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Osaka skyline
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 the north.

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 workers.

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."

Next: Tokyo




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