air is cool and fresh after the city and there’s not a neon light in view. Underneath our window is a small pond with koi, at one end of which is a small waterfall.
Drift off to sleep trying not to need the loo.