What would you say if your friend asked for your help to move to Kobe with her toddler daughter and two cats?
You'd say no.
Because there ain't none of that baggage that can be stuffed on an overhead luggage rack. And you suspect she'd probably stay if it wasn't possible to carry both the cats.
Then she'd mention it would involve a sleeper train with bunks, and you're picking up the cats and heading for the door a week before you actually need to be at the station.
This is because sleeper trains are cool.
With the Shinkansen bullet train not yet extending up to Hokkaido, the rail route south to the top of Japan's main island of Honshu takes between six to eight hours. As Kobe is situated in the southern half of Honshu, this results in the first quarter of the journey taking around half the total trip time. For us, we'd be taking the sleeper to Honshu, transferring onto the Shinkansen to Tokyo, switching to a second Shinkansen to Osaka and then weaving through the local trains to the hotel my friends were staying at overnight.
The sleeper train consisted of compartments with four bunks packed like the plague ridden houses of 16th century London. The two top bunks had no safety rail, with only a thin strip of fabric running from the middle of the mattress to the ceiling to act as a break to a sudden decent into a squished pile of doom.
It was awesome.
I totally picked the top bunk, taking one of the cats (contained in a carrier) up with me. What is life without a little risk of squished doom? Pretty sure the cat agreed. Either that, or the huge-eyed look meant 'OMG. SAVE MY POOR FURRED SOUL.' But probably it was excitement.
This enthusiastic sentiment may possibly not have been shared with the person on the other top bunk. We'd booked three of the four beds in the compartment, but the last place had been reserved by a gentleman now regretting his life choices. He took one glance at the two foreigners, baby, two cat carriers and the single Japanese person (my friend's husband) speaking English, and looked as horror stricken as it was possible for his Japanese manners to allow. He swiftly scaled the ladder to his bunk and drew the privacy curtain tightly around his bed.
Was that thin strip of fabric likely to help? No.
If our traumatised companion had ventured out into the corridor during our trip, he might have felt even more short changed. Many of the compartments remained empty for the journey, although the one at the end was packed with beer bottles as an indication of the occupants' alternative plans to sleep.
At the end of the carriage, there was a single toilet. I entered the small room and realised that sleeper trains weren't just fun: they were an extreme sport.
The toilet was a traditional 'squat pot' whereby normally bodily functions are combined with gym exercises you've been avoiding since the age of eight. To add to the challenge, this one was on a raised platform that provided the shoe space for no more than a medium-sized foot. One wrong step on this moving train and ...
…well, there were options. All of them would require a shower. And a bonfire for clothes.
One the plus side, I did not have the toddler. One who did not like to be separated from her mother. Ever.
Back on the bunks, there was a neat pile of fabric consisting of two sheets, a pillow, blanket and a Japanese-style cotton dressing gown called a yukata. While traditional garments in Japanese hotel rooms, it had seemed surprising that anyone would wish to change completely into a gown while on a train. That was until I had seen the toilet.
As it happened, our reluctant forth party lucked out. The toddler went right to sleep (although at such an angle that her mother did not), none of us needed the yukatas, the kitty with me was (mainly) quiet and the other cat… well... a score of 3/4 is not bad.
When they had first arrived in Japan from the USA, my friend had mentioned one of the cats had yowled for the entire journey. I had assumed that she had not meant it literally: the flight is about ten hours from the west coast and surely NO CREATURE could keep up complaints for that long. I thought the feline in question probably meowed in bouts, lasting a few minutes each.
This cat had the tenacity that would impress every cheerleading coach in the country. The saving grace was that his mews were not loud and frankly? It could have been SO MUCH WORSE.
The switch to the bullet train produced a sleek but rather dull transport alternative. Sendai, Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka flashed past, brief windows of city between stretches of tunnel and sound barriers to protect nearby towns. Also, we saw Mount Fuji in snowy glory, which was pretty great.
When we stepped off one of the fastest trains in the world and arrived at the hotel, we discovered a rotary dial phone. Japan, only you could produce this combination without charging more for such craziness.
Then I flew back to Sapporo. A sixteen hour journey was compressed into two.