Hello again.

First post…in nearly 4 years?

I wish, I wish, I wish…I didn’t neglect this blog so bad. However, there have been many changes since then.

First (and probably most importantly), I no longer live in Japan. I moved to Hawaii about 3 and a half years ago. Due to the lack of trains on the island of Oahu, there hasn’t been a whole lot to write about. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

At the same time, I know that if I were to restart this blog…where would I begin? There have been SO many changes within the Japanese rail industry over the last couple years. Such as…

600px-w7_series_set_w3_20150207

…the opening of the Hokuriku Shinkansen and debut of the E7/W7 series…

600px-seven_stars_in_kyushu_at_aso_station_20131103

…the debut of numerous deluxe-style trains, including the Seven Stars in Kyushu…

10365560_10152745979134924_7390695153445796298_o-600x399

…trains where you can drink sake and listen to jazz music…

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…trains that have built-in foot baths…

…and that’s just scratching the surface! There’s the upcoming opening of the Hokkaido Shinkansen, continuous testing of the maglev train and so much more.

Fortunately, I do have the chance to visit Japan once a year, so I try to take a couple journeys whenever I can. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the time to take note of anything special in particular during most visits as most of the time is spent with family and catching up with friends (not a bad thing).

Since I haven’t logged on in a while, I decided to take a look at the analytics of the site.

In 2012 (when I took the time to update and post new items), this site received a total of 9,440 views, with 372 unique visitors.

In 2015 (after 3 years in inactivity), this site received a total of 10, 667 views, with 7, 337 visitors. An increase of 1, 872%?! Doing nothing actually increased traffic??

After a little more analyzing, the most popular post by far, was The Eki Stamp, published on May 22, 2011. It’s interesting to see that 1) it’s a post that has hopefully been useful or at least interesting to many people and 2) it’s a post that is still relevant today. I realized that many of the previous posts were relevant to the time it was posted in, for example special deals on train tickets… as I am sure they have long expired by now and are of no use to anyone. But train stamps are something that will be around forever (I hope) and it’s fun to see others have fun with something that is uniquely Japan.

Living in Japan for 6 years was one of the most incredible experiences in my life and it’s still something I talk about every day to people. I’m sure those around me are sick of hearing about my stories over there, but I can’t say farewell to all the awesome memories I had. Riding trains from north to south, east to west was a large part of my experience and I look forward to riding them every trip back.

So, what to write about now? Not quite sure…I wouldn’t mind updating this site more often. But until I figure that out, I just wanted to say to visitors old and new to this site…

…thanks for reading! I hope this site gives you a small taste of what I was able to experience in Japan.


Densha de Dan #10: Cafe and Bar STEAM LOCOMOTIVE

In Tokyo, you can find ANYTHING.

Maid cafes in Akihabara are well known, but there’s more than just that.

I’ve been to a Japanese pub in Shibuya that had an evil prison/hospital theme to it where they serve alcoholic shots in (plastic!) syringes. I’ve also been to a place in Ikebukuro where you can pet all the cats you want for a few hundred yen. Allergic to cats? Then how about a reptile cafe? Rabbit cafe? If animals are out of the question, then relax at Tokyo’s only hammock cafe in Kichijoji. Or if you’re looking for fresh sushi, theres’s a cafe where you can catch your own fish beforehand and then have it served to you later. If you want to dive into Japan’s geek scene, then try the Gundam Cafe or AKB48 Cafe, both in Akihabara, of course.

Whatever hobby or interest you have, most likely there’s a themed SOMETHING that both hardcore and casual fans could dive into.

So this had me thinking, there MUST be something railway-related in Tokyo. And low and behold, there are SEVERAL. But today, we’ll just look at one.

Cafe and Bar STEAM LOCOMOTIVE (カフェ&バースチームロコモティブ) is located mere minutes from JR Yurakucho Station off the Yamanote Line.

Located on the first floor of the New Yurakucho Building, it was a bit difficult to find at first as it’s neighbors are all woman’s clothing shops…which made me wonder if I was in the right place to begin with. But as soon as you see the large steam train logo, you know you’ve found it.

peeeeering into the cafe

As you walk in, there’s a rather large assortment of railway-related stationary such as pencils, stickers, keychains, file holders, and so on. What caught my eye were these:

300 km/h socks

Knowing my feet were already 15cm too long for these to fit, it would still be a good purchase for those looking for a unique gift.

