I got to the bus stop, and it was only about 5 minutes until the bus pulled up. I think I’m starting to get busses in Japan figured out. They work like this. You get on through the back door. Immediately to your left is a ticket machine, so grab a ticket. On your ticket will be a number. Today, my number on the ticket was “2.” That means that I got on at the second stop on this route. When you look towards the front of the bus, you see something akin to a menu board in a fast food restaurant. It lists all the numbers of all the stops, and beneath each one, a price. That’s how much your bus trip is going to cost you. As the bus pulled away, the price under “2” came up as 170. So, if I got off at the next stop, my bus trip would cost me 170 yen. The farther you go, the higher the price gets. After a few stops, the price under “2” soon rose from 170 to 210. Now, if I got off, my trip was going to cost 210 yen. I kept going and soon the menu board flashed the symbol for the bus stop closest to the cable car. Yes, these menus also tell you what the next stop is. Just like busses back in Canada, you pull a string to say that you want off. So, I was about to pull the string, when someone else beat me to it. Apparently, a lot of people were going to the cable car. I looked up at the menu to see that “2” had risen to 300 yen, so I began fishing 300 yen out of my pocket. Now, to finalize your bus trip, you get off at the front of the bus, and drop your money and ticket into a little slot as you step out. It’s just that simple.
I got to the front of the bus, and the bus driver looked over to see that I was a gaijin. He began to say, in broken English, “Three hund…” but I cut him off with a, “Hai, hai.” I dropped my money in and bounded off the bus. That’s when it occurred to me. I didn’t say, “Yeah, yeah” to the driver. I said, “Hai, hai.” I’m assimilating Japanese.
Assuming that all the other people that got off the bus were also going to the cable car, I began following the crowd. I followed them down through the town’s streets until we got to a river. It was a mountain stream, like so many I had seen in Jasper. We crossed the bridge over the river, and began a steep concrete path up the side of the mountain. I was wondering if I was on the right path. Why would you have to walk up a mountain to a cable car? One of my coworkers told me that there was a hiking trail up to the top of the mountain. Maybe this was the trail head. I pressed on, optimistic that something would happen. And something did. Soon, the trees parted, and I was at the ground station for the cable car. I smiled a huge smile. I remembered from the schedule that the cable cars left every half hour. I glanced at my watch to see that it was 3 minutes to 4. Talk about the nick of time.
I sprinted to the ticket window and got in line. I got to the front of line and, forgetting myself, blurted out in English, “One, please.” The ticket clerk said something in Japanese that I couldn’t quite make out. I made the universal “Please speak up” gesture. The clerk made a little back-and-forth motion with his finger. Dude was trying to sell me a round trip ticket. I nodded enthusiastically and bought a round trip ticket.
I gave my ticket to the conductor and headed for the gondola. It was a reversible one, just like my beloved Jasper Tramway. The gondolas were a little smaller than the ones in Jasper, though, and were painted in the bright yellow color that Jasper abandoned for their gondolas. Luckily, I was able to find a seat. That’s when I came to an odd realization. In order to get to the gondola, I had to give my ticket to a conductor at a manual turnstile, and have it punched, just like on the Chichibu Railway. In fact, the station was set up just like a train station! I began to wonder. Did the Japanese see this as an amusement device, like I did, or just another form of mass transportation? I shook off the question as our gondola operator soon stepped in and closed the door. We were off!
I could hear the massive engines revving up and the gondola left the ground station with a slight tug. I could hear some running water, and I looked out the window of the car to see that, right below this lower station was a secluded little waterfall flowing into a secluded little pond. The operator hit play on a tape deck, and soon an automated tour guide began speaking. I couldn’t understand the Japanese, but I’m sure it was things like names of the peaks, statistics about the cable car, and things of that nature. I still couldn’t get over how green everything was. There was no sign of rock under these mountains. There were just masses of green. When I thought of tropical jungles, this is exactly what I would think of. And now, I was soaring above it all in a cable car.
This cable car rose along the edge of a valley, and you could look to the side to see this incredible drop down to a leafy bottom. It was spectacular. I looked up towards our destination to see that it was not being fogged in, but more concealed with a tropical mist. It was all so green…. The ride lasted about 10 minutes, and soon the cabin was filled with a squeal of backwards voices. The operator was rewinding the automatic tour guide. The upper terminal loomed above us, and with a slight bump, the gondola slid into place. I was at the top of the mountain.
