Bullets and Puffing Billies
A few metres west from Tokyo’s Jimbōchō subway station are streets lined with bookshops: in an age of electronic media, e-books and selfies it is reassuring to find that bookshops live on – at least in Tokyo.
One of them, a huge six-storey place called Shosen, is a reader’s delight. Floor after floor reveal treasures – from the basement’s stocks of graphic novels and pornographic cartoon books featuring pneumatically enhanced women or naked school girls elaborately bound in ropes – to the floors above where history, philosophy, novels art books and origami papers vie for space. But on the top floor there is only one subject matter.
There are books on railway history, model train kits, antique enamel train destination signs in Japanese and English, timetables, books giving details of the splendid Shinkansen “bullet trains” of Japan, replica railway conductors’ uniforms, railway maps, DVDs and videos of trains old and new … and for the absolute purists even soundtracks of steam trains puffing along remote mountain routes.
I have always loved train travel so this place was a sort of treasure trove for me, as I found it after two splendid train journeys. Each journey took about two hours, with one of them covering almost 560 kilometres in that time … and the other managing not quite eighty kilometres.
I spent a couple of weeks’ skiing at Appi-Kogen in northern Honshu, and travellers reach the area by bus or train from Morioka. The train departed from Platform 0, rather like going to Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station to reach Hogwarts School. The arrival at Appi-Kogen was also a bit magical – with a tiny station surrounded by deep, silent, snow-covered fields and an occasional dim yellow light shining through the swirling snow. On a no-ski day (too windy and too cold for my old bones) I returned to the tiny station boarded the local railcar or railmotor for the journey to Ōdate, located in the mountains of northern Akita Prefecture.
The eighty-kilometre journey winds through frozen mountain passes and tunnels, past frozen streams and snow-covered pine and silver birch forests. It is not as spectacular, perhaps, as the Flåm Railway in Norway, which in just twenty kilometres corkscrews its way up from Myrdal at sea level to Flåm, 867 metres above sea level, yet it is faster than the Colombo – Kandy train in Sri Lanka which rarely raises a sweat or breaks into a trotting pace. There are, of course, more famous trains, and more epic journeys from one side of Australia or Canada to the other … but the Appi-Kogen to Ōdate local is a delightful winter excursion.
Frequently the only sight is the pair of curved parallel black lines left by the passing train in the otherwise pure white landscape. The route passed through twenty-two villages (some just a few houses, others quite large provincial towns) including Akasakata, Rikuchū-Ōsato, Jūnisho, Ōgita, Hgashi-Ōdate and, finally, Ōdate. Two stops were made at the onsen towns of Ōtaki-Onsen and Yuze-Onsen – small villages with a few hotels for people to enjoy the local hot springs, and the train also stopped at Towada-Minami, where the driver hopped out, had a quick cigarette, walked to the other end of the railmotor, gave the other end of the train a bit of a kick start and roared its other engine for a few minutes, then we set off again in the reverse direction and onto a new branch line.
And now for the weather
Several years ago I enjoyed a Spanish local television station weather forecast for the coming seven days. A merry symbol for a glowing sun shone on every day. It’s nice to keep things simple!
In Japan, a weather forecast I had read on-line said that snow was due to start falling at 12.34 on the day of my journey. I knew I should never have trusted any meteorological predictions! Cutting out pigeons’ hearts and looking for auguries in the bottoms of tea cups must surely be better ways of telling what the future would hold. The forecast was grossly incorrect – and snow started falling at 12.43 …
This area is known for the production of wood chips and large areas of pine forests were being turned into wood chips with a big mill near Tayama in full swing. This seemed to be the only activity that continued through the winter months, and I was reminded of the huge controversies not so long ago when Tasmanian forest were being turned into wood chips – for export to Japan. Perhaps to provide the paper pulp for all those book shops near Jimbōchō.
There were vineyards with the vines were covered with straw hats called shimoyokes as protection against winter snows, hop fields with bare cables reaching up to leaden skies, and hectares of rice fields appearing as snow-dusted skating rinks – although some also had the stubble poking through.
Occasionally a scarlet torii or gateway to a temple provided a splash of colour, and snow-capped black marble tombstones in small country graveyards provided a counterpoint to the red of life. The skeletons of summer glasshouses were everywhere, but I saw only one snowman – and even more incongruously, near Kazuno-Hanawa, a frozen and snow-covered water slide that perhaps attracts kids in the summer when they can slide down it in the swimming costumes … instead of having to don winter gloves, boots and padded quilted jackets.
