Day 4: Tokyo to Aomori
A bright and early start today as I headed off on my next adventure. Joban line at rush hour was quite pleasant, as was the ample air con. Off at Ueno and into the booking office to try and explain my itinerary to the booking person. After a bit of explaining he started tapping away at a phenominal rate on the booking computer (all the JR computers seem to be custom made with big trouch screens and a keypad on the right) and tickets started flying out of the ticket printer (itself the size of a small filing cabinet!). I was pretty impressed he'd managed to work it all out, however when he presented the tickets to me I saw that he'd taken my destination and computed an incredibly optimal route that would have me in another island within about 12 hours! I felt terrible explaining that I wanted to take the scenic route to Akita, a resort train to Aomori, and a "carpet seat" on the Hamanasu overnight sleeper to Sapporo. Once again he tapped wildly on the computer and this time everything was correct. Unfortunately due to my rather last minute booking I would have to wait an hour for the Akita Shinkansen and it was a standing ticket only as far as Sendai, but he had me on all the trains I wanted so I thanked him profusely.
9am found me standing on the platform waiting for my first Shinkansen, even though it wasn't due till 9:42am. I took some videos for a bit; eventually a JR employee came and very politely gestured that I should stand behind the yellow line, which was a fair enough request; until then I hadn't realised that some of the Shinkansen don't stop at Ueno and although I'd been standing behind the barrier, a Shinkansen doing station-speed a foot away from you is still pretty fast! And the yellow line was only an extra foot back so no complaints from me.
A mega-nose MAX Shinkansen.
A waiting Shinkansen next to me was being cleaned and as the cleaners excited I noticed they were all turning and bowing. I was curious and had a look but there was no one around… I think they were actually bowing to the train!
Soon my train arrived and I joined a few others with "standing only" tickets in the end section. Obviously whatever amazing vibration damping & noise isolation techniques they employ do not apply to the end sections, as above about 200kmh some kind of vibration kicked in and it was quite a noisy ride. Also there were no seats so I got pretty tired legs standing around. I decided this was dumb and knelt down on the floor; soon enough my fellow standees were doing the same. Maybe it was just Japanese pride and non wanted to be first?
Sendai arrived and people poured off the train. I checked my ticket and I now had a seat in the same carriage through to Akita. It felt wonderful to sit down again and I noticed my fellow standees all had the same deal. We were soon off and my cellphone GPS was happily reporting back 275kmh!!! Amazing! We soon reached the earthquake damaged part of Japan (I didn't notice any radioactive monsters sorry) and we had to slow down to 150kmh. 150kmh felt positively sluggish! A little further on we made a brief stop while the train was split in two; the front half heading off for Akita and the rear half continuing straight through to Aomori. Amazingly, it was only a two minute stop before we were back on our way. Japanese efficiency is quite something!
To get to Akita we had to cross the island and we were soon rolling through dense forest. The line to Akita was previously narrow gauge, and had been converted to standard gauge to allow the Shinkansen to run straight through. However it still had the sharp twists and turns of a good narrow gauge line and so we were limited to 100kmh. In placed the track was dual gauge. In a lot of places the hills reminded me of NZ, however the endless rice paddies were a bit of a giveaway. Some of the crops I didn't recognise, one looked like asparagas.
Rice and maybe asparagas?
The rice is all planted in neat little rows and makes cool patterns as you zip by.
I noticed that whenever one of the train staff entered or excited a carriage they would turn and bow politely before turning and continuing on their way. Imagine that in NZ!
We soon arrived at Akita and I was amazed at how vigorous the plant growth was here. If Tokyo is a congrete jungle, Akita is just a jungle! Every single house seemed to have a magnificent vege patch, full of corn, onions, and so forth, all immaculately maintained and in perfect rows, with not a weed in sight. However outside of the immacuately maintained gardens it was pretty hard to tell who was winning; man or nature. Even something as simple as a parking lot was a bit of a war zone, with numerous weeds growing through any gap in the concrete. In one parking lot I saw where nature had reclaimed the least used parking spot!
Once again JR was perfectly on time and I had a quick change over to the Resort Shirakami train. As soon as I got on board I was in love with it. HUGE windows, acres of leg room, a lounge at the front, big windows through to the driver's compartment, and even a seat that let you sit right behind the driver!
The train was only half full and our conductor was very enthusiastic, smiling away for all the home videos he was now staring in. When it was time to leave, he even blew his whistle!
We were soon off and again I was amazed at how overgrown everything was. We passed some disused railway buildings with overgrown tracks, head height weeds, rusty tracks and tired looking overhead lines. It reminded me a lot of railway photos I've seen from the former-Soviet country Georgia. We also passed a bunch of electric locos in reasonable shades of red.
Even the stations here are a bit overgrown and informal, not the immaculate stations one would see in Tokyo. Next to the station I often saw small vege gardens, further down the line one dedicated Japanese lady had hacked out a garden from the head height lineside weeds.
I was a bit shocked when the conductor came around and stamped our tickets; in all my rides this was the first time I'd been asked for a ticket.
A couple of hours later and a few direction changes later (the seats all spin around) and we rounded the corner and met the sea! The Gono Line skirts the Sea of Japan for much of its length and the train slowed down especially for some of the most scenic spots.
The view out the front was amazing, and reminded me a lot of the railway lines around Kaikoura and the Kapiti Coast.