My fellow passengers and I disembarked from the gondola and again showed our tickets to the conductor. Once again, this all looked very train-station-like. Like the Jasper Tramway, I was expecting to see a restaurant and a gift shop, but up here, there was nothing. Just the train-station-ish upper terminal and a few vending machines. The terminal was bigger and looked like it may have housed a restaurant at one time, but now the section that may have been a restaurant was closed off and deserted. I took a moment to take in the view. Many other peaks were starting to be clouded with that tropical mist. I looked down the mountain to see how high I was. I took another deep breath of that mountain air. The city I had been trapped in for the last two months was now so far away.
I began looking around to see what I would do at the top of this mountain. The last gondola for the ground left at 5, so I had a full 45 minutes to explore this mountaintop. I saw some others heading up a paved path, so I decided to follow. Let’s see what I could see.
I followed the path through the woods, enjoying every breath of fresh, tropical, mountain air. I was starting to feel renewed and rejuvenated. I kept walking along the paved path until it split into three. I selected the gravel one and kept walking. It was at the end of this path that I began to feel jaded.
At the end of this path was a huge hotel. In front of this huge hotel was a large parking lot. Below the parking lot I could see the highway. I tried not to feel jaded, really I did, seeing as to how I just 2000 yen for a cable car ride when it probably would have only cost me ¼ of that to take the bus to the top. But hey, I was in the mountains, and a trip to the mountains isn’t complete unless you ride the cable car. But still, I felt a little jaded. I kept going to see what was so important at the top of this mountain. I rounded the corner and saw it.
I was at a Shinto shrine. Now, I had been in Japan for almost two months, and had not seen a Shinto shrine yet. I hadn’t really looked for one. But now, I had just wandered into the courtyard of one. I slowed my walk slightly and removed my hat. This was still a legitimate religion and like a church for many people, so I tried to show it the proper respect. I approached one group of followers who were selling charms and things and I looked over them. I walked among the buildings, not sure of what they signified. I was starting to feel a little thirsty, and saw some troughs of water with copper cups in them. I observed for a moment and watched people wash their hands in this water before praying. I decided that I better not drink it. I walked on eggshells throughout the place, just completely paranoid that I’d do something wrong and offend people. Well, not people. Angry people I can deal with. Angry gods I’m not so sure about. So, I kept my hands behind my back and just looked around. Eventually, though, I saw it was 20 to 5, and thought I’d better hustle back to the upper cable car terminal if I wanted to catch the last one down. It was time to go home.
I got back to the terminal before the last gondola began loading, so I got a can of milk tea from a vending machine to quench my thirst. I pulled out my cellular phone, and began taking a few more crappy snapshots. Better than nothing. I saw a young woman point me out to her boyfriend, say something, and they both chuckled. I caught the word “cellular,” so I’m guessing she said, “Look at that gaijin! He comes all the way up here to see this view, and he’s using his cellular phone for his camera?” I tried to shrug it off. Next time, I’ll have my real camera with me.
The announcement soon came, and the last gondola began loading. Since it was the last one, several upper terminal staff members also crowded onto the gondola with the last few tourists of the day. I had to stand for the ride down, but I got a spot right next to the rear window, so I could watch everything shrink away. One lone upper terminal staff member was left behind to oversee us on our ride down, and as the gondola pulled out of the upper terminal, I actually saw him salute the last one of the day. I smiled at this. Such dedication to duty.
When we arrived at the lower terminal, I walked out at a much more leisurely pace. There was a bus schedule posted in the lower terminal, so I took a moment to study it. If I read it correctly, the last bus back to the train station left at 6 pm. It was now quarter past 5. So I explored the lower terminal a bit. I took a crappy snapshot of the secluded waterfall, and walked out onto a concrete observation area and took it all in. No one else was out there, so I took a moment to do a little dance. It was a dance of joy. I was happy to once again be in the outdoors. I was happy to once again be enjoying fresh air. I was happy.
I walked back down the path to the main street, and looked up and down. Since the last bus didn’t leave until 6, I knew I had lots of time to look. Only problem was I didn’t know where the bus stopped to take you to the station. My first priority was to find the bus stop. Luckily, it was right across the street from where the bus dropped me off. I took a look at the schedule and saw the next bus came at 5:35. My watch said that it was 5:30. I was starting to feel tuckered out, and so, like the old married couple that was already there, I just plopped down on the bench to wait for the bus.
I couldn’t help but look at that old married couple. They were laughing. They were smiling. They were still very much in love. I couldn’t help but wonder if all the old married couples I know are like this. Mom and Dad…Opa and Oma…certain aunts and uncles…Chuck and L…. Want to know a secret? I actually look forward to the day when I’m one half of an old married couple. I leaned back and lost myself in thought of what might be, and the bus pulled up.
