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Friday, April 14

We awoke on Friday morning to the sound of commuter trains arriving and departing Osaka Station. Fortunately, the windows of the hotel were admirably soundproofed. Our hotel breakfast in Osaka wasn't quite as extravagant as Kyoto and the odor of cigarette smoke hung thick in the air. As a result, we had a rather quick meal and got an early start on our day.

Our short walk to the station gave us enough above-ground exposure to discover that a hazy sun had already started to take the chill out of the air. This time of year, the forecast of rain for the following day usually meant that this one would be warm.

Hikari RailStar
Even though it is somewhat slower than the Nozomi, the Hikari RailStar is the newest and most efficient member JR West's bullet train fleet.

We hopped on a local for the short ride to Shin Osaka (New Osaka) Station, where we would pick up the shinkansen for Nagoya. As huge as Osaka Station is, it is not on the Shinkansen line. Waiting for our garden-variety Hikari shinkansen, I got a very brief look at a super-sleek Nozomi express, the fastest of the bullet trains, hurtling through the station after slowing to well over a hundred miles per hour. It's dramatic entrance (and equally dramatic exit) was preceded by a warning announcement and a the pulsing alarm of a loud buzzer that lasted for a long, fifteen seconds followed by a brief but ominous silence. Like a jet aircraft approaching at a very high speed, the Nozomi makes very little noise until it is right on top of you. Then, there was the sound of a sustained, muffled explosion lasting for the four or five five seconds it took for the train to pass through the station.

Nagoya is a major industrial city a little over 100 miles north of Osaka. It's a fairly quick trip on the shinkansen. We bought a light snack and some canned drinks on the platform to supplement our breakfast. Soon, our train arrived and we were enjoying the quiet, airline-smooth ride of one of the most comfortable forms of transportation in the world. In a few moments, we were out of the city and the train accelerated to full speed. Even though I had ridden the bullet train before, it is still impossible for me to get used to how quickly the scenery passes. It is like watching a movie playing too fast to be real. The foreground is a complete blur and the background passes more quickly than it should. Our one stop was in Kyoto Station and then we proceeded directly to our destination.

Nagoya has a long tradition of being a major manufacturing center and is the home of any number of world-class corporations, including Noritake, the makers of some of the finest porcelain available anywhere in the world. It's intricate patterns and delicate designs grace the tables of Japan's imperial family and five-star hotels on several continents. My wife is a collector of antique Noritake, so a tour of the factory was high on our agenda of things to do.

Noritake factory
My wife at the home of her beloved Nippon porcelain.

The tour actually takes place in the company's Welcome Center, a mini-factory specially set up to show visitors the unique manufacturing process. A small group of us were provided with an English-speaking guide, a perky young lady who just transferred from another department and was enthusiastically (and perhaps, a touch nervously) giving her first tour. The techniques we were shown were fascinating, even to someone with only a passing interest in porcelain and the result of over a century's refinement. I was particularly impressed by the artists responsible for hand painting the custom designed pieces. One was working on a large vase featuring hand-painted portraits of the customer's pet (a corgi, I believe). Working from a handful of amateurish snapshots, he was in the process of creating a virtual museum piece. A creation like this would require up to six months and command something close to a six-figure price.

The Noritake Company dominates the entire Japanese ceramics industry and fine porcelain is only a small part of their product line. I was surprised to learn that Toto was also under their corporate umbrella. They manufacture the sleek and super-sophisticated bathroom fixtures that enjoy a near-monopoly in the country.

Shortly after noon, we were on our way back to Nagoya station for a quick lunch before the trip back to Osaka. I was still amazed by how the shinkansen compresses time and distance. In America, this would have been a tiring day trip, rather than an enjoyable morning outing. We had many more plans for the afternoon and evening which would have been impossible without this wonderful railway. Before settling in for a short nap, my wife called her sister from the train to update her on our schedule. It didn't occur to me until I was married that one of the drawbacks of being an only child is not having any nieces or nephews. Happily, when I got married, I inherited two of each and the most wonderful ones I could ever hope for. We had barely made it back to our hotel room before we heard the enthusiastic knocking of some little knuckles on our door. I was greeted by shouts of "Oji-san!" (uncle).

Next: Uncle Ric gets a tour of Osaka




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