As for the cafe, in the middle is a large model train diorama, complete with a miniaturized version of Yurakucho station itself.

for some reason, this reminded me of the movie Beetlejuice...without the cemetery and Beatlejuice himself.

mini Yurakucho station area

I’ve seen model trains dioramas before, but I think this was the first time where I was able to stick my nose as close to the rails as I could get. The amount of detail put into this set almost makes you wish you could shrink yourself and wander the parks and streets scattered throughout.

festivals carried out all day, everyday

one of the few places in tokyo to see the cherry blossoms bloom everyday

When I went to the railway museum in Omiya, children easily outnumbered adults 2 to 1, so I was expecting a loud, busy atmosphere at the cafe. Maybe we went during the off-peak time (not sure if there’s even a peak time), but more adults seemed to be lost in thought as they watched the miniature trains made their rounds around the miniature track.

see? the kid isn't even looking at the trains!

It being a cafe, I had to remind myself to order something, even though I just came from dinner. The menu doesn’t scream ”WOW!”  or anything, but it also doesn’t fit into the category of being a gimmicky kind of place where the quality of the food takes the backseat.

Going from top to bottom, you have it’s signature SL Salisbury Steak Platter, the Children’s set which comes in the shape of a shinkansen,Carbonara spagahetti, Margarita pizza, hashed beef stew(?), beef curry, and the daily special. On the back of the menu, which I forgot to take a picture of, has a list of its desserts and drinks.

I got the churros with vanilla ice cream because, honestly, where else are you gonna find churros outside of Disneyland??

oh〜

I found this cafe to be a bit more relaxing than I initially thought, but I couldn’t help thinking of some ideas that could make the place even better.

For example, on one side of the diorama, tables and seats are right along the track…and the seats are positioned in a way where it doesn’t matter which side you sit on, you’ll have a decent view of the ”action.” On the other side, however, the tables are placed along the wall, and are turned in a way where half of the seating forces customers to have their back to the diorama. It almost begs the question, ”Well, what’s the point?”

Also, it’s a bit brighter than it should be. Most of the buildings and set pieces around the diorama have lighting, which really showcases the smaller bits of it all. The overhead lighting, unfortunately, drowns some of it out and misses the opportunity to create a night scene for the diorama.

Not major issues, but small suggestions. There are other train cafes in Tokyo,Nagoya, and Kyoto which I plan to eventually hit one of these days. Let’s see how those compare!

Ahh…to live in the big city. Someday, maybe?

Cafe and Bar STEAM LOCOMOTIVE is open all year long, except on January 1st. Open from 11am-11pm on weekdays, 11am-10pm on Saturdays, and 11am-8pm on Sundays.

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Official Website (Japanese) – Includes detailed directions, hours of operation and a few other related links.


Densha de Dan #9: Keisei Skyliner

I used to hate going to Narita Airport.

Although it’s considered to be Tokyo’s main international airport, it’s nowhere near Tokyo. Compared to Haneda Airport, which is just a mere 20 minutes away from the city center, it used to take a full hour to get from Narita to Tokyo Station.

Prior to July 2010, you had two main (railway) choices to get to Narita Airport: JR East’s Narita Express (NEX), and Keisei’s (old) Skyliner.

Narita Express

Keisei Skyliner prior to July 2010. Currently renamed as Cityliner.

The time it took to get to the airport was about the same as their lines ran almost parallel to each other, and the price was only a couple hundred yen apart. When it came to choosing which one to ride, it was usually decided by which one would depart first.

Then, in July 2010 Keisei utilized an abandoned section of line, rebuilding new track while using pre-established lines. This provided a straightshot to the airport cutting the transport time nearly in half (depending on where you board/get off).

Not only is the Keisei Skyliner faster than the Narita Express, but it’s cheaper as well!

In Japan, the fare is determined by the distance travelled plus an express seating fee. Not only is the Skyliner faster than NEX, it’s also cheaper due to the shortened route.

Fares as of January 2012:

  • Keisei Skyliner
    • Narita Airport to Ueno Station: ¥2400
  • Narita Express
    • Narita Airport to Tokyo Station: ¥2940

But price and time aside, the Skyliner has become my preferred method to getting to the airport.

Along with the new route, Keisei also introduced a new train set to use, which is a design that stands out among the best of the best in the country.

