Panic-stricken and anxious over the lack of cellphone reception, I had ignored Narita airport completely and forgot to take any pictures. Japanese airports are quite the spotters’ heaven – dedicated outdoor observatory decks, camera friendly holes in the fences complete with a wide range of aircraft and airlines, I couldn’t ask for a better to spot at. However, this fact was nearly lost on me until I was already at the train station platform with my ticket in hand.
After nearly twelve hours of traveling, I was feeling really jet-lagged. In addition, having been told just hours before my flight, I couldn’t pretend that the huge bomb that my now-former employers dropped wasn’t affecting me at all. Helpless, depressed, angry and frustrated, I chose the fastest route into Tokyo – the Keisei Skyliner airport express service to Nippori, and to Ikebukuro via the JR Yamanote Line – I just wanted to sleep it all, wake up the next day and pretend nothing happened. All too quickly, I realize that transfers are a whole another ballgame compared to Singapore’s with the existence of multiple rail operators but it’s hardly inconvenient. The real tricky part are the labyrinths of the major stations which are served by three or more companies operating more than ten individual lines between them. Huge malls flank on either side of the massive station complex, with underground and overground malls located above, under and in between the different companies’ territories topped with exits that number well into the hundreds. It’s complicating at first, but I get the hang of it pretty fast.
Aboard the Keisei Skyliner from Tokyo-Narita Terminal 1 to Nippori.
After a short rest in my room, it was dinner time. Still feeling a tad jet-lagged, I initially thought of just having a meal in the area. Sure, it doesn’t have the global recognition that Shibuya and Shinjuku have, but Ikebukuro is still a popular commercial district. But Tokyo’s like an escalator – once you’re on, it takes you somewhere. There’s an infectious energy about the city that just drives you, and instead of going against the grain, I went with it.
I thought the most appropriate “welcome dinner” would be at Tokyo Ramen Street, located at First Avenue Tokyo Station, which is a mall located within the Tokyo Station complex. Thinking that it’d be an easy find, I didn’t consult the web before leaving the inn, nor did I bring out my guide-book this evening, so naturally, I got lost…but I eventually find my way. Tokyo Ramen Street is home to eight of Japan’s best ramen shops, including TV Tokyo’s 2011 Best Ramen winner, Keisuke, which I was very excited to try. Like all retail and food outlets, the shop’s barely larger than a small bedroom. Dimly-lit, and decorated with most of the customers’ bespoke, well-tailored trench coats lining the wall, it felt intimate, cosy and comfortable. With the entire structure vibrating every few minutes (the mall’s underneath the Shinkansen platforms), you just get the feeling that everything’s in a constant state of motion. The queue is long, but the turnover so fast (in under fifteen minutes), that it’s hardly a worry. To order, you slot your notes or coins into the machine, select your dishes (they come with pictures), then it dispenses you with change (in both notes and coins) and a small ticket which you hand to the staff while you’re shown to your seat. By the time you settle down, your bowl of ramen arrives.
Unlike its Singapore outlet where it originally served a prawn-based broth, Tokyo’s Keisuke uses a crab-based broth, and not just your every day crab, but Hokkaido King Crabs. I was expecting a good bowl of ramen. What I got far exceeded my expectations. Everything was sooo…stylized and exquisite, I couldn’t believe I was paying just 950 Yen for it. The crab-based broth certainly made all the difference, giving it a creamy, milky texture to it, and providing a very strong foundation on for the rest of the ingredients. Interestingly, it contrasts well with the chashu which was elegant and artisanal – not too fatty nor too meaty, it melts in your mouth. The stash of ginger helps balance the acidity and richness from the crab broth and chashu, so it never overpowers or becomes too overwhelmingly flavorful. To top, or rather, bottom it all, are four chunks of king crab meat at the bottom of the bowl, which just confirms my opinion that Keisuke’s nothing short of the finest ramen in the world.
Being at Tokyo station, and with the Shinkansen platforms just above, I, as a rail enthusiast, couldn’t resist seeing them. I mean, I was in Japan, the home ofthe bullet train. Sure, Japan’s Shinkansen no longer boasts the fastest high-speed rail services (that honor lies with China now) but the aesthetics of their trains, particularly the duck-nosed varieties sure make up for the lack of speed. As a pioneer in maglev technology, and believing that it’d “soon” be adopted as the preferred mode of cross-country mass-transit system, Japanese planners in the sixties placed limits on the infrastructure, particularly tunnel construction. However, the anticipated cost reductions with maglev’s popularity never materialized, partly because electro-magnetic waves were seen as harmful to the body – “steel wheel on rails”, a.k.a. conventional rail, continued to be the mode of choice, owing to its cheaper construction. This caught Japanese high-speed rail planners unaware, because the network (made up of mostly tunnels) simply couldn’t handle a train entering a tunnel portal at 300km/h. To “cheat death”, literally, planners fashioned the now infamous duck-billed nose to improve aerodynamics to alleviate pressure forces when a train enters or exits a tunnel portal while maintaining ever-increasing speeds.
However, this isn’t the “end all” solution that everybody hopes it’d be. Intense aerodynamic pressure exerted on the rolling stock, along with ever-increasing demand, means that the Shinkansen fleet is often pushed beyond its limits. This intense operation translates into ever increasing higher than average cost maintenance with time, thus trains have to be retired barely after ten years of operation.
Work on the final solution has already begun – maglev. Yes, you’ve guessed it. The Chuo Shinkansen, will be the world’s first inter-city maglev line, taking just 67 minutes to travel from Tokyo to Osaka with a top commercial speed of 505km/h. But the project comes at a huge price, literally, with an exorbitant price tag of 135.5 billion Singapore Dollars to be paid over three decades until the line opens in 2045. Unlike the European maglev technology used in Shanghai which is infamous for its poor ride quality (I’ve ridden it, it’s true. It’s like riding in an aircraft that’s forever taking off.), JR-Maglev will use the Electro-dynamic Suspension system, which in layman’s terms, magnetically levitates the train from either side of the train as opposed to from under, which improves both acceleration and ride quality. Yupe, so that’s exciting to look out for.
Matty’s favorite Chuo Line, a major commuter rail line operated by JR East, seen here operating a E231 series train.
Another E231 series train operated by JR East, this time, operating the Yamanote Line, a circular line which connects Ikebukuro, Harajuku, Shinjuku, Akihabara, Shibuya, Tokyo station and all the major Tokyo districts.
As I was saying, I spent quite a bit of time just train spotting, really, without being disturbed by security, hopelessly waiting to catch an E5 series Shinkansen, the newest in the fleet operating Tokyo-Aomori’s Hayabusa super express services in action. One thing I love about Japan is that it’s an enthusiast-friendly nation, and this respect stems from Shintoism, which suggests that all matter, living and non-living, have a soul. Of course, the West naturally dismisses this as superstition, but what it really aids is public civility because if you respect public infrastructure, you’re not gonna misuse or vandalize it, and it helps things last longer as well. In a larger sense of the word, you’re not going to commute with a negative mind, because you’re gracious and appreciative that the train you’re in is working sooo hard to take you home or to work. While soaking up the atmosphere at the outdoor Shinkansen platforms and snapping a few pictures, I realized my second mistake – I had underpacked. In the days prior, checks on weather forecasts sites had predicted a 14 degree average, and I had packed based on that forecast. Like a middle finger to the outside world, the temperatures plunged below 5, and winds began picking up, freezing the hell out of me. I needed something to warm up.
Next, read about the rest of my adventures in Tokyo:
Previously, on my adventures to Tokyo: