Bullet Time


This blog entry about the events of Thursday, September 30, 2004 was originally posted on October 08, 2004.

DAY 348:  “I’m quite envious that you’re going to Kyoto,” Liz confessed to me at the dining table that morning.  She had lived in Japan for five odd years, but had never made it out to tour the former Imperial capital.  I supposed Liz exhibited the same behavior found in most people — to not tour the home country.  (Besides, a flight and a week’s stay in Thailand was cheaper than spending a weekend in Kyoto.)

I didn’t yet have the ticket for Kyoto just yet, but Liz came with me to the JR office to organize the seat reservation to Kyoto, beyond and back, a trip that would take six days while I was “stuck in Japan” waiting for my visa to process at the Indian embassy.  The ticket agent managed to figure a way to discount the itinerary, but it required me passing the conductor this additional ticket that Liz couldn’t understand.  Hiroshi translated the agent’s explanation over the phone and everything was good in the end.*  As The Beatles once sang, “I get by with a little help from my friends.”

Liz left for work while I went to arrange more tickets, this time for planes, not trains.  I was recommended Hit Travel, a travel agency with offices all around Tokyo; in the Ebisu branch I met Tandin, a friendly Bhutanese guy who told me, like others who had wrote me from in Kathmandu, that all the violence in Nepal has been overly exaggerated by the media.  He recommended not flying to Kathmandu directly from Tokyo not for safety reasons, but for money reasons; it’d be a lot cheaper to fly to Bangkok and get tickets from there.  He put me on a waiting list on the cheapest flight to Bangkok and all I could do was wait.

* For those using this Blog as research for their own trip to Japan, don’t buy tickets this way — you MUST get a JR Railpass before you enter Japan for unlimited travel in X amount of time at a much cheaper price (like the Eurailpass in Europe).  If I had known better (I might have, but writing this Blog sucked away all my free time for research), I might have saved hundreds of dollars!

FASTER THAN A SPEEDING BULLET IS SOMETHING that might rival the speed of Superman:  the Shinkansen, more commonly known by foreigners as Japan’s “bullet train” — and with good reason, because the head car does look like a bullet (picture above), a bullet from the future that is.  At speeds of up to 270 km/hr, the bullet train zooms people between the major Japanese cities faster than you can say “blueberry pancakes.”


Well, not that fast, but pretty fast.  Unlike old traditional railway tracks, the rails on the Shinkansen are welded together in a continuous way, allowing the train a super fast, super smooth ride that gives you the sensation of flying in a jet plane — there hasn’t been a fatality yet since its beginnings.  Actually, when a train leaves a station it feels like when you’re in a plane accelerating down the runway for takeoff, only this vehicle never leaves the ground; it stays at that take-off speed and only goes faster until the next station.  For some people, the experience is nauseating and causes vertigo, but that could probably be avoided by not looking out the window.  Perhaps riding the bullet train inspired anime’s speed line effect because entire neighborhoods whizzed by in seconds, entire cities in minutes.  In a couple of hours later I found myself before I knew it in Kyoto station.

MODERN KYOTO, AS LONELY PLANET DESCRIBES, is “just like any modern Japanese city,” which was true when I left the station and saw the familiar shops, restaurants and pachinko parlors.  Like Tokyo, Kyoto had no shortage of Starbucks — the Japanese calls them “Sta Ba” — but the point of me leaving Tokyo wasn’t to see a familiar scene of Iced Cafe Lattés (grande) and Matcha Cream (green tea) Frappucinos (venti).  Instead, I had made a reservation at a hostel in the northwestern suburbs, an area known to be full of old temples and shrines.  Coffee there came out of one of the vending machines (seen on almost every street corner in all of Japan).

A public bus took me to the “Yusu Hostero-mae” stop (“Youth Hostel” in a Japanese accent) away from the madness of the city.  No neon, no electronic chimes, no street noise; in fact I actually heard crickets.  In the hostel’s backyard was a little serene garden.  Walking inside, I reentered in the familiar backpacker scene of beer, labeling your juice in the shared refrigerator and pimply teenagers — a scene I hadn’t been in for the past three weeks while staying with ex-pats.  Everything came back to me, except for that Japanese rule of not wearing your shoes indoors (they provided slippers).

That night, along with other travelers and members of an Australian high school class on a big field trip, I made yatsuhashi, a sweet doughy desert indigenous to the Kyoto region.  Kai, one of the girls at the hostel, set up the ingredients for people to use, and guided us on the creation of it:  mixing, kneading, microwaving, rolling and flavoring.  The end result was desert dough with cinnamon and the consistency of pre-chewed gum, cut into strips.  Mine came out really sloppy, but tasty nonetheless. 

With homemade cinnamon treats in my stomach and the sounds of crickets outside, I felt it was great to get out of Japanese city life for a while.  No wonder why Liz felt envious.

