One of the experiences I couldn’t imagine missing out on during the trip to Japan was the travel in the legendary Shinkansen. The bullet-trains, as they are known in the West, are high speed trains popular in the Land of the Rising Sun for their efficiency and quality of service. I have always enjoyed rail travel when abroad as I believe it often provides an interesting insight into the country’s culture. In Poland the trains are sociable spaces where passengers talk to their fellow travellers, sharing drinks and food, while in England the service is overpriced and commuters often squeeze in the corridors while the first class carriages take the valuable space. I was curious to see what Japanese trains would tell me about this intriguing country.
Having purchased a one way ticket to Kyoto from the Tokyo station, my husband and I sat ourselves in the comfortable blue seats of the train. The Japanese, unlike our fellow passengers in China, quietly found their places and remained respectful of their surroundings throughout the journey. As the train began to move, the conductor walked into our carriage, took a deep bow and upon announcing he would now proceed to checking our tickets, he moved with the speed of light through the rows of seats, punching the travel documents with efficiency I have never seen before.
Behind the window the concrete landscapes of the cities altered rapidly with tropical greenery of the rural areas we were passing through. I had no idea Japan was so green, so full of untamed nature more appropriate for the hills of Uganda rather than the gentle slopes of this quiet island. Speeding through these wonderful views at over 300 kilometres per hour, I was almost regretting that we weren’t moving more slowly. I was glad that we could get to Kyoto in just over 2 hours, but a part of me was also painfully aware of all we were missing out on. Getting out of Tokyo made us see the very different Japan – the small towns scattered across the islands of lush greenery, the small houses dotted between rice fields and the large signs advertising Pachinko game slots amongst the sea of grey whenever we happened to pass by a city or town. I had wished we had more time for Japan. Despite its high speed trains, it was not a country to speed through.
By the time we arrived at Kyoto, the day was already nearing an end and the sun was setting down. It took us a few minutes to find our way around the busy station, which resembled more a huge shopping centre than a rail station. Everywhere we could see shops selling expensive Japanese souvenirs of high quality and restaurants offering mouthwatering treats. Having bought a matcha flavoured bread roll with chocolate chips to satisfy my curiosity, we finally managed to meander outside. There it was- the legendary Kyoto. Its buildings so much smaller, so much tamer than those of Tokyo. Its atmosphere relaxed and welcoming. I instantly felt at home. As if I found myself in an embrace of a long lost friend. The evening in Kyoto was warm and the city’s restaurants were full of dinners eating indoors and outside. The city seemed lively in a quiet, contented way.
We walked through the main streets excitedly noticing the bars and restaurants we were passing by, discussing where to grab our dinner from. There was so much variety and each place looked better than the last one. After walking for few minutes, the more modern buildings began to give way to the more traditional, wooden houses. Despite the darkness, I have never felt so safe on the empty streets we were passing through. It was a lovely, warm night and the charming old houses resembling matchboxes with sliding paper door made me feel as if we have been transported to some fairytale kingdom. I was euphoric and couldn’t believe how happy I felt in this strange new place. There was a certain kindness to this city, a beauty of life that you could sense in the air. I wanted the walk to never end. I wanted my time in Kyoto to last forever. I wished I could, for once, forget about speeding through life and just stay in the quiet magic of Kyoto.