Keisei AE Series

Who ever designed the interior put a lot thought into what kind of services would be convenient for those travelling to and from the airport. For example, at the foot of each passenger, there are a total of 4 plug outlets; 2 in the front and 2 in the back. Plenty to recharge your phone, computer, Hello Kitty camera and whatever else.

The seats themselves are spacious and there are designated places at both ends of each car to put your luggage, no matter how large it is. Cameras have also been placed around the luggage area as a theft-prevention device.

My last piece of praise about the train has to be the view.

For first-timers coming to Japan, arrival into Narita Airport maybe a bit of a shock. Most of those coming in already have the misconception that they’ll be surrounded by the glow of Tokyo’s lights as soon as hitting the jetway.

But since you’re flying into Chiba Prefecture, not Tokyo, you’ll get a lot of farmland instead. However, the closer you get to Tokyo, you’ll see the vast rice patties dwindle down to backyard tomato gardens as Tokyo’s many skyscrapers and towers move into view to dominate the landscape.

It’s a nice transition to help you settle into the madness, which is Tokyo.

Upon arrival into Nippori or Ueno Station, it’ll give you a great view of Tokyo Sky Tree (opening to the public May 22nd!).

Other onboard services include a vending machine, HUGE bathrooms, onboard signage available in 4 languages.

AT LAST, I was able to make a video on a sunny day, so I give you Noseprint #3:

Although the Skyliner provides the quickest method to Tokyo, there’s a fleet of trains, buses, taxis, and even a helicopter to get you where you need to be. It all comes down to preference (or a deep wallet if going by heli. Only ¥280,000!!!).

Any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below and I’ll answer quickly.

Until the next journey!

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Keisei Skyliner – (English) Official webpage of the Skyliner. Includes a timetable that can be downloaded in PDF format, and ticket information.

Narita Airport Access Information – (English) Has links for a variety of methods getting to and from the airport.


The Gala 1-Day Ticket

(NOTE: ALL information is for the 2011-2012 season!)

Living in or around Tokyo and looking to get some winter action done this season?

You’re in luck as you have access to well over 100 different ski resorts littered throughout Niigata, Nagano, and Gunma Prefectures. However, getting to a resort can cost well over ¥15,000, and that’s just in transportation costs. That’s not including lift tickets, board/ski rentals, etc.

That’s where the Gala 1-Day Ticket comes in.

all within reach!

With the Gala 1-Day Ticket, it includes:

  • Round-trip Shinkansen from Tokyo to Gala-Yuzawa Station (via the Joetsu Shinkansen Line)
  • 1-Day lift ticket for Gala-Yuzawa Ski Resort
  • 10% off rentals

…all for ¥12,200.

If you were to purchase the Shinkansen tickets and lift ticket separately, it would come to ¥18,300, saving you at least ¥6,100. Also, if you board at a station other than Tokyo Station, the price gets cheaper further along the Joetsu Shinkansen.

For example:

From Omiya Station – ¥11,100. Kumagaya Station – ¥10,100. Takasaki Station – ¥8,700. Also, if you purchase the ticket from an automated ticket machine rather than buying from a staffed window, it’ll save you an extra ¥300!

Trains for Gala-Yuzawa leave at least twice an hour and the trains home are just as frequent.

As for Gala Yuzawa Ski Resort itself, it’s not a bad place to go skiing. From train platform to ski lift takes no more than 2 minutes (EXTREMELY convenient if you bring your own gear), and there are plenty of facilities available to guests, including restaurants throughout the resort, locker rentals, a LARGE changing area, and even a hot springs. It’s also one of the higher resorts in the Yuzawa, so the snow tends to stick around a bit longer than the neighboring resorts. There’s a high speed gondola provided at the main building and the resort has plenty of quad and triple lifts to get throughout the entire resort with ease.

However, the ease and convenience of Gala-Yuzawa Ski Resort has its costs. Because they’ve made it TOO easy for Tokyoites to visit, it’s one of the most crowded, especially on weekends!! Lines to get on the lift can get long, and it makes the lunchtime rush a little unbearable, especially if you’re starving. Also, there isn’t as much variety as some of the other resorts, such as Naeba or Happo-one in Nagano Prefecture, but it’s enough if you’re just doing a day trip.

All-in-all, it’s a good price for a one-day trip. If you’re looking to do a weekend trip, there are plenty of specials that the local hotels or inns can offer that also include lift tickets. If you need help looking, don’t be afraid to leave a comment below, and I promise to respond quickly!

