On a global scale, Japan isn’t a large country – but for the seishun 18 rail pass holders it certainly seems like it is. The futsu (local trains) move around incredibly slowly, and rarely further than the next town – which, while enjoyable and a good way to experience rural Japan, means some sitting around in bleak and windswept stations (rather like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Occasionally while waiting for a connection, a distant roaring sound is heard and a shinkansen (super-express train) zooms by on its elevated platform, perhaps symbolic of the ticket holders’ rise above the masses.
The leafy (though not in the winter) city of Sendai is an easy day’s travel north of Tokyo, and on arrival I tried out one of Japan’s stereotypical accommodation institutions – the capsule hotel. The image I had of them from media reports back in the UK was of cramped and Matrix-like coffins, but they’re essentially enclosed bunk beds and quite roomy. The hotels themselves have all the facilities you’d expect, you just sleep in a private box instead of a room or bunk.
Most travellers use Sendai as a staging point for Matsushima Bay (one of Japan’s three great sights), and so I joined a small contingent of Japanese tourists on the train out to the coast (I’m told the crowds are worse in the summer) and the only pedestrian toll bridge I’ve ever seen. There are literally thousands of small rocky islands (many seemingly just big rocks standing in the sea) with pine trees clinging to them (how the soil got there I’m not sure) and sightseeing boats meandering their way through. Quite a few of the islands have ancient and weather-eroded shrines on them, most of which are still in use, and there are numerous small torii (gates) and arched bridges.
A little bit further north, I stopped off at the village of Hiraizumi – site of a city said, before it was utterly destroyed, to rival Kyoto in grandeur – and found mechanical diggers busy building a new road over one of the sets of ruins. I stayed at a ryokan (inn), the second type of stereotypical Japanese accommodation, managed to convey to the staff (in Japanese) my dietary requirements, made some tea and spent a not insignificant amount of time soaking up the traditional rural atmosphere.
Finally, after a brief stopover in Aomori and a positively surprising delay on the trains (six hours), I braved the Siberian winds to visit Sapporo – the northernmost point on my visit to Japan and a city permanently (in winter at least) under several inches of snow. The hazards of walking around and crossing roads aside, the parks are icily pure and the people hardy (women still walk around in mini-skirts despite the driving snow and sub-zero temperatures). Sapporo also gave me the opportunity to use the third and final stereotypical Japanese accommodation option – the 24-hour internet and comics cafe. Whether it’s an early train (06:24 in my case) or a late night partying, there are buildings all over Japan crammed with manga comics, DVDs, computers and free drinks for less than the cost of a hotel (there are special overnight rates). Even in the early hours they’re busy with people sleeping (there are small rooms if you don’t fancy snoozing in your La-Z-Boy), surfing the net or just hanging out until the first train home. Sadly, the free ice cream machine gets switched off for cleaning at 02:00.