I got off the bus and headed over to Mitsumeniguchi Station. I looked and, lo and behold, a train headed for home was loading! But this train was different. Rather than your standard mass transit subway-style car, this was a full blown rail car. No seats that made you sit facing the center of the car. These seats faced you in the direction that the train was heading, and looked so much more comfortable. I started thinking that this might be an express train or something, and that my round trip ticket might not be enough. I figured that I should check with the ticket clerk.
I got in line, and this clerk was a crusty old man. I broke things down to my best classroom English. I showed him my round trip ticket and, giving a thumbs up sign, asked, “Is this OK? OK?” The clerk took a look at this ticket, started rattling something off in Japanese, held up two fingers, and then made the “OK” sign which he shook back and forth. I said, “OK? Good!” Thinking things were OK, I began to walk through the turnstile. At this point, the ticket clerk began to freak out. He reached through the ticket window, held out his arm, and blocked my way. I looked at him, again he rattled off something in Japanese, held out two fingers, made the “OK” sign and shook it back and forth. This time, though, I made the universal sign of the shrug, and said the words that I thought the shrug symbolized. “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand.” At this point, his assistant, who spoke English, came over and said, “200 more for express.” I said, “Oh!” and gave the clerk 200 yen. He gave me an express ticket, and I got on the train.
I walked towards the middle of the rail car, and flopped down in one of those big, comfy, faded-blue seats. I started going over the ticket clerk’s gestures in my mind. He held out his two fingers, which I interpreted as the V-for-victory sign, a gesture still popular among the Japanese. Then, he made the OK sign. I was sure he was saying, “Yup! Great! OK!” I began looking at them in another light. True, the Japanese count on their fingers in a different way, but maybe he held up two fingers to mean “2” for my benefit. And with the OK sign…maybe, he was trying to make a “0” with his thumb and pointer finger. And he shook it back and forth to mean two “0.” That had to be it. He wasn’t saying, “Great! OK!” He was saying 2-0-0. Two hundred. I felt stupid, but soon shook it off. Given all the human interaction I had done that day, I was glad this was the only incident. The train pulled out of Mitsumeniguchi right on time at 6 pm.
This was the express, so it was going a lot faster. It was making less stops, too, so I just stretched out and looked out the window. I was feeling very sleepy, but didn’t fall asleep. I just can’t sleep while I’m moving. I looked out the window. I saw that dam one last time. We crossed that bridge again. Then, it started getting too dark to look out the window. The sun sets awfully fast in Japan. When I left Mitsumeniguchi at 6, it was still light out. When I got back in Kumagaya at 7, it was full-blown night. But as the train rocketed through the twilight sky, my mind began to be plagued with worries. As I headed back to the city, my fears came back to me. Was today really the second last day of summer vacation, or was it, in fact, the last? Was I prepared for all my classes my first day back? Didn’t I have to teach someone else’s classes my first day back? Was I prepared for those? But then, the words that I heard all day when I missed busses and was afraid of buying tickets came back to me. “Don’t panic.” I just sat back and enjoyed my ride.
Back in Kumagaya, I walked off the platform, but before I gave my tickets to the conductor, I took a moment to look in a glass display case. There lots of pictures of a steam locomotive rolling down the line I had just been on, along with lots of other steam memorabilia. Does the Chichibu Railway occasionally run a steam locomotive along this line? Is it a tourist thing they do? You know, a few days earlier, I swore I heard a steam whistle on the wind. Was it the steam locomotive pulling out of the station? It’s definitely something I have to look into. With my journey on the Chichibu Railway at an end, I gave my tickets (my round trip and my express) to the conductor, and headed out into the familiar sight of Kumagaya station.
I began the walk home, but then remembered that I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. I decided to treat myself to Mos Burger. For those back home, Mos Burger is like the A&W of Japan. The prices are a little higher than most fast food places, but so is the quality. But, unlike A&W, they don’t have combo meals, so I had to order my burger, fries, and Coke all separately. What can I say? Given the success of my day, I was feeling cocky.
As I sat down and waited for my burger, I began to reflect on my day. My goals for my summer vacation were now complete. Heading out to the mountains was so much easier than I thought it’d be. I could do it on weekends now. Whenever the city starts to get to be too much, I can just hop on the train and go. It’s all so easy now. The next time the desire to see some greenery comes – and it will – I can just pick up and go. And next time, I’ll do it right. The camera will come. I’ll figure out what to do in a Shinto shrine. I’ll find the hiking the trails. The mountains are so close. There will be a next time.