Part 3: With the family in Honshu

By allrite on September 27, 2017


Posted in: Japan, JRNEWStour, Railways

Sapporo to Osaka Heading south to meet the family

Another day, another early morning. I’m now going to retrace my steps and return all the way down to Kansai International Airport to meet B and Alex when they arrive in Japan. I’ve seen on the weather map that there is a typhoon somewhere near Japan and I hope that it won’t affect their flight. Needless to say that I’m glad I’m on the ground already.

I’m on the first Super Hokuto express of the day down to Shin Hakodate Hokuto, where I will transfer to a Shinkansen. Sapporo station was just as I left it last night, everything still shut. Outside the skies are grey and now and then there’s a bit of rain.

Fortunately my seat is on the left so I have a view of the ocean after we leave the suburbs and farmland south of Sapporo. It’s difficult to tell where the flat mirror sea ends and the sky begins, both are the same colour. I keep experiencing microsleeps. It has been a very long past four days.

This time the changeover at Shin Hakodate Hokuto is short and I quickly board the streamlined green and pink Shinkansen Hayabusa 16 service to Tokyo.

I booked early enough to get a window seat, on the right of the train. In front I spot a poster stating that a number of islands under dispute with Russia, Korea, Taiwan and China are Japanese territory. I wonder if they are some sort of private right wing propaganda posters. I query this with some informed Japanese correspondents over Twitter and discover that they are in fact produced by the government. I wonder if they serve to irritate some of the many Asian tourists I see on the train.

I haven’t had a chance to buy anything other than convenience store snacks for this trip, so when the food trolley trundles past I purchase a self-heating beef and rice bento box.

You pull the string and a chemical reaction caused the water in the base of the box to heat up and boil, steaming the meal above. It’s pretty cool (or hot in this case) and the meal tasted better than the cold version I’ve had before.

The Tohoku skies vary between dramatically cloudy and wet to sunny and blue. It’s an indication of the distance and speed that this train is travelling and the influence of the local topography on the weather.

The landscape outside is rich and green, with a backdrop of mountains tangling with the cloud. I try to spot Shin-Hanamaki, that lonely Shinkansen station in the middle of nowhere, a place we were stuck a while after returning from Tono. But it all flashes past too quickly.

After over four hours of travel we arrive at the terminus of Tokyo station. My reservation for the next leg to Shin-Osaka isn’t for another hour, but there’s an earlier train. I wait in the queue at the ticket office and manage to swap tickets with only minutes to spare. I rush up to the platform to catch the the 2.33 PM Hikari Superexpress to Shin-Osaka.

I dislike the default vertical position of Shinkansen seats, so the first thing I usually do is recline them a little. I find my seat blocked. There’s a group of South East Asian tourists behind me with the enormous hard shell suitcases they carry crammed into the gap between their seats and theirs. My hot tip is don’t take big hard shell suitcases on Japanese trains. There’s almost nowhere to put them. My own bags fit easily into the luggage rack above.

I manage to get enough recline to feel some sense of comfort, then sit back and listen to some more episode of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy while the familiar landscape streams past outside. I even glimpse Mount Fuji poking up into the clouds, though it is on the opposite side of the train to me.

As the day wears on the combination of the late afternoon light and soft layers mountain ranges paint a scene from a sumi-e artwork.

The catching of an earlier train leaves me enough time to race from Shin-Osaka station to check into the hotel and drop off my luggage. It’s another Toyoko Inn as the Remm was booked out. Back in the station, hot and sweaty in Osaka’s heat and humidity, I see a shop selling an impressive range of tonkatsu bento boxes and buy one in case B and Alex are hungry. Then it’s on to the Haruka Express to Kansai International Airport.

The Haruka’s path to the airport takes you past a sea of concrete apartment blocks, stained houses and a disturbing sameness. One might think it a very ugly city.

But I find that it allows the little things to shine through. I love the neon signs, the izakaya lanterns, the pedestrians strolling home that suddenly appear in that monotony.

Then as they day ends the grey is framed as a silhouette against the pastel shades of the sunset, the colours reflected by the waters of the tiny rice paddies that intersperse the houses, a student fumbling with their mobile phone at a station platform.

We cross the long causeway to the artificial island and I realise that my position is reversed from my arrival. Now I am on the ground looking up at the aircraft as they descend into Kansai International Airport.

Highlights of the train rides from Sapporo to Kansai International Airport

In the past it’s always been me who flew alone with Alex. This is the first time I’ve had to wait to greet the remainder of my family. As I stand in front of the gate, waiting, I am ambushed by a television crew for Why did you come to Japan? There was a male interviewer, a cameraman and a female translator. I explain that I am here to catch trains and do the compass points of the railway system, but I struggle when they asked me which is my favourite train and which I most want to catch. I’m afraid that I am utterly exhausted after a long day of travel.