Arriving at Ōdate, after travelling past numerous houses with frozen washing hanging at crazy angles on balcony clothes lines, and about two hours after leaving snow-clad Appi-Kogen, travellers are greeted by electronic bird song to indicate the location of stairs for visually impaired people. It was still snowing when I arrived – not the fluffy sort of stuff that turned my moustache and beard into mini-icicles while skiing, but a hard, gritty dry granular sort of snow that bounced when it hit the ground – like very fine hailstones.
Just outside the station is a striking statue to Ōdate’s Akita Inu dogs, the most famous of which was Hachikō, a dog that returned every day for ten years to the station looking for his master who had died while in a nearby town. Like Hachikō, I found my way back to the station after a few hours’ exploring the city, and enjoyed a sunny return journey to Appi – and some more days on the pistes.
Japanese Railways are well-known for their cleanliness, punctuality and efficiency: Switzerland beware! The subways, the railmotors and local trains I travelled on were fine examples of these traits – but the Shinkansen lift the game to a new level.
Like flying – but not as far to fall
Similar to France’s TGVs and to Spain’s Talgo trains, and Germany’s ICE trains, Japan’s Shinkansen moves passengers from city to city at speeds that often make train travel faster than inter-city air travel. Like their European cousins, the Shinkansen usually have First and Second Class carriages – or Green and Ordinary carriages. The Eastern lines of JR have taken things another step and additionally offer their GranClass carriages.
Travelling in a GranClass compartment really is like flying.
There are only eighteen seats (so advance reservation is essential) arranged in a XX X pattern of doubles and singles. The attendant shows passengers to their seats – reclining leather airline-style chairs with reading lights and footrests – and returns moments later with a hot towel and a menu card. I am not sure what JR means by one sentence on the menu card, but I presume it to indicate that life’s long journey is made up of many small ones – and that this moment or two in the lap of JR luxury is but a stepping stone: Though merely a brief interlude en route to your destination, we are honoured to make your time with us a high point in your journey. Was I going to die when I got to Tokyo? I hoped not – but just in case I settled back and determined to enjoy the experience just before my life flashed before my eyes.
Travelling at an average speed of about 250 kmh, the countryside outside did flash by in a bit of a blur, but there were things to compensate for this. Unlike the trip to Ōdate, this train stopped only three or four times in the 560 kilometres from Morioka (pretty ordinary old Platform 11 this time) to Tokyo station.
During this time snacks and white wine were served, followed by a nice bento box lunch featuring ingredients produced in areas along the Shinkansen route, some more snacks and white wine, and coffee for those who wanted it. This service was indeed a far cry from the take-away teriyaki and a plastic bottle of the unfortunately named Pocari Sweat I had enjoyed on the earlier train.
To help pass the time, once we had tired of playing with the seat controls and examining the complimentary slippers, shoe horns, eye masks and blankets, were a couple of helpful magazines in a wall hanger by each seat, including the JR Train Shop magazine – rather like and in-flight duty-free shopping magazine. However, unlike the airlines’ magazine which flog off cheap booze and cigarettes and perfume, this helpful magazine offered battery-operated wardrobe lights, a bewildering array of clothing, electronic cat and / bird scaring devices for the garden, anti-fungal toe nail plasters and special massage mittens to give your dog a “feel good” day.
Tokyo station arrived – quite when it was expected to pull up outside my window, with the door of my compartment quite where it was supposed to be and aligned with “Car 10” painted on the platform. The attendant bowed to all eighteen passengers, cheerily called out parting witticisms and gratuitous hints on weather predictions in Japanese followed by a brief “Welcome to Tokyo and thank you for travelling by JR East” in English.
I have just discovered that the historic Tokyo Railway Station celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2014, and that the historic Tokyo Station Hotel inside the renovated and reconstructed building (1945 was not a good year for downtown Tokyo) celebrated its centenary last year after being fully refurbished and reopening in 2012. I am sure that at the prices charged for the various hotel rooms and suites that travellers arriving at the station in the GranClass compartment would feel quite at home … but I took a taxi to a nearby and far less expensive hotel instead and went out next day to explore the bookshops of Jimbōchō.
- Journey: March 2016
- Text and photographs (excl Shinkansen exterior) © Christopher Hall 2016
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Other train journeys I have enjoyed:
- Badulla – Kandy – Colombo, Sri Lanka
- Indian Pacific, Perth – Melbourne, Australia
- Flåm Railway, Norway
- Cochin – Madurai, India
- Albuquerque – Los Angeles, USA
- Singapore – Bangkok, SE Asia
- Cairo – Luxor, Egypt
- And many more …
and on my wish list:
- Blue Train, Pretoria – Cape Town, South Africa
- The Canadian, Toronto – Vancouver, Canada
- The Ghan, Adelaide – Darwin, Australia
- OK – and The Venice Simplon and the Asian E&O too …