This is a travel day and there would normally be nothing to write about (“got on the train, rode it for nine hours, got off”), so I think what I’ll do is blog the train ride at least to Shin-Osaka and see how it works. I can’t promise it’ll be interesting, but this will give me a chance to catch up with some ideas that have been rattling around in my head for the past two weeks I haven’t written about yet, as well as serve as a record of my trip halfway along the length of Japan. Hey. If some random jackanape can blog the birth of his daughter (??!!?), I can blog my train trip for as long as my battery holds out.
pre-0843: Kamome 2 left Nagasaki this morning at 06:30 according to my cellphone’s clock. Exactly 6:30. I mean, the clock ticked over, and the train started to move. The accuracy of the timing here is almost frightening. Nationally, the average lateness of a shinkansen last year was 12 seconds. Twelve seconds. For every shinkansen, everywhere in the country. I don’t think I can do anything to a precision of twelve seconds.
I’m going to have to find a good picture of these trains. They’re ridiculously cool. They look like eggs with wheels, the seats are business-class style, upholstered in leather and — I swear I am not making this up — the floors are hardwood laminate. In a train! Hardwood! My house isn’t this nice.
0843: I had been sweating the seven minute train change in Hakata. The Komame LEX from Nagasaki arrived in Hakata at 0835; Hikari 352 left Hakata at 0843. “That’s insane,” I’m sure you’re thinking. “Seven minutes to change trains? Get right out of here. Who the hell booked your tickets?” A fair point, I guess, except that (a) I booked them myself, and (b) it turns out that seven minutes is plenty of time. The shinkansen tracks are only a two or three minute walk from the local tracks, and I made it to the platform before my train did. This is Japan. Seven minutes is plenty of time. Nothing is ever late. Nothing. My food comes on time. The trains run on a hilariously tight and carefully regulated schedule. Hell, leaving the hotel this morning, I stepped outside at almost exactly 0600, and a taxi pulled up just as I had requested.
0857: Arriving in Kokura. Kokura was supposed to be the site of the second nuclear bombing, but cloud cover saved it (and doomed Nagasaki). From the train, it looks like a very industrial town, with a number of tall smokestacks off on the north side. You can tell this is earthquake country — every tall free-standing structure (i.e., things that aren’t buildings) I’ve seen is wrapped in protective scaffolding. Go, civil engineers, go!
As an aside, I can’t help but wonder where Japan’s nuclear reactors are, and whether you can see them from the train. Japan is, if memory serves, one of the places that never built big US-style cooling towers and so their reactors look vaguely, disconcertingly Russian.
By the way, almost everything taller than about five feet in this country is painted in aviation avoidance orange and white, and will probably feature at least three red anticollision lights. It’s really weird, and along with the power lines that run everywhere probably one of the Japan’s most distinctive man-made features.
If Japan had…
.. a national building material, it would be ferroconcrete.
.. a national noble gas, it would be neon.
.. a national electric fixture, it would be the red anticollision light.
.. a national 70s lighting pattern, it would be strobe.
0904: We’re in a big-assed long tunnel. I bet we’re going from Kyushu to Honshu. Civil engineering is almost like a sport in this country — who can build the bigger bridge/tunnel/skyscraper/industrial plant/whatever? The Japanese are in love with concrete (or “ferroconcrete,” as they more accurately call it over here), which makes sense from an engineering perspective, and are able to do some truly amazing things with it. The old buildings that fall down or get burned or whatever that don’t absolutely have to be re-built in a traditional manner get re-done in concrete. It’s unreal.
If you watch the Discovery Channel or TLC periodically you’ll come across one of their “monsters of civil engineering” shows, and inevitably there’ll be some segment on Japanese civil works projects, usually a bridge. I got to see one in the flesh yesterday in Nagasaki — a giant bridge is being built spanning the mouth of Nagasaki harbor; I have no idea whether this is a wise or even necessary thing to do, but the unfinished span looks damned impressive even though it is, um, unfinished.