It’s a pity that I can’t answer well, because the information sheet they hand out afterwards says that if they find your story interesting they may accompany and film you on the trip. Sadly, I never even got a chance to see if my interview went to air.

Alex and B emerge out of the gate and my not so little son runs across to give me a hug. Despite enjoying the freedom of responsibility during my solo travel I’ve missed them a lot.

They’ve had, like I did, a wonderful flight to Japan. I sort out their Japan Rail Passes.. As theirs are only seven day passes as opposed to my fourteen day pass, we decide to commence them later in the trip and rely on tickets for the first few journeys.

Alex is overjoyed. He loves ticket gates and hates the fact that Japan Rail Passes mean going through the human monitored gate.

Now it is a matter of getting back on the Haruka for the third time this trip and heading back to Shin-Osaka again.

Back to the hotel to do a mound of washing, the penalty for packing light.

Legoland Japan A new attraction in Nagoya

I’m tired, they’re tired and I can’t bear the thought of another early morning departure right now. As usual the damned washing didn’t finish until the wee hours of the morning and I haven’t had enough sleep.

I have prebooked us for a tour of the Toyota Car Factory and Museum outside of Nagoya. But on reading the directions it means another six am departure followed by at least two and a half to three hours of multiple trains and walking. And it wouldn’t even be our first factory.

Instead I sleep in until eight. Luxury!

A late start also means that we can take advantage of the simple, but free, hotel breakfast. Then, later than would be ideal, we are dragging our luggage back to Shin-Osaka station. B disappears on a shopping expedition, leaving Alex and I concerned that we will miss our Shinkansen ride to Nagoya, but she makes it back with a couple of minutes to spare. Shinkansen services leave on the dot and will wait for nobody.

With the arrival of the rest of the family my quest to visit the compass points of the Japanese railway system has stalled. I’ve been told in no uncertain terms that they are not interested in long train rides on this trip.

Nagoya is back towards Tokyo on the Tokaido Shinkansen and I have passed through it twice already since arriving in Japan. An industrial headquarters city, it has rarely featured in our previous journeys as anything other than a transit point. However, in April of this the city opened Asia’s second Legoland theme park.

Our travel these days seems to coalesce around theme parks and science and technology museums. Nagoya has both and even without the Toyota factory tour there are enough attractions to make a visit worthwhile.

The hotel is within walking distance of Nagoya’s busy main station, though in the heat it feels a lot further than it is. Then, after dropping off our luggage, we need to walk back again to the station for our ride to Legoland.

I’d spotted the blue and silver Aonami Line trains while passing through Nagoya en route to Wakkanai. Now we are going to catch the entire length of this private service, along an older freight corridor to the redeveloped port area.

The route is mainly through industrial and port scenery. Kinjofuto station, the terminus of the Aonami Line, services both the SCMaglev and Railway Park, where I wanted to go, and Legoland, where B and Alex want to visit. They win.

It’s a bit of a walk to the theme park and first we pass through a touristy shopping and dining village, where we stop to have hamburger steaks. Places like this don’t have much in the way of authentic local food.

This is our second visit to a Legoland after Legoland Malaysia. They are basically similar, although the Malaysian version included a water park and a hotel. The Nagoya Legoland hotel is yet to open, which is a pity as it was probably the highlight of the former stay.

Even the weather was similar. A relentless sun beats down on us as we walk around the park, shade trees yet to grow their canopies. Alex, despite demanding to visit the park, is in no mood to repeat the rides of his previous visit. There are a few variations, a pleasantly cool “submarine” ride around an underwater track with real tropical fish swimming outside the windows. I join them on the car ride through the Lost Kingdoms shooting laser beams at Lego objects. That’s my kind of slow paced ride.

What Alex really wants is to build Lego, but he’s disappointed to find that the robotics is only for older, Japanese speaking, children. He then spends ages making simple Technics cars, racing them up and down the track. Meanwhile, I’m getting sunburned walking through Miniland, an amazingly detailed collection of Japanese cities and sights build in Lego.

Highlights of Legoland Japan

As far as amusement parks go I can’t rank the Legolands that highly. They are probably best for the younger kids. It doesn’t quite feel like the same fantasy world as the larger theme parks.

We are pretty exhausted when we return to our hotel and my head hurts with the heat and glare. Neither Alex nor I want to go out shopping.

In the evening we head back towards the station searching for dinner. Underground, beneath the Isetan Centre, we find a small restaurant serving Nagoya chicken dishes. It’s good to eat simple food like oyakodon (chicken and egg on rice) and fried chicken.

After such a hot day bathing in the hotel’s shared steaming spa would seem like the last thing one would want to do. But Alex insists and indeed the thorough wash and relaxation in the tub soothes my weary body in preparation for a much needed sleep.

Maglevs and motor cars Exploring railway and automotive museums in Nagoya

We are too early for the SCMaglev and Railway Park and join the queue outside. At 10AM precisely the doors open and we head for the machines to buy our tickets.

