Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini.               

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This Month's AskTog Front Page
Japan on $1000/day
Day 1: Sticker Shock
Day 2: Among the Dead & Dying (Fish)
Day 3: Budda & Broken English
Day 4: Magic Toilets & Poisonous Fish
Day 5: Aircraft and Elevators
Sidebar: An Attitude of Quality
Day 6: Squirming Shrimp & Karaoki
Day 7: Pirate Ships & Long Flat Silver
Day 8: Country Inn at City Prices
Day 9: The Inside Scoop
Day 10: Hot in Hiroshima
Day 11: Castles in the Sky
Day 12: Where the Deer & Bon Jovi Play
Day 13: Doom
Day 14: The Summer Cottage
End: Have Toilet, Will Travel
Japan on $1000 per Day

Day 8: Country Inn at Big City Prices

We are standing on the bullet train platform at Okayama when we notice something strange about the tracks. There are four sets of tracks, the ouside pairs for local trains that stop for passengers, and two sets of tracks in the middle for North- and South-bound express trains. What seemed strange was that these middle tracks were banked at a really serious angle, particularly when you consider the station was straight enough that we hadn’t at first even noticed a curve at all. It seemed really excessive to have the track at such a steep incline unless the express trains came through the station at such a high speed that....

Whoommmppp. Whoooooooooooooooooooooosh.

Have you ever practically been blown off a platform by a train coming through a busy station at 235 MPH? No? Then you probably haven’t achieved a heart rate in excess of 300 beats per minute. It’s quite exhilarating, really.

This scheme wouldn't work in the USA. Everybody would be out on the tracks. Little kids. Mothers in hot pursuit. Aging hippies demanding their right to sit anywhere they please. "Suits" in need of shaving thirty seconds off their between-meeting time. All these and more would be routinely mowed down by fast moving-trains, with whatever remnants their relatives could assemble appearing in court to get their 10 million dollar payouts from the railroads.

Even though we were Americans, we elected to remain on the platform until our train came to a full stop. Once aboard, we sampled the train cuisine: the ever-present bento boxes, wheeled through the cars by young women every two or three minutes, or so. The food was cold, but very attractive and quite tasty (American Airlines, whose Japanese cookin' I mentioned in Day 1, was not involved in this cuisine).

After lunch, my anxiety level began to rise. Once we reached Nagoya, unfamiliar to us, we would have exactly 13 minutes to transfer to our train to Takayama, our day’s destination. Considering our experiences in Tokyo Station, I couldn’t see how it could be done, but Julie did it, using the now-patented Doctor Julie Moran Japan Train Station Methodology. It is really quite simple: you find anyone in any uniform of any sort and hold your train tickets up to them while looking around with a bewildered look on your face. It requires only 1.7 such manoeuvres to be on your way to the very platform you need. We transferred trains with five minutes to spare.

Takayama, nestled in the mountains, sports the required amount of neon and plastic, but still retains several square blocks of the one and two story shops and houses of wood darkened by the ages. It is a side trip well worth taking.
Note the delicate blending of old and new.

We stayed in a 150 year-old ryokan, a Japanese country inn, by the name of Kinkikan. It was a delight. When we first arrived and had slipped off our shoes, we were guided to our private room, consisting of eight six-foot by three-foot tatami mats, where we were immediately served tea. Then we were off on foot to visit two old merchants’ mansions that lie side-by-side near the river.

The houses were beautiful examples of fine wood craftsmanship, and we were both quite willing to immediately move in on a permanent basis, even if it did mean sitting on the floor.

We found in one of the display houses a fascinating placard explaining "the three miracles." It seems that during a single year in the 1950s, television, refrigerators, and washing machines all arrived in Japan. (Julie and I are at odds as to exactly what year the placard said it was.)

Exactly how this simultaneous miracle occurred was not mentioned at all. My conjecture was that the government decided to radically increase Japan’s power generating capacity in order to make such devices practical for the first time. Once the power was there, people bought. Julie’s conjecture was that the Japanese, as they are known to do, all simultaneously decided that these items were must-haves and all went out on the same day and bought them. (Japan is notorious for engaging in fads with a frequency and at a scale undreamed of in the West.) The answer awaits further research—or perhaps an explanatory email from one of you.

When we returned to our 8-tatami living room (rooms in Japan are measured in the number of standard tatami mats it takes to cover the floor), we changed into our yukatas—long cotton bathrobes similar in cut to kimonos—then headed out to the elevator to the top floor where we would separate to go into the his and hers public baths.

Fortunately for me, Julie looked down just before we got aboard and noticed my slippers.

In the room, you wear no slippers at all. When wandering through the halls, you wear very conservative brown slippers. Yet another pair of slippers is reserved exclusively for the toilet room. You can’t miss them: they are brightly colored and say "toilet" across the front.

It is in the poorest possible taste to wear these slippers out of the toilet and into your room. It is even worse to be standing in front of the elevator wearing them, as I was then.

Once I had changed out of my latest faux pas into the proper slippers, we retired to our separate, but equal public baths, where we (separately but equally) bathed with a couple from Kobe, vacationing in this arctic region of Japan where it was actually a few degrees below 100. The bath held a sweeping view of the city and the alps beyond. It was a thoroughly pleasant way to end a day.

