Posts Tagged With: Shinkansen

Riding The Shinkansen

Awesome train pulling into the station in TokyoThe number one benefit of purchasing the seven day Japan Rail Pass (that we mentioned earlier) is that it has allowed us to ride all of the JR trains including the famed Shinkansen (pronounced like “Wisconsin”) AKA the bullet train. Talk about a wonderful, lightning fast way to trek through Japan! We knew it would be a speedy ride, but Sweet Sassy Molassy! That train is fast! Amtrak’s Acela service crawls in comparison.

A sensational, practical, relaxing and enjoyable way to travel, the Shinkansen rail network spans the islands of Japan from tip to toe providing the fastest, smoothest and among the most comfortable train ride that I have ever enjoyed. Shinkansen service is near legend in Japan and it’s easy to see why. These trains are a technology and transportation achievement that should have other countries drooling.

Brooke checking out the departure time for our trainThe Shinkansen trains themselves have a fierce and futuristic look – even though the trains have been around for years and years. Their signature look embodies speed. Each sleek car is white with a signature single blue line that streaks down the center of the outside. These aerodynamically shaped trains are also considerably longer than most other trains I’ve seen with some running up to sixteen cars. Each train can hold over 1,500 passengers; when they pull in the station they seem to keep going and going. The interior is equally as nice: comfortable quiet cars, and reclining seats. They are very clean trains with attentive in-seat service from an ever-bowing crew. In that regard, we’re starting to expect nothing less from the Japanese! And there are just so many Shinkansen are on the schedule running each day! The frequency is surprising: wait ten minutes in a station and you might see a half dozen Shinkansens zoom through. It’s a little thrilling each time one roars into the station.

Long Cars

But above all else, it is simply a wonderful way to see the country. Sit back, tilt the chair a bit, and gaze through the oversized window. And these suckers are fast and getting faster. Each generation of engines are apparently a touch speedier than the previous. Speeds of up to 180-200 MPH makes looking out the window a little challenging. Traveling at this new speed, closer objects are hard to focus on before they are out of sight. We rode the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto and then Kyoto to Hiroshima and finally back to Tokyo. It would have been great if we had just a smidge more time to head north, but that’s becoming our mantra lately: If only we had a bit more time!

Top notch servicecBut buyer beware – these Shinkansen tickets can be expensive! That handy-dandy Japan Rail pass included our fees, but we estimate our three train tickets could have cost upwards of $500 each. The costs seem justifiable when you start to add up all of the infrastructure that must have been required here. Riding the line on elevated tracks (no ground level track-crossings here), curves on a very small grade, and through endless tunnels & bridges, it breaks my four-function brain calculator to add up what the infrastructure demands must have been. And it looks like it is paying off- most trains we rode on were sold out and it seems to be the preferred method of travel through the country. Who needs airports when a Shinkansen stop is likely a short jaunt from your home! Hmmm…I wonder if there is a Shinkansen route that will take us to the top of Mt. Fuji tomorrow? Man, what a cool ride.


Yes please!

Zooming into Kyoto


Categories: Destinations, Japan, Tokyo, Trains, Transportation | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Visiting Hiroshima

New foods!We’ve made our way on the Shinkansen from Kyoto to Hiroshima leaving behind Shoguns, Geishas, Kimonos and Pagodas and ready to see a new city. It was a quick two hour ride on the Shinkansen. After arriving in the early evening, we set out to grab some dinner. Very quickly, we discovered Okonomiyaki – Hiroshima’s signature dish. Okonomiyaki is best described as a noodle pancake loaded with cabbage, sprouts, egg, meat and more – all cooked on a griddle. Locals take pride in their Okonomiyaki and it is as ubiquitous as chili is to Cincinnati or deep dish style pizza is to Chicago. The verdict? Inexpensive and tasty! Can’t wait to go back tomorrow for another round before we head out of town! The very friendly owner of the particular restaurant we visited was insistent on giving me his card. You can visit his site here.

Hiroshima is a lively, colorful city that uses street cars of all sizes, models and years as their signature public transportation. Running up and down the major streets, the street cars are the main way we’ve been getting across town. After a relaxing night at Hiroshima’s wonderful Hana Hostel, we made our way to Peace Memorial Park and The Peace Memorial Museum – part of a whole complex dedicated to the memory of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and to creating lasting worldwide peace..