The railway museum features a couple of driving simulators where use is determined by lottery, so there is an advantage to arriving early.

We enter a darkened hall with three locomotives. A C62 class steam engine, the fastest on narrow gauge, the first car of a 955 class test Shinkansen and a MLX01-01 magnetic levitation train. The three represent the evolution and future of Japan Central Railways.

Beyond this is a hall of other trains, including a range of bullet trains through the ages. There is also a fantastic working model railway diorama and exhibits explaining the technology behind conventional and magnetic levitation railways. The latter really lift the Railway Park beyond the normal railway museum with their focus on history.

There is a strong focus on the magnetic levitation future of Japanese railways, with work on a line between Tokyo and Osaka already starting. We rode the fairly pointless Shanghai Airport Maglev back in 2007 and 2010, watching the scenery flash by on the fast, but brief journey. Sadly much of the future Shinkansen ride will be through tunnels with only brief flashes of daylight.

We miss out on the conventional train simulator, but one of our ticket numbers is called for the Shinkansen simulator. Much as I would like to have a go, it’s Alex who sits in the drivers seat, operating the train on a short stretch of simulated line. The driver has to follow a speed profile that varies based on location and terrain. What is interesting is how much of the ride is remotely controlled from the central Shinkansen monitoring offices.

What really excites Alex is the working ticket gate. You “buy” your ticket from the dispenser and insert it into the slot on the gate and pass through, something that working commuters like myself take for granted. But Alex has had a fascination with ticket gates since he was tiny and goes around and around and around and…

It is near impossible to drag him away, but eventually we escape.

SCMaglev and Railway Park

B spotted a Gap outlet store in a shopping centre near Arakogawakoen Station on the Aonami Line, so we stop there on the way back. It is very much a local shopping mall. We eat a late lunch at a cheap Saizeriya. Western style food again, though it keeps Alex happy. Then back on the Aonami Line for Nagoya Station.

Nagoya’s Science Museum is reputed to be very good, but we decide to head out to the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology instead. It is located a short walk from the private Meitetsu Line’s Sako Station in a quiet suburban area.

Toyota began as a weaving loom and fabric manufacturing company before moving into automotive manufacturing and the museum is located on their original factory site. Sadly we don’t have the time to explore the entire range of their exhibits because they are really fascinating.

Naturally the first stop is Technoland, a hands-on exhibit of various mechanical principals important in both weaving and automobiles. We feel like we are in the elderly games seated on little electric scooters chasing lights around a floor. Alex rides another scooter to learn about gears and hills, then we are blasted by typhoon winds to demonstrate wind resistance. Good fun really!

There’s only enough time left for one more room, so we race through the huge range of automated weaving looms, fascinating in themselves, to the automobile pavilion. Here huge presses, robot welders and other automated assembly tools demonstrate the modern assembly line for cars. Even if you are not really into cars it is amazing stuff and probably better than watching a working assembly line in the factory.

Automotive highlights from the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Technology and Industry

Unfortunately, the museum is closing so we make our way out and return to Sako and Nagoya stations. Against Alex’s protestations B wants to go shopping in Sakae, Nagoya’s downtown, so we catch the subway there.

Japanese cities come alive at night, as salarymen and students hit the streets looking for food and entertainment. Unfortunately, Nagoya seems to close at 8 PM, earlier than Tokyo and Osaka and we leave purchasing very little. The shoe shops don’t sell Alex’s shoes and Loft sells a lot but is closing for the night.

We wander the streets looking for food. There are quite a few touts, but eventually we find a small ramen bar. The thick tonkotsu broth is so good.

Rather than catch multiple trains back to the hotel we decide to walk along Otsu Dori to the Hisayaodori subway station, past brightly lit but closed shops selling international luxury brands, then the colourful and very much awake Don Quijote, a mega convenience store. Our legs were so tired that, this time, the hotel spa was very greatly welcomed.

A birthday in Takayama The taste of Hida beef

In addition to trying to visit all the compass points of the Japanese railway system and finding amusement parks for Alex I had another factor to consider when planning this trip: B’s birthday. Though the desire to celebrate another year of getting older greatly declines after a certain point in life, we had to do something to celebrate and what would be better than a nice meal? And where in Japan do we associate with great food?

Takayama!

The mountain town is popular with tourists for its historic streets, wooden crafts and local produce, most notably Hida beef. It is the latter that keeps us coming back, for once you have tasted Hida beef no other steak tastes so good again.

The Wide View Hida train to Takayama is packed with tourists. We are fortunate to have reserved window seats, a young Frenchman separating us across the aisle. Though a familiar route for me, the Takayama Main Line is one of my favourite railways.

We leave Nagoya facing backwards, confusing a number of the passengers, as we head (or rear?) along the Tokaido Main Line to the city of Gifu. After stopping there we reverse direction for our entrance to the Takayama Main Line, which runs all the way up to Toyama on the opposite side of Honshu.

