Japan, Day 6: Bullet Train Travel

Kakunodate Ryokan Sign

Kakunodate Ryokan Sign

I awoke early, at 6:15am, and I’m glad I did. I had plenty of time to stretch, dress, and walk around Kakunodate with my camera before leaving.

Low clouds hung over Kakunodate, and the air held the cool promise of autumn. I returned to the river walk and took more photos, though the diffused light did the river no justice.

Back to the hotel, where I reluctantly gathered my belongings and checked out. I told the staff that this was my first stay at a ryokan, and that it was perfect. Their faces lit up in delight, and one replied, “Please come again!” I answered that I would very much like to.

I strolled back to the Japan Rail station, and encountered a bit of trouble finding the entrance. That’s one disadvantage of these small towns: the signage is meant to blend in, not stand out. I eventually found it, sat for a few minutes, then walked out to the platform to catch the bullet train to Tokyo, whence I would go to Kyoto.

I boarded, and once on the train I checked my ticket for the second leg of my journey, and realized something. The ticket listed the train’s name, not the rail line, and the signs in Tokyo Station list rail lines (once you get to the line, signs list the next few trains). And I only had 20 minutes to make my transfer.

My heart palpitating, I checked my printed records. Bless my printed records, they listed the Tokaido line. The train is at once exciting and dull. I sat there for 4 hours just to get to Tokyo, after all. However, quiet, rural Japanese scenery flashes by all the time.

I arrived in Tokyo station and looked for the Tokaido line. I found it, entered the area, looked up…and my train wasn’t listed. Cue more heart palpitations. I exited and walked up to a JR attendant, which fortunately stand next to every turnstile. I showed her my ticket and asked, in Japanese, where the train was. She said, and suddenly all was clear, “Ah, go down that hall, on the left to the Tokaido Express.”

So. Different line. I headed there and huffed my way up the stairs to the platform, still with 12 minutes to spare. There was the sign proclaiming my train.

With an unclenching gut, I got on board. I’ll skip the description of the rude guy.

I kept my camera on my lap, as I knew the train would pass through some beautiful Japanese countryside. I was right. More than that, after about half an hour, we passed by Mount Fuji. I whipped out my camera, and checked that off my list. Hurrah!

Mount Fuji

Mount Fuji

I arrived in Kyoto very much ready to find my hotel. I arrived to find that Kyoto Station is huge, vertically as well as horizontally. I felt like I was in a cathedral.

Fortunately, I turned a corner towards an exit, looked out the plate glass window, and saw the name of my hotel on the building across the street. Hallelujah! A short walk over, and a quick query of a local driver because the lobby looked nothing like a lobby, and I was checking in to the Hotel Vista.

My room was the first room I’d had so far that felt truly cramped. The entire room was three feet wider than the bed. The window was a Vista, all right: a vista of the fire escape.

But it was a room with a soft bed and a bathroom. I rested for a few moments, then headed back out to find Nishi-Honganji Temple.

This nicely illustrates one difficulty of Kyoto. Dozens of shrines and temples dot the city. This complicates any attempt to visit more than one; they aren’t clustered.

My printed map indiciated that one, Nishi-Honganji, was two streets away: down one street, then take a right and it was a few blocks away. I decided to prove this, by just finding the temple complex, then returning to my hotel room. I’d fully visit the following day.

To my delight, the map was right. Ten minutes after exiting my hotel, I was snapping pictures of a massive temple complex. Success!

As I walked back to my hotel, I drank in Kyoto. I really like this city. Tokyo has an Eastern US feel: busy, stressed people bustle from one hot spot to another. Kyoto feels more like the American Midwest; it’s more casual and neighborly somehow.

In any event, I had just spent 7 hours on two trains, then explored a foreign city. I needed dinner.

The ground floor of Kyoto Station contains dozens of shops, mainly for tourists who need a last-minute gift or want a traditional meal. Lots of noodles on display.

It also holds a McDonald’s, and I decided to try that out. I ordered a “Chicken Filet’O,” fries, and an iced tea. The tea was green tea, of course. I bit into the sandwich, and my eyes widened. Two reasons: one, it was all dark meat, so more flavorful than ours. Two, it was juicy. Our chicken sandwiches tend towards the dry side; this was positively dripping with juices. Delicious.

I ended up sitting for ten minutes, sipping my drink while slipping surreptitious glances at nearby patrons, willing them to get up and show me how to dispose of my trash. I didn’t see a place for trays, and two employees were wandering around cleaning, but they weren’t disposing of trays. What to do?

Finally the four tweens sitting next to me put away their Nintendo DS’s and took their trays to a hidden platform. Ah-ha! I played the responsible citizen, disposed of my trash and trays, and returned triumphant to my hotel room to get some much-needed sleep.

Tomorrow: my first full day in Kyoto!

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