Nagaijin Goes to Tokyo 2006 (I)

The Shinkansen (新幹線) is never late, but I often am. Saturday morning at 6:45 sees me running to the subway to catch the last possible train to Shin-Osaka which will let me catch, at the last possible minute, my Bullet Train to Tokyo. I have just reached the platform and dashed into my carriage when the doors close and off we glide. 7:27AM. On the nose. Having had no time to buy (and no inclination to make) breakfast, I buy one of Japan Railway’s famous papier-mâché sandwiches and a cup of industrial strength coffee (the ¥500 “Breakfast Set™”). Perhaps you’re not really supposed to eat this stuff – maybe it’s just an offering to the train god, like a tangerine and a glass of sake on a Buddhist alter. Certainly, the word “desecration” is one of the more repeatable words that come to mind when I bite into the crustless, tasteless thing. The coffee does wake me up, though, and I settle in with my iPod (“A Brief History of Everything”, by Bill Bryson) and watch in vain through the clouds for a glimpse of Mount Fuji.

The man sitting across the aisle from me is in his late 20’s, and despite the white, short-sleeved shirt and lack of a jacket, is conservatively dressed – a short 7-3 haircut (as they call a side-part here), necktie with the collar button done up, dark slacks, black lace-ups. Quite tall. I mention him because he does not move for the entire trip – it begins to bother me after a while. He does not exactly stare straight ahead, but he certainly looks straight ahead, feet flat on the floor, hands on the armrests, for two and a half hours. In contrast, by the first hour, I have fidgeted my way throught the awful sandwich and coffee, downed a bottled water, and am now working on a bottle of green tea (all these goods are dispensed – for a price – by a train attendant who shleps her cart down the aisle after every stop). By coincidence, we are now passing through Shizuoka, famous for green tea, and looking out the window, you can see rows and rows of tea plants, in small fields and on hazy mountainside terraces, planted almost right down to the train tracks. In the neutral light of the cloudy morning (rain is expected), elderly farmers in broad straw hats squat calmly amidst it all, tending their tea leaves. And I am charmed.
Meanwhile, I resist the temptation to sail paper airplanes past the immobile man’s head – anything for a reaction! If only they sold newspapers on this train. Eventually, tea farms and low houses and misty mountains give way to suburbs and highways and warehouses, then finally big signs, big buildings, big city: Tokyo. I get off at Shinagawa – a station in Tokyo but not, confusingly, Tokyo Station, which is immense and easy to get lost in. Shinagawa, by contrast, is a modern (or recently modernized) station, and finding your way to the Yamanote Line (the train line which loops around downtown Tokyo) is a breeze. Twelve minutes later, I’m sitting near Hachiko’s statue, listening to the iPod (“Newfoundland This Week” from CBC). Japanese visitors to Tokyo pose for obligatory photos with Hachiko (I counted eight in about fifteen minutes). Finally, Kenta arrives, cheerful but looking like he’s been on a bus all night (he has), and off we go to forage for lunch in Shibuya.

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