When we returned to our room, we were served a veritable banquet. Dish after dish kept arriving.
Sashimi, "roast beef" (essentially raw beef that had been touched to the flame before slicing), all sorts of vegetables carved into imaginative shapes, a touch of tempura, a few succulent bites of char-broiled steak, two kinds of soup, a wonderful little fresh-water fish, crusted with salt, lavish displays of fruit, and on and on. We counted over 30 different, individually-prepared items, all flavorful, all beautiful.

When we were so stuffed we could only lay on the floor mats and groan, our maid shooed us out of our 8 tatami living room so she could transform it into our 8 tatami bedroom.

We took this opportunity to slip out for a walk along the street, clad only in our wooden clogs and yukatas. Our guidebook had made much of this wide-spread Japanese tradition, but it seemed that in all of Takayama, said tradition was being practiced only by a couple of foolish-looking gaijin over by Kinkikan. What made the whole thing particularly silly were the crowds of teen-age kids in short skirts and black leathers going into The Honky-Tonk Disco Club, immediately next door. We walked, nonchalantly, as far as the corner, where it was quite obvious things were not going to get better, then slunk back to the ryokan, trying to pretend we walk around the streets in our bathrobes all the time back home.

Back in our room, we found our futons prepared, and a small door now open in the ancient Japanese tonsu topped by our TV set. Inside were a multitude of Japanese movies of an adult nature, with dubious story lines but excellent production values.

They had thought of everything, including the little coin slot beside the VCR. 100 yen ($1.00) for 10 minutes. After paying $600 for a night’s lodging (meals included), dropping "silver dollars" in a coin slot every few minutes didn’t seem like such a big deal, and we were here, after all, to absorb the full Japanese experience. After completing our research, we popped in our earplugs to attenuate the quiet strains of the disco music pulsating through the walls from the Honky-Tonk next door, then drifted off to sleep.

Previously: Day 7: Pirate Ships & Long Flat Silver

Next: Day 9: The Inside Scoop: What really goes on in Japan from insiders who lived there.

A Reader Response

Hi Tog,

Your account (in “the Lighter Side”) of the Bullet train blasting through the station in Japan brought back a similar memory, and made me smile.

For two years (‘95 and ‘96) I was a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints [The Mormons] serving in the France Bordeaux mission. Missionaries usually labour in a given town for four to six months, and then “transfer” (always by train) to a different area. Then there are conferences to attend, trips to nearby cities for visa paperwork, etc. etc. By the time you’ve been in France six months, you’re pretty used to trains.

Most of my time was spent in the southwest part of the mission, in small towns between Bordeaux and Toulouse. I served two stints in Agen, a small town almost exactly halfway between those two cities. Since there are several TGVs (the French high-speed train; the fastest in the world) running between Bordeaux and Toulouse every day, I was in the Agen station a number of times when a TGV came ripping through at over 200KPH.

As impressive as that was, late in my mission I had a TGV experience I’ll never forget.

My companion and I had gone out to a little village called Aiguillon to visit a member of our church. Aiguillon is about a 20-minute train ride from Agen, in the direction of Bordeaux. Its train station is an old, tiny, rural thing: just a weathered stone building fronted by an almost-ground-level platform. There are just two tracks: one for each direction; and nothing but open sky once you come out of the little building. No public address system to announce the arriving or departing trains, just a little bell/buzzer that sounds when a train from either direction gets close enough. (This is in contrast to the relatively large Agen station, with its six tracks, fully enclosed from the main building to the last track, with underground walkways connecting the tracks and an automated PA system to announce the trains.) Our little episode occurred while waiting for our train to return to Agen.

Trains generally run precisely on time in France unless there’s a strike on. As luck would have it, there’d been perturbations at Bordeaux that day, and so our train was running late -- very late. So there we were, alone on the little rural platform, in the eerie silence of the countryside. It was late November: cold, damp and dark at almost 10:00 at night, and we were waiting for a little regional TER train (known as a “cattle car”) and beginning to wonder if it was coming at all.

We both started (startled?) when the little bell/buzzer went off, announcing our train’s arrival. I thought, “Well, finally...” and walked to the edge of the platform (another step and I’d have been on the tracks) to watch the train come around the bend about a quarter-mile away. It appeared quickly -- much sooner than I was used to. I thought “mmm..... that’s odd, I wonder why the... hey, waitaminnit, that thing’s going WAY too fast for a TER...” It didn’t look like it was stopping, either, so I started to step aside.

WHOOMP! I had moved maybe eight feet back from the edge when the TGV blasted by me, a high-speed juggernaut that shredded the night silence, screaming like a banshee as its cannoned tens of thousands of tons past me almost close enough to touch, moving too quickly even at that distance for me to see the faces in the windows. The wake it kicked up tore at my clothes and lifted dust and paper as far back as the terminal building.

And then it was gone. Half again as long as a normal train, it was past me in less than three seconds, and disappeared around the bend some 150 yards away almost before I could turn my head to catch it.

All my comp and I could do was look at each other in stunned amazement and say “Wow!”

As it turns out, I was lucky. Even the TGV is limited to “only” 224 KPH when running on normal tracks. If I’d been standing that close and it had passed me on high-speed rails at its standard cruising speed of 380 KPH, who knows what would have happened. The funny thing was I didn’t feel danger at the time. Just as you described, it was exhilarating: whoa, cool! It was over before I’d even had a chance to react.

Anyway, thanks for letting me write that out. I enjoy your website and am a regular reader who benefits greatly from the more serious content.


Chuck McKinnon.

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