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We are on the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Utsunomiya. I've just had a chicken futomaki roll for breakfast, bought on the platform while waiting for the train.
We met in the hotel lobby at 07:30. I had risen to a sunny day, and after wiping the condensation from the window had a great view west to the mountains, and Mount Fuji on the horizon. There was a hotel pool below, but full of snow.
View of swimming pool at Pacific Hotel, Shinagawa
Continuing our story...
We checked out and crossed the road with all our luggage to Shinagawa Station, where we braved the Tokyo rush hour crowds of people scurrying to and fro as we looked for a place to buy tickets to Utsunomiya. We located a set of machines selling Shinkansen tickets. Our Shinkansen left from Tokyo Station, however, so we also needed a ticket from Shinagawa to Tokyo. These secured, we again ploughed through the teeming masses of commuters and on to a local line platform where we awaited the next train to Tokyo Station.
One soon pulled in and was packed to the rafters with commuters. Thankfully, most of them disembarked and left us enough room to climb aboard with all our luggage. We stood holding on to the hand straps for the two stops to Tokyo (it was five stations, but the train line we were on didn't stop at some of them).
Although the weather was cold, it wasn't too bad, and I was surprised to see all the locals rugged up to the ears with heavy coats and scarves. I would have thought that they'd be used to these sorts of temperatures, but they seemed to require almost more protection than we did. Matthew described a theory a friend of his had that Sydneysiders actually handle cold weather better than people who grow up in cold locations, because the locals have grown up wearing heavy winter gear and can't get by without it.
Riding the Tokyo subway train to Tokyo Station
At Tokyo Station we alighted and navigated the enormous transit hub to the correct Shinkansen platform, where we had about 20 minutes to wait for our train. We had bought unreserved seating tickets, so first had to locate which cars of the train were available to us, and then which of those were non-smoking cars. We settled on car 2 (of 16), and joined what looked to be a couple of short queues of people waiting inside painted red and green lines on the platform.
Within a few minutes, the green queue next to us had grown to about 20 people, while the red queue in which we were standing behind a solitary man hadn't attracted anyone else. We surmised that, like the bus queues at the airport, the green tramlines were for people waiting for the next train, while the adjacent red ones were for people waiting for the train after that. So we skipped lines and ended up at the back of the long queue.
Not having had breakfast yet, I wandered over to a small stall on the platform and perused the variety of sushi and bento boxes available. I wasn't sure if the bento boxes were served hot, so I chose a futomaki roll, then returned to mind the bags while Matthew checked out the same stall and bought some tofu pockets.
By this time the green queue had doubled in size behind us, while the red queue remained at a single person. Our train arrived and lots of people got off. The queue waited patiently as cleaners went through the carriages, then the doors closed for a while, and then finally they opened again and we started boarding the train. We grabbed seats right at the front end of the car, near the small luggage racks in the vestibule, so we could keep an eye on all our gear there.
The train pulled out of Tokyo Station and glided north through kilometres of densely developed residential and industrial areas. My futomaki roll turned out to be minced chicken, and was delicious. After a brief stop at a northern suburb, we flew along at a good clip and eventually passed through more rural looking areas. The weather, which was sunny in Shinagawa, took a decided turn for the worse, becoming completely overcast and grey, followed by thick fog and eventually falling snow. The wind was whipping it up into almost horizontal gusts and billows of flakes, and the countryside was blanketed in a white carpet. We marvelled that the weather forecast had been "fine and sunny".
Just as quickly as it had begun, however, the snow cleared and soon we were once again flying north through bright sunshine and a clear sky. To the west, over the mountains, however, hung a menacing pall of grey cloud.
After 55 minutes on the train, we pulled into Utsunomiya. The weather had turned grey again, and a light sprinkle of snow fell as we disembarked and walked along the cold platform. We turned to the east side of the station and down the stairs to a taxi rank, where we joined the tail of a queue of about 50 people waiting for taxis. While waiting there, the snow soon stopped. I was delighted to discover that Utsunomiya's famous gyoza statue was right there next to the taxi rank and bus stop at the station, so I took a couple of photos of it, covered with snow.