It is a very scenic line, first following the Kiso River, lined with clumps of tall bamboo, then the craggy Hida, its blue-green waters lined with sharp grey granite boulders. The air is clear of the haze that sometimes washes out the mountain tops in summer, the morning light sharp and defining as we wind our way up along the valley.

Hydroelectric dams widen stretches of the river, slowing the water into a lake. Elsewhere it foams white as it squeezes through narrow paths in the rocks. There is recorded commentary in Japanese, English and Chinese, but I have heard it before and am listening to John Williams’ soundtrack to Memoirs of a Geisha, evoking my own memories of our first trip to Takayama back in 2006.

Many leave the train at Gero, a major onsen town. It’s one of those places I’ve wanted to visit but never have. Now is not the right weather for it. Then onwards to Takayama.

On the train from Nagoya to Takayama

Takayama station has changed from our last visit two years ago. Gone is the old single level multiplatform structure, replaced now by a swanky new above ground station building. The staff at the tourist office out the front sounded bored by the influx of tourists, rather than the chirpy helpful staff that greeted us on our first visit here. We used to feel special in Japan, now we are just one of the crowd.

We joined the crowd of noisy western tourists dragging their luggage into town, before turning off to our ryokan, the Hotakaso Yama no Iori, a traditional brown wooden building with a pale green noren curtain hanging over the gate entrance.

Though more expensive than a regular business hotel, a stay in a ryokan is always special, another way to celebrate a birthday.

It is too early to check in, so we leave our bags and headed back out into town to find lunch. We pick Maruaki, a nearby large Hida beef restaurant that we are familiar with, ordering two plates of high grade beef cuts and vegetables to grill at the table.

It is expensive but is so wonderful. The marbled meats just melt in our mouths, needing nothing but a sprinkling of salt for flavour. These are interspersed with bites of fresh vegetables to clear the palate and at least provide the illusion of healthy nutrition.

Further up is the Miyagawa River. Just before the bridge is a small hut from which an old lady sells mitarishi dango, skewers of squishy grilled rice flour balls dipped in a salty sweet soy based sauce. I plead that I am too full, but they are impossible to resist.

Children and adults alike are dipping their feet in the river and playing with the giant carp that languidly glide in the clear waters. Alex and B want to join them and we walk down the steep stone steps of the embankment. My ankles are in pain, from a combination of karate and a small twist while walking, and I don’t wish to try walking on the river stones, but the other two delight in the chilly water.

Meanwhile I watch the wind gently shake the fronds of the willow trees and recall my grandparents’ house in Adelaide, dreaming that the slender branches were vines and I was Tarzan.

Eventually the emerge with the promise of a return later. I have another task to complete, for what is a birthday without a cake? We were tempted to purchase one from the basements of Nagoya Station’s Takashimaya department store, full of exquisite (and expensive) creations. But then we would have had to transport it to here. So I search Google for patisseries.

Following the electronic map, we find Monbille. Their birthday cakes are simple white cream sponges topped with strawberries, unremarkable in comparison to the offerings we have seen elsewhere across Japan, but our options here are limited. The friendly owners speak no English, but with some limited Japanese we manage to order a cake to be ready in an incredible twenty minutes. At home I usually have to order them at least the day before. We sit down and try some other items from the store while we wait.

Cake collected, we discover what looks to be an old toy and sweet shop across the road. I can hear rattling and other noises in the background and I discover that this is actually the entrance to the Takayama Showa-kan Museum. Behind the curtain is a recreation of various shops from across the Showa era, from 1926 – 1989.

It is an absolutely amazing collection. Each shop contains items from across the era. Old televisions and Walkmans, die cast toys and toasters, posters and beer fridges, fortune tellers and calculators. There’s a school room and a games room with playable old consoles and emulators connected to cathode ray tube televisions.

The rattling that I had heard came from old pachinko machines, where, like a pinball machine, you shoot ball bearings up, then watch the path they take downwards. Which path they take determines the points scored. These are a lot less flashy than the current generation and thankfully do not require any money to operate!

It is these random discoveries that make exploring Japan such a delight. I never knew about this museum, but there is obviously a lot of love put into it and I am so glad I visited.

Alex wants to return to play in the river, so I offer to carry the cake back to the hotel, check in and retrieve his bathing costume.

Playing in the river and the Showa Museum

I am tired and am in no rush. The desk attendant and I carry the bags up the steep and slippery wooden stairs and I take a first look at our room, pleased to see that it is indeed a proper tatami and futon room.

Alex and B have already had enough by the time I come back down and I meet them outside. Across from the hotel is the Hida Kokubunji temple, with a three storey pagoda and a 1,200 year old ginkgo tree.

We wander the atmospheric preserved old streets of Takayama. It is late in the day and the shops are closing, though there is enough time to buy a mochi and some crackers. Big summer clouds are drifting across the sky, threatening brief showers.

Walking back to the ryokan we notice that our surname has been added to the guest boards at the entrance.