Finally with any train ticket report, are the fine details to help plan your trip better.

  • Price: ¥12,200 on weekdays, ¥13,200 on weekends (from Tokyo Station. Half price for children
  • Type: One-Day Shinkansen Pass plus lift ticket. Getting on/off at stations not ticketed for is not allowed.
  • Purchase Locations:
    • Automated ticket machines that also sell Shinkansen tickets
    • JR Ticket offices (Midori-no-madoguchi)
  • Purchase/Usage Period: December to April/May (depends when resort closes for the season)

Finally, JR East has provided a lot of useful links, all in English!, to help give a little more information (just in case I forgot anything!)

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GALA 1-Day Ticket – (English) Official JR East webpage about the ticket. Also gives information how it can be used in conjunction with the JR EAST PASS (if you’re an overseas traveller).

Gala-Yuzawa Ski Resort – (English) Official webpage for the ski resort. Includes detailed information about the resort, such as hours of operation, lift operation, weather/snow conditions and courses.

GALA日帰りきっぷ – (Japanese) Official JR East webpage about the ticket.

Snow Japan – (English) A great (if not the BEST) English-related webpage to snowboarding and skiing in Japan. Has detailed information about ALL resorts in Japan and is updated at least once a day. A great place to start if looking to hit the slopes this winter.


E7 Series Shinkansen Announced

It was brought to my attention by a reader (thanks J.G!), that JR East will introduce the E7 Series Shinkansen on the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line (currently named the Nagano Shinkansen Line) starting from 2015.

This follows the E5 Series, currently running along the Tohoku Shinkansen Line, and the E6 Series, which will run on the Akita Shinkansen Line from next year.

From a Mainichi Newspaper article:

According to JR East, the company is already working on a blueprint for the new model and will launch a prototype train by summer 2012.

…which means we’re just a few months away from seeing what kind of design it will have. Will it inherit anything from the E5 or E6? Or will it have a complete resdesign altogether? We’ll see.

With the formal announcement of the E7, I’m hoping that they’ll finally announce something for the Joetsu Shinkansen Line since they’re planning to retire the trains throughout the next few years.

Complete article about the announcement of the E7 can be read here.


Densha de Dan #8: The Kurobe Gorge Railway

 

Fall is, without a doubt, my favorite season. Growing up in California, I was accustomed to only 2 colors a year: green and brown…lots and lots of brown.

nice park.

Japan was the first place I’ve ever lived with four proper seasons. Although the cherry blossoms in the Spring draw larger crowds, I perfer the colorful landscapes that the autumn leaves provide.

This year, I thought there would be no better way to see the fall colors than to take a train straight through the middle of a mountain range. After a little searching, I thought the Kurobe Gorge Railway would be exactly what I was looking for.

The Kurobe Gorge Railway is a narrow-gauge railroad line located in Kurobe City, Toyama Prefecture.

Opened in 1963, the line’s original purpose was to provide transport to and from the construction site of the Kurobe Dam. After the dam’s completion, the line began revenue service to the general public in 1971.

From terminus to terminus, the line isn’t very long, as it stretches over 20.1 kilometers of track. The train can reach a maximum speed of 50 km/h, so it takes 80 minutes to get from one end to the other. In total, there are 10 stations along the line, however service is available to the general public at only 4 of them. The remaining six are used by the Kansei Electric Company, which owns and operates the Kurobe Dam, other power stations along the Kurobe River, as well as the railway.

the Kurobe River

the ride begins here.

My journey started at Unazaki Station with today’s destination being Keyakidaira Station. I went on a Saturday near the peak of autumn leaves season, so the station was packed with people.

Unazuki Station

When you buy your ticket, you’re given a choice of four different carriages to ride:

Standard Class: windowless car, can fit 4-5 passengers across

Second Class: fixed seats which hold 4-5 passengers across

Relax Class: fixed seats which can be turned around to face others. good if traveling in a group.

Panorama Class: provides a glass ceiling, which allows views from all around. fixed seats can also be turned around.

I wanted to take some pictures without the windows getting in the way, so I opted for the Standard Class car, which left me stunning views of the gorge, if not a little cold and breezy along the ride.

At the platform, you’ll get your first glimpse of the ”train.” I hesitate calling it a train because it’s much smaller than what we’d usually see. If anything, it feels more like a coal cart ride, much like Disneyland’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad…without the high speed, obviously. Each carriage can comfortably fit 4 to a row, and the ones with windows have a heating system installed.