Memorial at HiroshimaThe museum and park certainly qualify as “must visits” in Japan. The nearly-free museum is well done, informative and paints a complex picture of the really widespread, horrific destruction done by the atomic bomb. It was interesting and informative and solemn, but structured to teach and share to make sure that all remember. Brooke and I walked away glad we took the time to tour the museum and grounds surrounding this incredibly important, watershed event in human history. It is also the first time we’ve really come to understand the specific impact of an atomic attack on a specific place.

The museum has such a tactile component with archives full of items from the blast that you can touch and hold. Showing these human, personal items helps to establishes a more intimate connection with what happened here 67 years ago. One eye-catching exhibit was the stopped wristwatch reflecting the exact minute that the bomb went off- it is literally a snapshot of time. The personal stories and archived items, and especially the photographs from the city after the bombing are unsettling, but that’s to be expected and kind of the point.

Archives at Hiroshima MuseumWe found it really interesting how the current generation of Hiroshima locals really shoulder the city’s legacy from the past. The city is a rebuilt place, but they are urging people to never forget what has happened here. The museum has a clear focus on their dedication to peace and ending nuclear proliferation. In fact, the sitting mayors of Hiroshima have sent a letter of protest to a country each time their nation has tested an atomic weapon over the last forty years. Copies of these letters fill up two or three full walls within the museum. We also applaud their mulit-lingual exhibits that show the desire to spread peace across all peoples. I get that this is supposed to be a message of warning, but it does sort of make the future looks grim and bleak. I saw a sign on the way out indicating that this should be a “warning to future generations.” Indeed.

After leaving the museum, meandering through Peace Park was its own striking experience because you’re standing in the near exact bombing spot that you had just studied inside. It’s all preserved green space now with the cenotaph, flame of peace and the Childen’s Peace Monument which was built in a response to the well-known story of Sadako Sasaki- the cancer stricken girl who made a 1,000 paper cranes. Is is an astonishing tale that’s simply heartbreaking. The most notable building was the so called “A-dome” structure: the shell of a building close to the center of the bombing that was one of the very few to remain intact.

The "A-Dome"We walked away from the area and took some time to compose our thoughts and consider our experiences. Hiroshima is in no way a depressing city and its desire to be focused on peace rather than tragedy is quite clear. We understand why some people may avoid visiting this city, but we would definitely try to convince them otherwise. No matter what your political views or beliefs about nuclear weapons, the story of Hiroshima and its people deserve our attention and remembrance. There is more to our visit to Hiroshima which is a bit more uplifting and fun, but we will tell you all about that tomorrow.


Phil and The noodle pancake owner guy

Phil and the owner of the Okonomiyaki joint

Another view of the really striking A-dome.

Another view of the really striking A-dome. It’s been preserved to look exactly as it did right after 8:15 AM on August 6th, 1945. Everything else around it was just obliterated.

Categories: City Visits, Destinations, Exploring, Hotels, Japan, Landmarks, Museums, Transportation | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Kyoto, Japan

So very peaceful
Almost everyone we spoke to before arriving in Japan told us we should visit Kyoto.  It is known for its traditional Japanese buildings, its overwhelming number of shrines and temples, and its beautiful gardens.  It is at the top of every Japan Tour list and so we decided it was a “must see” for us.  We are so glad we made a visit.

Hot and SteamyWe arrived in Kyoto yesterday evening after taking the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Yokohama.  It was turning dark, raining and not really the right time for sight-seeing, so we did what we do best–explored the restaurant and bar scene!  Everyone who has ever been a poor college kid (or who was raised in a house with my mom) has had their fair share of Ramen noodles–you know, the hard brick of noodles with the flavor packet.  You may have had the Cup-o-Noodles variety.  I’m sure you are familiar. Don’t get me wrong, they are great and perfect for cheap eating.  But that little 49 cent pack of Ramen barely comes close to resembling the real thing.  We tasted our first real Ramen at Ippudo which sits nestled within the tightly packed streets of the Nishiki Market district.  We spied the food in front of the people next to us, pointed to their dishes and the picture of dumplings on the menu, and our order was complete.  While we waited we watched our neighbors eat Ramen with chopsticks and a spoon so we would know the etiquette.  Slurping is totally allowed and putting your lips up to the side of the bowl is expected.  Thank goodness!  When our huge bowls of steaming hot Ramen arrived, we had broth flying everywhere!  The flavor combinations were really amazing with fresh scallion and some delicious peppery oil drizzled on top.  However, the real highlight of the meal were the Gyoza, Chinese style dumplings.  These were like little bites of heaven–easily the best dumplings I’ve ever had.

