After spending almost one month in Japan, it was time for us to leave for Southeast Asia. To reach Narita Airport (outside of Tokyo) in time for our flight to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam that evening, we took the Nozomi Shinkansen (bullet train) back across the country from western Japan.
Nozomi is the fastest train among all Shinkansen (bullet trains). Nozomi, which means "hope" is faster than the train named, Hikari which means "light" so, that may give you some idea as to how fast it is. With an average speed of 261.8km/hour or164mph, it's route begins in Kyushu (southwest Japan) and ends in Tokyo (map). Since the Shinkansen rail service does not run through Shikoku, we needed to make a connection with it via an express train from Matsuyama to Okayama. Our Nozomi departed Okayama at 12:06pm and arrived in Tokyo at 3:30pm, less than 3.5 hours to traverse the entire country!
A train station in Japan is nothing like its American counterpart. In fact there is no comparison when it comes to both the quality of food and the number of purveyors. At the "eki" there is always an irresistably aromatic bakery, as well as numerous shops selling bento (boxed meals), noodles (ramen, udon, soba), souvenirs (or "omiyage," the all-essential gifts brought back for friends and family by Japanese travelers), and kissaten (coffee shops that offer amazing coffee, baked goods, and light sandwiches). Hard as it may be to imagine from our own experience in the US, in Japan, the train station is a gastronomic fantasyland!
A train trip without "ekiben" (eki=station and ben=bento) is like a visit to New York without eating bagels. If you have never had the ekiben experience, you really must try it at least once. Since train travel is the most popular (and easiest way to get around) in Japan and the Japanese have grown up eating bento since their childhood, it was natural for the culture of ekiben to develop. Each region's ekiben features their own unique and local specialities. This self contained meal is a great value too, costing ony about $5 to $7. Each comes complete with chopsticks, soy sauce, napkin, and of course, a tooth pick (a hopitality fixture in Japanese dining).
It is quite easy to understand the attraction to traveling by train in Japan. The rail system is pervasive and ALWAYS on time. The stations are monuments to cleanliness, organization, efficiency, and most importantly, the place where great food is found at every turn. It's no wonder that every inter-city passenger seems to carry an ekiben with them when they board, no matter what the time of day! We were delighted that our Nozomi experience allowed us the time to indulge ourselves in ekiben, a quintessential source of pleasure that exists only in Japan!