Eating on Bullet Trains

Japan’s Shinkansen, the Bullet Trains, remain iconic although there are many different superfast trains around the world now. The first Shinkansen ran two weeks before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Since then, running times have been shortened substantially by changing the shape of the nose of the locomotive from a bullet cone to the duckbill that you see above. I enjoy train rides in Japan, and prefer them to flights. Getting from Hiroshima to Tokyo by the Nozomi super-express that you see above took us 4 hours. A flight would have taken an hour and a half; not enough of an improvement to really matter.

That wasn’t our first bullet train ride on this trip. We decided to go from Kansai airport to Hiroshima by taking a Shinkansen from Shin-Osaka. That came with the completely superfluous opportunity to buy a little box of Ekiben, a lunch box to take with you on the train. We did not need this, but who can pass up an opportunity to eat a few pieces of Sushi at tea time? The box we chose had two pieces of each kind of Sushi, making it easy to share.

Travelling from Hiroshima to Tokyo we had a much wider choice of ekiben. We took our time choosing. The Family got the mixed spread in the upper panel: pickled ume (plum) and veggies, lotus stem and some mushrooms, a little pork patty, half a boiled egg, seaweed over rice. I looked around and took a more meaty selection. We took out our lunch boxes at about the same time as a family across the aisle, and out of the corner of my eye I saw that they had a much more elaborate meal. Perhaps we should have looked harder, but I was happy enough with this meal.

We have a sweet tooth. So after an hour or so of happiness I reached into my backpack and extracted an omiyage that I’d picked up at the station. Omiyage are gifts that you bring back from travels, so I must have stretched the definition a bit by presenting this packet to The Family and me: freeze dried strawberries infused with white chocolate. Like many Japanese sweets it was more tart than sweet. I don’t know what to call this specialty from Nagano prefecture, so in keeping with the daruma doll motif from the package, let me just call it daruma ichigo.

One worry you never have in Chicago

One of the recurring themes of Westerns is the cattle drive. Most of these drives used to end in Chicago. So, if you eat steaks, then you could suspect that you might be able to get good food in Chicago. You would be right. It is possible to eat a good steak every evening at a different restaurant if you are a tourist in Chicago.

Lou Malnati's Pizzeria, Chicago

For those who like a little spice in their lives, the first bit of variety one can think of is the deep dish pizza. One Saturday evening I made my way to an old and well-known pizzeria just north of the river. This was either fun, or a big mistake. No reservations are taken, and there was a forty five minute wait. The energetic eleven year old who was our guide for the weekend was beginning to wilt. The bar food (photo above) included a few things which she was happy with, while her parents and I sampled some of the other things available at the bar. Was it worth the wait? Does Chicago stand by a lake?

Chinatown, Chicago

Earlier in the day we’d walked through Chinatown looking for good dim sum. Some of the most popular food known across the world as Chinese was invented by Chinese immigrants to the US over a century ago, but I believe dim sum is not among them. We passed interesting restaurant like the one in the photo above before reaching a place which Yelp considers one of the best for dim sum in this area.

Breakfast at Yolk, Chicago

I used to put on weight when I visited US even for periods as short as a week until I realized that I have to stay off sweets and muffins. This time around, the weather helped with working off extra calories. Some of the other tricks involve not eating muffins which come on the side of an order of fruits and yoghurt. It was easy to find places with calorie count indicated with each dish. This works as long as you stay off uncharted bits like salad dressing or bread and butter on the side.

Chicago has wonderful Italian restaurants, and Asian restaurant with amazingly good sushi. I’m told by a local authority that there are wonderful Indian restaurants; in fact such a diversity that you can eat at places which specialize in regional Indian food.

Whatever you eat, its good to remember that it started off as 96% water. It got tastier as the water was replaced by butter.


I don’t think I had paid much attention to Kobe before the great Hanshin earthquake of January 1995. Images coming out of this area were so striking (such as this photo of the Hanshin elevated expressway after the quake), and so many people were affected, that Kobe remained in view for several months. The port city seems to have recovered completely, although I’m told that shipping volumes have dropped off since then.

In my mind Kobe is also associated with a personal rediscovery of the now-famous Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. I’d read him very long ago, when he was first being published in translation. Then, around the beginning of the century, The Family bought a collection of short stories by Murakami called "After the Quake", built in and around Kobe after the earthquake. We read through this together, and then read all of Murakami’s books and stories in the subsequent years.

So now, planning a work trip to Kobe seems like planning to meet a blogger whose posts I read every now then: I have a rough idea of what to expect, but I’m sure that there will be much to surprise. Fortunately I chose a hotel close to Sannomiya station, since it was close to work, but then found that it is also the core district, with a lot to do. It happens to be close to the port, and the artificial island in the bay which holds the airport.

The song of minminzemi is a quite popular sound effect that represents “a hot summer day” in Japanese manga. If you draw a sound effect “min min min” in the background of your manga, you don’t have to make your manga character say “Man, I’m boiling.” You don’t even have to draw a cicada! —Semi, cicada

Japan is perhaps the best country in the world for part time tourists. When you are busy at work from 8 in the morning to 8 in the evening and still want to get a feel of local life, Japan obliges by being open around the clock; so when I’m up to it, I’m sure that I’ll get to see Kobe Harborland, the Akashi Kaikyo bridge, the night view from Mount Rokko, the Chinatown, and Kobe’s jazz-bars. There will be time for beef and sushi. I’ll try to take a little time out to go see the Ikuta-Jinja shrine. I would have liked to take a half day off to go see the Himeji castle, but with restoration work on, perhaps this is not the best year to visit. An off-the-beaten-track thing which I hope to do is to go see the K computer, one of the world’s first petaflops computers, and still one of the fastest in the world.

I guess mid-July is a little too early for one of the incredible things about summer in Japan: the sound of cicadas. On the other hand it is not too early for the humid heat of summer, and not too late for the occasional days of torrential rains. It might feel exactly like Mumbai.