Monday, June 16, 2008


Japan is known worldwide for it's effective, highly accessible, well managed and punctual-to-a-fault rail lines. These include subways, maglev (magnetic levitating), and bullet trains that run like clockwork in a way that would confuse the hell out of any other country. So on Saturday morning, we walked about five minutes to the local subway stop, hopped the Maranouchi Line to Tokyo Station, and then boarded the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto. The Shinkansen operate about every 10 minutes, so there really isn't much concern on whether you will make it onto the train or not. But what is amazing is that the Japanese love their trains so much that there are three different kinds of bullet train. The fastest and most expensive is known as the Nozomi and will get you to Kyoto a full 20 minutes faster than the next fastest bullet train. It's sleeker, sexier, and sounds way cooler than anything else offered, so we opt for that and are soon thereafter heading down the rail lines at warp speed. Kyoto or bust!

Upon arrival, we notice dramatic changes almost immediately from the dizzying pace of Tokyo. Kyoto is much more relaxed and less frantic. People walk and look around, and in many instances will actually smile at you. In Tokyo, no one smiles or talks on the sidewalk. And subways... forget about it. Ask Huntington about what happened to him in February when he was joking around on the Ginza Line. Yee cats.. he got a serious talking to by some older Japanese man. Here in Kyoto, we even see people walking around in Kimono, going to the store, walking down the street. Not like a "hey let's go meet the tourists" or even like a Disney display. But like they want to dress in traditional robes, and do so with no weird looks.

Dad and I had signed up for tours in English, which worked out really well. On my first visit to Kyoto, I didn't tour.. just visited shrines. This was expensive, tiring and boring. The Kyoto shrines aren't exactly next to each other so you need taxis. Taxis know this, so they kick off their fare at 610 Yen- almost $6 and then rise rapidly. Gotcha, silly tourists. Shrines charge too. Like lots for the more famous ones. And most signs are in Japanese, so you get to do this little exercise whereby most money flies out of your pocket and then you walk around a shrine w/o knowing much about what you see. This time, we had tour guides who could speak English and relate what we were looking at.

But I still took some of it with a grain of salt. When I was 22 and working as an intern for Senator John Warner, I was asked on a particularly busy day to help run tours of the U.S. Capital Building. The problem at the time was that I really didn't know much about the building's history, so Marion (the regular) asked me to go along with her and pick up on the facts. I think after eavesdropping on two tours, I had about 1/3 of the random fun-facts locked in before being thrown to the wolves. Man, what a tour these poor people received.:

- "Hey, who is the person in that statue, and what did he do?" "Wow, good question. You know, his statue is in the Capital Building, so he must have done something important."

- "That canvas was painted in 1845 and hung in 1856" (I had no idea)

Ever since then, I don't truly trust facts & figures of tour guides. But they were able to get us into some fantastic shrines- several of which I hadn't seen on my first visit. A quick sampling of those shrines are below:

While there, we had some unique experiences. Like this one, taken of a "good luck fountain". I'm sure it was good luck, and many people swear by it. There are three cascading lines of water that people will dip a cup into and drink from. Each stream stands for something different. One stream is for good fortune in business. One is to have success in meeting a new boyfriend/girlfriend. And one is for something else, like having a kid. the problem is that I can't remember which is which, and the guide screws it up also. This is serious business, people. So no way am I going to go over there, and think I'm getting success in business, only to find out that I just drank from the kid stream. So, I just stay to the side and watch.

And then there are these little guys, good luck Buddha's nestled away happily in their pagoda homes. If you do succeed in drinking from the correct stream and the stork delivers you a little bundle, you come back to this shrine and dress up a Buddha in a red bib. Or, you can go overboard and buy the accessory pack. This one looked like an artiste though- complete with a little pillow and beret to accompany his bib. Its all about accessorizing, so I'm told..

And we thought that the Bengal Tiger were ferocious (once we actually saw them). Those guys don't hold a candle to the ones we saw in Kyoto. Check out this woman, quaking in fear at the prospect of being discovered by the tiger for stealing his water:

Yes, tiger in Kyoto were a force to be reckoned with. But from what we learned, the real threat to the Shogun and Samurai warriors were thieves and assassin, which took their shots on a regular basis. At one temple, the Shogun actually had something installed called the "Nightingale Floor"- a wood floor designed and constructed to clearly squeak once stepped on the slats. We, basically, have the ability to stroll the halls and enjoy the squeak as we walk he length of what was the Shogun's quarters. But at the time, if you were a Ninja trying to take someone out you would very quickly be SOL and find out just how sharp the business end of a Katana really is. Yes, that means even if.... you... are... Ninjaaaaaaaaaaaa......

And who wouldn't be worried? We were walking down the street when a real, live Ninja appeared out of the fog. Here's one that snuck up on us- Ninja were highly trained in the art of stealth in order to carry our their assassinations of Shogun and Samurai. So when this one crept up on us, I know I was scared. Wouldn't you be?

I don't understand why (especially with the new, svelte version of me catting around), but for some reason in Japan, kids think that I'm a baseball player. The favorite guess on my team seems to be the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. Personally, I'd rather play for the Tokyo Giants but I guess my agent didn't work hard enough to get me onto that team.

Curious. So it wasn't much of a surprise when we stopped at one temple and I was approached by two boys who wanted to take their picture with me. Since its in-vogue for Japanese to throw up the peace sign when taking pictures, I did the same and walked away from two boys with ear-to-ear grins:

Finally after two fun-filled days in Kyoto, dad and I looked to make our way back to Tokyo and one last dinner/day before flying home. I was definitely excited- again we took the super-fast Shinkansen Nozomi back to Tokyo Station. The Nozomi is the latest iteration of the Japanese bullet train network and it's hyper fast speeds will crank passengers back to Tokyo in a little over two hours at well over 150mph. The next fastest bullet train takes a full twenty minutes longer, and the third version twenty minutes behind that. Pish posh. Who would want to take one that slow? I mean, come on. In all seriousness, how amazing that this rail system is so advanced that you have your choice of a variety of bullet trains.

The first time I saw the Nozomi, I was at the Nagoya Worlds Fair in 2005- it's grand unveiling. In order to get to the JR Line pavilion though, you had to take a maglev train (magnetic levitating).. yes, Japan has these also. The thing floats on a bed of air and magnets push the train along. Man, our country needs to get it's act together. Japan is so wired rail-wise that there aren't many places you can't reach quickly, conveniently and cheaply via rail. A far cry from a city like DC where the sparse Metro lines run clunky and old cars to stops that are inconvenient and expensive.

Upon arrival in Tokyo, Mr & Mrs Sasaki met us for a fantastic meal. Mr Sasaki knew the manager of a special restaurant and as a result we landed an amazing room and special menu to sample all sorts of fish, meats and vegetables from. One plate even included this cool little crab that you ate- little legs, shell, beady eyes and all.

No comments: