Japan - Tokyo, the Shinkansen and the Expo at Aichi
This was my second visit to Japan, and I had planned it to include some time in the capital as well as a daytrip to the World Fair in Aichi, near Nagoya. For this, I had booked a “self-guided” package with JTB that included train tickets, seat reservations and admission to the Expo. For the first night though, I booked a room at the Narita Hilton, which turned out to be quite nice and large for Japanese standards and the €90 it cost. At the time of my stay, HHonors Gold members also got a complimentary “continental breakfast” voucher, which was greatly appreciated. Just like FT had educated me, there was nothing that stopped you from helping yourself to the full buffet spread, and so I treated myself to some miso soup and other Japanese delicacies after a good nights sleep. (Alas, this perk has apparently gone in the meantime .) There was some confusion upon checking out as I had thought that the hotel had already charged my credit card at the time of booking (as stated on my confirmation), but they insisted that they hadn’t. It later turned out that they were indeed right, but it was interesting to see how the Japanese staff reacted to my initial resistance to signing the folio. I think that just by questioning the process, I had intimidated them. This was a good reminder for me to adjust my behavior to the subtle and smiling customs of my host country. I fared well with smiling and nodding on every occasion for the rest of my stay.
I took the shuttle back to the airport and from there, thanks to mjm’s insight and previous experience, got into town on the Keisei line for 1100 yen. While waiting for the train, I noticed that the sound of birds singing was played in the underground train station. I assume this is to create a relaxing and “safe” atmosphere? The ride into town was smooth but lengthy, and it was around 11am by the time I had reached the Shiba Park, my downtown hotel right around the corner from mjm’s place. I checked into a room about half the size of the one in Narita (at twice the price), dumped my stuff and headed out. This was a nice spring day, and in hope of seeing the remnants of the famous cherry blossoms (apparently the trees in Tokyo were in full bloom only a few days earlier), I walked to the city park. Although admission is free, I was handed a token at the entrance which I had to return when leaving the park. A bit weird, but maybe that’s a way of controlling the crowds on weekends? (Imagine being told that you can’t go to NY’s Central Park because it is “full”…) Here are some impressions of the beautifully manicured gardens and, yes, some cherry blossoms I was able to see:
As you might vaguely recall, April 2005 was the time of escalating tensions between China and Japan regarding, among other issues, the visits to the Yasukuni shrine by Japanese MPs. Reading Asian papers, I had gathered that this temple was apparently a war memorial and also hosts a museum, and made a quick decision to go there myself to see what the fuss was all about. It was a quick walk from the city park, but unfortunately it started to rain as I walked through the mighty gate guarding the temple’s entrance. I hurried up the long alley to the main building and sought shelter under the little house with the washing basin until the worst downpour was over. As the entire temple inscriptions were in Japanese only, their meaning did not unravel to me and I headed over to the adjacent museum after a short while. The exhibition had some English signs as well (although I think that just an “essence” of the Japanese descriptions was translated) and displayed numerous artifacts from WW2, including an original Kamikaze fighter jet. My general impression of the museum was that it was very uncritical towards the Japanese role in WW2, but then again I am not a historian so don’t take my opinion for an educated view. But it somehow fit my impression of the Japanese society that the atrocities of war, such as the drafting of youngsters for suicide attacks, the life of POWs on either side or the devastation after the raids on Tokyo and the nukeing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were faded out.
As a contrast program, I decided to spend the evening in the shopping and entertainment district of Ginza, which with its huge billboards looked fantastic at dusk. Wandering through the basement food stalls of the large department stores made me hungry in an instant, so I had some fried noodles and made a mental note to return for a bento box another day. After some serious fun in the Apple and Sony stores (amazing what their gimmicks can do these days!), I returned to my hotel for a late night beer with mjm, who had just gotten off work, and then called it a night.
