22 August 2010

Japanese Train Food - Bento and Company


Fresh Off the Plane

We arrive at Narita airport around 4:30pm. Once we pass through immigration and customs we head straight for the JR Travel Service Center to trade our Exchange Orders for official Japan Rail Passes. I have done this several times and the process is always seamless. It doesn’t take long and it is a window into Japanese culture.

After submitting our Exchange Orders to the clerk a great deal of rubber stamping and marking takes place as the rail pass cards are prepared. Then with a single simple request reservations are secured on the Narita Express to Shinagawa Station and on the Shinkansen from Shinagawa to Kyoto Station where we will change to a local, hopefully rapid, train to Nara. We should arrive at our destination between 11pm and midnight. Then it is a short walk of a few blocks to our hotel.


Boarding the Narita Express

That accomplished we have a little time before our train will arrive one flight down the escalator. I look around the kiosks for Cold Green Tea and Orange Juice. My husband looks for Lemon Water and Pocari Sweat. Not sure if we are hungry, as it is around 1am on our body’s clock, we decide we will buy snacks from the cart once we are on the train.

Upon boarding the Narita Express we quickly find our seats. The train is not crowded and there is plenty of space to stow our bags on the rack above us. There are hooks to hang our coat and sweater on beside the window and so we get comfortable and bask in the excitement of being in a strange world at a strange time. Soon we can see buildings, billboards and other signage outside the window. It is exciting and bizarre.


Cultural Blur

Most of it is indecipherable to me. I know few Japanese characters and I feel like a child again, evaluating the pleasing qualities of the lines, the pictures they draw rather than understanding what they mean. Interjected is the occasional English word, sometimes meaningful and sometimes without context.

I see some familiar signs. One in English for a Curves salon, one in blue Japanese writing that I recognize as a sign for Toyoko Inn. Soon the lights come on and neon blurs on the buildings close to the tracks as our train speeds past.


"We Are In Japan"

The sun is setting though it isn't yet 7pm. The sky turns from a hazy blue to shades of crimson and gold. It is beautiful! I struggle for a photo trying to time my snap to a window between the buildings going past. Finally I capture one that reflects the speed and distance as well as the gorgeous colors of the sunset framing the skyline on the horizon.

I settle back into my comfortable seat. When the food cart comes by we buy snacks. We choose a small can of Pringles and a box of Pret crackers for a transition from American to Japanese culture. I take pictures. The snacks are tasty and fun. I am still riding the giddy joy of having been released from the confinement of the airplane and the knowledge that we are a half a world away from where we began our journey as little as 12 hours earlier though we have lost a day somewhere in the process. Though my husband has been to Japan no less than fifty times now, he still looks at me from time to time and says, “You know what? We are in Japan. “ to which I raise my bottle of Japanese Tea and drink deeply, knowing I seldom find an unsweetened beverage in a bottle at home, at least not one that I actually like to drink.


Traveling In the Fast Lane

At Shinagawa station we congratulate ourselves for not taking the route that changes at Tokyo station. At Shinagawa the transfer from Narita Express to Shinkansen is simple, a very short walk and then a tranquil wait for the train to arrive.

When the train gets underway I look out the window as darkness falls. The lights between the tracks and the ocean reveal life all around us, brimming to the coast, abruptly slipping into velvety darkness at the edge of the sea. At intervals, tall building stretch lights into the vertical plane. I see a Ferris wheel in the distance, lit up against the night sky, turning. It is approaching 8:30pm.

Though we are traveling at speeds averaging about 210 kilometers per hour the ride is smooth and comfortable, almost too comfortable. We buy a bento box and a black coffee from the train cart. My husband still has his orange juice. The attendant smiles broadly speaking in a pleasing voice and bows. She tells us plainly how much and carefully counts back our change.

Our purchases are more about staying awake than they are about satisfying a desire to eat dinner. I have had a bento box from a train station kiosk before so I wasn’t counting on it satisfying my hunger anyway. The last box was filled with sushi that was wrapped beautifully and looked interesting. Unfortunately I didn’t like it's taste or texture very much. Of course there are many choices of different bento boxes and few contain sushi rolls. The selection on the train is limited so the contents of this one are a matter of luck. Our luck turns out to be good this time, in fact we are on a roll.


Beautiful Bento

We share the contents tasting each individual piece carefully. Most of the items I cannot name with confidence. Some look quite unusual. We both taste them all except for one particularly squishy looking item that I let my husband have all for his own. He has tasted many Japanese delicacies at business dinners and doesn’t mind my generosity. He will try almost anything.

