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Springtime in Matsumoto

Springtime in Matsumoto

We did manage to have a taste of spring weather and the cherry blossoms during a recent trip to Japan. One of the ways that the Japanese celebrate the cherry blossoms is by lighting up their gardens and famous places during this time. We caught the last night of the “light-up” at Matsumoto castle, where the entire castle is surrounded by rows of cherry trees and also freshly budding weeping willows (or something like a weeping willow). Matsumoto castle is one of the 12 “original” castles in Japan and it’s quite nice. We visited inside the next day, including a climb to the top for those who are agile enough to take on the many sets of steep stairs. This is a beautiful castle which is kept in excellent shape. The location is a little unusual, in that it was not build specifically to defend a strategic position – it’s in the low lands and, as one of the last castles built, it was more for governing than war. The most notable difference this makes is the lack of high walls. The castle sits rather low, and, in fact, is barely visible across town from the 10th story of our hotel (we had to ask where it was and we could only see the very top when it was pointed out between some tall buildings). This is quite different from some of the other famous castles (Himeji, Kumamoto) that we’d been to, where the defensive position was a key consideration in the castles placement and construction. The definition of “original” also is a little oblique, since all castles have are made of materials that require regular replacement and renovation. We’ve never been able to get a clear definition of what makes a castle an original vs. a reconstruction. Whatever its provenance, though, the castle is beautiful on a cool spring night as the cherry blossoms finish off their short...
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Out the Train Window

Out the Train Window

For most Americans, train travel is not a part of our lives, so we are not familiar with a situation where travel can be somewhat relaxing, vs. stressful, harried and unpleasant.   Let me count the ways that train travel in Japan is so dramatically different from either train or plane travel in the US. Ease of Access: In Japan, train stations are centrally located, connected to subway and bus lines easily and are often centers of commerce and entertainment, with many restaurants, stores and information kiosks.   One proceeds directly to their train track upon arrival at the station and can actually stand directly in front of the spot where the door to their train car will open (clearly marked both above the spot and on the ground).   Contrast this with the experience on a recent trip in the Northeast, where one mills around the train station waiting for the exact platform for a train to be posted and then moves with the mob to try to get to the train through a small, one-man gate (and this was in New York City!).  I won’t even go into ease of access for airports… Advance Reservations: In Japan, train seats can be reserved about a month in advance.  With reservation tickets in hand, you can relax and just be sure to be at the appointed spot on the platform at the correct time.   Airlines have long had advance seat assignments, but for the rail system, in many parts of the US, a “reservation” merely means you’ll be allowed on the train.  There are no seat assignments, no car assignments and generally you get to fight the mobs to try to get a seat on a train where you already have a “reservation”.   Trying to seat two people together is difficult, more than two is almost impossible unless you happen to be getting on the train at its origin.   And this is even for the “business class” seats! Travel Experience: Japanese trains are frequent, on-time, very fast and easy to use.   It’s probably best not to compare airlines to this, nor the US rail system. So the result is that in addition to having a great train system, one winds up with a great travel experience on the train in Japan.   It’s relaxing to settle in for a relaxing ride, some favorite music, a good read or to appreciate the views out the...