The gyoza statue at Utsunomiya station
Taxis arrived and left fairly rapidly, and we worked our way to the front of the queue, where we hopped in a taxi to the Canon Lens R&D facility. I took my black shoes out of my luggage as we piled it in the boot, and changed into them from my sneakers in the cab. We passed east through suburban Utsunomiya, seeing many traditional Japanese style houses with peaked and tiled rooves. The city was more homey than Tokyo, and beautiful under the dusting of fresh snow that still sat on the buildings and beside the road. We crossed the river and turned into the industrial park where the Canon building was located.
As out taxi pulled up at the security gate, Kato-san and Saito-san came out to meet us, helping us carry all our luggage inside and escorting us to a meeting room where we would spend the morning engaged in lens research discussions.
At lunch, we went into the staff canteen and I was shown how to order from a selection of Japanese meals. I ordered yaki-soba, which was made fresh, and then we sat down to eat. After finishing, we took our trays to a paying station, where we put used cutlery and chopsticks into a collection bin, then scanned our trays and paid for the meals with prepaid cards (our hosts shouted us today, but tomorrow we may buy some cards to pay for our own lunches). The scanners presumably picked up on chips embedded in the distinctive plates we had used. Then we passed the trays on to a conveyer belt, which carried them back into the kitchen for cleaning.
After lunch, we measured a bunch of lenses, and learnt a lot about the testing methods they use here. As we wrapped up for the day, Kato-san said they would like to take us out for dinner tonight. He drove us back into Utsunomiya to Hotel Fair City (right across the road from the taxi stand and gyoza statue), where we checked in before meeting him and Saito-san in the lobby.
The foyer of our hotel, Hotel Mystays
We walked along the cold streets, taking care not to slip on ice that had formed during the day from the snow. First they showed us where we could catch the Canon commuter bus tomorrow morning to get back out to the factory, then they led us a few blocks away to a restaurant called Seychelles. We met another couple of the lens guys we'd met this morning there, and we had a lovely dinner.
Saito-san and Kato-san ordered for us, choosing a selection of small dishes to be shared, including: plates of mixed nuts, a tuna salad with sliced boiled eggs and tomatoes, deep fried cheese and nori in a spring-roll-like pastry sheet, some chicken tempura with a tangy orange sauce, a sliced California sushi roll (which we were surprised to see in Japan! - they called it a California roll and asked if we were familiar with it), beef pieces served in a spicy red sauce with potato wedges on the side, very lightly cooked tuna slices still raw in the middle, a seafood pizza on a paper thin crust, a Caesar pizza (basically a Caesar salad on a pizza base... odd but tasty), pieces of something they didn't manage to describe to us in words we could understand but that was probably some sort of fish. It was all delicious. We finished with desert, me choosing some plain old ice cream from a selection that included green tea mousse along with cheesecake and a few other items. It was vanilla and strawberry, and quite good.
During dinner we chatted, with some difficulty because of the language differences, but well enough to get the main gist of things, about things in Australia and in Japan. They mentioned Nikkō, and I said I'd like to see that. When Matthew agreed, they asked if we had time on Saturday, and one of them offered to drive us up there and back in time to get a bus to Narita for our flight that evening. So it looks like that part of our trip is organised!
Towards the end of the meal, Saito-san asked if we knew about Yakuza, and we said yes, we knew what they were. He said that there are many Yakuza in Utsunomiya(!). When we left to walk back to our hotel, our group (of six people) was accosted by a couple of random people on the street asking something fairly insistently. Our hosts managed to brush them off, but I couldn't help but think now that maybe they were Yakuza, after something! Probably not, but hey.
Now, to bed, and up at 07:00 to grab breakfast and head back out to Canon for more lens measuring.
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