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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.

RailstarHiroshima 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 farmhouse.

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




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