The short version is I took the train from Tokyo to Wakayama and hung out the next day. The long version is about my complex encounter with Japan. At times I feel confident of my reaction to this nation and then something happens and I am off in a whole new direction.
This much I understand; Japan is like all cultures, complicated, kaleidoscopic and elusive. To the stranger it is charming, amazing and sometimes intimidating. The people I have interacted with have all been genuinely kind to me. Smiling seems to be the national expression. Please, thank you, good morning, good afternoon, are all spoken with enthusiasm. In short, it is very different from the culture I come from.
The train journey was unique in my experience. I reserved a seat on the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Osaka to depart at 10 am. The night before I became so worried about getting there on time I managed to arrive hours early. The agent at the gate saw how early I was and offered to put me on an earlier train. But I instinctively, and unreflectively, declined her offer of help. When I got to the platform where the train was to depart I knew I had made the right choice. I had the chance to spend a couple of hours watching the incredible performance and organization of the people who make these trains run. First of all, the trains come and go constantly. Just before a Tokyo bound train would pull into the station the members of the crew that was to take it on the next leg of its journey were already waiting to board. Also waiting were the cleaners lined up at the position of the car they were about to clean. After the passengers cleared the train, the cleaners began their job. Four to a car, their moves were choreographed to change all the seats, clean everything and have the car ready for the new passengers in ten minutes. It was a sight to behold. Then the new passengers boarded and five minutes later the train cleared the station for its next destination. This process went on continuously. I have always enjoyed watching people work who do their job well, and this was full enjoyment.
When the time came to board my train I was treated to a smooth and quiet ride. None of the lurching and banging I am used to on American trains. And the speed…unprecedented in my experience. The landscape passed by in a blur. Everyone should ride the Shinkansen at least once in their life.
My destination of Wakayama meant I had to change trains in Osaka. I had no idea where to go and was resigned to a delay here. I worked my way through the station until I reached the ticket gate. I asked the agent at the gate where I should go. He briskly consulted a thick book of timetables and told me my train was leaving in 3 minutes from Track 11. In 2 minutes I was on the train and soon on the move. My sojourn in Osaka was brief indeed. This train was more modest and slower. The conductor went from person to person to collect the fare or tickets, tipping his hat to each of us as he finished. In an hour’s time I was in Wakayama far earlier than I had hoped.
In Wakayama another Japan revealed itself. A sizable city it is modest by Tokyo standards. The pace was noticeably slower, the dimensions of life more in line with what I am accustomed to in my small town at home. When I checked into the hotel I looked out the window to see perched on a hill in the distance Wakayama Castle. I knew I had to take some time to explore this wonder and the charms of this city so I arranged to spend the next day here.
The story of this structure is quite interesting dating back to the Tokugawa shogunate of the 16th century. The original castle was abandoned some time ago and what was left of it was destroyed by American bombs in World War II. It was rebuilt and restored in the 1950’s. Walking the grounds it becomes clear the castle itself was just the innermost redoubt of a huge fortified position built in monumental fashion to discourage any attempt at attack. Below the castle heights were the administrative buildings and in that location a beautiful garden has been established. I spent more time there standing alone and observing than I did in the military surroundings of the castle itself.
A final thought about observation. The further I travel in Japan the less English I encounter (although I am still surprised at how much I see). As I walked the castle grounds there were many signs imparting much information completely inaccessible to me. And so by stages I have become more and more an observer. I have returned to some degree to the mind of a pre-literate child. I soak up all the information I can non-linguistically. It’s a real shift employing a part of the mind in my case long neglected.
The next stage of the journey will be, at long last, to Shikoku. A destination fixed in my mind for more than a year will finally be reached.