Sunday, February 27, 2011

A salutary lesson about car hire in Japan

This morning was a bit difficult; after waking up with hair that appeared to have exploded, and a mouth like dessicated coconut, I had a nutritious breakfast of French fries and croissants. I didn't boast too much about how I'd got a taxi home last night, rather than walk for a couple of miles from the station to the flickering beacon of the ANA Gate Tower Hotel. Then we went over to the airport to pick up our hire car.

Unfortunately, to hire a car in Japan it's a legal requirement to have a Japanese translation of your license.

Luckily, I have a Japanese translation of my license, along with my international driver's permit.

Unluckily, I have it stored in a safe place in my apartment in Hong Kong, so there was no hire car for us today.

This is rather annoying as the confirmation from the car rental website makes no mention of this, only that you need to have your national driver's license. As we couldn't go to the translation service that was half an hour away (and closed on a Sunday) and as an emailed copy of my international permit was not the same as the international permit itself, our attempt to get a car broke on the harsh and unrelenting shores of the Japanese legal system, and now we have to go through the annoyance of claiming a refund from the car rental website.

Thankfully, we do have credit cards and they don't need to be accompanied with a Japanese translation to use them, so fifty thousand yen later, we were in possession of tickets to Marugame and back to Osaka next Friday, and thus we've ended up on the train instead.

It must be wearing to live in the future, in a world of shiny trains that always arrive and depart exactly according to the schedule, and you can buy miniature effigies of trains with Hello Kitty's face. Certainly all the passengers disembarking at Shin-Osaka station had that look of resigned boredom, as if existing in a strange new world full of high-speed trains and vending machines that will serve hot coffee wasn't that exciting any more. Bear in mind that this is all the future as per the 1970s, so Japan has lots of robots and probably some invisible flying cars, but there's still some issues with email and internet connections.

Although in the 1970s they'd probably not thought of airbrushed cartoon porn, or not to the same degree that the Japanese have excelled in. It's all on DVD though, and I suppose by the 1970s we did know that Lasers! were going to be important in the future. (As a side note, Doreamon, a popular cartoon character, is a 'cat-type robot from the 22nd century of the future' - that description is either terrible translation, or (more likely) an admission that the future will be different, depending which year we are thinking about it from.)

As trains go, the shinkansen is pretty nice. Less utilitarian than the TGV, and although it's not as fast as the mag-lev from Pudong airport to [the remote outskirts of] Shanghai, the interior isn't not decorated to look like something from the 1960s. (Clearly The Future! as planned by the Chinese still hasn't quite caught up.) It feels vaguely reminiscent of the 1980s though (I think the shinkansen we're on is not the first generation) - a over-complex batik-like design on the fabric of the seats, and all the surfaces covered in a mottle-effect paint rather than being blank fields of smooth colour. Thus it's not as shiny and wow-inducing as the Taiwanese high speed trains, but I suppose they had their future installed more recently and had the upgraded version. As any westerner writing about the shinkansen is regulated to do so, I have to mention that 'shinkansen' does not mean 'bullet train' but the rather more prosaic 'new fast express', the sort of pretentious blathering that people have been saying ever since the 1970s when the bullet train first arrived in the Western consciousness.

In the 1970s, there were lots of disgusting foods that we don't eat any more. There are a lot of disgusting foods that you can purchase on the platform at Shin-Osaka, including chocolate with cognac-soaked raisins in it, which is utterly disgusting. I don't want to go on about how different countries all have mutually incompatible tastes in confectionary, because let's face it, the green-tea flavoured Kit Kat is a wonder of science that should disprove that thesis. I would have to say that there is some level of cruelty that whenever you walk around the concourse of Shin-Osaka, there is a wonderful smell of freshly baked waffles, yet when you get up to the platform, there's just the revolting cognac-soaked raisin chocolate and packets of substandard Pringles imitations.

Perhaps that's the real reason all the Japanese travellers leaving the train looked so jaded and gloomy; living in the future is all very well, but when you're trapped on Planet Shinkansen and there's nothing to eat but terrible experiments in chocolate and Hello Kitty flavoured Pocky.


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