0918: Pulling into Shin-Yamaguchi. I have nothing to say about this city and know virtually nothing about it, except there’s a very cool-looking railyard below us with an honest-to-god turntable. I haven’t seen one of those in.. years.
Took advantage of the small break at Shin-Yamaguchi to haul out hallie’s AC adaptor. Yay electricity! (It’s my luck that I’m in the first row of seats on this train, in this car: If you’re traveling on the train and want to work, don’t count on this happening — AC is available only in the first row of seats in every car on Hikari RailStar services offered by JR West.)
0945: Hey, I recognize this landscape! We’re near Hiroshima (just outside Miyajima-guchi, actually). I pay attention. Score one for me.
I solved a fruity mystery on Tuesday. For a long time I’ve wondered where, exactly, those mandarin oranges come from. “Product of Japan” the box says, but Japan isn’t exactly known for its vast orchards and fields of produce. “Do they have room for the giant orchards needed to satisfy the endless appetite of North Americans for these oranges?” I used to wonder. Look at the pallet next time you’re in the grocery store around Christmas. That’s a lot of oranges. Now think about how many more pallets there are all over the continent. That’s a lot of oranges.
Well, I figured it out. They’re grown in Kyushu. There are fields of them — not vast fields in the sense that we’d think of the prairies as vast — but there are fields with lots of orange trees all over Kyushu. One mystery solved! (Now, if I can only figure out how they get the caramel inside a Caramilk ba–wait, I figured that one out in biochemistry. It’s an enzyme.)
0951: “We will be making a brief stop at Hiroshima.” Have I mentioned before that I really like this city? I do. Like Kyoto it’s not huge — around a million people — which is just about right as far as I’m concerned for a major city. At the risk of finding a silver lining inside of a dark cloud that really shouldn’t have one, one positive side effect of the bombing is that Neo-Hiroshima emerged with a fabulously navigable road network. Unlike Tokyo or Kyoto, everything’s on a grid, and it’s damn easy to get around. (Nagasaki is like this, too, sort of, and Kobe is reputed to be this way as well, though I have no first-hand evidence of this. Also, Kobe was designed that way, whereas Nagasaki and Hiroshima were rebuilt that way.) And as I said before, it isn’t a depressing place at all.
(I’m willing to concede that my enthusiasm for Hiroshima might have something to do with the absolutely gorgeous weather we had while I was here. It’s entirely possibly that I would have liked the city a whole lot less had it been typhooning.)
Here’s something I bet you didn’t know. Kyoto was spared Allied bombing during World War II out of consideration for its cultural history, but when it came time to pick targets for the nuclear bombs, the Americans wanted pristine cities so as to better evaluate the effects of the weapons. Guess what was first on their list? Yep. After all, what’s more pristine than a city you haven’t bombed yet? Kyoto was a primary target for a distressingly long period of time before Stinson yanked it off the list in late 1944, thinking about the post-war occupation strategy. I didn’t know this until I got to the museum in Hiroshima, and the discovery was.. weirdly upsetting. I couldn’t believe it was even seriously discussed. And confusing: You won’t bomb it with incidiary weapons and conventional munitions because you don’t want to wreck the cultural treasures in the city — but nuking the place, oh, well, that’s an entirely different story.. geez.
1002: There are LED boards at both ends of shinkansen cars that scroll text across them more or less non-stop during a trip. Periodically these will provide things that are comprehensible to.. well, anyone who doesn’t understand the language, things like “Ladies and gentlement, welcome to the Shinkansen. This is the Hikari RailStar superexpress bound for Shin-Osaka. We will be stopping at…” (In case you’re not paying attention, this announcement is also read in a strange, almost British accent.) The most obvious use for these things is to explain where you are and what the next station is — a highly useful and desirable thing! Also, sometime you get a speed report. “[random kanji and hirigana] 285 km/h [random kanji and hirigana].” You can figure that one out without the context, though it’s repreated in English (“We are now traveling at 285 km/h”) for clarity. But I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what the hell the boards said the rest of the time.
