The Shinkansen (bullet train) arrived about 10 minutes before it's scheduled departure time, and was instantly boarded by a small army of men and women in blue and pink uniforms respectively; they had the whole train cleaned in minutes, and I mean properly cleaned, not just picking up the most obvious refuse.
The train journey itself was fast and smooth- so fast that I almost felt ill a couple of times! Showing myself up as British, I was rather horrified to hear that there was only a ten minute transfer window between leaving the Shinkansen and boarding the local train. In the UK (certainly on the services I use!), this would be leaving things way
too close for comfort. But, true to reputation, the Shinkansen arrived at it's destination right on time, leaving us exactly enough time to swap platforms and work out which carriage we should be on. Helpfully, all the platforms are marked out to demonstrate where each carriage will stop- and they always stop the train at exactly
the right place, another concept that would be great to take home!
The second train journey was incredibly scenic- the track hugging lush green mountainsides as a hugely swollen river ran below, with tendrils of mist and fog lacing between the sides of steep valleys. It appears that the rainy season's been particularly heavy this year, and whilst it makes for very dramatic views for us, I'm thinking the huge amounts of flotsam and jetsam flowing down the river is probably not a good thing; we saw numerous whole trees heading down at some speed.
Still raining, we arrived at the ryokan (traditional-style inn), taking off our shoes and swapping for slippers on the way in. If you've got a stereotype in your head about home decor in Japan, our room would pretty much be it; Tatami mat (a sort of woven straw) flooring, and rice paper screen doors dividing the room up, and separate 'toilet slippers' only to be worn in the en suite. This is actually quite a serious etiquette point- no
other footwear should ever go into, or out of, the toilet area. I can kinda see the point to this, from a hygiene position it's very sensible, but I guess I'm a little squeamish about the idea of wearing a pair of slippers that potentially hundreds of others have worn solely for the purpose of urinating
. Still, when in Rome...
Had green tea with Al and our respective roommates in the boys' room. Green tea sets are provided in each room with numerous spare cups and a flask full of hot water for refills. I love the teapots here (teapots! Could I be
more of a British stereotype?). Rather than the looped handle on the opposite side of the pot to the spout, traditional ones here have a stick-like handle at 90 degrees to the spout. I really don't know the reason for the difference, but they're a lot easier to pour than you might think.
Dinner was local beef, which you cook yourself on a magnolia leaf, along with hot sake (rice wine) which was absolutely yummy. The green tea icecream I might pass on next time! :-)
Back to the ryokan, and time for a bath. No privacy here! Bathrooms are shared, and I mean
shared. Having made sure you've walked through the right door for your gender, you're straight into the communal changing room, with only a tiny towel the size of a facecloth (no exaggeration) to cover your modesty- not so handy when you're a girl! All your clothes go in an little basket on a shelf, and you head through to the wet room. This is dominated by a huge bath in one corner, perhaps the size of a large hot tub (it's pretty much the same thing but without any of the whirlpool / spa options). The other wall has a number of showers, but all at floor height- users shower sitting down on one of the little plastic footstools, with the object being to get as clean as possible before getting into the communal bath. Because the same water is used all day (kept hot by a small feeder tap in one corner), it's pretty vital that nobody uses soap in the bath, or the place would be awash with suds- not to mention you'd be wallowing in someone else's skanky water.
I'm a pretty shy gal really, and thought I was being pretty brave- right up until I was in the bath, and three much older Japanese ladies walked into the wet room. Even then, I decided to stick it out, but I eventually bottled when the three of them also got in, and started talking laughing and pointing
and the funny pale girl... Having no doubt turned a nice shade of beetroot, I slunk out again, vowing to wash only in the middle of the night for the rest of my trip!
After dodging the heavy rain to find our breakfast, we checked out of the hotel and headed off on the underground system to catch our train out of Tokyo. Whilst still on the commuter train, I got talking to a local resident who was rather interested in the idea of coming to Japan on a holiday rather than simply on business- I got the impression the country doesn't see itself as much of an international tourist destination!