Practical Japan: Navigating the Shinkansen (Bullet Train)

Moving to the other side of the planet was traumatic at first, but has been increasingly wonderful since.  Still, I’m not so far away from the day I left Los Angeles for Morioka that I’ve forgotten the stress of arriving in a country in which I don’t speak the language (vividly).
Tori at Hachiman Shrine in Morioka, Japan

Tori at Hachiman Shrine in Morioka, Japan

The only thing that really freaked me out before I left was the logistics: I knew I could take a bus from Narita airport (NAR) to Tokyo, but where could I buy a ticket for that?  I knew I had to spend one night in a hotel Tokyo as soon as I arrived, but how should I go about finding one, then finding the station in the morning without internet access?  My phone didn’t work in Japan, and cafes (including Starbucks) don’t just let anyone log onto their wifi.  I couldn’t book one beforehand because I wasn’t sure which station I’d be leaving from to get to Morioka the next day (spoiler alert: You can catch a train from NAR to the main Tokyo station).
These issues were solved with a mixture of keeping my eyes open, generous locals, and dumb luck.  Still, it would’ve been nice to have a more complete picture of what I was setting myself up for, so here’s a play-by-play of how to navigate the Shinkansen (bullet train) once you arrive in Japan.

Narita airport:
-You’ll be given a customs form to fill out on the plane, and you might have to fill out another form when you arrive at the customs area.  Any form you need to fill out can be found there in English.  Customs moves more quickly in Japan than in any other of the 15 countries whose airport customs I’ve experienced.
Baggage claim is impossible to miss and idiot-proof.
-Keep your passport and any forms from customs at the ready after you pick up your bags.  They’ll be checked just once more before you leave the baggage claim area, and then you’re free to roam Japan!

Transportation from NAR:
-Follow signs to the train station connected to NAR (downstairs), and find a JR ticket booth (bright green!).  Buy a Narita Express (NEX) ticket, and while you’re at it, buy a Shinkansen ticket (more about that below).  Cost is around $40.
-If you’re not a fan of trains, you can buy a bus ticket right across from the currency exchange booth in the lobby for about $9 (a thousand yen).  It takes about twice as long, but I slept through half of it when I arrived.
If you take the bus, just step outside from the lobby and go right along the building until you hit the bus stop (which is all the way at the end).  Feel free to ask random locals for help!  Just show them your ticket and say “Toko?” (“Where?”).
If you take the NEX, go downstairs to the train station and follow the signs for NEX.  Electronic boards with lists of trains are organized by departure time all over the station, and you can find out which platform to go to there.

Shinkansen ticket purchase:
-You’ll have to buy a Shinkansen ticket at a travel agency if you want to book before you leave for Japan.  You can also buy it when you arrive at any JR ticket booth.  Buying them online is not an option.
-Buy a Shinkansen reserved, non-smoking ticket.  That way you’re guaranteed not to stand for the ride, and won’t smell like a chimney when you arrive.
-There are usually two seats on either side of the aisle, but sometimes there are three, so make sure you get a window.  You can catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji if you sit on the left side of the train while travelling north, and the view of Japanese small towns, farmland, forests and mountains is impossibly beautiful outside the cities.  Stay awake and enjoy the view!
First class is not that much better.  The normal, non-first class seats have loads of leg room and are perfectly comfortable, so I would strongly recommend against upgrading.  I got kicked out of first class.  Take it from someone who knows.
-Also buy a NEX ticket (the train from the station to Tokyo).  It’s about a one hour ride from Narita airport to the Tokyo main train station, which is huge and very confusing, but most ticket sellers can speak a little English, so if you get lost, just line up and hope you find an English-speaker.  Good luck!

-If you have a flight that arrives at NAR (Narita airport) later than 5pm (aka. leaves LAX later than 11am), you will probably not be able to catch a Shinkansen out of Tokyo, and will have to spend the night in a hotel in Tokyo, like I did when I first arrived.  This might be a good choice, allowing you to eat and crash after you arrive, and explore the city the next day.  Or it could mean you waste time travelling the next day instead of getting it out of the way when you arrive.  Bear that in mind when you look for flights.  (I preferred getting all the travel out of the way, but I would not have been able to experience the hilariously tiny hotels in Tokyo that way.)
If you stay in Tokyo for the night, any hotel you stay at should provide wifi, and the most hilariously tiny living space you may ever pay that much for.  I paid about $100 for one night in the smallest room I’ve ever folded myself into.  It would’ve made a disappointing walk-in closet.  Still the toilet was fancy, and the shower was a comfortable size for a 5’8″ person.