Until this morning. I realized they’re news tickers when they’re not displaying train-related information! “[random k+h] 24.8% (-1.4) [random k+h] $1 = Y108 (+1.42) [random k+h] NY 55 [random k+h] 4-2 [random k+h].” I don’t know specifically what it was trying to say, but could fill in the blanks. And really, do you need an English translation for that last bit? Come on. I saw some sweat bands in a shop on kitsch shop on Miyajima. One pair had the number 51 on them, the other the number 55. Each number can only mean one thing in this country..
Periodically an announcement will scroll across asking for your cooperation in keeping an eye out for suspicious packages on trains or in stations. It is exactly the announcement you get in airports. I’m kind of curious how long this has been going on — has it been since 1995? Since 2001? Forever? I’d like to ask, but I don’t know who I’d ask even if I could..
The train crew keeps buzzing in and out of the car. Every time they enter or leave a compartment they bow. I’ve almost got the hang of it: Bow when you’re thanking someone for something, bow when you’re being thanked, and bow whenever you feel like it. I’ve been doing it almost involuntarily since I got here; i wonder how long it’s going to take me to stop once I get home?
1026: Okay, now it feels like we’re going 285 km/h. I don’t think you can go this fast, this low, anywhere in the continental United States. I mean, there are airpseed restrictions below 10,000 feet, and it goes without saying that the cops will get really really pissed if you do 285 in your car on a highway. Try it if you don’t believe me. The only place most people experience 285 km/h is at altitude, and you never get the same sense of speed. I’ve tried taking some pictures from the train, and they’ve been pretty bad, over all, thanks to the high shutter speed needed to freeze action and the fact that by the time you can aim your camera and get focus lock, you’re past whatever it was you wanted to take a picture of. So it’s, um, a little pointless. Bah.
1033: The best thing about train travel in Japan is that you go through some incomprehensibly industrial parts of the country. Thus, you can have great fun trying to guess what the purpose of a particular building is, or what they do in that giant plant. What the hell is that huge green thing that looks like a huge trash compactor? (Chances are good that it’s.. a trash compactor of some kind.) One thing that has continually run through my mind since I got here is how much some parts of Japan look like.. a SimCity game gone horribly wrong. Stop laughing! I’m serious! So far as I can tell there’s almost no urban planning, building designs seem to change randomly and have no relationship to when they were built, and transit systems look like they were rammed through because the location was convenient, not because it would have caused less destruction — all of which are true in my games. Even the buildings look a lot like they do in SimCity; I’m not willing to put money on it, but I suspect the Maxis graphics artists took cues from Japanese reality. I swear, for instance, that I saw SC4’s minor league stadium in Fukuoka. And the industrial “grinding unit” tile is something I’ve seen at least a half-dozen times here. Not to mention the “mixing tanks” and “Havoc Bioengineering.”
I wish you could plant bamboo forests in the game. Those are cool.
Stopping at Okayama. Gales of cigarette smoke blow through the compartment every time the forward door opens (the space between cars is a kind of air lock for smoke; I’m in car 5, and car 6 is apparently one of the cars for fucking up your lungs). This problem was made significantly worse on the leg from Fukuyama to Okayama, thanks to the teenage girls sitting in the interspace continually tripping the door sensor.
1053: You know what I’m realizing? There is practically no pristine mountain top in all of (southern) Japan. The tallest hill or mountain in view almost always has something on top — usually an antenna farm. The upshot of this is that you have phenomenal cellular coverage everywhere you go.
Pulling into Himeji. It’s.. interesting how Himejijo doesn’t really dominate the skyline approaching from the south the way it does when you’re arriving from the north. Too many buildings, I guess. Tough for it to stand out and fire the imagination the way it did when I came in here. (Stopped at the platform I can almost see half of the keep through the urban canyon.) Leaving the station, I can see why — it’s much flatter, with considerably less development on the other side.
One more stop before we hit Osaka. Damn, this (writing) makes the trip go way faster. I was going to watch DVDs, but this is much more fun.
It’s pretty clear the typhoon came through here and dumped an assload of water on this area. You know how you sometimes hear about rivers being described as “swollen”? This is the first time I’ve ever seen a river where I didn’t think that was hyperbole. The fields look like lakes.
