What I Like About Japan #3: Trains

Chaos in Print

I’ve loved trains since I was a child. Having the CN mainline from Edmonton to Vancouver slicing through your hometown will do that to you. My neighbouring village of Evansburg used to be a stop for Via, as a matter of fact. I remember getting soft ice cream with my family and heading on up to the train station to eat it, mainly because the old train station was such a majestic, old-fashioned rural train station. Being in such a small town, it felt like the train station was a gateway to the world. Then, in about the mid-80s or so, Evansburg no longer demanded such an ornate train station, so it was demolished and replaced with an ATCO trailer. The Evansburg train station survived until the late-90s, when it was finally removed as part of Via’s cutbacks. Sadly, Via has been cutback all across Canada. It’s become little more than a commuter service in the central corridor: that strip of land that runs between Montreal and Toronto. So, if you’re a rail travel aficionado, you’re pretty much screwed if you live in western Canada. Good thing I came to Japan, where rail travel is as popular and convenient as ever.

Kumagaya itself has a pretty big train station. One of the things that my copy of Culture Shock Japan got correct was the fact that train stations tend to become centers of the community. The Kumagaya Station isn’t simply a train station. It’s a mall, consisting of some really cool stores, some fast food places, a huge department store, and my English school. Yup, I work in a train station. Three rail lines slice through Kumagaya, and two rail companies: JR and the Chichibu Railway.

JR is Japan Rail. It’s the big national rail company in Japan, easily the equal of Via or Amtrak. One of my coworkers told that it was formerly JNR, Japan National Railways, and that it was a crown corporation. (That means “government owned,” for all you Yankees who might be reading this.) Sadly, though, the government didn’t really know how to run a railway and ran JNR into the ground. This co-worker told me tales of Tokyo Station being a dirty, filthy place filled with homeless people. Around the mid-90s or so, the Japanese government decided to get out of the railway business and JNR was privatized. JNR then became JR, and the new private owners decided to start cleaning it up to make it profitable. The stations are kept clean and pristine and, as I can personally verify from my recent night on the streets of Tokyo, the homeless people are kicked out of Tokyo station at night and left to find a place on the street out front. Naturally, privatization hasn’t been all good. This co-worker tells me of a time when you could go from Tokyo to Kumagaya for free, basically because the conductors and such were too lazy to check for your ticket. Now, though, that the company has to be profitable, you can’t get away with such shenanigans.

The other line is the Chichibu Railway. I haven’t done much research on the Chichibu Railway, but I’m pretty sure it’s what’s called a “short line railway” back home. This is a rail line that the big rail companies have deemed unprofitable, but the local community still sees a need for it. So, a smaller, local company steps in to run it. The Chichibu Railway begins in the city of Hanyu, slices through Kumagaya, Yorii, the tourist town of Nagatoro, and the city of Chichibu (naturally), before ending in the small town of Mitsuminiguchi, in the heart of Chichibu National Park. Being a smaller company, the trains are somewhat older than the JR trains, but I don’t mind. It gives them an added character.

There’s one larger difference between JR and the Chichibu Railway: automation. When JR was privatized, they set out to automate everything, just to make it easier. So, now, when I want to hop on the train to go into Tokyo, I go to the automated JR ticket machine to buy a ticket, slip it through the automated turnstile, and I’m on my way! Chichibu, on the other hand, I have to buy my ticket from an actual person, and give it to an actual conductor before stepping on the train. The Chichibu Railway does have automated ticket machines, but they’re all in Japanese, and I’m just starting to figure them out.

The train stations themselves are also a sign of the differences. The majority of JR train stations I’ve seen so far tend to be newer, sleeker, more modern buildings. Chichibu stations still have that smaller, older, rural quality to them. One time, one of my friends and I were at a Chichibu’s Ishiwara station, and we were able to peek through a window into the control room. What we saw were rotary phones and massive consoles covered in switches, making it look like it was out the 1950s. I’ve never looked into a JR control room, but I’m guessing it’d be…newer. Although, one time, when driving through the mountains of Gunma prefecture, I was able to spot some JR stations with that older, rural character, so it might simply be an urban vs. rural thing, too.