At the station:
Do not pass through any automatic gates that require a ticket unless you know for sure that’s the correct place to go.  There’s a chance the machine will just eat your ticket, and not open anyway.  This has never happened to me because I am perfect.
-Each Shinkansen car is very long, and each has its own spot where people line up to board, indicated with markings on the ground.  When confused, follow the herd.
-There are signs showing the number of each train car above where they will stop at the station.  You can see all the info you need on your Shinkansen ticket.
Pack light so you can navigate the inevitable crowds more easily.  Lugging my bags around Tokyo station was inconvenient, and felt impolite.
-There are restaurants at every station, and often they are quite good, so don’t shy away from having a meal there, as many 9-5ers do here in Japan.

On the train:
-Each row of seats has two outlets for charging phones, etc., on the floor next to the window seat.  There are no three-prong outlets in Japan, only two-prong.
-Each seat has its own fold-town tray table, and fold-down cup holder.  So convenient!
-Someone will come down the aisle with a cart of food and drink for purchase.  Prices are very reasonable, and the food is good quality bento and random snacks.  They can move pretty fast sometimes, so keep an eye out, and just call out a polite “Sumimasen!” as they pass you buy.
-There is a space between each car to store large luggage.  There is a combination lock provided, attached to a metal rope, so you can loop it through a handle on your bags and lock it up for the duration of the trip.
-There is also an overhead storage area that is simply a shelf.
-Bathrooms are located between cars.  You can stand up and walk around anytime, and in fact, many people take the chance during the smooth ride to go to the empty space between cars to their daily stretches.  I slept.
Stops are announced in Japanese, then in English, well before arrival.  Be sure to leave enough time to forget the combination you used to lock up you luggage a couple of times before the panic sets in.

Keep your ticket.  You’ll need it to pass through one last gate to exit your destination station, regardless of where you’re going.
-Every station has a series of lockers you can rent for a few hundred yen and stash your luggage while you check out the city.  Make sure you exit the Shinkansen area before you lock up your stuff so you don’t have to pass through a gate that requires a ticket to access your stuff midway through the day.  I have never made this mistake because I am perfect.
-Be ready to line up to get a taxi.  The Japanese make lines for everything from giving offerings at a shrine, to getting on the bus, which is fantastic.  It eliminates any sense of competition, and gives people a sense of fair treatment.

If you think you’ll have trouble remembering where you stored your luggage at the station, or what your hotel looks like, take a photo!  I sort reminder photos in a separate album on my phone so they’re easy to find.
If you have any questions, feel free to contact me:

Sleepy students, calling crows, and no opinions whatsoever

I teach three classes at a hair and makeup academy once a week, and I can easily say it is my least favorite set of classes.  It’s filled with post-high school students whose ability to pick out adorable pencil cases is only matched by their total indifference toward learning English.  I entered a classroom of about 35 students this week and counted the number of them who were asleep: nine.  That’s a quarter of the class.  This is normal.

Today, at the hair and makeup school, I assigned a dialog for the students to practice. I modeled the dialog with a student in front of the class first. The student I chose is a clown, but totally harmless with a quick, easy sense of humor that I’ve come to enjoy. He was being a bit rambunctious, so I asked him to help me with the dialog, and gave him the woman’s part to mix things up. He did not disappoint: he cleared his throat, and without even a glance at the rest of the class, jumped into his best imitation of a high-pitched female attempting to make an appointment at a salon. The class cracked up, but he didn’t break character once, and everyone was suddenly paying attention. I wish we could communicate well enough to share our ideas instead of being trapped within the parameters of the lesson.
My father used to play these stories on tape for us in the car when we were kids. They were Western children’s stories told in Hawai’ian pidgeon. My sister and I would laugh and attempt to imitate my father as he imitated the storyteller’s rough, animated rendition of Goldy an’ da Tree Pua’as, or Rupledekineskin, or our favorite, Little Le Pua’hi. I can recite snippets of it to this day, and my father can reply with bits of the stories himself.  My student sounded exactly like one of the women in one of the Hawai’ian pigeon recordings which was voiced, in fact, by a man. He brought a childhood memory sailing across the sea into a classroom I usually dread entering. I wish I could thank him.