There are some interesting flavors. The rice is tasty and satisfying. Everything is pretty. On the whole I am delighted. Our selection is successful but I am tired. I try to amuse myself taking pictures but the ones I capture are scarcely salvageable. I pull out my iPod, listen to music and try to read a little, watching from time to time to track the stations we pass on the scrolling sign above our cabin door.

At Kyoto Station we change trains again. This time we are boarding a local train. We have a wait of about 20 minutes so we are able to board the train early. Though it is late the train fills up with passengers quickly.


Slowing Down to Rapid

From Kyoto to Nara is only about 30 miles but we have left speed behind us on the Shinkansen. This is designated a Rapid train but takes almost an hour to reach Nara at the end of the line. The scenery here is less interesting in the darkness and I soon realize that this is the challenging part of the plan, staying awake until we reach our destination.

We do it though. By midnight we are safely tucked in our bed, eyes closed. Though the following day has no demanding departure time we know that we will be wide awake at 3am anyway. It is simply the reality of jet lag if not convincingly enough of middle age. Still a few hours of sleep is better than none.


Retracing Our Steps

The journey back to Narita airport four days later is a different story. While on paper it is simply our initial train journey in reverse this time it is accomplished in daylight with no particular drive or hurry. We have entered a mental space of comfort and rest, of watchfulness and satisfaction.


We do have to leave early. We buy breakfast at the conbini in Nara station before 7 am. Between the two of us we chose a chocolate filled croissant and two salmon filled onigiri. That, plus two cans of hot coffee, starts our day.

We arrive in Kyoto with time to browse the Shinkansen shopping arcade before boarding our train. After an unsuccessful foray into vending on the train platform, we carefully select an interesting looking bento box for the next leg of our journey. I find the perfect box in one of the store cases. It is two tiered with a pretty design on the lid. I'm not sure what it holds but the box is so appealing I know it is the one.


Back Toward Tokyo

Our purchases made, we are ready to continue toward home. Up the escalator from the shopping arcade we wait for our train on the platform. It soon arrives and we board, settling in for a comfortable journey to Shinagawa station.


Outside we watch the landscape speed by. We pass from citiscapes crowding toward the train tracks to rural fields. We pass factories, rice fields and amusement parks. Each stop is announced with a bell tone and is carefully articulated in British accented English following the Japanese announcement. Upcoming stops also scroll on signboards over the doorway at the end of each train car. Comfortable that we will not miss our stop we relax for the duration of the train ride.

More Bento

When I satisfy my curiousity about what is outside the train I turn my attention to our bento box. Opening the box I am delighted. It is another nice surprise. Everything inside looks appealing and most of it seems at least somewhat familiar.


I taste green beans with sesame seeds that are delicious, a small brightly colored ball that may be mochi, a variety of vegetable bites including a flower shaped carrot slice, a mushroom cap, a small stick of celery and a slice of lotus root. The box includes a few pieces of tempura, a pepper and a slice of squash.


There is also a square of tamago, a few bites of pork and a taste of tofu. The entire bottom sections is filled with seasoned rice and finished with a small section of pickled ginger. I am so pleased to find almost every piece in the box agreeable that I find myself smiling for several hundred miles.


A Faint Whisper from Mt. Fuji

Another difference in our Shinkansen ride back to Tokyo is a dreamy surprise appearance of Fuji-san outside our window. I'm not even sure about the location of this elusive icon of Japan. I know that it is sometimes visible from the Shinkansen but no one mentions it today. No one crowds the west side of the train and no announcement is made, at least none that I understand, as we approach the mountain. Today I simply look up and notice, there it is, not fully visible but faintly floating in the distance, it’s snow etched summit a whisper on the horizon. Quickly we grab for our cameras and manage to capture a hint of that famous summit, another moment of serendipity on this fleeting journey, before the train races past toward our destination.

5 comments:

Christina said...

Your descriptions of your travels fascinate me. I am filled with curiosity and wanderlust! Thank you for these beautiful peeks into another world.

grace said...

you. write. wonderfully.
also, i love that you took so many pictures of the food--there's no denying your foodie status! :)

Ivy said...

Your lovely, whimsical, and detailed story makes me feel like I was there with you.:)

Cathy said...

Your post is wonderful, Lisa, so beautifully written. I was in Tokyo years ago and never had a chance to see the countryside and visit other cities.

Thanks for taking me along on your adventure.

Cindy said...

It sounds like a wonderful adventure!