Taking The Bullet To Osaka

Taking The Bullet To Osaka

Travelling sucks. Or rather, these days the process of getting to and from any long-distance point is fraught with suckiness.  If there was ever romantic plane travel, it is a  long gone memory — no well dressed gents sipping martinis with gorgeous Pan Am stewardesses; instead you get a drunk guy in cargo shorts and a Trump hat yelling at a Sikh while a cabin attendant makes terrible jokes over the loudspeaker.  Post 9-11, the simple act of getting on a plane best resembles going to prison: you are humiliated, stripped of your shoes, belts, poked, prodded, treated with deep suspicion, spoken to as if you were brain damaged and if you choose to speak up, chances are your would be hustled out of the airport and possibly arrested and the whole thing would end up a practice run for actually being detained.  Plus, everything takes hours.  Hours and hours.  As my good friend Adam put it, the best way to mentally adapt to flying anywhere is just to write off the entire day. Put an X through it and let your mind go numb with the help of a xanax.

Traveling to Osaka from Tokyo on the Shinkensen has given my hate a respite.  The Shinkensen is the Bullet Train –a high speed rail line (150 to 200mph) that travels between most large Japanese cities.  Trains depart from the central Tokyo Station (reachable by most subway lines) about every 20 minutes so there is no panic about missing a train or delays; there are easy-to-use automatic kiosks that allow you to purchase tickets and reserve a seat.  There is no crazy security, no massive lines and best of all, there are bento boxes.

Bento Boxes are basically pre-packed lunch boxes that offer a variety of little dishes: rice, pickles, a protein, salad of some sort.  Regional specialties are highlighted.  If you got a bento in Hokkaido you would probably get some sort of snow crab, in Osaka, kushi katsu, the list goes on and on.  In Tokyo Station there is a huge Bento Box shop and the selection is overwhelming — all the regional dishes coming together so that it becomes difficult to choose.  For my last trip to Osaka, I bought a grilled eel bento for the trip out and a “Chinese” bento with shu mai and fried rice for the return.

It is rare to find anyone who doesn’t bring at least something — chips, rice crackers — to eat on the Shinkensen.  There is a joy to it.  Barely in their seats, travelers unwrap their food, arrange their utensils and tuck into whatever they have brought:  little tea sandwiches;  rice balls stuffed with grilled salmon; elaborate bento boxes with grilled meats, vinegared fish and luscious vegetables.  They crack open beers, green tea, iced coffee and go to work.  It is almost as if people are traveling simply to eat bento, to have an excuse to nibble on popping fresh salmon roe while sipping a cold beer and watching the majesty of Mount Fuji zip by at 200MPH.  Not such a bad way to spend two and a half hours.

In fact, food and travel in Japan are deeply intertwined.  For centuries, travelers walked and rode the byways of Japan and reveled in the foods offered at way stations and inns.  Great poets wrote haikus dedicated to their favorite teahouses only found on the ancient Basho Trail. This tradition has continued,  both Narita and Hanada Airports have close to 120 restaurants serving everything from high end sushi to quality ramen to fine French cuisine.  For long distance drives,  many a rest stop along the highways are actual gustatory destinations.  Yes, people actually travel to eat at a rest stop.  Imagine that NY dwellers?  Picture people actually making a drive to eat at the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Rest Stop on the New Jersey Turnpike.  An anonymous blowjob in the toilets? Probably.  To eat?  Never.

Perhaps what sucks the most about modern travel in the US is the loss of dignity.  From the moment you leave your house you are subject to the whims of uncertainty and a total loss of control:  Whether it is traffic, a fragrant cab driver too busy arguing on his cell phone to exit to the airport, crushing lines in security or that tone-deaf, soul killing announcement, “Ladies and Gentlemen, due to a maintenance issue, your flight is being delayed….” the effect is the same.  Suffice it to say, that stripped of control, it can feel like the the final indignity is having only a McDonald’s or PF Changs to choose from.  By tying great food to the idea of travel, Japan, in its own weird way, gives back some control to the weary traveller. It may be just a small meal on a train, but there is a dignity in taking travel back to a place where you choose your joys and no one can take that away from you.


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