Sunday, March 23, 2008

My trip part 1

Recently I took a trip over my long weekend. In the process I took a few hundred pictures (which I will post when I get the time), and I wrote a long essay about it. Here is part one:

Arriving in Tokyo station just in time to get cash, buy a ticket, and get on the train forced me to push my mixed feelings about this trip aside. Realizing that I had an aisle seat instead of the window turned my feelings towards something as trivial as a seat on a train. As I’d never been on a shinkansen, I was terribly excited. I remember as a young boy owning a book about different type of vehicles around the world. I very clearly remember reading about the “Bullet Trains” of Japan, and how they were, at the time, the fastest in the world. Just the phrase “Bullet Train” causes the eight year old imagination to go spinning. Add in that these trains are in the far off land of Japan, which at that time was about as close to being a place I would end up living as the moon, possibly less so in the mind of a young boy.

Since reading that book about these trains, the title of fastest train in the world has been moved to France, as they can be a little more liberal in their safety precautions because they don’t have to deal with pesky earthquakes. You can tell me that I’m not riding in the fastest passenger land vehicle in the world, but the child in me simply won’t listen. Because of this, sitting in a window seat is a bit more important than just having something to lean on when I get sleepy. At first, I was located in seat 4C. As nobody sat down in 4D (out of A-D), I quickly moved to my desired seat, using the passive-aggressive businessman technique of throwing my bag down next to me, hoping anyone desiring to sit there would be intimidated and would go somewhere else.

As the train pulled away from Tokyo station, feelings of excitement came equally as fast as the shinkansen had accelerated, which is quite fast. The grey buildings and concrete whizzed by underneath the grey, overcast sky, but it was sunny inside my utopian dream of my first “Bullet Train” ride. The first stop was Ueno station, which is fairly close to my departure point, so the short lived excitement was replaced by stares at people waiting to board, wondering who, if anybody, was supposed to have lucky 4D.

When the old lady came up to me two stops later, I was terribly relieved when she indicated her lack of desire to usurp me form my position. The only thing she wanted was to know if I would like her to put my bag up for me, as she found her newspaper far more interesting than what was outside the window. This is an appropriate response for anybody who’s taken this trip before. However, I was not in that position.

As the train accelerated, I was impressed at how smooth the ride was. Hardly any shakes or bumps like I get on my daily train rides or even the commuter rails around Boston, this shinkansen was the smoothest train that I could recall. It was fast too. Not as fast as the eight year old in me would like, but certainly faster than any other land-based vehicle I’d been on.

Tokyo stretches out for miles. Once I left Ueno and saw the familiar train that loops around Tokyo, the Yamanote line, turn left as I went straight, the glitz and glamour of the big city faded into bland apartment buildings and acre upon acre of houses. The amount of homes was truly mind boggling. There were town centers that were visible and some skyscrapers and giant apartments that humbled anything I’ve seen anywhere else, but most of the land was just houses with a few single or double story businesses scattered about and after a while, an occasional tiny farm.

One could notice after a while that the automobile was becoming much more of a viable transportation. Other train lines were less prevalent, establishments had parking lots, main roads and interstates were seen filled with traffic, and there were fewer small business centers based around stations and more massive malls. I have been to the giant shopping centers in Shinjuku and I’ve been to a mall outside of Atlanta reported to be the second largest mall in America***, but these buildings dwarfed it all. Sure, Shinjuku has these gigantic shopping centers humbled by amount of people and amount of shopping centers, and the plaza near Atlanta*** uses more land by a substantial amount than these monstrosities in the suburbs of Tokyo, but because they actually had the land at one point to build them instead of attempting to squeeze them into anywhere they had left, they built them as big as they could. They looked like fat, short skyscrapers of nothing but commerce. It’s as if someone took four city blocks, fused them together, and built a 30 story building there. That may be a slight exaggeration, but I believe I recall seeing one of them advertise 27 floors.

Around both the second and third stops, there were cities that came thrusting out of the endless houses. While the lights of Shinjuku or Shibuya are enough to truly be considered some of the most dramatic scenes in the world, these cities were nothing to scoff at. It seemed a bit perplexing that after miles of flat, boring suburbs, there were these incredible town centers, but I don’t know much about how towns are formed, so I am not a credible source for commenting.

While all this urban and suburban chaos was happening outside my window, on the inside of the train, businessmen slept and read books or papers, a family a few seats up and to the right a family enjoyed their Pokemon bento boxes, a Caucasian couple started off as excited as I was but quickly became bored, and two men directly behind me talked loudly about sports. Occasionally, a young woman would go up and down the aisle selling snacks, drinks, and the signature desserts of an area designed to be presented as gifts. There were two trains connected as one, which would veer off in different directions later on, and I was on the one towards the front. The announcer spoke much more politely than on normal trains around here, and with a soft, British accent. As stops were few and far between, they were able to have long winded speeches about how happy they are to have you aboard and where you were going. Also, the silence inside the train made the soft voice audible, as on a normal train, it would not have been heard.

