The shinkansen is really the Rolls Royce of train travel.
You can get a reservation (you might as well if you have a JR Pass) up to the few minutes before the train arrives. Your ticket will show your reservation and the platform has lines painted on it to show you where to stand to get on the train at the exact place to find your seats.
Inside it is spacious and sort of calm. It has a feeling a bit like being on a plane. There’s loads of leg room but not many places for big luggage. You could easily store a small suitcase in the space between you and the next seat, though. There’s a vending machine somewhere on the train and also a trolley service. Some trains even have a smoking carriage, which to my smoke-ban British sensibilities seems CRAZY. My favourite bit was the person whose job seemingly is to walk through each carriage, turn to face all the passengers (remember the seats all face the direction of travel) and do a bow before going off to bow at the next carriage. I loved that person.
I wanted to test the claim that the bullet trains are so punctual one could set one’s watch by them. So at each station I looked at the board on the platform to see what time it was due to leave and every single time the train left within 15 seconds of that time. AMAZING.
The train goes very, very fast. The scenery tends to be very developed the whole way. I think much of Japan is developed because of its geology. As far as I can tell, long island = mountains in the middle = building most of the stuff around the edges.
This is a typical view from the train. The green net thing is a golf driving range. As space is at such a premium in Japan you’ll often see these golf ranges on top of buildings. Crazy fun.
We hurtled towards Tokyo with our milk and instructions to meet our host at the “statue of a dog” at Shibuya station.
We arrived into Tokyo, and headed straight for Shibuya on the JR Yamanote line (so no need to buy any further tickets). The only evidence of the country’s largest ever earthquake and impending nuclear doom was the lack of gaijin, and a few train services which were cancelled “due to earthquake”. A considerably better excuse than “signal failure” (I’m looking at you, TfL.)
Shibuya crossing is one of the most famous images of Japan/Tokyo. A buzzing, bright, flashing example of the mega-tropolis that is Tokyo.
Due to the earthquake and the power station troubles, electricity conservation was being strictly adhered to in Tokyo. When we arrived, this is what Shibuya looked like:
Obviously it was in the day time but none of the screens were on and all the advertising lights were off.
And still, we could see no western people. Our blond-haired Dutch friend would be incredibly easy to spot.
We had a bit of time to kill so we wandered over to the Starbucks (you can see in the shiny photo) to get a coffee.
Not as easy as you’d imagine! Japanese love their coffee cold, so you have to specify ‘hot’ if you want a hot coffee. All the sugars are liquid sucrose sachets because of this. Small differences, but so weird. And then the whole place was a crazy, cacophonous melee & our first encounter with the high pitch that Japanese ladies vocally favour.
Coffees in hand we went to find the “dog statue” where we were to meet our host. I found a mural on a wall with some dogs on it and assumed that was it. Within a few minutes my face obviously giving off a “not sure if this is right” vibe, some lovely girls approached us and asked if we needed any help. I said something along the lines of us being ok, but then I said (literally, this is exactly what I said) “something about a dog?” to which they went “ahhh” and took us around a corner to where there was a big statue of a dog. The Hachiko dog, in fact.
Helpful, lovely people!
Our friend arrives, we have some mega hugs, and she decides we should hang around and wait for the rush hour to calm down before heading home. A short walk from where we were stood waiting for her is a teeny street I think called Nonbei Yokocho. It is lined with the dwttyest bars I’ve ever seen.
We went to a bar that could seat 4 people. I think this is the one. Katie seemed to know the bartender, who spoke very good English. But she’s so gregarious it sometimes seems she knows everyone on the Earth. We had a few Asahis in this tiny bar and the chat was mostly about the exodus of Westerners from Tokyo, now termed ‘flyjin‘. I loved this tiny bar. If we weren’t with Katie we would never have a)found it b)had the confidence to go in. It felt like Japanese people may have been drinking beer in this tiny booze den for hundreds of years. Another place I had this cozy, local feeling in was the Bar Al Campanile in Venice which doesn’t even have chairs but does serve a killer spritz.
Katie gave us a Pasmo each and handed me a moleskin with useful stuff in.
The useful stuff included a quick guide for use in case of quake/tsunami/fallout. Note the important last step.
The drinking of beer was very much a “survival technique” employed by us during our time in quake-hit Tokyo.
We headed to Katie’s amazing Tokyo home, stopping at a shop to get some things for dinner where we bumped into her dad doing the same thing. Only Katie & her dad were still in Japan as her mother & sister had flown home to escape the quake/nuclear problems (pah! flyjin!). Fresh fruit and veg were thin on the ground in the shop (figuratively, I mean – they were actually displayed hygienically in boxes) and instant ramen was looking sparse as well as there being no milk.
Papa Katie made us dinner before we headed out for a “nightcap” at a sake bar up the road.
Now, I don’t remember taking these photos, but evidently I did.
We tried a variety of sakes and I do remember enjoying a cloudy one.
Also, I remember they gave us free nibbles.
Then, I think we bought a Crunky each from the shop on the way home at approx 3am. 24 hour convenience shops FTW.
And then, as we stumbled into our bedroom, another reminder of the curious situation we found ourselves in – some face masks left for us in case of emergency.