As night falls we decide to head out for dinner. Many of the nearby eateries look full or don’t serve the kind of food that we want to eat. Alex is being picky, for he is tired. Eventually we end up at Tenaga Ashinaga, somewhere we’ve been before and which offers reasonably priced meals. I order another of my favourite Takayama dishes, hoba miso.

Fresh mountain vegetables and slices of Hida beef along with local miso paste is served on a magnolia leaf and grilled over a flame. So good, so very tasty. Hida miso is another of the region’s delights.

Everyone is utterly exhausted by the time we return to the ryokan. Our room lacks shower facilities, but that’s okay because there is a big wooden shared bath downstairs and our muscles appreciate the soak.

There is one final thing to do for the night – sing Happy Birthday and eat the cake. The front desk kindly furnishes me with a packet of matches (the one advantage of a country of smokers is that cardboard matches are readily available) for the supplied candles on the proviso that I don’t burn the wooden ryokan down.

We thought we would be eating cake for breakfast, but no, it is so good that it is devoured right there and then. Even Alex, who normally hates cream cakes, has a couple of slices.

Takayama. Eat it!

To Unazuki Onsen Disappointment and delight

It is not enough for me to simply go to Takayama, not on this trip. There must be something beyond, some way of incorporating this now familiar route into a journey to somewhere new. I found it in a short track leading inland from Japan’s western coast.

Today we will be heading up to Unazuki Onsen, for a ride on the Kurobe Gorge Railway. Actually, I’m not sure if we’ll be doing the latter today as it depends on what time we reach Unazuki Onsen. There’s always tomorrow for that.

Breakfast proves hard to find on the streets of Takayama. We end up at the convenience store attached to the bus station, where a hot bun of Hida beef provides sustenance. Then we head off to the railway station where our train is waiting.

The stuffy old KiHa 40 diesel multiple units (DMU) have been replaced by fresh and modern KiHA 25 DMUs, another major change from previous journeys here. Unlike the older train the seats in this one are all inward facing, but at least there are views from the end.

Most of the other passengers at the station, many of them foreign tourists, are waiting on another platform for the Wide View Hida Express back to Nagoya. We could have waited and travelled in similar luxury to Toyama, but the local service doesn’t require advanced reservations and will actually mean fewer changes of trains today.

We continue following the Miyagawa River all the way up to Inotani. The scenery starts off rural before we run through the steep walled and forested valley. The river narrows and broadens, alternating between a fast stream where fishermen, tiny specks below, cast their flies and placid dammed sections feeding hydroelectric turbines.

Our train terminates at Inotani, where the Miyagawa meets the Jinzu River in the form of a large reservoir. We hurry up the platform to where our connecting train is waiting.

Fortunately for me this is one train that hasn’t changed. A turquoise ended diesel KiHa 120 is sitting there.

This was the first Japanese model train I purchased. It should have been my answer to the Why did you come to Japan’s question of my favourite train. The KiHa 120 traverses the quiet rural lines of southern Honshu, criss-crossing the landscape though mountains and along rivers. Each region may have a different scheme, this particular example being the most colourful, but inside they are mostly the same.

The KiHa 120 is more like a bus than a train, though a bit wider with room to move and a spot for me to perch by the window at the end to watch the track sliding past beneath us, a narrow sliver of steel, gravel and concrete running through a green landscape. I am rarely seated on these trains.

This may not be part of my journey to the compass points, but I am happy to be here now, for my travels would not be complete without this unlikely favourite.

Sadly the other two do not share my joy of bumping and chugging along through these rural landscapes. B wants a city and seafood! But I have a plan for that.

From Takayama to past Inotani

Our train terminates at the industrial city port of Toyama on Honshu’s western coast. We have a little time here and have found lots of fresh seafood for sale by the station on previous visits. Walking around we find a hall of small restaurants and stalls selling a wide variety of bento boxes and meals. Fresh sashimi and sushi for B, chicken three ways for Alex and fried battered glass shrimps, a speciality of the region for me.

We need to buy tickets for the private Toyama Chihou railway service to Unazuki Onsen. Unlike the flash new Toyama station, renovated for the commencement of the Hokuriku Shinkansen service, the dark Toyama Dentetsu station beside feels more like an unloved suburban shopping centre.

The colourful selection of electric trains waiting at the platforms seem to come from another era. The Chihou Railway has three railway lines, in addition to tram and bus routes. We board the express service to Unazuki Onsen. With its large windows and a red and white interior it feels more like a suburban service than a long distance train. It faintly reminds me of the old suburban trains of my childhood in Melbourne.

I place my bags down and head straight for the front window. It’s a struggle to stand as we rattle our way out of the station. This train is really, really bumpy. I hope that the others won’t get motion sick.

Not me. I’m loving this. The private railway lines in Japan seem to leave very little distance between the edges of the tracks and the adjacent properties, so you really feel like you are travelling through the everyday lives of the locals.