Even looking back along the coast line had a distinctly NZ quality about it…
The view moments after we had exited a tunnel
Riding this train reminded me a lot of playing the Japanese train simulator "Bozo View Express". All the sounds were the same, from the little jingle before each announcement (from what I can tell each route has its own tune, you can probably buy CDs of all the jingles), and the little buzzes and dings that the cab made, even the engine noise and the complete-with-Doppler-effect crossing alarms.
By now the sun was getting low which made for some great photos, provided you could get the reflections of yourself out of the picture. The windows in this train go from about knee height to over head height!
Here is a photo from somewhere in deepest darkest Honshu, painting quite a scene. The forested hills behind, the rusty siding, discarded sleepers, weeds, sub compact car, wooden fence, mass of wires and many different styles of house.
By now it was getting dark and thanks to the think cloud cover and a very well positioned mountain, I witnessed a stunning sunset.
I dozed for a bit and we changed direction a few more times, before arriving five and a bit hours later in Aomori. I, along with most of the passengers, snapped a photo of our train at the station and then headed off. What a great trip!
On another platform I saw that a sleeper was being loaded so went to watch. As I've hinted, the red locos don't always stay red and this one was looking very tired indeed!
Walking the length of the train I recognised quite a few of the carriages as ones that I have on my model railway at home, and it was fascinating to see them in use. As I walked along each sleeper I saw many little vignettes, like the family waving goodbye to their oldest daughter, or the two old Japanese men relaxing on the bottom bunk and about to play cards, or a couple digging into their "bento" (boxed lunch designed for the trian, and usually a pretty decent meal), someone already asleep with the curtains drawn around their bunk, and the cutest was two teenagers immitating each other's movements on either side of the window, Egyption head movements being the current theme when I walked past.
Start of the "blue train" sleeper express to Osaka.
The train set off and I was feeling pretty excited about taking the sleeper later that night.
I was getting a bit ravenous by now so went on the hunt for some food. About 10 footsteps outside the station I found a perfectly good looking restaurant and was welcomed in. I had a bit of trouble getting the attention of a waitress until I realised I had to push the door-bell type thing on the table; it would ring out and moments later all the waitresses would say the same thing and after a few seconds someone appeared to take my order. Fascinating! I ordered a wonderful meal of rice, pickled pickles, unlimited (unchlorinated!) water, coleslaw, and some kind of thinly sliced beef and onion mix in a yummy sauce. It didn't last long but it was exactly what I needed. I don't know how to say "PIN" in Japanese so I had to sign for my credit card.
I still had quite a few hours to kill so went for a walk around Aomori. They had a nicely laid out main street with lots of bright lights, hundreds of bicycles (of course) and no shortage of people.
Main street of Aomori.
Fish laterns, and the ever popular plastic food in the front of a restaurant.
The "Alaska" wedding chappel complete with red lights, and what I can only assume is an abortion clinic!
I found the placement of the presumed abortion cilnic and a bridal wear shop right next to each other rather ironic! There was also some great Engrish, for example "Men's and Ladie's Fashion" and "The Bargain, 50%-30% off".
Wandering down towards the sea I hit the mother load…
That is, roughly, an entire football field of bicycles! At 9pm on a Monday night I have no idea what they were all doing there.
Down at the water front they had a stunning bridge (of a style fairly common here in Hokkaido it seems) and an amazing building with what looked like vertical blinds all around it. I especially liked how around the doors it looked like they had been pushed aside.
The bridge was very cool and I had a good walk around the sea front. It was very peaceful and a nice comfortable temperature; not the stinking hot, energy-sapping monster that Tokyo temps are! I found a nice quiet patch of grass and lay down starting at the stars (could only see one though) and listening to the hundreds of crickets. Every so often a car would drive by on the bridge above and that was the only interruption.
The bridge and the station.
Right on time our train turned up. I watched it being backed in and was impressed at how long it was, and a little worried at how every single carriage appeared to be a coach, not a sleeper at all! Right at the end there were 3 sleepers, a coach, and one more sleeper. I went down to the station and looked at my ticket and the carriage numbers. I was car 3… one, two, twenty one?!, three, four. Argh! Number 3 put me in a coach, not one of the sleepers to either side!
To give you an idea of the hell I was in for, here is my carriage. It features rediculously noisy "air conditioning" that is no colder than the air outside (even opening windows would've been a huge improvement!), seats that hardly recline, a seat back not designed for "tall" people and a head rest that ended at your neck, nowhere to put your feet, and even less leg room than a regular domestic flight! I don't know what dungeon they'd dug these out of (though they were series 14 carriages which I suspect dates them, the nice sleepers are all series 24/25). The car quickly filled up and I was lucky I'd grabbed some overhead space for my backpack; others had to spend the next 7+ hours with their luggage taking up all their leg room.
We cruised off and I tried to get some sleep. After a while they dimmed the lights to a level where you couldn't quite perform surgery under them, but could still easily read a book; I would've preferred a "dim candle" setting personally. Meanwhile the "air con" was still blasting out the decibels and the sweat inducing damp tepid air. Ulgh. At every single station the train driver would deliberately run all the slack of the train in and out serveral times, before bringing the train to a lurching stop. Meanwhile the conduction would announce the stop over the PA system. I think the longest period of rest I got was while we were under the sea, obviously not many station stops underwater! The rest of the time it felt like the twilight zone, where you aren't sure if you're alive or dead, but you don't like it either way.
By now it's tomorrow, so the story will continue in the next post.