5 August. Shinkansen to Hiroshima
We set out from Stephens apartment in the late morning and took the subway to Tokyo station.
There we waited to board the Shinkansen the bullet train - for Hiroshima. The sleek train drew into the station and an army of smartly-dressed cleaners swarmed into action. They each had a particular carriage to deal with and it was not long before we were able to enter Carriage no. 5 (non-smoking). It was, needless to say, spotless. Stephen turned one pair of seats through 180 degrees so that we had 2 pairs of seats facing each other.
Above the doors at each end of the carriage was an electronic noticeboard displaying the destination of the train alternately in kanji and English. As the journey progressed, it gave information as to the next stop, and when close, how far away it was. I noticed the train crew arriving. The train driver and conductor were dressed in fawn airline-pilots kit. Apparently only the real Úlite among train drivers drive the Shinkansen, and there is a lot of kudos attached.
Absolutely, precisely, exactly on time the train drew away from Tokyo station. The punctuality of railways and subway trains is amazing. Apparently you get an apology if the train is more than one or two minutes late. (By contrast, in the UK, you almost get an apology if the train is on time. Were so used to appalling levels of service that most people build in an allowance for lateness in their schedules.)
On the subway, there is a useful chart at each station that tells you how many minutes it takes from that station to each subsequent station. And theres something else. Railway and subway platforms are marked to show where you should queue to enter the train. And the train stops with a set of doors precisely next to those marks. On one occasion, the train was 25 cm too far forward when it stopped. I expect the driver committed seppuku (ritual suicide) to atone for this unforgivable blunder.
We passed through I guess half of Tokyo. Its amazingly b-i-g! It goes on for miles and miles of densely packed buildings. There seems to be no attempt to zone areas into residential, industrial, commercial, retail etc as is often the case in the UK. Blocks of flats may have offices to the north, a factory to the east, shops to the south and a Shinto shrine to the west. Close-packed Buddhist cemeteries sit next to houses. Hotels sit next to warehouses. Here and there are small gardens, a patch of greenery and blossom among the concrete, stone and wooden buildings. As we moved further and further from the centre of Tokyo, we saw little rice fields among the houses, and these grew in size as we moved into more open country.
On board the Shinkansen, there is a constant procession of people mainly young women carrying baskets over their arms, passing through the carriages. They are selling boxes of food (known as bento) and drinks. As they enter the carriage they bow low and say something in Japanese. As they leave the carriage, they turn round, bow deeply again, and say something else in Japanese before repeating the exercise in the next carriage. It looked very charming and was my first experience of Japanese bowing. I was somehow thrilled when the conductor came through the carriage in his aircrew uniform. He, too, bowed low as he entered, and bowed low again when he left. Although this was all a novelty to me, it did seem entirely natural in its context.
Passing in comfort and at very high speed (120+mph) through Osaka (Japans 2nd city, and similar in appearance to Tokyo, at least from the railway) and Nagoya and several other cities and towns, we arrived after 5 hours at Hiroshima. (Japan is a bigger country than I had envisaged.)
I am not sure what I expected, but I was somehow surprised by the bright, modern railway station. Hiroshima has such a destructive connotation the symbol of devastation for the whole world that this bright, modern, bustling, thriving, prosperous city was a bit of a wonder.
We took the tram past the Atomic Dome and walked along the side of the Memorial Park towards our hotel in a side street. The Hotel Ikedaya is billed as a minshuku, or traditional Japanese pension. We paid in advance for our room, which was, I think, a 10- or 12- mat room. Japanese rooms are measured by tatami, mats about six feet by three feet, made of (I think) rice straw neatly woven and edged with stout webbing binders. You never, absolutely never, walk on a tatami mat in your shoes. Indeed, it seems that whenever you walk on any floor other than in a public building (I mean a store, railway station, western restaurant etc), you exchange your shoes for slippers.
Slippers are a bit of a pain (literally) for gaijin (foreigners) like me. Not only do you have to remember to exchange your shoes for them, they are also designed to be comfortable for Japanese people, not giant gaijin. Japanese people have extremely small feet by western standards. Half of the time, the slippers available were just too small for me. This means that I would have to half slip the slippers on with the heel pressing into the sensitive area in the middle of the feet. I would then have to glide rather than walk, to prevent the slipper falling off. Although nothing was ever said, I could tell that the guy at hotel reception derived a good deal of amusement from my strange gait.
The problem (for gaijin) is compounded by the additional burden of going to the toilet. There you have to change into a different (and, in my experience, even smaller) pair of slippers. It is a matter of considerable hilarity, apparently, if a clumsy gaijin commits the faux pas of forgetting to exchange his toilet slippers for regular ones and turns up wearing them in public. I am proud to say that I never once fell into this trap (although I once nearly fell into the toilet because I overbalanced wearing tiny toilet slippers).
Japanese toilets are a strange contrast between old and new. Traditional Japanese toilets are an improved version of the hole in the ground. You have to squat over them, facing the flushing lever end. This is not easy, given the problems with the slippers (see above). Hence my near catastrophe on one occasion, in Kawaguchi. By contrast, modern Japanese WCs are often amazingly high-tech. There is a worryingly thick electric wire attaching to the WC, together with a console of many buttons. The seat is warmed (one hopes, electrically). Various kanji on the console presumably tell Japanese scholars exactly what function is selected. There are alarming illustrations of upward high-pressure squirts of water at various temperatures, and in at least one case, of a brush. I am told that in some ladies toilets, there was even a button to press that mimics the sound of flushing and refilling, to mask the natural sounds made during operation.
Oh, and Japanese toilet paper seems universally to be single ply.
But I digress. Having settled into our 3rd floor (Japanese floors are numbered consecutively from 1 ground floor upwards) family room (remembering to remove our shoes before stepping on to the tatami) we had a quick wash and brush up and stepped out into Hiroshima.
Walking back along the side of the park, we could hear rhythmic music and singing from what turned out to be a school yard. We entered and found a neighbourhood association bon festival under way. On a podium in the middle of the yard was a band of musicians, and there were a set of taiko drums at the foot of the podium, pounding out the BOOM, boom-boom rhythm we heard several times in our stay. A considerable number of men, women and children were dancing in a big circular procession round the podium. The dance was rhythmic, and involved complex arm movements with a fan, and turning in a personal circle while moving forward. It apparently loosely mimics movements made while harvesting rice by hand. The majority of participants were dressed in kimono, including young children, who looked particularly charming. (Im a sucker for anything that little children do, and may often be found about to blub at, say, a Nativity play.) A number of the women were wearing identical kimono, and we later learned that this was the outfit of a traditional dance society in the area.
Those native rhythmic drums got to Val, and it was only a second or two before she was dancing in the circle, and ere long, Stephen joined in too. Val was so good at it that a 4 or 5-year old Japanese girl stationed herself immediately behind her and copied her every move. A lady who was dancing soon furnished Val with a fan. A number of friendly Japanese (and most Japanese seemed very friendly throughout our stay) congratulated Val and Stephen on their performance.
We eventually left the festival and walked into central Hiroshima via the Peace Memorial Park. En route we saw the childrens memorial, bedecked with millions of origami cranes (the birds, I mean) on strings. (More about these in the 6 August edition of this lengthy account.) We entered a long shopping arcade in the centre, and ate at the Volks Family Restaurant. Thence home, stopping at a 24-hour convenience store to buy canned coffee etc and custard buns for our breakfast on the morrow.
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