My daughter lives in Yamagata province in northern Japan. Our boat is arriving at the small town of Sakaiminato in Tottori. There are still 1300 kilometres to cross with a total train journey of around 12 hours until we get there, if we get there. Trains leave Sakaiminato on the half hour every hour, and there are only three that will get us to our destination today.
The 10.30 is my preferred journey, because we only need to catch four trains if we leave at this time. The 12.30 is the last and least favourite option because it involves seven trains, even more than we had to catch on the first day of our journey. The boat is due in at nine, and my internet sources claim it can take around two hours to clear customs and transfer to the rail station. I’ve taken screen-shots of all the possible train connections on my phone, just in case.
We sail into port on a beautiful sunlit morning. My hopes of an easy journey are raised because we seem to be ahead of schedule. We arrive twenty minutes early and drag all our baggage out into the central lobby. Then they tell us. We are quarantined. There is some flu outbreak, and the Japanese will not admit us to their country until they have taken everybody’s temperature. We make our way back to the dormitory.
Nothing happens and no one tells us what is going on. I wander out for a look and am sent straight back to my room. The Russian girls are busy dividing up their hoard of jellied seaweed. V is unpacking and repacking her bag in order to find something lost or lose something found. Finally some crew arrive with a Japanese man holding a device not dissimilar to a Tricorder from the original Star Trek series.
The Russian woman left us in Korea. No one seems to have told the crew. They can’t work out why there are only seven people in an eight-bunk cabin and clearly seem concerned that she might have gone AWOL, spreading viruses as she goes. The Russian girls, who hitherto have been unable to hear or speak a single word of English, now manage to tell the medical officer what has happened, in reasonably good English. Finally the Tricorder is aimed at each of our foreheads, and we are all pronounced to be in the rudest of good health.
From then on everything works like a dream. After a short conversation to say goodbye to C, our carriage companion from the Trans-Siberian, we are off the boat. There is little or no queueing to move through passport control, and the customs officer sees no reason to stop us, having already taken M’s luggage apart a few minutes earlier. Outside the door a free shuttle bus and its driver are waiting, as is M, inhaling smoke to calm his nerves. We almost make the half nine train.
I find the Japan Rail office and convert our JR Pass coupons into weekly tickets and then make reservations on each of today’s planned trains. On the dot of half past ten our first train arrives. In the land of the bullet train, our first train is the BB pellet. And there is something bizarre going on. We walk outside onto the platform and it is packed with people. And not just people. There are also life size children’s cartoon characters walking around and waving us on our way.
The train, too, has had a makeover. Inside and out it is decorated in cartoon characters, and each station announcement is given by a precocious young child with an increasingly annoying voice. It takes the train forty minutes to cover the 16 km to Yonago, a stopping train that barely gets started. We pass a number of small towns, and allotments, at such a slow pace that it feels we could almost have a chat with the people as they garden.
At twenty past ten we arrive into Yonago. This is our tightest connection. We only have ten minutes to find the right platform and drag all our luggage there. No sooner are we off the train but we run into another of V’s coterie of far-travelled young men. Is he going to Okayama like us? No, he’s off to Hiroshima, so we part again.
I spot two railway employees emerging from a door and walking towards me along the platform. Suddenly they realise that I’m going to speak to them. They look terrified. I quickly put them out of their misery. In my best, and worst, Japanese accent I pose my sophisticated question. Okayama? They look relieved and point to the very platform we are standing on. We position ourselves on the marker for Carriage 3, and shortly after are bundled onto the express train by another helpful but anxious official.
At Okayama, waiting for the bullet train to Tokyo (I’m saying that in a Bono/Joshua Tree voice) we bump into M, from V’s card circle, who made the 9.30 train off the boat. We sit together in an empty carriage until the conductor moves him to First Class. Young people today, eh? At Tokyo we swap bullets and at Tendo our daughter is waiting for us with boyfriend and boyfriend’s car. All of a sudden our adventure is over and our holiday beginning.
Although we’ve only been in the country for 12 or 13 hours I have three clear first impressions of Japan.
The first and most immediate impression that Japan has given me is of absolutely stunning scenery. That journey from Yonago to Okayama was spectacular. We swept through luxuriant, verdant mountains, careering alongside fast-running streams, sometimes with the flow, sometimes against it. In the flatter, more built-up, areas I noticed perfectly manicured lawns in front of and between the houses, until I realised that they were actually small rice fields, planted in every available area. The houses in comparison to Siberia look modern and well-built, all with new modern roofs, many adorned at the edges with small dragon motifs.
The second first impression has been made by the various toilets I’ve already encountered, computerised toilets. Every toilet has a control panel of varying complexity beside the seat which at its simplest allows you to fire various shapes of water jet at your own undercarriage. Most also have a facility to play a simulated flushing sound to mask whatever noise you are making yourself, and in the most advanced models a range of other sounds and music can be played. These toilets are either the hallmark of a very sophisticated society, or one that is deeply uncomfortable with bodily functions.
The third first impression, reinforced throughout our stay, has been one of exquisite customer care. Your very entry into a shop is enough to prompt a smiling welcome of “Irashaimase!” with the final ‘a’ vowel sound sometimes extending towards breathlessness. It took me a while to figure out quite what was happening. In the station café the welcome was warm, smiling, and definitely an encouragement to buy. Late at night in the 24/7 Recycle store, I was mistakenly convinced, and quite impressed, that they had employed someone with Tourette’s who was yelling something incomprehensible at random but frequent intervals.
In the 109 department store in Tokyo, however, all reason seemed to have gone out the window. Why make do with a simple “Irashaimase!” when there are hordes of rush hour pedestrian commuters to entice into your shop for large percentages off. Each franchise had a handful of girls in the longest available legs to cavort around in front of their stall with rolled up yellow fliers doubling as makeshift megaphones, hollering at shoppers not to miss out. Eight floors of this with at least a dozen franchises on each floor: mayhem.
Long after the first impression of customer service had settled into my head, however, came realisation of the limitations to that service. If you want something off menu or not in the script, then no matter how much smiling and nodding you receive, you probably aren’t going to be given what you’ve asked for. But hey, coming from Britain, or off the Trans-Siberian train, smiling and nodding is good.
At some point I might blog about my time in Japan, but for now I’ve just plucked a handful of images to leave you with…
The Zen-like rose garden at Higashizawa where V and I rang the anniversary happiness bell while the simple notes of a musical box chimed softly from loudspeakers across the hillsides. The “flower festival” in Obanazawa City we were taken to that was out-blossomed by over three billion Yen’s worth of supercars. Two temples: Yamadera perched near the mountain tops and only reached after climbing one thousand steps, and Asakusa temple in the heart of Tokyo, only reached after passing 1000 souvenir shops, or so it seemed. And finally, last and definitely not least, the ‘scramble’ pedestrian crossing in Shibuya, where only people can block out the ubiquitous neon advertising, and where I saw my first wedding photographs taken.
Before we left home, everyone I spoke to about this journey said “Trans-Siberian? Oh, I’d love to do that!”
Well, why don’t you?
If you think I can help at all, ask me.