It has been well over a year since my first trip to Japan and I realize that I haven’t written down any of my stories about it. There are many highlights in my memories of the trip and this is one that really sticks out for me. The “bullet train” (新幹線, romanized shinkansen) may have a reputation for being super reliable, but the first day that I needed to use it to get from Tokyo to Fukushima prefecture, there was a bit of an incident.
I was visiting a friend who offered to show me around Koriyama city, where she was working as an ALT for the JET programme. I would need to take the bullet train from Ueno to Koriyama station and then catch a cab to get to her place. I made my way to Ueno station, luggage and all, JR train pass ready to show. As I stood in the long line-up, I practiced in my head over and over again the words I would use to ask for the ticket. It made me a bit nervous actually. Using the local lines was much easier since I could just show my pass and walk through, but here I would need to worry about setting the departure time, expressing my preference for a non-smoking car, and ensuring that I’m asking for a seat that doesn’t require extra money — JR train passes do not give access to all bullet trains or all cars within any particular train (read the terms on your pass carefully!).
When I finally got to the counter, I recited my opening line, “I’d like to buy a ticket on the shinkansen to Koriyama station.” What came next, no phrase book in the world could have prepared me for:
“It’s not running right now.”
I understood exactly what he said, but even so I was totally taken aback. After all, this was the shinkansen. What were the chances that it would be experiencing troubles on the very first day that I needed to use it during my trip? I collected myself and managed a reply.
“Do you know when it’ll be running again?”
“We don’t know when it’ll be running again.”
I thanked him and walked away dumbfounded. I had rented a mobile phone to use while I was in Japan, so I pulled that out and called my friend to let her know that I could not take the train and that I didn’t know how long the wait would be. There were many other tourists who were also confused but I decided that maybe I could get a bit more information. I looked at the sign showing arrivals and departures and found a ticker displaying a message: the line I needed to take was experiencing signal troubles between Ueno and the next station over.
Well, that’s a perfectly good reason to stop any train, especially one that travels at super-high speeds. I was getting a bit hungry so I decided to make the best of where I was and walked in to the Hard Rock Café.
Yes, there’s a Hard Rock Café at Ueno station and they’ve got all of the trappings of one too, including the classic rock memorabilia. But Japan always finds a way to do it differently. I ordered a hot dog.
I don’t think any Hard Rock Café in North America sells those. Hamburgers, yes, but not hot dogs. It seemed more like a rather thin sausage but it was still tasty. I killed a bit of time there before checking again: still no resolution to the signal troubles but it looked as though they had an estimate on when they’d be up and going again. I had a couple more hours to kill.
I gave my friend an update, put my luggage into a coin locker, and then used my pass to board a local JR line circling around the city to make a short trip to (you guessed it) Akihabara. What can I say? To a computing and anime geek like myself it’s one of Tokyo’s greatest attractions. After that, I headed back to Ueno station to try and purchase my ticket again. This time it went pretty smoothly and I was on my way to Koriyama city. I arrived without further incident.
I wonder how I would have handled that situation differently if I didn’t know as much Japanese as I now do. It’s difficult to imagine. Would I have panicked? Would I have started approaching the tourists milling about in the station with their large suitcases to ask if they knew what was going on? How much more awkward would the situation at the ticket counter have been, trying to flip through a phrase book for something that probably no book would have contained?
It was another one of those moments that made me appreciate all of the effort I have put into studying Japanese. But conversationally, I wouldn’t hit my stride until at least a couple of days later, when I took the bullet train west to Kyoto for the second half of my trip.