When Treehouse Friend went to Japan a couple years ago, everyone else was pretty jealous. We love anime, Japanese food, traditional dress, architecture and pretty much every part of Japanese culture that the world at large finds valuable and interesting.
In Japanese anime, whenever someone does something stupid, a crow can usually be heard (and seen) flying overhead, calling its distinctive cry, which, in anime sounds like “ohao,” which means “idiot” in Japanese. We all thought this was creative license until Treehouse Friend and blurted out “That’s what they freaking sound like!” over ramen dinner at his place a few days after he got back from his trip. I couldn’t believe it. I was looking forward to hearing that sound when I came to Japan, and indeed, the crows here are different. They look more sinister (actually, they look a lot like Maleficent’s bird, from Disney’s classic cartoon interpretation of the Sleeping Beauty fable), and their call is jarring and loud, but it doesn’t sound anything like how it does in anime. Imagine my disappointment.
I mentioned today, in a coffee house class, that I was shocked by how loud the crows are in Japan. One student said they live up to 70 years and are considered very wise. They also said it is a common occurance for them to attack people. When I said I thought they were beautiful, several students looked surprised. Crows, they made clear, are considered a menace. They steal food, go after children, and tear open trash bags and make a mess. One of the two men in the group put it bluntly: “I’m afraid of crows.”
I brought up Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” and inadequately expressed its echoed premonition: “Nevermore.”

On the topic of poetry, they recommended going to Iwayama Park, where ten stone monuments contain the poetry of Takumoku Ishiwaka, a poet from Morioka who also has a stone monument in Iwate Park.
They asked if I wrote poetry, so I shared my haiku with them:
Morioka bell,
calling high and sweet, even
dogs stop to listen.
They said it sounded American: “Fresh… young idea!” They didn’t think dogs think this way, and instead told me about a haiku about a sparrow moving off the path to make way for a horse.
They also pointed out that, in Japanese conversation, no opinions are typically given, just yes or no, which tickled me after hearing them be so vocal about my haiku.

One of my students teaches small business management as a profession, and went to a fashion show in Sendai. She said today, “One of my students… nice boy… nice face, good body, long leg. Model, kakkoi! Beautiful!” She used the term “kiroi koe” to describe a shrill voice (it also means “yellowish”).
The name of sounds then followed when one of the student’s stomachs growled. Their name for that sound is “harano mushi,” literally “stomach bug.” We came to the consensus that Japanese descriptive names tend to be gentler than English ones.

International festival!

We had an international festival at work that Ryann and I poured a ton of work into. She made loads of jewlery and coasters to sell, and I constructed a replica of the Hollywood sign, and a 1:7 scale replica of the Chinese theater, which no one (including Ryann) had ever heard of nor seen before. *sigh*
I also wrote a Los Angeles quiz for the students, and offered a prize if they got all the questions right (which Ryann couldn’t even do, so we didn’t bother figuring out a prize, lol). Ryann painted a stand-up woman in a fancy black dress for people to put their faces into and take silly photos, complete with a red “carpet” made of construction paper. Overall a success.

The Korean booth featured one of my Japanese students and a couple other women wearing beautiful hanbok that made me feel homesick.

For the presentation portion, our British coworker and friend, Annie, did some ridiculous dancing that involved clapping her hands and skipping in place with bells and ribbons and some handkerchiefs. She claimed it was the closest thing to a native dance she could come up with, but I think she was just making it up on the spot. Ryann then sang a song on guitar, and I read a few poems: one by Robert Frost, another by Jack Gilbert, and one of my own, which almost made me cry. It was very nerve-wracking and I don’t ever want to do it again please, thank you.

Haiku and Nagasaki castella

I wrote a haiku recently, the first inspiration I’ve had to write since I arrived. It was about the furin, or wind bells that Morioka is well-known for crafting in Nambu-style iron (though they were originally made of copper, in China, and now in Japan, more commonly, glass). The idea is that the gentle sound of the bells tricks the mind into thinking it can feel the breeze that’s making the bell ring, so it serves as a psychosomatic cooling technique.

I shared the haiku with a couple of female students who are very friendly and enthusiastic. They said that all Japanese think in 5-7-5. One then attempted to demonstrate by creating a haiku on the spot, which roughly translated to “[tigerlilytoph]-san, with long black hair, like a horse tail.” The ladies then took turns creating haiku about each other and laughing.

This is the haiku she wrote about me (to be added later once I ask one of my coworkers to help me with a translation):

One of the ladies poured coffee while the other pulled out a bag and handed out some little cakes. “Nagasaki castella,” she said. “Let’s eat!” The woman pouring coffee took a moment to tell me about a small wooden Japanese fork used to delicately eat this type of cake, then unceremoniously took a huge, satisfying bite.

