Monday, April 17
The morning was as clear, bright and cloudless as any
morning I had witnessed in California. As early as it was, the
air had the feel of warmth to it that was more like summer than
the beginning of spring. We began our day trip to Akiyoshi, Asia's
largest limestone cave, just after the commute traffic cleared.
As was often the case, the longest part of the trip in terms of
distance (the 110 kilometers between Hiroshima and Yamaguchi)
was covered by the shinkansen in about thirty minutes and would
be the shortest as measured by time. And once again, we would
be making our trip, door-to-door, by public transit.
We started with a very short walk to the local bus stop which
brought us to Hiro Station for the trip to Hiroshima, which I
had, by now, nearly memorized. The train was full, with lots of
chattering housewives and schoolchildren who were dozing, studying
or sending e-mail on their cell phones. Even though the scenery
outside the window changed from place to place, the scene inside
the train seemed very much the same all through Japan. In the
city, their were more dark-suited salerymen and uniformed office
ladies. In the countryside there seemed to be more farm and factory
workers. In spite of this widespread uniformity, I never felt
out of place. Sometimes, in rural areas, young children would
stare a little. To them, gajin, (Westerners) were something
out of the movies (yes, Hollywood rules Japan, as well). But with
everyone else, my presence was ignored.
station was still moderately busy when we arrived there mid-morning.
We went upstairs to buy our tickets to Yamaguchi. On this trip,
we would be able to take the new RailStar. This was the newest
of the shinkansen series, having made its commercial debut just
over a month earlier. The new train was object of intense publicity
and advertising. It was impossible to walk through a JR station
and not have some mention of the RailStar out of your line of
sight. The Hiroshima Station had a large, walk-through exhibit,
huge scale model and mock-up of an interior compartment that would
have been worthy of a place in any great science museum.
On the RailStar
The Hikari RailStar (also known as the Model 700) was
smaller and faster than the Model 100 we normally rode. Even though
it wasn't quite as fast as the Nozomi (Model 500), it was more
efficient and required less maintenance. (Part of the expense
of the Nozomi came from the fact that its great speed steadily
destroyed the rail beds that it rode on.) As impressed as I was
with my rides on the Model 100, the RailStar was noticeably smoother
and quieter, the beneficiary of a decade of advances in engineering
and aerodynamics. The difference was most apparent when we passed
another RailStar several miles outside of Hiroshima. When to Model
100s converge at full speed, the sound inside the passenger compartment
is like a muffled explosion. It's actually a bit startling the
first few times you hear it. When two RailStars pass, the effect
is much more subtle, barely enough to wake a light sleeper.
One of the new
amenities introduced with the RailStar is the "Silent Car."
This is a special, reserved-seat car (in both smoking and non-smoking
versions) that is kept as quiet as a library. Station and information
announcement only appear on the LED marquees at either end of
the car, the PA is not used. Vendors with their food carts do
not call out. If you want something, you can signal them silently
and point or whisper to them. There are even clips for tickets
on the seatbacks, so you can relax undisturbed by the conductor.
Even though the use of cell phones in the passenger sections of
all the cars is frowned upon (you are requested to go to the area
between cars to make and take calls), this restriction is strictly
enforced in the Silent Car.
The ride to Yamaguchi was all too brief and the train spent most
of the time in long tunnels cutting through the mountainous terrain.
I was always amazed at the amount of time and money that must
have been spent on creating the bullet train system in Japan.
As trains go, the shinkansen has to be the most pampered of railway
prima donnas. It can only handle the gentlest of curves, so the
apex of major directional changes are located in the vicinity
of the major stations where the train's speed is restricted. The
shinkansen can not climb any significant grades, either. So it
must tunnel through, rather than go up or around Japan's numerous
hills and mountains--Japan has no wide plains, to speak of. And
finally, cars and bullet trains do not mix. Anywhere there may
be automobile traffic, the track needs to be elevated. Anywhere
the train is at ground level, it is protected by tall, meticulously
maintained fences. Hitting any object, even the small, furry kind,
at over 200 MPH can be very expensive.
In Yamaguchi, the clear, summer-like weather continued.
The station here was a somewhat compact version of the Hiroshma
Station. Even though there were no large department stores, there
were still an abundance of places to shop and eat. We found a
counter at the far end of the station that sold the rather pricey
tickets for the hour-long bus ride to Akiyoshi, which included
admission to the cave. (We discovered on the way back that there
was a JR bus that traveled the same route that we could have taken
for free with our Rail Pass.)
Yamaguchi, the capital city of the prefecture by the same name
is primarily an industrial, business and shipping region. The
prefecture's proximity to the island of Kyusu and the Korean straight
a region with a history of strategic and economic importance.
However, on this morning, the neighborhoods our bus passed through
as we headed out of the station and into the countryside, presented
Yamaguchi's sleepier side. Even many of the older buildings we
passed by in the city were lighter in color than was used to seeing
here and had something close to a Mediterranean style. I must
admit that it may have been the unusually clear skies and bright
sun after so many days of clouds and rain that gave this impression.
Our bus was a typical country bus. It was an older model, but
not at all tired. Mechanically and esthetically, it was meticulously
maintained. The green, velveteen seats had a little more padding
than one would expect on a public bus and fresh, white linen antimacassars
graced each seatback. Even though the small, seat-back trays had
been removed some time before, drink holders were still mounted
on a stained-wood panel on the seat in front. The windows were
arranged in a way so that nearly every passenger could choose
whether they desired a fresh breeze or not.
Like most country busses, the stops were counting down on a keno-like
display grid above the driver. When the bus completed or passed
a stop, its name or number would either darken or light up based
on whether the bus was headed towards or away from its yard. As
the lights changed, the ticket dispensers would either increment
or decrement the fares printed on the tickets the passengers take
when they board. It was a system that took me a while to figure
out, but it made a great deal of sense and had been around for
quite a few years.
We crossed and invisible but very distinct border where the City
of Yamaguchi stopped and the rural regions of the prefecture began.
Rice was clearly the main crop being grown on the terraced farmland.
The plots were all of modest size and were obviously family farms.
There were some wider fields just beginning to sprout with plants
I couldn't yet identify and often at their edge was a large, proud
This time of year, coming up on the day of the Children's Festival
(Kodomo no Hi), the fifth day of the fifth month, families
with boys would put up tubular, kite-like streamers (koinobori),
colorfully painted as carp to celebrate the presence of male children
in the family. The legend of the carp, fighting his way up a waterfall
to become a dragon at its peak, is likened to a boy successfully
growing up to adulthood. The Doll Festival, focusing on girls,
takes place on the third day of the third month. For this festival,
families with girls will erect an intricate and often very expensive
tiered displays of historically costumed dolls. In their original
forms as boys' and girls' festivals, the celebrations date back
to ancient times but were modified somewhat during the postwar
years to attenuate the gender-specific links.
Next: A very small town
and a very big cave