Fast trains, slow trains and bullet trains; In which we get a little damp

Takayama was the second stop on our whirlwind week-long tour of Japan, and the first day of our rail pass. We had all our reservations booked for the first five days of the week, and this was the first day. The pass was completely painless - we just flashed it at the ticket officers. You might expect that a Japanese rail pass would be some sophisticated electronic device linked to its owner’s retinal scan and DNA sequence, but in fact it was just a folded piece of cardboard.

Nikko and Takayama are both well off the main rail lines, so we had to take five trains to get there. The first was a little two-car train back through the forested hills for forty minutes to Utsunomiya. When we got there, though, I got to ride my very first bullet train. I was very excited. I’ve always loved trains, and Japan’s shinkansen are legendary. We stood on the platform and I watched them come and go with the kind of delight reserved for little boys talking about dinosaurs.

The bullet trains were sleek, segmented aerodynamic vehicles, sharply pointed at both ends like supersonic caterpillars. Ours wasn’t the pointiest (that’s the newest class, the Nozomi, which isn’t covered by the rail pass), but it had a snub-nosed profile with a deeply undercut deflector under the nose. Inside it looked more like a regular train than the sci-fi exterior, but with more legroom. There wasn’t a speed display anywhere I could see, but looking at the timetable, we were going about 190kph. Not so fast, but the next train from Omiya to Echigoyuzawa was a newer and faster shinkansen that went around 240kph.

The last two trains of the day were regular trains, and we transferred in Toyama. All the connections were very short - six or eight minutes. The shortest was four minutes. We never had a problem, though - everything ran like clockwork. The four-minute one was a bit dodgy though. I’m starting to recognize a lot more kanji characters. 山 (yama, mountain) is one of the easier ones, but it came in very handy that day.

We arrived in Takayama in the middle of a rainstorm and it didn’t stop raining for a second while we were there. It was a fifteen-minute walk from the station to the hostel we’d reserved. We were soaked by the time we arrived. The hostel was an active Buddhist temple with a beautiful traditional pond and garden. I’d exchanged emails with someone named Woody to make the reservations. I was looking forward to finding out what kind of monk could be named Woody. He turned out to be, not a monk, but a soft-spoken white American devotee. The building was old and run-down, but charmingly so. Right above the door to our room was a newly-installed electrical box with rainwater gushing down over it. Sheryl nervously pointed it out to Woody and an electrician was called. We left to see the town, thinking that at least the rain removed the worry of the temple burning down.

Takayama might be a lovely place when it’s dry, I can see the potential there. But everyone and everything was thoroughly soaked and thoroughly miserable and all the temples and businesses had taken the opportunity of the storm to close up early. There wasn’t much left to do but traipse out in the pouring rain with our waterproof gear and umbrellas to see the so-called castle ruins. A half-hour hike through the streets and then twenty slipping, muddy minutes up forested hill trains to the top of the “mountain” reveal… nothing. There was nothing there! Just some regularly-shaped grass-covered dirt mounds and a plaque showing the previous layout of the walls. I mean, you could sort of see where there might have been a castle, ages ago. It could have been a fun diversion for a couple of hours… some other day. As it was, it was a complete waste of time and soaked shoes.

The rain lightened a little in the evening, just enough to go for a walk around town. The town is pleasantly quaint, with lots of traditional houses in slick rain-wet dark wood. All the lights reflected in the puddles and the sound of drips was everywhere in the misty air.

The main attractions of Takayama are the morning markets, but when we went out in the early morning into the again pouring rain before our train, there wasn’t much happening. A couple of bedraggled, soggy stalls huddled together selling various things, and a lot of empty ones. I couldn’t find it in me to blame their owners in the least.

Flourish

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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
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