So, having sorted out my accommodation for the next few days, I was free to explore. First up: the Shinkansen (bullet train) between Tokyo and Sendai. Now that I had worked out the basics of moving from train to train it was time to experience the best that Japan had to offer. Getting off at Ueno, on the Yamanote line, I bought a ticket and went down to the lower level of the station where the Shinkansen tracks were. Shortly afterwards, a long-nosed beast glided down the tracks; my first Shinkansen. In fact, there were 2 joined together - it was one of the trains that splits partway along the line, at Sendai - one heading towards Hachinohe and the other towards Akita.
Not being a train fan as such, I ride them when I have to in the UK; sometimes they work, sometimes not, and often they are hot, dirty and full of gits. It is for these reasons and more that the train network in the UK is looked down upon by its passengers.
However in Japan, its different; clean, fast, safe and reliable. To be a trainspotter over there is not looked down upon - after all, they're enthusing over a national icon; something they have to be proud of.
Anyway, I digress. I got on the train and it pulled away. As the sardine tins of Tokyo silently turned into the more relaxed semi-countryside along the Tōhoku line it occurred to me just how much more the Japanese must (and can) rely on this transport system to get them around. Arriving at Sendai, I checked my watch - bang on time. I got off the train - which was exactly in the expected spot, and found my bearings around the super-clean station.
Still being quite new to the travelling lark, and apparently making good time, I decided to take a side-trip while there to Yamadera, on the connecting Senzan line - as suggested by my personal guide for the trip, a copy of Japan By Rail, which is a very good book for getting around over there. Yamadera is a small town in the hills to the east of Sendai, known for its Ryūshaku-ji temple high on the hill above it. If you can get high enough, the guide says, theres a shrine at the summit containing a golden Buddha.
Anyway, the Senzan train would be an hour, so I took the opportunity to pop out into Sendai, which starts with a nice open area around the station, smack bang in the centre of the city. Taking a stop-off on the floor of the ACR building that hands out hours of free internet and taking the opportunity to sort out some accommodation in Niigata for the trip back down the north coast, I then used the useful station coin lockers to store the heaviest of my bags and got onto the local train.
The journey to Yamadera was the first time I got to see a piece of 'picturesque' Japan. Winding our way through the small villages and towns, the landscape began to undulate and the green grasses that replaced the concrete was itself replaced with increasing amounts of snow-covered tree, hill and mountain. About an hour later, Yamadera, via an unassuming but brightly painted station building, appeared in a generous valley.
I looked at my watch. Not that much time before I had to be back. Taking into account the time it took to get there, I had about an hour to get to the top, come back down and catch the returning train. The book said leave twice that.
So off I trotted, the notion of getting from place to place at a canter rather than a relaxed walk was becoming commonplace. It was clear where I was trying to get to, it was stuck right out in front of me on the hill, but the entrance was a git to find. Fortunately, a guy got off the train with me who looked like he spoke English. Better still, he had been here many times before, so after getting some hand pointing down streets, I ran off to find the entrance only to get completely lost and, up until the entrance, progressed no further than this guy as he walked like a normal person behind me, patiently pointing the right way as I stood dumbfounded at each crossroads.
Anyway, after reaching the entrance, marked by a Torii, as most shrine entrances are, I made my way up at a hurried pace, taking photographs as I went. The road to Yamadera temple is a beautiful (but at that point in the year slightly slippy, snow-drift covered) trail to the top, passing through thick woodland covered with shrines small and large. Finally, I reached the top (although there are many areas you could call the 'top') and clambered onto a viewing platform, full of tourists admiring the view. The place was covered with tiny ribbons of paper containing peoples' messages and wishes, stickers and graffiti all over the walls from people signing their name over the years, and strangely, the business cards from a million sweaty businessmen pinned to the roof beams. This however, didn't spoil the view, which was gorgeous. The first proper attraction I'd been to and though it was exhausting, It reminded me why I was here.
After getting my breath back, taking many photos, and edging my way back down without breaking my neck, I managed to get back to the station just as a train arrived. Mountains and snow turned back into grass and concrete and I was back into Sendai. The next Shinkansen pointing north glided in once more and I was on my way to Hachinohe.