Organic Japanese

Here I will lay down a simple record of the words I learned from my students, and occasionally my coworkers, through their generosity and patience, roughly in the order in which I learned them.

“itekimas”- I’m leaving.
“matane”- See you later.
jinja- shrine
“otsukare sama deshita”- all done with work, leaving, good job [this actually means something closer to “Thank you for all the hard work.”]
“kaikeo”- asking for the bill (rough speech, men usually)
jidai- era (Edo jidai)
boin/shiim- vowel/consonant
asagao- morning glory [literally “morning face”]
shizuka- quiet
bijutsu reikishi- art history
shinrigaku- philosophy

[While I was in Tokyo with Ryann]
“gochisousama deshita”- thank you for the food (at the end of a meal)
karai- spicy
hitari/futari- one/two people
koko/soko- here/there
soto- outside
“omochi kaeridesu”- It’s to go.
“kore wa ikura desu ka?”- How much is this?
fukuro- owl
“watashi wa tskaremashita”- I’m tired.
“…ni suwaremasu ka?”- Could we sit…? (koko = here)
madogiwa- by the window
“…wa arimasu ka?”- do you have…?
kore/sore/are- this/that/that over there
tamago- egg
“issho ni onegaishimasu” – (pay together)
“betsubetsu ni”- (pay separately)
hachimitsu- honey
kaki- oyster [and persimmon]
samui- cold weather
tsumetai- cold food
kabocha- pumpkin
sakana- fish
chikai- close, near
omikuji- fortune

kyo- now/today
kumo- cloud/spider
funeko- boat
ohaka- grave
kirisame- drizzle
hanabi- fireworks (small)
uchiage- fireworks (big) [this actually means “launch”]
kingyo- goldfish
mainichi- everyday
nagareru- flow
“wakaranai”- I don’t know.
hachi- bee sting/8/planter
ago- chin
onaka- stomach
saihoso- rerun (sai = second/again)
kaminari- lightning bolt
shi shon- sewing/decomposing smell
kakoi- cool [and handsome]
gouka- beautiful and complex (like a meal)
maiko-san- pre-emptive rank to geisha
obenkyo- studying
kanazuchi- can’t swim (literally “like a hammer”)  “Watashi wa kanazuchi desu.”
buka- glub (sound effect)
daku- hug/hold (a baby)
tskamon- hold
nigiru- grip
mugicha- barley tea
Inari shrine- for harvest gods’ worship, to get money
itsutsubashi wine- apple wine, local and sweetest
yabiotsumeru- shorten a finger (yakuza style)
youhouka- beekeeper
mitsubashi- bee
tskareta- tired
donburi- ramen-sized bowl [and a dish of food on rice in a bowl]
tororo- yam
suribachi- like a mortar
surikogi- like a pestle
oroshigane- tool for grating daikon and wasabi
kanemono- metal tools
Nakanohashi- bridge over Nakatsu river
subarashi- wonderful, marvellous
homekotoba- compliment
wakuwakusuru- excited
keiyoushi- adjective
meishi- noun
doushi- verb
fukushi- adverb
isogashi- busy
kako/kyo/mirai- past/present/future
sabokasu- freckles
chikam- grope
yakikuri- chestnut
inori- prayer
kenzen- strong (soundly made)
otto- sound
reintadashii- polite
douguishiki- small items (paraphernalia)
mda- yes (Morioka dialect) [It’s actually the Northern Iwate dialect]
“totsugeki!”- Charge!
zutsuu- headache
byounin- sick
shika- basement
shikashi- however
mukashi- long ago
daiku- carpenter
kyudo- archery
jitomiru- watch
uttori- gaze
suama- chichi dongo (always pink)
kami- god
megami- goddess
“desione?”- Right?
ondoage- song from Autumn festival, asking for funds and giving thanks ($ for the shrine)
-ondo = kanji means “sound” and “head”
-age = fundraising
omedetai- “happy symbol” [omedetou- congratulations]
maane- almost?
tokidoki- sound of heart pounding, nervous
karasu- crow
koukai- regret
omoshiroi- fun and interesting
memai- dizzy

Swimming with sharks, and ringing stomachs


Today, I had another private lesson with Doctor-san, who is elderly, active, and interested in random, occasionally dangerous activities (but we’ll get to that later). Given that he has such a varied set of interests, I asked what he thought of the upcoming vote regarding Scottish independence. His response: “I’m not interested in the vote of independence of Scotland.” Well then. Nevermind.