We soon leave the grey and brown suburbs and are out into the bright green rice fields of the coastal plains. Despite the almost flat landscape it feels perfect, scenic in its own special way.

The line terminates at Terada, a junction for trains heading for Tateyama. Then we reverse and head down the other branch of the Y junction towards Unazuki Onsen. We are now at the rear of the train, the rice paddies and rivers sliding behind us.

After Dentetsu-Ishida the line swings inland until it meets the Kurobe River flowing down from the Alps. We leave the rice paddies behind and begin our climb up the forested gorge, mountains on either side.

We know we are entering the terminus of Unazuki Onsen by the lines of bright red open-sided carriages parked on a separate narrow gauge line besides us. This is the reason we have come here, the Kurobe Gorge Railway, a scenic tourist train running high up into the gorge along tracks laid to service the Kurobe Dam.

Riding the Toyama Chihou Dentetsu to Unazuki Onsen

Our train shudders to a stop and we lug our bags up the stairs and down again to the entrance where a driver from the Green Hotel Kisen awaits. He has some bad news.

“The Kurobe Gorge train is not running today.”

What about tomorrow?

“Only a short service.”

Well that ruins everything. But we are here now, and I’ve already paid for the accommodation so what can we do? It’s too early to check into our hotel, so we let the driver take our bags to the hotel and decide to have a wander around the town.

After checking with the tourist office it turns out that recent heavy rains have damaged some sections of the train and that it would only run as far as Sasadaira, roughly a third of the way, tomorrow.

Unazuki Onsen is, as its name suggests, an onsen town and that means hot springs for bathing in. Next to the station building a fountain gushes out hot water while further along at the end of the platform is an ashi-yu, a hot foot bath. It is divided in two, half for passengers waiting on the platform, half for the public outside. We take our shoes off and bathe our feet, discussing what to do in the meantime.

The town itself is pretty, nestled in the Kurobe River valley. From the top floor of the Kurobe Gorge Railway’s Unazuki station building we can see the grey waters of the river gushing below, crossed by a number of red steel bridges.

Free, but very slow, mini electric buses, their power provided by the dam, roam the street carrying passengers between sites.

Across the road is the Kurobe River Electric Memorial Hall. The small museum has some interesting displays about the construction of the Kurobe Dam. A series of dams up along the river provide significant hydroelectric power generation. The railway was built to ferry workers and equipment to the construction sites.

The construction was highly challenging and over 170 works died in the process. Not only were conditions above ground harsh, especially in the freezing winters, but Japan is a highly geologically active country. A huge fracture zone was encountered with highly unstable and crumbling rock. The cracks allowed freezing water to gush through. Another section involved tunnelling through rock as hot as 160 degrees centigrade.

It is an amazing story, deserving of a proper documentary or book, but sadly the information available is mainly in Japanese.

Leaving the museum we take a walk across the Yamabikobashi bridge to the other side of the river. On our left is a suspension bridge across a creek leading into the river. We cross it and walk along a rough track along the creek. There have been landslips here and Alex is afraid while B strides boldly on.

A stone bridge, purpose unknown cross further up, but we see a worker travelling the opposite direction and decide to head back, to Alex’s relief. Back over the suspension bridge, which has enough bounce to annoy B, is the entrance to a amber lit dank tunnel. Miniature stalactites are beginning to grow from the ceiling as we walk upriver towards Unazuki Dam.

On the other side is an observation deck from which we can see water gushing out of the twin spillways of the dam. We walk down the steps to inspect closer.

The path leads to a concrete building inside which is one of the turbines, labelled in Japanese. Nobody else is here and our only company is the calls of birds and insects and the roar of the waters. The cool spray is a welcome relief against our perspiring skin.

The noise and the dance of the huge volume of water flowing out of the dam is mesmerising.

There is a bridge museum up near the top of the dam wall, but none of us has the energy to climb the many steps up there. By the time we retrace our steps and return through the tunnel and across the bridge to town our legs are very weary.

With the end of the day the little town is quietening down, shop owners cleaning up and heading home, visitors returning to the big old resort buildings. We discover another ashi-yu, Omokage, near the edge of the town. The waters are scorching hot, explaining the existence of a hose of cold water. Still, what better way to treat tired feet than running them along the pebbles with a hot soak?

The waters of Unazuki

Our hotel lies on the other side of the river, across a bridge without a footpath. The Green Hotel Kisen looks rather rundown on the outside. Once we step inside it is a different impression entirely, the wooden interior polished and corridors brightly lit with natural light.

We are shown to our room, furnished in traditional Japanese style with a straw tatami mat floor and low table. Outside the paper shuttered windows is a beautiful view of the river bathed in the mystical glow of the early evening. I remark to the others that I feel once again that I have been Spirited Away.