1112: I went to a steak place for dinner last night. Mmm, mmm, good. I realized it was the first time in almost two and a half weeks that I’d had beef, and it was Kobe beef, at that. We’re sliding into Shin-Kobe right now. I’m told the cattle are fed beer and given massages. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but they do taste good. I’m not sure, however, that the added value is worth it — that might have been the most expensive beef I’ve had in years that wasn’t several inches thick.
1200: Changed trains, had lunch. I’m back. We’re leaving Kyoto, my favorite city in Japan. I wish I could just jump off the train and go exploring in the northwest of the city. (sigh) I still can’t believe the Americans seriously considered using this place essentially as a proving ground for nuclear bombs. Assholes.
1208: Well, that was weird. I was watching Lost in Translation on my laptop (because that’s what was in the drive and I don’t feel like digging around for anything else) — specifically, the part where Charlotte goes to Kyoto — and the in-seat service woman came by right around the point where Sofia Coppola and Lance Acord pan up to show the Kyoto station signboard, and I got the strangest look from her. A “what the hell are you doing?” look, only about five times as intense. As Instacracker says, “Heh.”
I was trying to take a look at the photography of Kyoto, specifically of Heian-jingu. Now that I’ve been there and I know what it looks like, and I’ve looked at it through my lens, I wanted to see if I agreed with her choices. (Well, okay, maybe they were Acord’s choices. I sometimes think DOP is the most underappreciated job in movies.) By and large, I think it’s a very flattering picture, and I’ll be thrilled to death if 1/12th of my photography turns out that well — but then, I suspect it might be difficult to take a bad picture of Heian-jingu. That said, I think I would have given my left arm for the weather she had while shooting there: I had to shoot Heian-jingu on a bright, hazy day; to be able to shoot it on an overcast, slightly dark day.. would have been awesome. Of course, at the time, I likely would have bitched owing to the fact that this kind of light more or less requires the use of a tripod, but whatever.
We’ll see. I didn’t do a lot of digital that day, so I don’t know how it’s going to render. The day my all film comes back from the lab is going to be an exceptionally happy day. If I get three good frames per roll of film, I’m going to call the photographic component of this trip a smashing success.
1240: Between Maibara and Gifu-Hashima, there’s even more evidence of the typhoon. Whole fields are flooded, and it looks like the water invaded some parts of the city. Wow. That’s deep water, too. From what I can tell, the river here overflowed its banks and.. well, you know how it works. Several electrical substations are flooded. I wonder whether the power’s out around here? (I would damn well hope so!)
There’s a really weird black thing here — the Sanyo “Solar Ark.” I meant to spend some quality time on Google looking this thing up. (Update: Oh. That’s what it is.)
I’m spending a lot of time glued to the window. There’s a reasonably good chance of something specific happening today, but I don’t want to say any more about it in case I jinx it..
1255: Nagoya. Aaaah! Invasion of the Japanese schoolgirls! They’re everywhere. Holy god. You can’t escape. WTF is going on? I’ve run into them everywhere the past couple of days. Is it mass field trip season, or something? (Update: They all got off at Toyohashi.)
Tokyo, here we come!
1320: The sky is clear to the west. This is a very, very good sign. (Still not saying anything!)
1351: It finally happened. My last full day in Japan, at 1351 JST, I finally got a chance to see something I had wanted to see the entire trip. Fuji-san popped out on the left side of the train, and stuck its head up through the hills. I can finally understand why it plays such a huge role in the psyche of the Japanese — it’s a gorgeous mountain, frighteningly symmetrical, almost like a child’s drawing of a mountain. It looked like there was snow on the peak, and — oh, hell, I wish my camera had had film in it and wasn’t packed away so I could have done better than those crappy digital pictures I ended up taking, because it was a sight that required film (preferably slow film, on a tripod, with the right light) to do it justice. Digital can’t convey the same amount of depth and beauty, at least, not my digital camera.
At this point, of course, hallie’s batteries packed it in. We’ve got a lot of progress to make in the battery-life department.