Kyoto BarAfter our delicious dinner, we made our way to some bars.  Our first stop had us trying our hand at darts fairly unsuccessfully.  We left there defeated and once again found a tiny little alley and wandered down it to see what was happening.  It was so cool–door after door were bars with people lined up on stools taking turns singing karaoke.  Well, we couldn’t resist!  We are in Japan after all.  We went into one that was essentially empty and took it over by singing everything from Bon Jovi to the Backstreet Boys.  It was so tiny that when we sat on the stools our backs were up against the sliding doors.  It was essentially a hallway.  The bartender brought us this crazy looking plate with fish and noodles (which we didn’t ask for or want) and continued to chain smoke while we sang.  We were having a blast in this cramped little space, until the bill came.  We couldn’t believe how expensive our two beers were.  It turns out, we think we were being charged for each song we sang.  Crap!  We had no idea and we tried asking, but she spoke no English at all.  Oh well, that was a tough lesson learned.

Peaceful gardenThis morning, we hit the ground running and went to Hagashiyama, an area in Kyoto loaded with shrines, temples and gardens.  Wow, we fast-paced New Yorkers could really learn something from these Buddhists.  We first went to Shoren-in, an ancient temple complex which is no longer in use.  After taking our shoes off, we strolled along the tatami mats and wooden walkways of the temple buildings.  In the center of this serene complex lay a beautiful garden with a koi pond.  We found ourselves just sitting there, listening to the singing cicadas and rush of the water.  Relaxing isn’t even the word for it…more like, peaceful. My brain felt clear and still.  I can completely understand why people would come here and pray.  We both agreed the equivalent to this would be amazing in New York City.  Not far from Shoren-in, we walked to Chion-in.  This is another huge temple complex, but it is still actively used today and is a popular place of pilgrimage for Buddhists.  Unlike the other, this temple was bustling with people and activity.  We could hear chanting and bells ringing and there were certain places where we could not go because there were people worshiping. The coolest part of this temple is the San-mon, the gate at the main entrance.  It is the largest temple gate in Japan and let me tell you, it is huge!  Pictures really don’t do it justice.

Largest temple gates in Japan

After seeing a few temples, we were in the mood for something a bit different, so we headed to Nijo-jo, a castle built in 1603 which was the official residence of the first Tokugawa shogun (essentially a military dictator).  The castle and its grounds are absolutely gigantic!  We were unable to take pictures (or even sketch them, not that we would have) inside the building, but we basically understood that the shogun was the most important person in the room and all activities revolved around him.  For his protection, the castle is surrounded by both in outer moat and another inner moat.  However, if some stealthy Ninja warrior managed to get past both moats, they would have a hard time getting past the “nightingale floors.”  These are floors which “sing” each time they are stepped on so intruders are unable to come in unnoticed.  (I think Phil’s mom should have had these floors installed in the house he grew up in to keep him from sneaking out while she slept.)  The movement of the boards really does cause them to creak at each step–very clever, shogun.  Very clever, indeed.Huge castle in Kyoto

After traipsing around Kyoto in the crazy-hot sun, we found ourselves exhausted and ready for a rest.  Luckily, a smooth and air-conditioned ride on the Shinkansen awaited us.  And so, we said goodbye to Kyoto feeling much richer in our understanding of Japanese culture and history.  Now we attempt to understand modern history as we head to Hiroshima.  We both anticipate being disturbed by some of what we will see there, however we feel it is important to pay our respect and gain a greater understanding of this city and the events which took place here so many years ago.


We don't speak Japanese!

One of many instances when we wish we could read Japanese. What is this sculpture? It kind of looks like potatoes on a big rock, but that can’t be right.

Traditional Japanese

Our traditional Japanese style room at Hana Hostel, complete with tatami floors and mats to roll out for sleeping.

No shoes allowed!

Since guests are not allowed to wear shoes inside Hana Hostel, they have dozens of these slippers upon entering the building.

Categories: City Visits, Destinations, Diversions, Eating, Exploring, Japan, Landmarks, Rail, Relaxing, Temples, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

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