|Near Osaka Station, the city skyline is a combination
of the old and the new. The ultra-modern Umeda Sky Building
is at right.
Saturday April 15
Packing the limited number of bags that we now had made
getting ready that morning quite easy. We had a leisurely breakfast
at the hotel and then rushed to catch a 9:30 bullet train to Tokyo.
A light, but steady rain was falling from dark and serious clouds.
The station was packed with Saturday shoppers, a combination of
those who had come to the many stores in the station and those who
were catching trains to shop elsewhere. We again took a local one
stop to Shin Osaka to meet the shinkansen.
We arrived with time to spare and walked up one level to the platform
(the shinkansen, being the most recent addition to Japan's rail
system, is always located on a station's top level). Our train was
there waiting and was quickly filled with families and groups of
housewives heading for shopping expeditions to various cities in
A train like the shinkansen would, for example, make it quite easy
for a Bostonian to breeze down to New York City for a day in the
department stores. Jet airliners are indeed faster, but the bullet
train makes it possible to go from city center to city center with
very little effort. The stations that house the bullet train are
usually also served by all the local lines, so its often possible
to go from your own neighborhood to a neighborhood in a distant
city with only two transfers. The shuttle flight between Boston
and New York takes less than an hour. But add in the travel time
to the airport, check in time and travel time from an outlying airport
to the center of the city and you've easily reached the three hours
the trip from Osaka to Tokyo takes by the standard bullet train.
(If you are really in a rush and money is not an object, you can
shave off nearly an hour by taking the nozomi Super Express--a faster
train with fewer stops).
For us, the Hikari express was fast enough. We would make about
four stops, arrive in Tokyo at 1:30 and would have about an hour
and a half to look around before heading back south.
A steady rain had begun to fall as we left Shin Osaka. It streaked
across the window as our train maneuvered through the inner city
at reduced speed. When we reached the outskirts, the train accelerated
and, even though I could still hear the rain ticking on the window,
there was no longer a trace of it to be seen. I watched and listened
to this same phenominon as we entered and left each station. I
still don't quite understand why I could hear, but not see, the
rain on the windows.
I've always have been the type who constantly gazes out the windows
when I am travelling. Even when I'm flying, the only thing that
can keep my attention inside is if the Earth below is covered
in the most nondescript and unbroken white fuzz of an overcast.
Even if it is, I will keep watch to see if there is the slightest
chance of a break. On trains, there is always something to keep
my attention. I have the chance to view a random slice of the
country, see the side of things that is not considered "public,"
and get brief snapshots of unknown lives. It is normally impossible
for me to sleep while I am travelling in a car, train or airplane.
However, I must admit, I found myself getting so relaxed on some
of the long, local train trips, like so many of the other passengers,
found myself nodding off.
The Comforts of Travel
On the shinkansen, one of the most popular pastimes is eating.
Every few minutes a vendor would push a cart down the aisle offering
a wide variety of meals, snacks and treats. They had everything
from full, bento-style lunches to candy and ice cream.
If you couldn't wait until they arrived, every other car had a
soda and coffee vending machine offering both hot and cold drinks
(these dual-temperature machines were virtually everywhere in
Japan). Depending on the length of the train you were on (there
usually either eight or sixteen cars in a bullet train) there
would be one or two well-stocked snack bars you could walk to.
All the food was fresh and splendidly prepared, but somewhat more
expensive than what you could find in the stations. On this trip,
we bought our lunch at Shin Osaka and ate while we were somewhere
in the vicinity of Hakone.
After we passed Kyoto and Nagoya, the train flirted with the
coastline the remainder of the way to Tokyo. Green farmland alternated
with densely populated cities that filled the horizon with the
jagged silhouettes of heavy industry. Many familiar names passed
by our window, Sony, Panasonic, Sharp and Nissan to name just
a few. In spite of the rain, there was work going on in the fields.
Some factory parking lots were partially filled with Saturday
As we proceeded further north, the steep hills grew nearer and
nearer to the sea and our train spent more and more time enveloped
in tunnels. We would spurt out just long enough to see cottages
and farms nestled in a little coastal valley and then plunge back
in. The tunnels got longer and longer and the valleys narrower
and narrower. I could see that we were drawing away from the ocean
and heading inland. Rather abruptly, we popped out of the last
tunnel and into a wide plain that began filling with factories
and factory towns. We were approaching the industrial area south
of Yokohama which would eventually blend into the outskirts of
Tokyo. Like many of the cities on Japan's Pacific coast (but on
a significantly larger scale), Yokohama is dedicated to manufacturing.
Tall smokestacks covered the horizon and mile after mile of working
class housing surrounded them. Most of these were tall and broad
blocks of uniform apartments and condominiums. In many cases,
these were subsidized housing units the companies provided to
their workers as part of their generous benefit packages.
A young, casually dressed couple had been sitting in the seat
in front of us since Osaka. As we approached Tokyo, the husband
got up and left the car with a small garment bag. A few minutes
later, he returned wearing a neatly tailored black suit and perfectly
shined shoes. Next, the wife got up and walked out with a significantly
larger suitcase. When she returned, after a considerably longer
delay, she was wearing a flowing, blue gown and a full coat of
perfectly applied makeup. My wife nudged me and whispered, "wedding."