Today was our first trip on the Japanese fast Shinkansen trains travelling from Tokyo to Hiroshima. Yesterday we booked tickets on the trains we needed while passing through Tokyo Station. Today we checked out of our Shinjuku hotel and, as it was pouring with rain, headed for the first time into the Higashi-Shinjuku subway station that is literally right under our hotel. Unfortunately this station is convoluted and getting to Shinjuku station from here involved just as much walking as the above ground route but with added escalators, lifts and confusion. I’m pretty sure it would have been significantly quicker above ground but at least we stayed dry. From Shinjuku Station we took the Yamanote Line round to Tokyo station to get on our Shinkansen.
Finding the Shinkansen platforms at Tokyo station was very easy but we couldn’t see any signs for our train. We had to ask the nice ladies at the information desk and found that the platform was hiding round the corner. Although we got the the platform with 30 minutes to spare, the train turned up not long after we did. However we weren’t able to get on straight away as an army of cleaning staff appeared and swept through the train. We eventually got on with less than 5 minutes to stow our luggage and find our seats. The train is packed so we had to put our large and very heavy bags in the overhead racks which at least are much bigger than on UK trains!
Riding the Shinkansen was disappointingly similar to riding a fast intercity train back home. Admittedly it would have to be one of our nicest and newest intercity trains. Somehow I was hoping for something more exotic and exciting. There are some interesting views from the train but a lot of the time we are behind fences or walls as the tracks run very close to houses.
After eating lunch on the train, we arrived at Shin-Osaka station to make our connection to Hiroshima. I remember Shin-Osaka station as a madcap dash through a convoluted series of passageways searching for the correct platform. In the end we arrived in plenty of time. In time in fact for the earlier train but it was a Nozomi train which we are not allowed to use with our JR pass so we had to wait for the next one.
While waiting for the next train we noticed that these platforms are not very well designed. On the platforms at Shin-Osaka, queues form for the various carriages parallel to the tracks between lines painted on the platform. People choosing which of the many queues to join throng behind these queues. Then a train arrives and the passengers have to get off into the space between the trains and the queues waiting to take their places on the train. The exiting passengers swarm in the gap next to the train searching for a way through the lines and the platform exit. Almost all of the people have luggage of some kind that they have to try to force through the press. Added to this there are massive pillars holding up the roof that block the way and kiosk shops in the middle of the platforms that take up space that could otherwise relieve the pressure. You can see why many of the platforms have continuous barriers to stop people falling onto the tracks. The same is true for the majority of major platforms we visited.
Many of the other aspects of the stations are very well organised and signposted. There are signs that tell you which set of stairs to go up to get to which carriages. There are signs on the platforms that tell you where to stand for which carriages and what kind of carriage it will be (Green (first class)/women only/smoking/reserved seats/unreserved) depending on which train is due next. When you are in the train, displays on board tell you about the station you are arriving at and show you where the lifts, escalators, stairs, toilets etc are. If they could apply some of this organisation to the embarking/debarking issues then travelling by train would be almost perfect.
On the second train we hadn’t managed to book seats together so we spent an hour and a half travelling at opposite ends of a carriage, the longest period we had spent not in each other’s company since before we left the UK! Arriving in Hiroshima it was noticeably warmer and more humid than it had been when we left Tokyo. The hotel was easy walking distance from the station but we had discovered a sightseeing bus that left from the station and had a stop near the hotel that we could ride with our JR pass. The driver on the bus was the only person for the whole of our holiday who gave our passes more than a cursory glance. He even wrote down the numbers in a little book!
The Maple Loop bus that we got from Hiroshima Station was the most worn out and dilapidated transport that I encountered on the whole of my trip. It reminded me of the old buses that we got rid of back home in the 1990s because they had been running for 50 years and were worn out. In the next couple of days we saw a lot more “meipuru-pu” buses and they looked a lot nicer so I guess we just got the short straw.
We hopped off the bus and after a short walk arrived at the Court Hotel Hiroshima. I’m probably going to do a separate post about the hotels we stayed at on this trip so I won’t go into detail here but this hotel has definitely seen better days. The rooms are quite run down and a lot of the facilities don’t work quite right, or indeed at all but they are by far the largest double rooms we had and it was a pleasure to have a table on each side of the bed(!) and a wardrobe to hang our clothes up in.
It was quite late by the time we had checked in and rested a bit so we went out to find dinner. Hiroshima is famous for Okonomiyaki and since we had already tried it and liked it when we cooked it ourselves, we went out in search of more. There is place called Okonomi-mura which is a building housing 25 different okonomiyaki restaurants over at least 4 floors. It took a little finding as it is sandwiched between lots of similar restaurants and the entrance is down a little passage in a large building. Once we found our way inside, we found that it was already filled with tourists. I don’t think I saw so many obvious foreign tourists together in one place on the whole of the trip. Even at the big shrines and other attractions the majority of the tourists appeared to be Japanese.
We strolled around several floors checking out the restaurants. They all have the same basic layout: a bar where customers sit on stools surrounds a large flat griddle. Behind the griddle a team of chefs works preparing the food on the griddle. When the food is ready it is moved within reach of the customers, remaining on the griddle to keep warm. All of the restaurants are open onto a central corridor on each floor so we were able to have a good look at each one and see the food being prepared and watch the customers. More importantly we could smell the food being cooked. On the 4th floor, we found a place that had an English menu but no obviously western customers and sat down to order. A nice Japanese lady next to us chatted with me but I had a lot of trouble understanding her. The food was actually slightly disappointing, partly because they cooked it for you rather than letting you do it yourself but the atmosphere was fun. The whole building was very hot though and it was a relief to be able to go outside into the cool rain when we were finished.
Back at the hotel we discovered that it had been taken over by some kind of school sports team in brightly coloured track suits.