The next day brought an early start. I hopped on the Yamanote line to Tokyo station and found my way to the Shinkansen tracks. Thanks to JTB’s excellent documentation (leave it to the Japanese to organize excursions!), I knew that my train to Nagoya was leaving at 6:03am sharp and that I had to take my pre-assigned seat. In fact, they even explained in detail how I had to swipe my ticket through the fare gates, which still did not prevent me from triggering some sort of alarm by simply using the wrong turnstiles. From what I gathered from the friendly, but not overly polyglot policeman, I had accidentally tried the local train gates. He pointed me into the right direction, and on the platform, the displays were in English as well. They confirmed that this was my “Nozomi super express train” to Nagoya, and I settled into my surprisingly comfy seat in the well air-conditioned car. The train left precisely on time, and soon I found myself zipping past Mt. Fuji at 270km/h. There was hardly any noise or vibration and if it wasn't for the blurred countryside flying past the window, one would not have guessed the speed. Station announcements were in English as well as Japanese, so I had no problems to find out when it was time to get off in Nagoya. The transfer to the Aichi Loop line taking me to the Expo site was well signposted, but the suburban train I connected to seemed incredibly slow after two hours on the Shinkansen! With one more transfer on the “Linimo” maglev train, which was neither spectacular nor very fast, I reached the main entrance to the Expo area.
This was my first ever visit to a World Fair. The Japanese have put Expo 2005 under the motto “Nature’s wisdom” and have created two beautifully landscaped areas which are interconnected with a cable car. For time reasons, I limited myself to the main Nagakute zone with all the country pavilions and the elevated walkway called “Global loop”. The smaller Seto zone together with the “Forest experience area” would have probably filled a second day. Having been raised in a small village with plenty of forests and nature around me though, I decided that the Forest experiences were probably geared more towards city dwellers than me, and thus focused on the country pavilions. There were also various attractions sponsored by large Japanese corporations and regional and national governments, but these drew the biggest local crowds, so I skipped them.
I have shared my impressions and recommendations on the Wikitravel page covering Expo 2005 and will not repeat them all here. Below are just a few additional observations and remarks:
On the April day that I was there, the site was not too crowded and mostly populated with school groups. It was just a few days before the “Golden Week” holidays though and I was told that everybody braced for hoards of people. I was among the about 5% Caucasian visitors.
“Nature’s wisdom” was interpreted in many, ahem, different ways. While some countries, including the UK, Canada, Italy and Australia, really dealt with the theme and its implications, others pulled off a pure tourism stunt. And did you know that “Nature’s wisdom” is a prime aspect of drilling for and refining oil? If not, go talk to the Saudis in their pavilion!
It was impressive to see that most countries had staffed their pavilions with their own citizens, who all spoke Japanese fluently (or at least that’s how it seemed to me). I did not know that there are so many Japanese-speaking Swiss, Germans or Frenchmen around…
I loved the variety of food on offer. Most country pavilions had some sort of restaurant or café attached, and there were plenty of food outlets as well. I had some sort of Japanese noodle soup for lunch (ordered purely by pointing a finger at a picture as the take-out clerk did not speak any English and alas I speak no Japanese), followed by Italian espresso and Spanish crema catalana. Later in the day, some middle-eastern baklava and a sushi dinner followed. All refuse had to be duly separated into an array of different trash cans, including “combustible waste”, “organic waste”, “crushed paper”, “newspapers and brochures” and even “used chopsticks” ! It goes without saying that the locals duly followed these disposal instructions, and after some initial confusion, so did I.
There seems to be a cultural difference in what people like to buy for souvenirs. Throughout the day, I was desperately looking for postcards, but all I found were some advertising cards in the Scandinavian pavilion and one ugly card with the green monster-like Expo mascots as a motif. I browsed through several large gift shops and even inquired about postcards sporting photo impressions of the site, but in vain. The Japanese seem more attracted to thousands of candy boxes and soft toys. Even the next day in Tokyo, I had a hard time finding some more or less attractive cards to send to the jealous folks back home…
When the time had come to leave, I was exhausted, but merry. The journey back to Tokyo via Nagoya was just as smooth as the way out, and after a long and impressive day, I sunk down into my bed around midnight.
I granted myself some sleeping in the next morning and then headed to Roppongi Hills, where I met mjm for a cup of coffee and a muffin, of course at Starbucks! We roamed the streets for a bit afterwards discussing travel plans and favorite Swiss white wines (I was impressed by mjm’s detailed knowledge of Swiss grapes) before it was time for me to head back to my hotel and then to the airport. By this time, I felt perfectly at ease using the Tokyo Metro, but I still dread the thought of a service interruption or deviation. My guts tell me that the announcements and signs would only be in Japanese… All went well though, and I had even correctly read the timetable and thus soon found myself on a Keisei line train out to Aoto, where I transferred on a Narita-bound train. The last bit of tension fell off when the faregate at Narita let me through and thus confirmed that I had bought the correct type of ticket from the vending machine downtown.