After resting for a while hunger overtakes us and we head back into the town to find some dinner, not having pre-ordered any from the hotel as most visitors would. In the fading light there aren’t many choices, but we find one run by an old couple that takes our fancy. Rather than sit at the bar we remove our shoes and sit ourselves down at the low table in the tatami room. There is an English menu, but not a wide range of choices. Enough for a decent meal.

We return in the dark. We notice that the streetlamps have metal cutouts in the shape of the Kurobe Gorge Railway trains atop them. At the Omokage Ashi-yu, adorned with fairy lights, a group of young Japanese are soaking their feet. We leave them to be.

The river is lit with floodlights from another hotel, the sounds of the waters a calming backdrop to the otherwise quiet streets.

The futons have been setup in our room, but before we sleep we will take advantage of the onsen facilities at the hotel. Alex and I go to the men’s bath, B to the ladies. Our indoor bath is divided into two sections: the very hot and the merely hot. The former is too much for us.

I prefer the outdoor bath in its naturalistic setting and a stone floor. In Spring the garden’s cherry trees would make for a beautiful setting, as would the snow of winter. The cool night air is refreshing, contrasting with the hot water beneath.

This town is my Japan. Quiet, hidden away in the mountains after an old train ride with a hot bath to end the day and a futon to sleep on. Perfect.

Kurobe Gorge Railway Exploring the gorge by train

I’m always a little worried when a Japanese hotel stay includes breakfast. The buffet options, often called “vikings” are okay, but many ryokans serve sets of traditional options that are rather unappetising to those not brought up on such things. There’s usually enough dishes to satisfy most palates, but it feels embarrassing and disrespectful to leave those that do not agree.

The morning’s breakfast was a combination of buffet and table service. We were given a plate of nine tiny servings: Fish cakes, a slice of raw white fish, tiny shrimps, ground meat and several types of pickles. Two burners were also provided. One to grill the slice of fish, the other to steam an egg. We served ourselves bowls of rice, salad and miso soup.

While we ate music played in the background. It changed to the closing credits of Spirited Away, just right for our stay. I could easily have imagined running into a radish spirit in one of the long corridors between the rooms.

We sadly check out of our room and its beautiful view of the river and leave our bags at the desk. Then off we head into town to catch a ride of the Kurobe Gorge Railway, just missing the closest train departure. Tickets are purchased for the following ride.

Despite the shortened run the train is crowded with both local and foreign tourists. Our carriage is a sheltered but open sided wagon. Others are enclosed. Pulling us along are two tiny bright red electric locomotives. They look like something out of miniature railway fun ride, but this is a real working railway. Trains are still used to carry workers to the hydroelectric dams. The line continues beyond the final passenger station at Keyakidaira, including a train elevator and funicular section.

Today we can only go as far as Sasadaira due to damage caused by heavy rainfall in the area. This is our second trip on a dam construction railway, having done the Oigawa Railway Ikawa Line.

The chains are strung over the doorways to the carriage and we set off on our ride up the gorge at a steady, but not particularly fast, pace. We cross the big red steel girdered arch of the Shin-Yamabiko Bridge overlooking where we walked yesterday. Then into a tunnel.

There are lots of tunnels along the route, but many of them have side openings with views into the gorge.

We pass the Unazuki Dam, with another big red arched bridge visible, then pass the mock castle of the Shin-Yanagawara Power Plant, railway spurs leading into the grey concrete structure itself.

There are great views deep into the steep sided gorge as we head higher up, past a stone that resembles a Buddha and has been dressed in red robes like a Jizo statue.

A number of the stops along the line have access to onsen baths, but the sole such station on today’s run, Kuronagi, is closed due to flooding, though still manned by station staff.

I have to hand it to the railway line stuff. Despite the greatly shortened run today they try to make it a special occasion. Sasadaira is normally nothing much more than a platform and bathroom facilities, but today there are lots of railway staff to greet us, waving enthusiastically at the arriving passengers. Tents are setup selling souvenir goods and there are train boxes and railway hats to be photographed in.

It is impossible not to join the cheerful mood.

Behind the platform is a concrete tunnel, the winter path, allowing foot traffic when the railway is closed due to snowfall. The most popular season for the railway falls before this in Autumn when the thick forest turns red and yellow.

It is time to head back down the track, so we return to our carriage and begin the faster descent back to Unazuki Onsen. Along the way I notice a troop of Japanese macaques running across their special suspension bridge across to the other side of the river.

The scenery has been so spectacular that I am rather sad when we pull into Unazuki Station that I wasn’t able to go along the entire length of the line. I hope very much to return some day. I certainly wouldn’t mind coming back to Unazuki Onsen itself either.

Riding the Kurobe Gorge Railway to Sakadaira and back

Opposite the Unazuki Onsen station we find a popular noodle restaurant for a lunch of soba and udon, then return to collect our bags from the hotel.

Where to next? I’ve left the next two days open and unbooked, pending decisions made as a family. If I had my way we’d be heading south, back on track towards Kyushu and the remaining two compass points of the railway system. From Fukuoka, Kyushu’s largest city, I could do both points in one very long day, minimising our time apart.

