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Japan by bullet

It's a well known fact that boys never grow up they just pretend. But every now and then the kid comes out in us. And our reporter Martin Stott is no exception. Put him anywhere near a railway station and he's like a boy with a train set. So we thought it would be fun to pack him up with a big grown-up suitcase and send him off for an adventure on the ultimate play station--the Japanese bullet train.

Japan by Bullet
by Martin Stott

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I blame my upbringing. Raised in the North of England the birthplace of railways, how could I not love trains? And my fascination with Japan? Well that goes that far back too--to the time I wore a silly hat and ponytail wig in a school production of The Mikado.

The chance to see Japan and by train was just too good to miss.

Bullet Train
Bullet Train

For under $250 you can buy a Japan Rail pass giving you a week's travel on most lines throughout Japan This is the way to go, relaxing in your reclining seat on the Shinkansen--the bullet train--at speeds of up to 160 miles an hour. We're heading west from Tokyo on one of the great railway journeys of the world

My first stop is Kyoto, one-time capital of Japan, home to 2,000 temples and shrines.

There are two main religions in Japan: Buddhism and Shintoism. In simple terms, Buddhism deals with the life hereafter, Shinto with the present. Most Japanese hedge their bets and go for both. You pray to Shinto deities for prosperity, to bless your marriage, even to bless your car to ensure safe driving! But you turn to Buddhism for funerals and worship of ancestors.

Temple in Kyoto
Temple in Kyoto

This is an amazing ceremony I stumbled across. The old priests are in white costumes wearing little shiny black caps that look like they're made from coffee jar lids. They have embroidered yokes round their necks with orange pom poms hanging from them. We're standing in front of a six foot high pile of sticks on which prayers are written. Singing and chanting, the priests set fire to them, releasing the prayers to heaven.

After a day wandering round Kyoto's amazing gardens and temples it's time to head off to a Ryokin--a traditional Japanese inn, with tatami matting, a futon bed and communal hot bath. First you shower (you never get into a bath dirty in Japan even if you're on your own) and then it's time to climb into the water...the hot water.

Martin: "Ooh...I now know what it's like to be boiled alive."

The following day it's back on the train, heading west again, this time to a modern industrial city which, but for an event which happened over 50 years ago, would hold little interest for the modern visitor.

Voice: "Last night's target for the first atomic bomb...was Hiroshima."

Atomic Dome, Hiroshima
Atomic Dome, Hiroshima

The A-bomb museum in Hiroshima is just a tram ride from the Shinkansen station. Here you see the results of that fateful night and hear the stories of survivors. Myoki Watanabe was 13 when the bomb dropped. Knocked unconscious by the blast, her first response on coming round was to look for her mother.

Watanabe: "When I found her hair was standing on end, blood was pouring down her face. Her lips were cracked open. She was holding my brother in her arms, his kimono was soaked in blood. I thought she was dying."

She gave her mother first aid, then went outside.

Watanabe: "There was a woman by the river bank who'd been killed. Her neck had been slashed by glass--it must have cut the artery. She had a baby suckling at her breast still--even though she was dead. Myoki's father died from his injuries. Her brother died 17 years later from leukemia. Today Hiroshima sees its role as bearing witness to the horror of war. It has a peace park, the museum and a children's peace memorial. The most haunting picture I have of the city is the building on which the bomb dropped. The ruins, crowned with a mangled iron dome frame, have been left untouched, a monument to the 200,000 victims."

Back on the Shinkansen, it's time to return to Tokyo--a five-hour trip. I've got tickets for a Japanese show. But this is hardly Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Kabuki theater
Kabuki theater

This is traditional kabuki theater. Its origins lie in 17th century Japanese song and dance shows. But it seems back then they got a bit bawdy--the leading lady often doubled as a prostitute, so women were banned and the government decreed that men play all the parts instead. They still do today. With their painted faces, huge wigs and elaborate costumes they parade round the stage with majestic exaggerated movements--traitors, murderers and suicidal lovers.

The orchestra sounds like a bunch of kindergarten kids playing home-made instruments and I haven't a clue what's going on, but the Japanese obviously think it's great fun.

The audience seem to be older Japanese, so after the show I persuade some teenagers to let me join them in a more modern Japanese pastime--karaoke.

A group of us are crammed into a small cubicle with a TV screen and microphone. It's awful. And soon I have to pay the price for being allowed to join them in this exercise in mutual abuse...by singing myself.

Suddenly it dawns on me--I've come full circle. I've traveled all these miles and here I am again, in the land of the Mikado, a wandering minstrel...and no better than I was first time round!

From Japan, this is Martin Stott, apologizing, for the Savvy Traveler.

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