Anyhows, Saturday morning I finally left the First City hotel and Ueno behind (after staying three days longer than I had originally planned to) and headed for the train station, up to the Tokyo shinkansen and finally onto the fast trains I had heard so much about. I was finally going to Onomichi.
On the way I passed a Bloodmobile bus parked on the Ueno station forecourt with a megaphone-wielding front man exhorting passers-by to donate blood. I saw this going on at a couple more stations during my travels in Japan.
The shinkansens run on their own trackways and are served by their own passenger areas and platforms in the big city stations -- in some cases they operate from separate stations some distance away from the regular JR stations. Shin-Yokohama station is one example, and indeed Shin-Onomichi station in the town that was my final destination for today. I was going to cheat though, and use a faster train to get from Tokyo to Okayama then catch a local train from there to the Onomichi JR station which is more centrally located down near the waterfront. The Onomichi shinkansen station is up in the hills and quite some distance from where I actually wanted to get to. In addition, Onomichi is only served by the Kodama shinkansens which stop at all of the stations on their route -- the faster Hikaris only stop at the bigger stations which makes them quite a bit quicker point to point. The Kodamas sometimes also have to stop in a station for ten or fifteen minutes to let a Hikari or Nozomi overtake them on the main line.
I got to Tokyo station in plenty of time for my 12:40 Hikari reservation. I took some pictures on the shinkansen platforms and observed the Pink Lady Army in action.
Tokyo is the terminus station for most of the south coast shinkansen trains. A few minutes before a train is due in, a little half-hidden door in the platform stairwell opens and a platoon of pink-suited ladies appears, armed with brushes and mops and spare garbage bags. They march up to the platform and take their positions at the doorway markers, standing to attention and ready for action.
Digression -- the platforms have marks where the shinkansen carriage doors will be when the train comes to a stop. Not "might be" or "plan to be" but "will be". I don't think I noticed a mismatch of more than five centimetres in all the shinkansen trips I took during my stay in Japan.
When the train arrives and the doors open, the Pink Ladies bow to greet the alighting passengers. Once the carriages are empty they secure the entrances with a polite sign hanging from a chain across the doorway before moving in, sweeping all before them. Tables are wiped, the seats rotated to face the direction of travel with a practiced motion and an expert foot on the locking pedal, headrest protectors swapped out, garbage bagged and all made pristine and new in less than five minutes because that train is on a schedule and will be leaving *real* *soon* *now*. After they finish they bow again, this time to the fresh load of passengers getting on, then they disappear down the stairs and into their little doorway and they're gone, until the next train...
I found it a little funny to watch but I knew that it was part of the reason the shinkansens have the reputation they have for efficiency and operational capability. A small thing maybe compared to the engineering and the tracks and the locomotives but it spoke of an ethos that said "Everything is important, everything must be done to the best of our abilities". I should mention here the drivers and conductors wear outfits that airline pilots would admire and seek to emulate, carrying smart leather briefcases in kid-gloved hands.
Another digression -- I had planned to be on my way a bit earlier but the 12:40 Hikari was the earliest I could get a seat reservation for. In fact I could have and should have gone without a reservation and just found an unreserved seat on the next available train. All shinkansens have two or three carriages with non-reserved seating and I never had a problem after this just hopping on when I travelled. Remember that shinkansens are expensive and most Japanese people pre-book their trips since it's a special occasion for most of them. JR pass holders are a special case, able to hop on and off shinkensens on a whim, basically. The only exceptions are the sleepers (including the nobinobi which I'll mention later) which do need to be pre-booked.
The platform signs (in kanji, katakana and romaji) changed to read "Hikari 12:40 373 Okayama" and my train awaited me. I boarded, dragging my damn suitcase behind me and found my reserved seat. First impressions -- was I in a Green Car (first class) by mistake? Nope. Big wide seats, a wide aisle, big picture windows and this was the standard class. I settled in, observing the platform clock. Ten seconds to go, the doors closed. As the second hand hit twelve, we were moving smoothly, accelerating hard enough to push me noticeably back in my seat. Wow.
We kept moving at a good lick out through the Tokyo conurbation, stopping at a couple of stations on the way but it wasn't until we were well clear of the suburbs that the train really piled on the coal (so to speak). After that it was a bit of a blur.
The run down the southern coast to the Kansai region cities is quite sparse, with only a few stops before Osaka, Kobe and Okayama. The scenery consisted mainly of rice.
"Rice is important". I had heard that phrase before but a shinkansen trip drives it home to you. It's not just the fields of rice, the landscapes of rice on every flat surface as far as the eye can see but the little half-acres of rice in the middle of a small town between the houses where otherwise there might be a playground or a park. This is a country that has had famine kill millions in living memory. Rice is important. It doesn't matter that the Japanese, as a country and a people are rich enough to import all their food if they wanted to or needed to. If it's flat enough and they can flood it, they'll grow rice on it because it's important to grow rice.
We arrived in Okayama station on time (of course) and I quickly found the local train that snakes along the coast towards Hiroshima, next stop (for me) Onomichi. It took longer than I expected, stopping at a lot of small stations on the way. It was also slightly worrying in that there was no convenient multi-lingual signs or announcements as there had been on the shinkansens, but I was able to pick out the word "Onomichi" from the speakers although I nearly got off a stop early at Higurashi-Onomichi station which is several miles to the east of the town centre.
Onomichi. I'm going to have a lot to say about it in the next part of my report and I'm going to sound weird while I do so, but bear with me. I'll try not to bore the pants off everybody and I'll try to dump my fanboi obsessive lurve for the place on you in small doses.