January 3–Back to Toyko

Many trips ago, we learned that we should be in the city we would fly home from at least one day before we leave–just in case something happens to delay our travel. That turned out to be a wise move this trip.  Other than missing the opening hours of the monkey park, we have had an incident free trip. That ended on Friday.

We got out of the townhouse at 10:30 and got 2 taxis to Kyoto station. The place was unbelievably packed with people. We thought it was just the mad holiday travel we have heard about. But then we noticed that people were sitting around and the departure board still showed trains that were to leave at 8:00 am.
Turns out that a pachinko parlour caught fire around 6:39 am near a train station. The fire burned nearby buildings as well. It suspended the trains going from Kyoto to Tokyo. Our train was to leave in 40 minutes so we sat down to wait to see what would happen.
Luckily, the guy sitting next to sleeping Robin spoke excellent British accented English. Allie asked him if he knew what was happening with the trains. He told us they were to resume service some time soon. He then later told us that our train had been cancelled so we should try to get on the unreserved cars going to Tokyo.
Most travellers booked on the cancelled trains had two choices: get your ticket refunded or get onto one of the train cars with unreserved seating. Most Japanese trains have cars with unreserved seats. Those unreserved seating cars also allow passengers to stand in the aisles or in the space at each end of the car.
Since we needed to be in Tokyo for our flights home the next day, we opted for the unreserved seats despite having paid for reserved seats.
Along with hundreds of others, we climbed up to the train platform to see if the next train had room for more passengers.
Getting on trains is usually very orderly. Trains for Tokyo arrived on both sides of the platform. A fence runs along the edge of both sides of the platform with openings for the train car doors. Markings on the floor of the platform indicate where to queue for a particular car. Most trains have cars 1-3 as unreserved seating; some trains have up to 7 unreserved cars. The train number, the time of arrival, the type of train, and the location of the unreserved cars are all posted on boards that rotate between Japanese kanji characters, Japanese hiragana characters (phonetic characters) and English. Thus, we could see whether the next train was a Nozomi, the fastest bullet train that takes less than 140 minutes, or a Hikari, the older bullet train that takes about 2.5 hours, or the Kodama, the local train that takes over 4 hours to get to Tokyo. Most of the crowd waited for cars 1-3 as they are always unreserved cars. We stood in the queue for car 2. When a train pulled up, the doors aligned with the opening in the fence. People waited for anyone to get off and then moved onto the train.
Most people patiently waited.

In order to keep on schedule, Japanese trains don’t usually wait long at a station, and attendants on the platform stop latecomers from getting on a car. The attendants then wave a flag and the train speeds off.
This time, getting on board was slower. We could see there were no seats available on any of the arriving trains. People already on the train had to squeeze up to make room in the aisles or at the end of the car. The platform attendants had to stop people from boarding when it was clear there was no room left. For a long while, our time on the platform involved standing and occasionally shuffling along slowly advancing to the front of the queue.
The Japanese character seems to accept inconveniences, even disasters, without freaking out or openly expressing anger. The videos of the post-earthquake and tsunami that befell Fukushima showed people who were mostly under control despite the traumatic situation. Contrast that with calamities in other parts of the world, where some people were hysterical or others took advantage of catastrophe to commit crimes.
So it was in Kyoto, despite the extremely crowded platform, the wait was relatively quiet. People sometimes conversed quietly with their travel group, an occasional child would cry then be hushed, but mostly everyone was standing silently in a queue patiently waiting—really patiently waiting.
We were to have taken a 11:06 am train. We were on the platform about 12:30.

When we first stood watching for trains, we could see that only 3 or 4 people were getting onto the bullet trains. The less frequent Kodama trains had more unreserved cars, so more people were leaving but still in modest numbers. As more trains arrived, more room became available, and more people were getting onto each car, but the progress was slow. We remained on the platform for over 2 hours before we reached the front of the queue to get onto the next train.

As we anticipated getting onto the next train, a group of four tourists, who had not been in any queue, moved to stand close to us and near the spot indicating where the train door would be. We figured they were tourists because they did not look Japanese, they had backpacks and they spoke English. The Japanese man standing behind us pointed them to the back of the queue. They ignored him. We knew for sure they were not Japanese and certainly, they did not behave like the Japanese.
The next train that pulled up was a Kodama. The four tourists charged ahead of us onto the train. Actually, charged ahead is an exaggeration. We did not move as the four pushed past us. We had already calculated that waiting for the next bullet train would be faster than taking the Kodama.
The train pulled away and the platform attendant said to us, “Next train; get on the next train”. She must have known something because the next train that arrived within minutes was a Nozomi, the fastest bullet train, and it was entirely empty. Not only could we get on, but we could sit down, something that no one who had left before us had been able to do.

So, there we sat, in our comfortable seats with our luggage stored overhead, looking forward to being in Tokyo in just over two hours, and enjoying the fact that the queue jumping tourists would be enduring four hours of standing on a crowded train before they reached Tokyo.
The lesson to be learned? Not that a tourist in Japan should be polite and patiently wait in queue; no. A tourist in Japan should research to learn the different types of trains available.

We got into Tokyo at 5:30 instead of 1:30, so went straight to our hotel and then to our dinner reservation at the Japanese restaurant in the hotel. We had hardly eaten anything all day.

After we had a drink in the 52nd floor bar:
The view from Robin’s room:

The view from our room:

Robin and Sidney head to the airport tomorrow morning at 7:45.  Our family holiday has come to an end 😦

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