Next entry: Zen and The Art of Bicycle Maintenance

Previous entry: Live-Action Japanimation

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Comments for “Bullet Time”

  • I could use a hostel like that about now… instead I’ll have a glass of wine and toast you, Erik - how’s that??

    What’s that “GEORGIA” stuff that is in the vending machine?? And there are recycle bins by all the machines? That is strategic placement. Do you know (Liz, perhaps??) what percentage of things in Japan are recycled?

    BTW, thanks for the pics of the bullet train - that’s SO nifty!! What is the length of time that a normal train takes?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/08  at  08:12 AM

  • NOELLE:  GEORGIA is one of the MANY brands of canned coffee in Japan.  Recycling is HUGE… all fast food places have you sort out your garbage instead of just sliding it off your tray.

    The bullet train is actually three kinds of varied speeds, depending on schedule:  light speed, ridiculous speed and ludicrous speed.

    (“Oh my God, they’ve gone to plaid!”)

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/08  at  08:19 AM

  • How IS the canned coffee, though? I mean, I was born and raised in Seattle and I’m a serious coffee snob. Given a choice between most “canned coffee” and a ‘Bucks, I’ll choose Sta ba any day…

    Okay, I’ll stop posting on a Friday night and watch my new TiVo. You let me live vicariously enough for tonight. Muchas gracias…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/08  at  08:29 AM

  • Canned coffee ain’t bad… it’s sort of like drinking Yoo-hoo…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/08  at  08:44 AM

  • it’s 130am on the East Coast of the US and I just let out a big freaking laugh at the SpaceBalls lines! I hope I didn’t wake anyone.

    Erik, your Blog keeps us all going..

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/08  at  09:26 AM

  • Noelle - the coffee in Japan sucks in general.  Most shops pretend to use espresso machines… but I’m pretty sure they are just steaming instant.  *shudder*  Every year I go thru the “find the coffee that doesn’t give you wicked heart burn” search.  The brands change constantly here, so every year it is different.  Thank heavens there is a Sta-ba everywhere!  Although Segafredo is the best IMO

    Posted by Liz  on  10/08  at  05:37 PM

  • Japan Rail Pass - just FYI, this pass can only be bought outside Japan.  It is also only good if you take the shinkansen 3 or more times while you are here.  If you are only going to one place and back, it works out to be about the same to buy the tickets here (unless you are traversing from one end of Japan to the other - most people only go Tokyo to Kyoto) - and you would get a reserved seat.  The rail pass gives you non-reserved seating only, so if you hit a Japanese holiday, you may be standing around for several hours waiting to get on a train. 

    Normal train - it takes forever.  It takes a really long time to travel short distances in Japan. The normal train would probably take 12 hours or more - as would taking a bus.  Note that it is only like 500 km or so down to Kyoto.

    Posted by Liz  on  10/08  at  05:46 PM

  • Recycling rates - over 80% of cans are recycled and last data for PET bottles was around 20%.  That should be higher now though because many areas in Tokyo have introduced plastic bottle recycling in the last year or so.

    Posted by Liz  on  10/08  at  05:51 PM

  • so is the bullet train made of recycled material?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/08  at  06:57 PM

  • I was debating wether or not to get a JR pass before I left home. I had no idea how my 2 weeks in Japan would be spent. I ended up just visiting friends of friends in Nagoya and Kyoto meaning only one 38 minute train ride between the cities. So I was glad I didn’t get the pass.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/09  at  02:29 AM

  • I loved the canned coffe in Japan!  Warm and toasty on a cold morning and it warmed your hands!!!  Liz, you miss Tim Hortons!!!  Shall I send you a can???

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/10  at  04:33 AM

  • Rose: You took the words right out of my keyboard!  Was going to offer a can to Liz myself!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/10  at  08:47 PM

  • speaking of “superman”...Christopher Reeve passed away yesterday (Sunday, Oct. 10th)...*hmmph*

    on a happier note…did you know they were coming out w/SPACEBALLS 2?  i don’t know how i feel about that because 90% of sequels just plain suck, but…hey, it’s spaceballs…

    I’ve lost the bleeps, I’ve lost the sweeps, and I’ve lost the creeps

    Sir. The radar, sir. It appears to be ... Jammed!  Jammed…Raspberry…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/10  at  11:11 PM

  • Don’t know about Space Balls but you messed up the Pulp Fiction quote!
    Butch: “I’ll be back before you can say blueberry pie.”
    Fabienne: “Blueberry pie.”
    Butch: “Maybe not that fast. But pretty fast. Okay?”
    Yes-I’m-a-nerd-with-too-much-time-on-his-hands. Aside from that, still enjoying your stories. Wish I had money so I could go travelling again.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/11  at  05:39 PM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by BootsnAll.com. It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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Next entry:
Zen and The Art of Bicycle Maintenance

Previous entry:
Live-Action Japanimation


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