Toronto Star Feb 8, 2017: MIYA, JAPAN-If you blink you’d miss it. The train goes screaming through the station like, well, a bullet. We try to snap pictures as the shinkansen — bullet train — speeds by. After largely failing, we stash our gear and get back in the queue lines marked on the platform for Car 11. Our bullet train is arriving shortly. It will stop for exactly one minute. We stand with bags in hand.
We’re off to explore a few sites along the new Hokuriku Shinkansen line that runs from Tokyo north to the Sea of Japan and west to Kanazawa. It opened last year, the latest of the bullet trains that started speeding across Japan in 1964. The Hokuriku line was instantly popular with identically dressed commuters (dark on the bottom white on top) and it’s beginning to attract more international visitors.
“Railway is the most suitable transportation system in Japan,” says Hirotomo Sorimachi of the Railway Museum in Omiya, just north of Tokyo, where we stop for a quick visit. “Land is so small we can’t afford to build highways like in North America,” he tells me through our translator. The museum is packed with “train geeks” or “tetsu” (the word for iron). Grown men wait in a very long lines to try a train simulator. Families wander through old rail cars, exhibits and rows of shinkansen merchandise in the gift shop that would make Thomas the Tank Engine blush.
I pass on the gift shop, but back at the train station I pick up a beer and a little bag of crackers for the ride to Joetsu Myoko. The package likely mentions the crackers are fish-flavoured. One can only assume it’s an acquired taste. When we get off 37 minutes later, a cleaner holds a big plastic bag open for my crackers and empty beer can. You wouldn’t dream of leaving trash on the train.
Our list of delights at Joetsu Myoko include a tasting and tour at craft sake maker Kiminoi and wandering through Takada Park, discovering spiders the size of your thumb and fields of lotus waving in the breeze. For a higher-tech experience, we head to the Myoko Happiness Illumination, the world’s largest LED light image. It’s a magical two-kilometre walk through The Elton John of light shows, complete with dancing dragons and holograms of the God of Thunder.
Next stop: Itoigawa. A couple of local journalists catch up with us at the Tanimura Art Museum, curious to know our thoughts about the museum built by an industrialist (gorgeous) and what we think would attract more tourists to the area (“Speak more English,” the American writer says).
“It’s a chicken-and-egg story,” journalist Kunihiko Umeda tells me through our translator. “A local restaurant has an English menu but they don’t speak English.” Yet our next stop, the Fossa Magna Museum, has English signage telling us all about the area’s dinosaurs and jade. “It’s happening bit by bit,” says Umeda. “The target here is for visitors to feel hospitality; it’s a key word in Japanese.”
And you do.
You may not be able to read what button to push on the kettle in your hotel room or converse with a server in a restaurant, but Japanese “omotenashi” crosses the language barrier with countless bows, a train clerk offering origami swans as you pass through the turnstile and front-desk clerks who accompany you to your room when your key card won’t work (because you’re at the wrong room).
We also visit a few temples and carry our shoes in plastic bags provided at the entrance. Inside Eiheiji Zen temple near Fukui City, you can’t take pictures but you can sit among monks chanting. If you go to a lot of temples, you can bring along a little book, a sort of temple passport, where monks will mark the page.
The end of the line of the Hokuriku Shinkansen is Kawazawa, but we hop on a regular train south to Takayama. In the Old Town we see plenty of Westerners as we sample sake here, miso there and sushi across the way, all while slaloming around visitors taking pictures in the narrow shopping street. “We’ve seen an increase in the number of tourists since the bullet train,” Nobuhisa Hori, a local tourism official tells me. “Before it was mainly Asians but now we see more Europeans and North Americans.”
We provide some novelty. Groups of local junior high school students stop us to practise their English and ask questions for a school assignment. Just around the corner from the tourist street, little school kids in yellow caps parade by, grinning at the Canadian on a bench. When you wave and say hello, they say “hello” back and promptly collapse into fits of giggles.