He wore a plastic green cartoon watch, and placed a copy of his will on the table. “When I die,” he said, “take my… should I say… eyeball?”
“Take my eyeballs immediately and send to eye-bank.”
“…You have an eye-bank?! Here, in Japan?”
“…Of course.” Right. An eye-bank. Of course.

Iwate University was the first to succeed at eye transplantation, which is now considered a very simple, easy procedure. Kidneys are considered the most difficult to transplant from a recently deceased donor because you need to inject heparin, an anti-coagulant, before death.

Doctor-san then informed me that a “middle-aged, beautiful woman” is in charge of deciding where donated organs go.

“I am an old man, so I will die soon. Where should I die? Because I need the herapin. So I ask the woman. She say, ‘Please die at Iwate Medical University.'” I like this woman.

Doctor-san is certainly not without his ego: “Patient who transplant my brain will have… noble mind.”

If there’s one thing Doctor-san and I agree upon, it’s the uselessness of religion. “Most of the dead man will have name after death. It is called kaimyo. The master of the Buddhist temple give a name after death. There are good name after death and bad name after death. It depend on the price!” [smile] He says you could pay up to 100,000,000 yen for a good name ($100,000)!

“People come together after death and talk about the dead, it is called hoji” (eulogy, perhaps). Doctor-san has selected his brother, sister, kids, and a couple of friends to give his hoji. “That’s all.” Sounds like a lot of people to me, haha.

Regarding final words, he has chosen a few, including a few haiku, depending upon the season in which he dies. For an Autumn death: a haiku that says something like, “My bad luck has run out.”

Doctor-san was once shot by an American aircraft machine gun after WWII, and was curious about the diameter (20.7mm, or about 0.5in). The distinction between metric and non-metric measuring systems is how he knew it was an American plane.

Doctor-san swims in Miyako Bay, where sharks are frequently seen. A fisherman once caught a 7-meter shark, by chance. He still swims there, but admits it might not help him reach his ultimate goal of becoming an organ donor: “If you are bite… bitten by shark, the body becomes useless. So, I must die on tatami.”

In a class where we typically chat in a relaxed environment, the topic of the sound that stomachs make when people are hungry came up. In Japanese, it’s likened to a bell rather than an angry animal in English (growl).

Onakaganaru is the name of the sound:
onaka- stomach
ga- is
naru- sound/ring (bell)

One of the students giggled and pointed out the underlying truth about our cultures: “English is… strong sound. Japanese is small, pretty word.”

Random encounters, and full regalia


I met Ryann at my place this morning so we could check out Hachimangu shrine and see the horseback archery (which is tomorrow while we’re working, dammit!). I pointed out the huge bell that I had attempted unsuccessfully to ring weeks ago during my first visit to the shrine, and told her I wanted to give it another shot. She filmed me, fully expecting another spectacular failure, and instead it produced a huge sound that even the noise of the festival couldn’t cover up. So that same bell got to embarrass me twice.

We wandered down the road, bought bras, and were headed to Odori when suddenly, on the bridge over the Nakatsu, we ran into one of the men who befriended me yesterday. We shook hands and smiled, and he beckoned us to come with him, stating beer as the main activity of choice. We drank and ate grilled squid (popoyaki) which is my new favorite thing. So good! Ryann and I then separated and decided to regroup at 6pm to see the parade’s main procession just west of the Nakatsu River.

On my way home I was snapping photos of the local fire station (their logo is an interlocking circle and square, which looks really odd and not at all Japanese, in my mind). All the fire stations nearby have little towers, which harkens back to being able to see where the fire was. As I was taking photos, a man came out and indicated me to follow him toward the station. He recognized me, and after a few moments, I recognized him, too: it was the father who took a photo with his son and that monk at Daijiji Temple (and then insisted that I, too, take a photo with the monk) ages ago! He brought his daughter out, who was totally decked out in one of the flashiest outfits I’ve ever seen: she was one of the priestesses (?) at the front of the procession for the parade! She mugged for me as I took a few photos. What a cutie, and her father was so kind to recognize me and call me over.

People are different during a festival, everyone is friendlier, more outgoing. During the day everyone is so reserved, then they drink after work and get loud and full of laughter, then a festival happens, and everyone seems happy and weightless, and ready to make a new friend at the drop of a hat. I’ve encountered such kindness during the festival.

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