Three rail lines slice through Kumagaya. The Chichibu line is maintained by the Chichibu Railway (obviously) and the Takasaki line is JR. If I want to head up the line to Tokyo or down the line to Takasaki, it’s the Takasaki line I’m on. The third line is Joetsu-Nagano shinkansen line. The shinkansen is Japan’s world-famous bullet train, and I’ve only ridden on it once. When I first came to Kumagaya from my training, it was the shinkansen that the company sent me on. I’ll never forget that final day of training as they were telling all of us trainees how to get to our schools: “Now, Mark, we’re sending you on the shinkansen, so don’t get too comfortable! It’s only a 15 minute ride to Kumagaya. Even though you’re going the farthest today, you have the shortest trip.” I have yet to ride the shinkansen again, mainly because it’s so darn expensive. That 15 minute trip cost the company around ¥6000 (roughly $70 for the folks back home). I can travel the same distance on the regular trains for only ¥980 (about $12), so I just save myself the expense. Of course, the regular trains are slower, as the regular trains take about 45 minutes to do that 15 minute shinkansen trip. I’ve had no real reason to ride the shinkansen again, although, I’m currently planning a long weekend in Nagano, and the shinkansen seems to be my best option to get there.

Of course, there are many kinds of passenger trains that run on those two regular tracks. We have the local trains, which are your regular city-style mass transit trains. There are the rapid trains, which are like the locals, but only make half the stops. And then there are the express trains, which only make the major stops. Whenever I go to Tokyo, it’s the locals I take, mainly because the expresses are too expensive and I always seem to miss the rapids. That’s not to say I’ve never ridden the expresses. Once I had to go out to Narita Airport to meet a friend, so I headed out on the Narita Express. The first time I went out to Chichibu National Park, I was lucky enough to come home on the Chichibu Express. (I remember first pointing out the Chichibu Express to a friend. We were waiting at Ishiwara Station, when it came through the station, and my friend asked, “What the hell was that?” I said, “Oh, it’s the Chichibu Express.” He looked at me and said, “There’s a Chichibu Express?” I love being able to show the long-timers something new.) The major difference is also, in the express trains, you have real seats. You can sit two people next to each other and you face the direction that the train is moving. The other trains, as I’ve said, are typical mass transit trains. You sit facing the middle and you pray that there are enough seats because you don’t want to stand in the aisle.

Plus, let’s also mention that the Chichibu Railway also offers a steam excursion through the mountains in the tourist season. Check out the Japanese Mountains from a steam train! I’ve seen that steam locomotive come rolling through Kumagaya many times, but I have yet to price out how much it would cost to ride it.

And I should also mention the Tokyo Monorail, also world-famous, although, now, somewhat, outdated. The Monorail has become little more than a commuter from downtown Tokyo to Haneda Airport. When I had to go to Haneda one time, I rode on it. Everyone piled on at Hamamatsucho (its central Tokyo stop) and it began the ride to Haneda. There are 7 stops between Hamamatsucho and Haneda Airport, but no one got on, and no one got off. The Monorail would stop, the doors would open, the doors would shut, and we’d continue on our way. We got to Haneda and everyone piled off. And of course, the whole time, I was humming that monorail song from The Simpsons: “Is there a chance the track could bend? / Not on your life, my Hindu friend.”

Ya know, I often wonder about those stops, where the train slows down, the doors open, and no one gets off or on. One time, I just had to turn to my friend and ask, “What do you think happens at stops like this? Do you think that, maybe, ghosts use these trains too, and there’s a whole bunch of ghosts getting on and off?” My friend just looked at me and said, “Dude, you have got to see Spirited Away.” I have seen it now, and it’s a good movie, and I highly recommend it. But I digress.

As a friend and I were waiting for a train to take us back to Kumagaya one night, we saw a special train come roaring through the station. It was a good old fashioned sleeper train, no doubt bound for Nagano with a trainful of tourists. I turned to my friend and said, “Now that’s the way to travel!” From there, I launched into a fairly standard rant about the sad state of rail travel in Canada, and recounted the tale of the Evansburg train station as an illustration of it. I truly love rail travel with a passion. I’m thinking that when it comes time to go home from Japan, I won’t go for the direct flight straight to Edmonton. I think I’ll only go as far as Vancouver, then go the rest of the way by train. Of course, I can’t get off straight at Evansburg any more, but still, it would be more magical than just climbing off of the airplane. Take the train, I implore you! It rocks.

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