The best part of spending two and a half weeks in Japan over the holidays was the food. My friend Akiho comments frequently on the Japanese love of good food and she insisted on making sure I ate "real" sushi before leaving Tokyo. She took me to an elegant place in the Ginza where the ingrediants were bought that morning in Tsukiji, and the fish and rice melt in your mouth. Elsewhere I had my fill of okonomiyaki, tempura, and kaiseki dinners.
A close second to the dining experience was the transportation experience. I've ridden public transportation in Amsterdam, London, Paris, Washington DC, New York, and Cairo and I think Japan has them all beat. The system (or lack of) in Seattle is not worth talking about. We've been talking about mass transit for 35 years and we're finally building light rail from the airport to downtown.
You could make the argument that the integration of rail systems across Europe makes them the winner in a contest for the variety of experiences one can sample on one pass, but I don't know that they can beat Japan Rail and the Japanese metros for overall efficiency and ease of use.
You'd simply be mad to own a car in Tokyo. You can get where you want to go quicker and easier on the metro, you don't need to worry about parking, and it's not expensive. The metro cars are clean and fast.
The stations are a marvel too. The newer ones have brightly lit shops, restaurants, and even hotels, removing any argument for living above ground or ever needing to see daylight again. Some of them, like Tokyo Station and Shinjuku Station, are massive. (Pulling a large suitcase is no fun when the sign says your next platform is 450 meters away.) Shinjuku Station sees more than 2,000,000 commuters per day. But somehow the massive crowds (which are also a marvel to see) keep moving and there is never a sense of suffocating crowding.
I only experienced one rush hour ride. I walked up to a car that was already packed to the doors and I stopped, figuring I'd wait for the next one. A rider looked at me and smiled slightly. He shrugged and made a gesture like, "You might as well get on. The next one will be just as busy." I pushed my way into the car, only to have three more people push in behind me. What're ya gonna do?
The Tokyo subway map is imprinted on my brain and is now more familiar and easy to use than a map of Seattle. I'm smitten with the cheerful electonic voice whose announcements in Japanese I can now understand. When I heard her intone "Tsugi wa Suitengumae," my heart sank with the realization that she and I had one more station together before parting. She would continue riding her endless loop on the Hanzomon line and I would ascend from the vast city that lives beneath Tokyo into the city itself to catch my bus past Tokyo Disneyland to Narita. Only one of us will miss the other.
The shinkansen (bullet train) was the most fun. A mere 300 km/h...on the ground. I've never gone that fast without first rotating and retracting the undercarriage. I'll write more about that another time.
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