Thursday, July 14, 2011

Arrival in Japan

Lantern at Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate), Sensoji

This month I had the opportunity to spend a week in Tokyo (1-7 July), my first time in Japan. I came on a research visit kindly arranged by Professor Yukari Shirota at Gakushuin University. I'll describe the research aspect in a later post, but here I'll just share some initial impressions on my arrival.

Japan has a very distinct cultural identity; it's one of the few countries that retains - at least in many people's perception - a uniqueness that has persisted in spite of its immersion in modern industrialisation and particularly global markets and consumer products. It's famed for its etiquette and politeness and it was as though the whole trip was couched in such ethos from the moment I dropped off my bags at Heathrow, where I had a friendly conversation with the staff of Virgin Atlantic.

We know Japan as 'the land of the rising sun', which is a translation of Nippon. It is fitting in many ways; the heat and humidity in the summer months is quite palpable, certainly sub-tropical, feeling not much different from Thailand. (I feel sympapthy for 'cool biz' workers who have to trade in their jackets and ties for reduced air conditioning, with the government advising units to be set to a minimum temperature of 28 degrees. Even in a land used to construction and reconstruction, there's been a lot of discomforting changes, faced with admirable forbearance.) But it's particularly as the emergence of the hi-tech society, that the sun it such a resonant symbol. It wasn't long before I was struck by its manifestation in rail transport.

On arrival at Narita Airport, there are many options to proceed to the centre of Tokyo. With the aid of a Lonely Planet guide, I had perused various routes to my destination of Mejiro and settled on catching the fastest train service available, the Keisei Skyliner, which can whisk you into heart of the capital in under 40 minutes, followed by a trip on the circular JR Yamanote line. So after collecting my baggage (probably the shortest wait I've had), I bought a ticket for the Skyliner, complete with a seat reservation, another one for the local service, and made my way down to the platform. The train duly arrived:

Keisei Skyliner

As this is the terminus, the train is cleaned before boarding, but there is also a wait for something else: the repositioning of the seats. Just like synchronised swimmers, every passenger seat is rotated in unison, through 180 degrees to face the direction of travel. Once on the train, pre-recorded announcements are given in Japanese (in a singsong voice) and more regular US English. The driver(?) makes only occasional announcements to inform passengers of the location of toilets and where to find refreshments - not the buffet car, but vending machines!

My train was surprisingly not on time. There had been an incident on the line causing congestion, but I was in no hurry, and there was no visible response from the other passengers. I disembarked at Nippori station, (mis)fed my Skyliner ticket into a turnstile, plucked out the other ticket and after enunciating "Me-ji-ro" to a couple of station staff I found the right platform. Shortly before midday I emerged from Mejiro station, into broad daylight and my first steps on Tokyo soil outside the transport system!

Entrance to Mejiro JR station

Initially a little disorientated, I established my bearings once I spotted the Northwest entrance to Gakushuin University.

North-West entrance to Gakushuin University

This made me feel I really had reached my destination. With the aid of a map and directions from the porter at the gate, I subsequently made my way to the Faculty of Economics, met Prof. Shirota, and was later shown to the guest accommodation.

Time for a bit of rest, before the preliminary discussions later that afternoon...

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