Throughout much of the journey, you’ll cross over rickety bridges, narrow passageways, and leaky tunnels, which may sound a bit daring at first, but it compliments the train and really leaves a lot to remember the trip by.

In between stations, there is only one lane of track, so the train will stop at each station to allow trains coming from the opposite direction to pass by. It’s not much of an inconvenience as it allows you to get some good pictures of the scenery while staying still.

Just when I thought it was starting to get too cold for an open car train ride, we finally arrived at Keyakidaira Station. Once we hit the platform, I noticed that there was just as many people getting on the train as getting off. Because of that, there was a crazy rush of people getting return tickets.

let this be a lesson: buy your sh*t in advance!

Around Keyakidaira Station, there are several places of interest, including 3 hot springs. One of them is just in front of the station; another is a 15-minute walk up the trail, and the other 50 minutes away. We decided to challenge ourselves and go towards the furthest one…which proved to be more difficult than we thought since most of the trail went uphill.

free helmets!

nice scenery. the leaves and mountains aren't so bad neither.

...and beyond the tunnel is?

However, through sweat and determination, we made it anyways, and spent the next hour soaking in the natural hot springs.

Once finished, we walked back to the station, got on the train, and went back home.

Although the trip was really enjoyable, there were a few things that we could have done ahead of time that would have made the trip even better.

So, a few recommendations:

1. Buy your tickets early!

It’s not that tickets will completely sell out, but most people will buy their tickets at the station, causing long times and even longer waits. Also, the premium cars seem to go first, which isn’t too bad if you’re stuck with the standard car, unless the weather is bad or if it’s really cold (like it was for us). All tickets can be bought online at least 2 days in advance. (Link for online reservations is at the bottom of this entry)

2. Pack a lunch!

The first and last station does have a restaurant, but it can get extremely crowded and in most cases will end up waiting for a seat. Also, since there’s no other alternative, prices can be expensive. At the few hot springs dotted along the path, they do have light meals and other snacks, but stop serving past 1:00pm. This came as a shock for us since we arrived at 1:15. Surprisingly though, there were a lot of people who brought their own lunch and had a picnic along the trail. They obviously did their homework.

3. Dress Accordingly!

Outside of the summer months, it can get cold, even if it’s sunny. Also, if you ride in the windowless carriage, it can become extremely frigid, especially when going through the drafty tunnels. To remedy this you can either ride inside one of the closed carriages, which provides heating, or wear lots of wear clothes.

Finally, I’ve made another video. Here is Noseprint #2:

Finally, below is some information about the train, and then at the very bottom some helpful links if interested in additional information about the Kurobe Gorge Railway.

Until next time!!

  • Fare: One-way ¥1,660 Adults, ¥830 Children (From Unazuki St. to Keyakidaira St.)
    • Second Class: plus ¥360
    • Relax Class: plus ¥520
    • Of course, if you get off at a different station, price will decrease depending on distance travelled
    • NOTE: As of this writing (12/2011), Panorama Class is not being offered from 2012. This may change in the future, however.
  • Seating:
    • ALL reserved seating.
    • Tickets can be bought online or at the station.
  • Time and Distance:
    • From Unazuki St. to Keyakidaira St.
      • 1 hour 18 minutes
      • 20.1 kilometers
  • Schedule:
    • Runs from April to November

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Useful Links:

The Kurobe Gorge Railway Company – Official Site in English! Lots of information, including timetable, detailed prices, directions, and more. Very well put-together English site about the railway.

黒部峡谷鉄道 – Official site in Japanese. Just in case you needed it.

Kurobe Gorge Railway Online Reservation Site – ALL in Japanese, unfortunately. Requires some Japanese language knowledge to get around the site. At the moment, no English reservation site exists, so this is the only way to buy online.


Where are the updates?!

So, I know it’s been a few weeks since anything has been posted.

…and I have a good excuse. Really.

I went home to America for two weeks and I just got back to Japan. Literally, two and a half hours ago.

Also, I’m taking Level 2 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Exam next weekend, so I won’t have time to post anything until after the test.

However, that doesn’t mean I don’t have anything to write about! NEW travelogues including a trip to Toyama Prefecture, the Keisei Airport Skyline, and the very first international edition of Densha de Dan.

See you next month!!


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