The Japan Rail officer on the opposite platform performs a brief balletic ritual as the Shinkansen pulls away exactly on time. In precise and well-practised gestures, he ostentatiously points at his shining silver watch and then at the departing train with a white-gloved hand, signifying its timely departure. Apparently, all of the officers’ watches are synchronised. He gestures to the officers in front of and behind him along the platform. He points at his watch again with his index finger, reciting something aloud – I can’t tell what of course – but I imagine he is announcing proudly that another JR Shinkansen, that technological wonder of Japan, has departed bang on time.
This isn’t my first rodeo, but I still allow myself a brief nod of impressed acknowledgement when our Shinkansen stops with all the doors precisely aligned to the politely waiting queues of people, helped by the platform officer’s ballet in reverse. We take our seats beside an unusually tall man, and the train glides away silently at zero seconds past 12:17.
We settle in to brunch, two hastily purchased bento boxes, dumplings for me, eel and tiny fish for Orlando. The ticket inspector strolls past, turning to smile and bow before departing the carriage. It’s such a small gesture in a way, but speaks a multitude about the importance the Japanese put on courtesy and order.
Officially, Peak Hanami starts tomorrow. As we wind through urban and semi-rural areas, more and more blossom-covered cherry trees become apparent, lining a canal here, surrounding a small town park there, popping up one at a time on street corners and postage-stamp-sized gardens.
The train hugs the coast, past wide river outlets, huge wharves and cosy coves. The urban sprawl is unabated, punctuated only occasionally by patches of rural living. Paddy fields sit alongside car parks, apartment blocks alongside traditionally-built homes with ornate tiled roofs. Painstakingly trimmed camellia bushes fill every tiny space in one town, right up to the gates of an enormous Shiseido factory. Now and again the pastoral setting is disturbed by a gleaming solar panel farm where once rows of greenhouses stood. I spot a Denso Tape factory, which casts my mind back to my days as a young gas engineer. 727 Cosmetics seem to prefer billboards in the middle of agricultural land. What’s the logic there?
The towns themselves are not picturesque or charming, really, although many laneways and older houses catch my eye as we speed by. The land around the residential streets are often divided into allotments where potatoes and pumpkins grow. In the less built-up areas you can see how the land has been used in the same way for many years. A narrow laneway survives still, wedged between an old garden wall and a new factory; a crowded graveyard nestles amongst the modern buildings; an old lady dressed in pale blue rides her bicycle in a leisurely fashion past a street of modern two-storey homes.
Every town, large or small, appears to have a baseball park, and I lose count of the number of Ferris wheels I see on the three-hour journey. The enormous Dragons baseball park in Nagoya is decked out in blue and red, the seats huddled intimately around the hallowed turf in the centre. We stop briefly at Nagoya station, swapping one cargo of dark-suited men for another, seasoned with a handful of older women with shopping trolleys. With living space at a premium, I take note of the many clever devices apartment-dwellers employ to dry as much laundry as possible on their tiny balconies. I wonder where I could buy some of them for myself.
Kyoto’s ancient courtyards, canals and rooftop spaces are drenched in cherry blossoms. Part of me wishes we were disembarking here, to revisit its temples and laneways. The platform master once again does his performance, checking his shining silver watch, gesturing with one white-gloved hand towards the front, then the rear, finally pointing in triumph at the digital clock at his workstation. Another Shinkansen departs on time, all is well in the world.
Next stop, Osaka.