But B insists that a visit to Japan is not complete without including Tokyo and that she has no desire to see Kyushu. I haven’t come this far to give up on my dream, so we compromise. We’ll all go to Tokyo, then I’ll split from the other two and head down to Kyushu to see the last two points, meeting them back in Osaka.

We board a green and yellow Toyama Chihou Railway local service and rattle our way down the valley towards the coast, this time leaving the train at Shin-Kurobe Station and changing to the Kurobe Unazukionsen Station on the Shinkansen line.

The massive station building is only a few years old and very little surrounds it apart from a few houses and a static display of a Kurobe Gorge Railway engine and a couple of carriages. We have a little less than an hour before our Shinkansen to Tokyo and there doesn’t look like much to do.

As it so often does, Japan surprises us again. When we wander over to what looks like a local gift shop we discover the Kurobe City Tourist Information Gallery. In addition to a huge three dimensional model map of the region in the centre of the building, the top floor has a highly informative exhibition with English and Japanese captions detailing the geology, hydrology and biology of the Kurobe River and its environs. On one side hangs Yoshinobu Toide’s huge painting of the dramatically churning Kurobe River.

We farewell the river and the region and step on board the modern Hakutake Shinkansen service to Tokyo. It is far smoother and more comfortable than any of the trains of the past two days, but all the less interesting for it. The plains and the mountains flash past outside, but again I have done this line before, only six months ago when the land was snowbound.

The fastest way to Shinjuku is to change from the Shinkansen to the Shonan-Shinjuku Line at Omiya. Waiting at the platform for the train we discover a Beard Papa cream puff drink in a vending machine, so we have to try it.

Now I like cream puffs. A lot. But this drink was awful.

The best spot on the Shonan-Shinjuku Line expresses is at the very front or back of the train watching Shinkansens shoot past on the parallel lines.

I’m usually the navigator when we travel. Shinjuku is the place in Japan that we are most familiar with, so it made sense to split with the other two here. It is also a bustling, confusing mess of tall neon canyons and hidden streets and tunnels leading this way and that. So B insisted that I accompany them around town for the night.

We were fortunate to be able to book a room at the Shinjuku Prince Hotel, our home away from home in Japan. The three of us would have to squeeze into the tiny double bed rather than the more spacious queens that we have had to book in more recent times as Alex has grown up. But I love that room best of all, with its views across the city.

To Alex’s great annoyance set us on a quest for clothing as their supplies were depleted and there are no laundromat facilities at the hotel. I cannot rely on shops when I am in Japan for almost nothing fits, though most of the t-shirts in my bag came from UniQlo, but bought in Australia.

In return to make up for it we accede to Alex’s demand to visit another family restaurant so he can eat pasta for dinner. It really has become an unfortunate theme during this holiday.

Then we cross over to the other side of Shinjuku and enter the realm of the Yodobashi Camera shops, looking for model railway parts, cases for B’s new phone. Really just window shopping.

Shinjuku truly comes alive at night with neon signs and giant television screens everywhere. I love this area, but the crowds of people, especially the plethora of foreign tourists is driving me to distraction. I love the peace and quiet of Unazuki Onsen, or even a smaller city.


4 thoughts on "Part 3: With the family in Honshu"

  1. Mark Nguyen says:

    Thanks for this extensive trip report and a great adventure! Our last trip took us in at Osaka then immediately down to Okinawa, where we were able to ride the island’s only train. Unfortunately though we had to cut it short due to a death in the family, but now thanks to this I’m already thinking that Nagoya must be our next target on the list. Cheers!

    Mark (Canada)

    1. allrite says:

      Hi Mark,

      Sorry to hear about your loss. Never nice at the best of times, but when you are so far away on holidays it must be worse. Yet to visit Okinawa (unreachable by train), but I guess it must be time for me to go. Nagoya I find interesting only for its sights and as a transit stop. I’ve never felt much attraction for the city itself unfortunately. Perhaps I’m being unfair and there’s some wonderful part I didn’t visit.

      Hope your next trip is happier.

      Regards,

      Andrew

      1. wendy says:

        Loving this report you have visited so many places id love to visit and your photos beautiful my i ask what camera you use for video i want to get a camera for next trip to Japan .I last visited Nagoya in Oct my son at University there i was not impressed i stayed 11 days and travelled around other cities .I have been to many places in Japan and this was my least favorite though Nagoya castle is pretty .We were in Sapporo 2 years a go but never went as far north its beautiful where you went, Thank you look forward to more from future visits.

        1. allrite says:

          Hi Wendy, Thanks for your comments! I used a Sony RX100 III for most of the photos and videos. It’s not cheap but it is more compact than my other cameras. There are plenty of places in Japan more beautiful than Nagoya. Just get out of the main cities and into the rural areas! Regards, Andrew

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