I had spent two nights with my fellow compatriots and was now set on heading to Kyoto. After a night of boozing and two days of resting and recovering from a hangover, I was no longer jetlagged and fit for adventure. I gathered my things, strapped on my pack, and headed out for Tokyo Station.
I spent 10 minutes in the subway, staring blankly at the ticket machine. The digital panel was a charade of Japanese words and numbers. Without Ryan, it quickly became clear as to just how useless I was in Japan. I looked up and down the row of monitors and found one that prompted me with two boxes—one boldly spelling “ENGLISH.” I was saved.
It was very weird to experience this kind of incompetence at that age of 22. I was thrown back into the infantile age of frustrating illiteracy, and no matter how much I wanted to believe that there was some code or mathematical equation for deciphering their written language, I knew I was just haplessly wishing.
I remember one time, while eating at an izakaya (pub-eatery) in Tokyo, I tried to figure out which bathroom to go into. I analyzed the hiragana letters on the door, scratching my head, convinced that the symbol for “men’s room” would have some phallic theme to it. I stared so hard and long at the damn doors I should have suffered an aneurysm. Not to push my luck, I picked the door to my left. But as soon as my hand was on the handle, a woman came out. I turned sharply on my heels and went for the other door, not looking up to reveal my blushing face. It was the last time I attempted deduction in Japan.
Written Japanese, to me, was a series of interchangeable alien depictions that hopped around, laughing and pointing at me offensively. I swear one time I caught them rearranging themselves on a road sign to spell the words “stupid gaijin.” I eventually learned to just not acknowledge that they were there and they soon quit bothering me.
Admittedly, I eventually figured out how to live comfortably around hiragana. For example, I learned the rail-pass machine so well that I could actually navigate the interface in Japanese only because I committed the patterns of button mashing to memory. I even could recognize the symbol for yen. It was the one that ends after a trailing series of zeros and, if you stare at it long enough, looks like a depiction of your wallet catching on fucking fire.
Well, somehow I purchased a ticket for the right train and got a rail-pass for my first Shinkansen or bullet train. From the platform, the aerodynamic head of the train looked like the cockpit of space shuttle. If I knew nothing else about the train, I could have guessed that it was going to be one of the fastest trains I had ever been on. But my actual experience was a bit wanting.
Honestly, a bullet train is only as impressive as it sounds. You go like 250 miles an hour and don’t feel a damn thing. Now take about 100-200 US dollars and shred them. Boom! You just experienced a bullet train both conceptually and financially…
To be fair I did experience one really fascinating event on my trip to Aomori prefecture. We were zipping out and under tunnels cutting through bamboo coated mountain ranges when we hit a vast clearing that was being hammered by a violent thunderstorm. The rain, passing the window at a million miles an hour, looked like a viscous gel, and the few lightning strikes I saw were so sharp and clear I wanted to believe that the train was moving fast enough to catch them—but we all know that the speed of light is relative…sigh.
But the icing on the cake was when we physically cut through that storm, end to end, in about 120 seconds. I swear at 00.00 there were blues skies and by second 117.43 we had powered through a black thunderstorm and reached even bluer skies.
Still the shinkansen got me from Tokyo to Kyoto in four hours—equivalent to the distance between Boston and Baltimore.
Battz Rating (Shinkansen)
1 * * * 5
Speed 5 Competitive with plane travel
Efficiency 5 Less energy, lots of trains
Commodities 3 Nice seats and bathrooms, expensive food
Cost 2 Really expensive
Fun 2 Conceptually cooler than the experience