After an overnight stay in Osaka Japan, I’m up early to travel to Kumamoto on the Shin-Osaka to Kagoshima-Chuo bulletin train. The ticket (with reserved seating) for a seven day rail pass was purchased at Shin-Osaka station the night before. The 9.30am train was fully booked so we’ve elected to catch an earlier train.
I’m excited. This is my first trip to Japan. Tokyo and the stories of bustling crowds always seemed so daunting, so I’m on my way to Kumamoto prefecture, first stop Kumamoto city (with a more manageable population of just 730,000) attracted by food, culture and history (Kumamoto is a net exporter of food and is also the location of the Last Samurai battle. More on that to come as the trip unfolds). The bullet train trip however, is really day one of my trip, and as it turns out is a wonderful introduction into the unfamiliar world of Japanese culture.
Queues stand behind the carriage numbers that are painted on the platforms. As we step onto the train in an orderly fashion my excitement increases. The journey really has begun.
We’ve missed breakfast with the early start so the snack trolley provides the first meal of the day: a morning set – sandwich (crusts removed, container with disposable hand towel) with coffee.
When a guard comes into the carriage to check our tickets, he first moves to the front end of our carriage, bows slowly and deeply, and sincerely and politely announces that he will be checking tickets. The real surprise is after he has swept the length of the carriage, he returns to the front, and once again bows, slowly and sincerely, and thanks us for allowing us to have checked them. Later as he walks through the carriage (no longer for the purpose of checking tickets) he once again bows, this time at each end of the carriage. Through the glass of the doors, I can see the polite procedure is repeated in the next carriage.
On the other side of the aisle, I can see the photos on the pages, of the newspaper that the man is reading. Baseball. Then comes my next shift of culture. He turns the page and I notice very different types of photos: bondage, hazily disguised fellatio, and a photo of a girl in bra and panties (with her hands over her face.) From bows to bondage: is this a land of contradictions?
Although I speak just a few words of Japanese (words that we all know – like arigato and konichiwa) I’m easily able to manouvre my way around the bullet train. Japanese attention to detail means there are clear visual instructions using symbols on the back of the seat showing what is situated in the adjacent carriages. Next door, carriage #3 has toilets, a separate handwashing area (I’m learning more about Japanese attention to hygeine at every bathroom I use) and even a smoking room.
For the third time, the passenger at the window seat beside me is replaced by another. This man, well dressed in a grey pinstripe suit is reading a thick soft cover magazine. It’s a comic.