I had been in Japan for a shade under two months, and there was just two days left in my summer vacation. I had already accomplished the majority of my goals. I had done some shopping in Tokyo. I had seen The Powerpuff Girls Movie. I had done some more writing. I had just one major goal left to accomplish. Fairly close to Kumagaya is Chichibu National Park. It’s a mountain national park, with hiking trails through forested mountain valleys and babbling mountain steams. Now, ever since I got to Japan, I had seen nothing but city. When I first arrived in Tokyo, I was in a city. I had my training in Omiya, which looks like its outside of Tokyo, but the truth is it’s all city in between. I’m now working in Kumagaya, which looks like it too is a far ways from Tokyo, but the truth is it’s all one massive, teeming, megacity. “Urban sprawl” is an understatement. I had a deep desire to see some greenery, so I knew that, before my vacation was over, I just had to get out to the mountains.
Now, at the outset, this seems simple enough, but once you start breaking it down, it tends to get tricky. For you see, the majority of rail travel I’ve done in Japan was on Japan Railways, or JR. It’s the largest railroad company in Japan. You can buy your tickets from bilingual automated ticket machines. You slip your ticket through an automated turnstile. All railway schedules are printed in Japanese, English, and Korean. It caters to the gaijin on the go. But, to get to Chichibu, I had to take the Chichibu Railway, which is not affiliated with JR. All automated ticket machines are in Japanese. All train schedules are in Japanese. And, there are no automated turnstiles. You have to give your ticket to a real live person! It would be one nth degree language barrier.
Before summer vacation started, I ran this dilemma by my other foreign teachers. The Horn Dog from Wisconsin recommended that, since all the good stuff is at the end of the line, I should just go to the automated ticket machine and get the most expensive ticket. The Home Girl from Portland suggested that I go to the ticket office and say to the clerk, “Chichibu,” and that would get me a ticket. I took their advice under wing, but still was daunted.
I woke up on my second last day of summer vacation knowing that it would be this day or not at all if I was going to the mountains. Sadly, though, my plan to be up at the crack of dawn fell through, and I tumbled out of bed at 10 am. I had a quick breakfast, did my dishes, got dressed, and slipped on my shoulder bag. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Shoulder bag? Mark’s carrying a purse now?” But here me out. I used to always wear my jacket because I liked the pockets to carry things in. But, with the heat getting well above 35 degrees this summer, that habit was becoming…impractical. So, I finally tried an idea I had in the back of my mind for ages. I took my camera bag, removed the camera, and stuffed everything I normally stuff into my jacket pockets into my camera bag. It had become one big pocket for hot days. And since I slide it over my shoulder, well, it’s a shoulder bag. I set out for the train station at a quarter to 11.
I arrived at the station, and I stood at the gates to the Chichibu Railway. I stared up at the all-Japanese schedule. I stared at the all-Japanese ticket machines. I stared at the window where I could buy my ticket from a live person, and a friendly-looking ticket clerk smiled at me. I stood there staring at the schedule, ticket machines, and ticket clerk for about 20 minutes, trying to summon the courage. Finally, I knew it was now or never! So, I walked away, my heart pounding with fear.
I wandered around the train station for a while, checking out the stores. I didn’t know why I was feeling so much fear. Surely, buying a ticket for this train would be no harder than buying a ticket for a movie; something I had done twice now. I guess my fear was stemming from the fact that I was told to say “Chichibu” to the ticket clerk, but not only was it a destination, but the name of the railway. I could imagine the conversation going something like this:
Clerk>> Yes, this is the Chichibu Railway.
Clerk>> Yes, this is the Chichibu Railway. May I help you?
Clerk>> We’ve established that this is the Chichibu Railway. Now, would you like to buy a ticket or something?
Clerk>> Yes. You’re at the Chichibu Railway. What the hell do you want?
After I had wandered the stores, I glanced at my watch to see it was 11:30. If I read the schedule correctly, the next train left at noon. My vacation really was running out. If I was going to do this, it was going to be today. My final day of vacation was already set aside for doing laundry. I didn’t want to wait until next weekend or the next vacation, which is Christmas. Today, as far as I was concerned, was my last chance. I took a deep breath, and headed back to the Chichibu Railway gates.
I spent another 10 minutes staring at the schedule, automated machines, and ticket clerk. I’m sure that clerk must have been wondering what the hell was wrong with me. I watched the people go up to the automated machines, and I’m sure I must have got the routine down pat. But, I figured, if I was going to do this, I was going to go all the way. Before I realized it, my feet were moving me towards the ticket clerk. Before the “afraid” part of my brain had kicked in, the clerk greeted me. Before my brain started becoming rational again, I said, “Chichibu.”
The clerk looked at me in a quizzical manner, and said something in Japanese. I again said, “Chichibu.” The clerk nodded, then again said something in Japanese. I didn’t quite hear him, and did the universal “Please speak up” gesture. He leaned toward the window and said, in broken English, “There and back?” Dude was trying to sell me a round trip ticket. I nodded enthusiastically, and he gave me a day pass. I paid for it, showed it to the guy at the turnstile, and headed down to the platform. I was halfway there.
