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Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Japan is an Anagram: TOKYO to KYOTO

TOKYO to KYOTO, Shinkansen style.

Travelling on the Shinkansen (bullet train) has long been an ambition of mine ever since I saw it as a child featured on Blue Peter, and of course that other time I saw it – in Entrapment – where Catherine Zeta Jones magically disappears, which probably would have been the best course of action for that watchable-though-terrible film in its entirety. It was pretty exciting, therefore, that this is how my journey in Japan began. Or nearly anyway.

Yep, These hair cuts were totally acceptable when I was a child.
And the shirts are now in style if you're a Brooklyn hipster.

Travelling has now become something I almost never do, so to contemplate a 14 hour flight was no mean feat. I flew business class to enable me to lie flat, armed with enough pain killers to tranquilise a horse and my usual coterie of anti depressants and side-effect-countering medication to stem the tide of anxiety at the unknown effects of travelling such a distance after such a catalogue of ailments and injuries over the past year.

Merci Beaucoup Air France!

Business class is an extremely strange experience. Rather than feeling you're crammed into a carriage of four hundred people all sitting within spitting distance, and that's just the adults (let's not talk about the children...not on fourteen hour flights. Just no) I felt like I was practically the only person on the flight at all. (And luckily it was very quiet in business so I did what I do best and nicked all the pillows to make myself a little comfy nest for my back, elbow etc.)

Seats appropriate for the vertically challenged. 
In the sense that being vertical is a challenge.

Menus in three languages were presented; Champagne offered; real glass, real knives and forks and, most importantly, real pillows were mine for the taking. Food was presented in a way that almost looked tasty, and even my breakfast croissant tasted like a croissant and not some half defrosted packet of puff pastry. Films were available (more than the usual number in French, well this was, after all, an Air France flight). I love the way the French rename their films to suit their own preferences. I remember laughing when my French pen pal circa 1995 confirmed that Home Alone was – in France – called “Maman, J’ai Raté L’avion”. (I think Home Alone Two was also called “Maman, Encore J’ai Raté L’avion”.)

Admit it, you thought I'd made that up. See?!

I had never thought of "Silver Linings Playbook" as "Happiness Therapy"...

Luckily I made it – arriving in Tokyo at 7am on a grey morning not unlike weather one might expect to see in England, and managed to move my (hand luggage only) bags along the many moving walkways towards the immigration desks.

At which point I realised I had made a gross error in assuming it would be a smooth pathway through super-efficient Japanese gates. Although my foot problem has now been diagnosed as not a stress fracture but tendonitis, and although I have been wearing (off the shelf) orthotics in my shoes to correct my gait and help me walk without pain, I just cannot stand up in line for more than about 3 minutes before I feel distinctly unwell. In fact standing is without a doubt the least possible of all postures for me, as it fatigues my back, my arm and my feet and I’ve never been able to stand up for long anyway.

Note: this picture is from Google images.
I wasn't rude enough to photograph the genuinely long queues. And then put them on here.

When I started dating my (now) husband almost ten years ago one of the biggest compromises in our budding relationship was the fact that there was no way that I could stand at a pub bar for a drink. Even in my injury-free state, it was sit or go home. Cursing myself for not asking for a wheelchair from the aeroplane, I asked a very nice security guard who brought another official who brought another official with a wheelchair – success! – and suddenly my tired and aching back, arm and feet were rolled through customs without a second glance at the other four hundred people waiting.

One of the many, many, MANY reasons why Nige and I are unmatched.
So sad. So very, very, sad. 

The Japanese (I have now found consistently true) are unfailingly kind and go out of their way to be helpful. In general I am so grateful for the help available to people like me who have (albeit temporary) disabilities which make travelling pretty impossible without flat beds along the way and moving vehicles the rest of the time in which to sit or lie. The Japanese, however, take this to a whole different level, and in transit I was always able to find an escalator or elevator to help me toddle along to my next point of transport.

Thank you, THANK YOU, Japan, for realising that English people are not thoughtful enough to prepare and actually learn your language. I'm sorry!

Having exchanged my Japan rail pass for an actual Japan Rail card, off I crawled towards the monorail, then the JR train to the Tokyo hub where I could catch the Shinkansen to Kyoto and take the bullet train. From some of the photos you will see how many different options were available. It is absolutely incredible to me now, having visited many of Japan’s subway, monorail and Shinkansen stations, how any visitor not used to the Roman alphabet can possible comprehend our London underground system or our trains. I haven’t attempted this myself, but I’m fairly sure that you cannot press a button on any of our various automatic ticket dispensing machines that turns all the instructions to Japanese. No longer any surprise to me now that many Japanese tourists arrive in coaches for their tours of England. How on earth would they be able to navigate a country which expects you to have a pretty darn good working knowledge of the English language if you want to do anything at all?

Yeah baby. This is how we roll.

In Japan there are three classes of Shinkansen, the fastest being the Nozomi, mostly used by commuters, which travels at roughly the speed of light and helps you to arrive at your destination before you left. Okay so none of that is true, but it doesn’t make as many stops so is the ideal commuter train. These trains are unavailable to the Japan rail pass holders. (Note: if you’re going to Japan make sure you buy your JR pass a few days before and have it sent to you / pick it up in your own country, as it’s far, far cheaper to do this than to buy it in Japan itself). The next option is the Hikari, which travels very fast, but makes more stops, so you reach your destination about the time you left. Ha. I’d recommend the trains. (Then again I am a nerdy train spotter by all accounts.) They’re very clean, run like clockwork, have lovely staff offering you many completely indistinguishable food and drink items, and beer / wine if you feel that 9 am is an appropriate time to be drinking (It isn’t).

From rural...

I may have slightly exaggerated the true speed of Shinkansen, but the speed at which the landscape changed before my eyes kept them open in spite of my enormous fatigue and pain, and I took many, many photos of varying degrees of blurriness to capture the city blocks, apartments, houses, fields, mountains, rural land and rivers we passed along our way. Like a time-lapse capture documentary of the geography of a country, the bullet train is worth the ride just for offering a true glimpse of the very varied landscapes of Japan, at a glance. industrial, in under three hours. Like magic.

Given my aforementioned slightly wounded state, to which I now add painful blocked ears from the plane’s descent and a sudden raging cold and sore throat, which I would be unsurprised to learn came from my general anxiety at flying thousands of miles away from all the support networks available to me at home for my depression, it would be fair to say that I was feeling rather delicate on the train. It was, then, by some miracle that I made it in my jet-lagged, pained and dazed state onto the Shinkansen, though not before watching a curious TV show in the station waiting room featuring two men each sitting on a basketball trying to dislodge the other from his seat by yanking on tea towels which both held (two towels, crossed over) over a number of minutes. Bizarre. I’d rather watch Gardener’s World, I think.

Yeah, Lorraine. Sorry, you still don't make the cut. Sorry. 
Although if you fancy trying the basketball game I might tune in. Maybe.

2.5 hours later I arrived in Kyoto, which is just under 300 miles away from Japan. Amazing. More amazing still, my friends successfully found me at the station without any use of mobile phone technology, especially despite the many, many exits there appear to be at most railway stations in Japan. More on Kyoto soon. But immediately after lunch it became apparent that no, I would in no way be making it through the afternoon without a good three hour ‘nap’ and that yes, the travel had not left me unscathed. More soon. Now sleep. さようなら Sayōnara for now! 

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