A bit after the third stop and the generosity of an old woman who had no idea what she did, the fields of houses were spotted with just plain fields. Occasionaly a major highway and a few distribution centers could be seen, but it was no longer the infinite ‘concrete jungle’ that I have become used to. After the houses with some fields, it became fields with some lumps of houses, and eventually, just fields. As soon as I was ready to declare it the end of metropolitan Tokyo, the train would slow down and before coming to a stop, another city would pop up. While this was by no means Tokyo, these areas would give any medium-large city in America a run for their money. As we departed these stations, the town slowly began to fade back into fields.

After a while, we started to go through a few tunnels. Since I can only see out the sides of the window and not the front, I had no concept of what these were going through, but understanding that this train was going really fast and any curve at all would slow it down, the tunnels seemed logical. After one tunnel, the darkened cloudy grey sky had become noticeably darker. I have no idea why it got dark so quickly, but because I was intently focused on the world outside, I can say without a doubt, it happened quite suddenly.

The shinkansen stopped at the point in which the track split into two directions, taking each half of the train in a different direction. This was yet again another large town and it lead me to assume that the next stop and my final destination, Yonezawa, was going to be a fairly decent sized place. I also had found it curious that I hadn’t seen anybody get off, but realized that all the earlier departures were on the other train.

I could feel the train ascending up a mountain. Compared to earlier, the train felt sluggish, even though it was still quite fast. There were more tunnels and some of them were quite long, but most were fairly short. I noticed that the sides of the trains bowed out a little bit in these tunnels, most likely due to the difference in pressure at such great speeds. Much like the darkness came earlier in the day, after one fairly average and not too long tunnel, there was snow. It wasn’t like I rode through areas where there patches of snow or I saw mountains where there was snow on one side, or fields with snow in the shade, it was simply no snow-tunnel-snow.

The mountain views were amazing, if not a bit hard to see at night. Sometimes it looked like we were mere millimeters from the edge of a cliff, causing even the slightest shift in ground soil to lead us plummeting to our dooms and sometimes we were deep inside a mountain tunnel, but when we were above ground, the views were amazing. It was quite dramatic and I attempted to capture the moment with my camera, but didn’t quite get the ambiance, as the glare from the window was overwhelming.

Trains in Japan are so accurate that I would have almost bet my life that my train would arrive at 6:20, as that’s what my ticket stated. So, a few minutes before, I started getting ready to depart. I was half expecting a very large small town like I had seen before, but when the train was slowing down, it was clear I wasn’t getting that. Instead, I was greeted by a tiny station and the strangest clash between old world and new. There was a man taking tickets at the gate by hand and in front of him, a sensor for Suica, the automated ticket counter service which I use every day.

After I left the station gate, two things were painfully clear. First is that this was not Tokyo or anywhere that could even be considered on the outskirts of Tokyo. This was very much a small town in the middle of nowhere. If town centers are around the main transportation hub, which has always seemed to be the case in and around Tokyo, this place wasn’t even as big as my hometown of Auburn, Alabama, which is quite small. Even if the main ‘downtown’ was somewhere else, there was next to nothing near the station.

The second thing that became quite clear is that I was no longer one of the many Caucasian foreigners around. I instantly got stares of surprise and confusion. Although I am aware of how homogenous Japan is, as it is over 99% comprised of Japanese people and the majority of that 1% is made up of other Asians, I have become used to not fitting in, but not sticking out too much. I felt like I had a giant sign over me, but I didn’t at all feel like anyone was displeased, which was nice. I just felt a level of curiosity that I’m not really used to. It was a tad disconcerting, but even more than that, refreshing to know that I wasn’t in Tokyo at all and that I had reached small town Japan.

I was waiting for my ride to pick me up, so I wandered around the tiny station which had a large waiting room (an unfamiliar concept in Tokyo), an attached convenience store, and not much else. Out front, there was an interesting but odd statue, a disproportionately large amount of taxi cabs, a parking lot, and a circle for passenger drop-off/pick-up. It was clear that here, the car is King.

So, where was I, and why was I here? Like most things worth talking about, that wasn’t so easily answered.


Michelle said...

ooo! I'm excited to read more!

The no snow - tunnel - snow sounds so surreal.

Keith said...

It really was odd. There was an audible gasp in the train when we came though the tunnel, so it seems that I'm not the only one who was surprised.