Down at the platform, I could see lots of other people heading out to the mountains. They were all carrying backpacks and getting ready for a day of hiking. There was a little girl with a box of something akin to chocolate covered raisins, and she was throwing them to the pigeons. I was getting rather thirsty, so I went to a vending machine and got myself a can of milk tea. Do you know this stuff? It’s about 50% milk, 50% tea, and goes down smooth on a hot day. I’m developing quite a taste for it. As I paced around the platform, sipping my milk tea, I couldn’t help but develop a new respect for my sister. When she was 17 and went backpacking across Europe, she did the majority of her travel by train. What I just went through she must have done every day.
It wasn’t long before I heard the horns, and the train pulled up to the platform. The doors slid open, and I got on. It was a little older than most JR train cars. There was no air conditioning, but some fans mounted on the ceiling were keeping things cool enough. Windows were open anyway. The car was about half-empty, so I had no problem finding a seat. Like the majority of rail cars, it was a fairly standard mass-transit subway car. For those back home in Edmonton, ride the LRT and that’s a typical rail car in Japan. Ride it from the University station to the end of the line about 4 times, and that’s what it’s like for me to go to Tokyo. The seats were a faded blue. A lot of butts must have sat in them. I grabbed a seat next to an open window, and that’s when the doubts began. Was this the right train? Sure, it was pointed towards the mountains, but there’s always the possibility that it could loop around and start going the other way. My gaze wandered around and I soon saw some schoolgirls board holding day passes just like mine. I took it as a sign from Grandma that I was heading in the right direction. The doors closed with a swoosh, and I was off.
The train rattled down the rails, and I was enraptured with the view. The city of Kumagaya soon started fading away, and I was looking out over vast, uninterrupted fields. Well, not quite interrupted. The city never really faded away, but it became thinner. There was more space between the houses. Some actually had very spacious gardens. It was looking more and more like some of the villages back home. I just smiled as the train rolled along. The houses became thinner and thinner. The green of the great outdoors was starting to predominate. I had missed it for so long. The train kept rolling along. Soon, we were at a town, and the train rolled along the banks of a river. I could look down at the deep green waters that meant these waters were fresh from the mountains.
As we were getting farther and farther from the city, I was taking time to notice the train stations. I was on a local train, meaning it was stopping at every little stop. There was something about these stations. They weren’t as sleek as all the big city stations I had seen so far. These were smaller. These had character. These had ticket clerks behind windows and conductors checking your ticket before letting you on the platform. True, some of them looked like they could use a coat of paint, but that was perfectly OK. That gave these stations character. I’m sure that, about 50 or 60 years ago, this must have been what small town train stations in North America looked like. The fact that these stations were built in an Asian architecture just added to their charm. So many small towns along this route. So many large towns. I could spend every weekend between now and Christmas just exploring them all. The schoolgirls began singing some song.
It wasn’t long before the mountains began looming on the horizon. They were growing larger and larger. These mountains weren’t as dramatic as my beloved Blue Canadian Rockies. These are what are described as “old mountains.” Their jagged edges have long been worn down by the elements, giving them a softer, rounded look. Right to their very peaks they are covered with lush, green vegetation. It was of a tropical nature. These mountains resembled those I had only seen in National Geographic documentaries about South America. I had never realized how tropical Japan was until I started living here. The train began rolling through these mountains.
It wasn’t long in the mountains until we crossed a river. I looked down the river and saw a dam. Now, this wasn’t just an ordinary dam. This was the kind of dam you only see in movies, where it is picture-perfect between two mountain peaks. This was the kind of dam where the water had been pushed back for so long that houses had popped up in its shadow, and people were living beneath it in content. This was the kind of dam where, if it ever burst, you’d expect Superman to come flying in and stop the water before it flooded the town. My heart fluttered. I knew that, on another day, I’d have to explore that dam further. The train rolled on past the dam.
It wasn’t long before the train stopped in a town called “Chichibu.” The schoolgirls got off here. I was tempted to get off here and explore, but a voice in the back of my head reminded me that the best stuff is at the end of the line. I stayed on the train.
I once again drifted back to my homeland. Why hadn’t rail travel ever caught on Canada? I would love it if I could just go down to a train station, hop a train like this, and head into Edmonton for a day. It would just be a one hour train ride into Edmonton, which is how long I drive; which is how long it takes me to take the train into Tokyo; which was how long I had been on this train. Why didn’t rail travel ever catch on? It’s criminal, I tell ya.
Soon, the train slowed to a halt at one stop, and something was announced. I’m pretty sure the meaning was, “Last stop! Everybody off!” I had reached the end of the line. I stepped off the train and looked at my watch. It was 1:30. I had been riding for an hour and a half. I walked passed the conductor, and out on to the streets of…where was I?