Sunday, May 16th, 3:30pm local time
Japan lay wreathed in cloud as we approached. For most of our descent, there was no visibility whatsoever, though we did finally break through on final approach to reveal a drab green, rainy landscape that quite reminded me of Britain. At least until I realized that the squares dotting the countryside were rice paddies, not fields.
My arrival at Narita airport was fairly routine. The airport was impeccably decorated in modern zen chic, complete with rock gardens, bamboo art, and anime characters on wayfinding signs. A cool but kind of superflous electric tram whisked us from gate concourses to the main terminal and the customs/baggage claim areas. The plane had landed around 3:30pm, but it was 4:30 before I was through customs and had my checked luggage. The diversity in the customs queue was astonishing - representative of the entire Pacific rim, including Americas north and south. I kept hearing what sounded like a plaintive child's cry, which caused me to miss my daughter terribly, until I saw it was really a whining cat in some chinese goth chick's hand luggage.
I was pretty sick of being in transit and my enthusiasm for the bullet train had waned considerably. Therefore I was pretty focused on finding the Japan Rail Pass office to redeem my voucher, and didn't even try to find a wi-fi hotspot to blog from as originally intended. I did pause for one photo, though (see at right) - it was oddly reassuring to see at least one stereotype validated.
The staff at the rail pass office arranged my reservations for both the Narita Express (NEX) and shinkansen, and issued me tockets for each (with seat assignments). The ride took an hour, but I was so exhausted that I dozed on and off the whole way. The scenery was not inspiring - mostly industrial buildings, electrical towers, rail overpasses and yards, and of course omnipresent rice paddies competing for every spare scrap of ground.
By the time we reached Tokyo station, I was groggy and ravenous. I only had twenty minutes to catch my bullet train reservation, so there still wasn't time to grab a snack. Traversing Tokyo station to get to the shinkansen platform was my first real challenge - the physical distance was not long but highly tortuous, and the station was insanely crowded. Identically-dressed yuppie suits marched in formation, barking into cellphones, while schools of women fliitted about in a mass of bright neon shopping bags. The occassional elderly woman or man meticulously made their deliberate way across the grain of foot traffic, oblivious to the presence of the gaijin, but adorable small children eyed me with either amusement or alarm, I was too fried to discern. Vendors of every possible trinket and snack hemmed the precious remaining floor space, a gauntlet of blinking lights and signs. The spatial and visual complexity of the scene was disorienting enough without the fatigue and hunger - it was almost a psychedlic experience.
Oddly, the station's floor was not a smooth unbroken expanse of tile, but was punctuated by patches and even long stripes of small yellow bumps. These made dragging my wheeled suitcase in a straight line essentially impossible. Worse, there were stairs everywhere but almost no ramps, so I had to carry the suitcase up and down a number of stairs. All of this conspired to delay my progress, so that when I finally got to the platform, the bullet train had already arrived! I ran towards my assigned car (#4) and sat down in my assigned seat with a sigh of relief. I had hoped to grab a snack from a vendor on the platform, but was suficiently nervous about missing the train that I decided against it, and about five minutes later with a nearly imperceptible jerk the train accelerated smoothly out of Tokyo Station.
Riding the shinkansen is like no other train I have ever ridden. The ride is smoother than most, but teh real difference is the way the scenery moves outside the window. There's no sensation of speed when you're not looking out, but the window reveals an almost disconcerting movement past the scenery. There are the usual train noises but heavily muted. By this time, about 6:30pm, it was already getting dark and there was still ample rain, so I had to give up on my hope to glimpse Mount Fuji. I did manage to buy a bottle of water from the drink cart that came down the aisle later, thankfully.
The bullet train was the Hikari service, meaning that it did stop at a few stations between Tokyo and Osaka (including Kyoto, my stop). The announcer confused me by saying we should transfer to a different train at one station if we wanted to continue travel on the Tokkaido line, which I thought I was on. But I stayed put since I didn't have any other ticketed seat assignments for other trains, and it worked out fine.
I napped most of the way, but not continously. By the time we reached Kyoto station I was feeling quite beaten down from the lack of food and incoherent sleep. Exiting the shinkansen platform, Kyoto station was very large an open, almost the opposite of Tokyo - but equally confusing. It took me some time to navigate to the main exit, and then had some confusion about how best to travel to my hotel due to a discrepancy between the map in the conference literature and my Lonely Planet guide. I ended up catching a taxi which was expensive at 750 yen but saved me from walking a mile and a half. After getting my room, I called home for 30sec to inform my family I had arrived (they were just waking up to Sunday morning), and then changed my clothes and went out to find something to eat. The first, nearest restaurant was a McDonald's. Do NOT try the teriyaki burger, it was horrendous, but at least the fries were good. I returned back to my hotel and pretty much collapsed into bed.
All in all, the transit was pretty rough. I was pretty down on Japan by the time I reached the hotel, but that was understandable given that I'd been exhausted and starving the whole way. I figured things would be better in the morning.