As I was writing another post, I realized this particular topic needed it’s own post. As I’ve probably mentioned in previous posts, we love trains. We first started liking trains/trams when we lived in Australia. We then used them extensively when we lived in Ireland. But I think Japan may have more trains than any other country, so we are trying to take complete advantage of that. Everyone has heard about their Shinkansen (bullet trains), but Japan also has loads of other trains…electric trains, steam trains, diesel trains…and they come in all different colors, sizes, shapes, and ages.
When we went to Hiroshima, we used the bullet train….cruising at 200 MPH, it’s smooth, clean, slick looking…modern day train travel at it’s best. They get you there quick and they are between every major city. They look and feel like airplanes.
Most of the regional trains (at least where we live) are electric trains which don’t travel more than 35 miles an hour. They are nice and practical but not very exciting (basically commuter trains much like the L in Chicago). The trains start getting much more interesting when you venture to resort towns or to small rural destinations.
On our recent trip to Yufuin (a popular onsen resort town), we got to ride on two different diesel trains. These trains traveled on the same single track (a track shared by trains going in opposite directions) passing only at train stations. They cruise through steep, curvy, narrow and thickly forested canyons…often going through tunnels. Both trains are known for their wood trim interiors. The first train we were on only had 3 cars and a definite 1950’s feel. It had blond wood floorboards, matching window sills with cup holder indentations, and very dated curtains. Our return train had 6 cars with two tone wood flooring and a very 1970’s art deco feel to it. One of the cars was specifically set up as just a dining car. I’ve never seen so many people taking pictures (and movies) of a train before. The train attendants even offered to take our picture while we were onboard the train, so we did!
Our latest trip to Okawachiyama involved riding a single car train….the Yellow One Man Diesel Car (i love that name). A sure sign you are on the back roads (or should I say back tracks) of Japan is when there is only a single car train. The fact that it was bright yellow only added to the charm. I couldn’t put an era on this train, but it was quite different. It had an old electronic board in front with stop numbers and prices (similar to the local buses), and it had a contraption that spat out tickets. We started wondering after a few stops what the exact payment procedure was. People getting on pulled a ticket and then dropped it off on the way out. We didn’t pull a ticket…all we had was our electronic subway pass. The “stations” we were stopping at along the way didn’t have buildings associated with them and there were several “station” signs that weren’t even readable due to weathering and old age. There were no attendants collecting tickets (much less an electronic card scanner). We were a little concerned, but we figured we would be alright.
Trains in rural Japan have the most interesting passengers. One gentleman on the train kept consulting his small binder with handwritten times of each stop in it. Another older gentlemen was smiling, talking to himself and writing stuff on a sheet of paper. He later approached us several different times with his questions written in English….where are you from? are you from the American base? what is the purpose of our visit? It ends up he was going to Okawachiyama and we would see him several times during our trip – including on the bus back to Imari.
Imari is a decent sized town, so we really thought there would be a card reader there. It had a pretty big station and it was the end of the line, but unfortunately – no card reader. The attendant took us aside and allowed us to pay the fare in cash. He also fixed us up with a receipt which would allow us to get our card reset when we arrived back in Karatsu. It’s not much fun to make a mistake, but it does make for a more memorable experience. 🙂 Of all the train trips we’ve been on, this particular trip is so far my favorite. The combination of the train, the passengers and the scenery made it both priceless and unforgettable.