George Carter
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Japan ’08 – Day 3

| Thursday 31st July, 2008

…in which we have a lot of rides on different things.

We travelled to Shinagawa station with excitement in our bones. Today was our first ride on the Shinkansen – or Bullet Train as it’s more widely known.

You jump off the Yamanote Line and go through a transfer gate where they check that you actually have tickets, and scrutinise your seat reservations (which is interesting because it isn’t actually obligatory to reserve seats), and let you into the hallowed Shinkansen bit of the station.

The Shinkansen bit of the station is bigger, better and cleaner. I’m not actually sure that ‘cleaner’ is possible – absolutely everywhere in Tokyo is immaculately clean. For example, our hotel manager came out at 11pm to hose down the street. Yes. It’s that clean.

Anyway… we waited behind the big metal barriers, by the label marking where our carriage would stop. 43 seconds before our allotted departure time, the train came into the station. Those Shinkansen engines are truly serious looking things, you know? The doors stopped exactly in line with the barriers, and both promptly opened, and within the allotted 43 seconds, we were on the train, doors shut and we were moving already.

H set her watch by the train. I’d always thought it was just a turn of phrase “You can set your watch by it”. But no. You really can set your watch by a Japanese train.

The Shinkansen is a big, wide train. Three seats, a wide aisle and two more seats. If you have large luggage, it fits between you and the seat in front, with plenty of leg room still remaining.

The Shinkansen is a fast train. It travelled more rapidly than I’ve ever been on land.

The Shinkansen is a classy train. Gone are the American accents of the Yamanote line. All English-language announcements on the Shinkansen are in RP. Ok… that’s an exaggeration, but they do have an English accent.

The Shinkansen, characteristically for Japan, is a polite train. On entering a carriage, the ticket inspector pauses and bows. On leaving, he pauses, turns to face the carriage, and bows. It reminded me of my Aikido lessons – we used to do the same in the dojo. The buffet trolley lady does the same.

We arrived in Odawara where we could buy our Hakone Free Pass and our adventure could begin. In summary, our trip around Hakone national park involves the following:

Local Train to Hakone Yumoto station, bus to Moto Hakone, and walk down the Cedar Avenue to Hakone. Then a trip across Lake Ashi to Togendai on a boat, which docks at the cable car station which takes you up to Owakudani. After visiting the hot springs, another cable car to Sounzan. Next, onto a funicular railway to Gora where you can board the Tozan line switchback railway back to Hakone Yumoto.

My favourite bits were… all of them.

After a great day in Hakone, it was back to Tokyo stopping in a Rock bar we chanced upon for a beer or three.

Then back to the hotel, showers and then time to go out for the evening. We were, as you can probably guess, a little tiddly by now so all potential problems with language were gone. I was absolutely fluent in Japanese, and any food we could find would be most suitable…

We’d passed a little curry place a few times where the owner had been standing outside imploring us to enter, so tonight we decided to do just that… enter.

As with many places in Japanese cities, space is at a premium, so the curry place was arranged with a counter, kitchen behind and a row of maybe six stools in front. We ordered the food and watched it being prepared – that guy has some great Naan skills.

It was a doddle to order – point at the English-language menu, but due to my new-found Japanese improvement I also managed to have a lovely, lengthy chat in Japanese with the proprietor. He told me all about the Japanese not liking spice, and I told him that curry is the national dish in the UK. We discussed the relativity of the term ‘hot’ and various other subjects which now escape me. You’ll see the chap on the Fuji video coming soon.

After beer and curry, there was only one thing to do… KARAOKE!

We wandered the streets of Ikebukuro searching for a karaoke bar. We are in Tokyo. This will be easy, right? Well, it seems not. It is very easy to find a karaoke centre – they’re on every street corner, but they’re the sort where you turn up with mates/family/colleagues/guests and hire a booth for an hour or three. If you’ve seen Lost in Translation, you’ll know exactly what I mean. We couldn’t, however, find a public bar with karaoke.

Back to the hotel (only just round the corner) to ask for more information. “What?” they say… “public karaoke? That doesn’t exist.”

“Of course it does”, we say.

“Never heard of it”, they say.

“In that case, have this 100 yen and I shall use your internet for 15 minutes and find out for myself”, I say.

Ah. Public karaoke doesn’t exist.

Well, we weren’t going to inflict ourselves just on each other, so returned to the fallback – the cheap hotel bar and patio. Great for watching the world go by, and fun when two people at the table next to you are chatting away in an unintelligible language which slowly sinks into your sub-conscience…

“Anteeksi”, I say, “oletteko Suomalaiset?” (it wasn’t very good Finnish, but it did the job)

Yes. They were Finnish, and we had a brief chat about what had brought us all there, about the fact that ticket is lippu in … um … Finnish, I think and kippu in Japanese and how I can never remember which is which, and yet more subjects which escape me.

Definitely time for bed. Especially as the following day we would be climbing Mount Fuji during which we predicted there would be an EXTREME chance that we could NEARLY DIE.

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