Monthly Archives: April 2011

Densha de Dan #3: The Okinawa Monorail Line

Ahh, Okinawa. Famous for it’s great weather, warm beaches, and delicious local fruits.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to try any of it, haha. It rained most of the time we were there, the sea was too cold to swim in, and we didn’t have enough time to do a bunch of sightseeing. That’s what happens when you go to Okinawa in the winter, for just 3 and a half days. Lesson learned.

None the less, we still had a great time! Especially since we got to ride the Okinawa Monorail!!

like any good trip, it begins with the shinkansen to tokyo

From Niigata, it’s a 2 hour trip to Tokyo Station, and then an easy transfer to the Tokyo Monorail, which ends at Haneda International Airport. Usually when I travel overseas, I leave out of Narita Airport, which isn’t the easiest (nor the quickest) place to be flying in and out of. So, it being my first time to Haneda, found myself surprised to see how easy it was to get to Haneda.

i thought i was gonna ride the pokemon plane, until i realized i was at the wrong gate.

The Okinawa City Monorail Line, or Yui Rail, is a fairly new monorail system. Opened in 2003, it runs from Naha International Airport to Shuri (near the famous Shuri Castle), travelling a distance of just 12.8km. Not a great distance by any means, but most monorail lines don’t run that far anyways. It’s worth noting that the world’s longest monorail line, the Osaka Monorail, comes in at just 21.2km.

Despite it being a short ride from beginning to end, I had another reason why I wanted to ride the Yui Rail.

In March 2009, I started on a journey to visit the southernmost, northernmost, easternmost, and westernmost JR stations in Japan. After a 30 hour trip from Niigata to Wakkanai City, Hokkaido, the first portion of this journey was acheived on March 10th, 2009.

one down, three to go.

Probably not a good idea to go in the middle of winter, as it was hovering around -10 Celcius that day. However, mission accomplished.

Which brings us to Okinawa. Akamine Station is considered to be the southernmost station in Japan.

Akamine Station is easy to get to as it’s just one stop away from the Airport. Even if you’re coming from the city, the ride is short, but still offers good views of the city, especially if riding on a clear day. After departing each station, it’ll play short jingle of a famous Okinawan song, and then announce which station you’re about to arrive at. And I have to admit, the jingles are quite catchy! Here’s a short video I took while aboard, on the way to Akamine Station:

A few minutes later, I reached my destination. The southernmost station in Japan.

two down, two to go...

But it doesn’t end there. Why? Because the WESTERNmost station in Japan was just ONE STATION AWAY!

On our last day in Okinawa, we used the Monorail to get back to the airport, so hitting goal number three wasn’t too difficult to do.

three down, one to go...right?

“But could it really be this easy?!” I thought to myself after taking this picture. The southernmost and westernmost stations taken care of in just one trip?!

Unfortunately, no.

Remember, the goal was to visit JR stations. Although visiting the above stations was quite the achievement and a good experience, it doesn’t count.

don't worry, I still like you, Yui Rail

So, why JR? Well, to me, Japan Railways, is the flagship of the Japanese Railway System. I find it’s history fascinating, and I appreciate their pursuit to excellence, punctuality, and comfort. This doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the other 16 major private railway companies, and the countless local and municipal rail lines scattered throughout the country. They all bring something unique to the travel experience and I’ll never turn down a good train ride, no matter who operates it. I figure, if I’m going to set a goal, might as well start with the biggest.

Which brings me back to another question: Where are these 4 stations I’m in pursuit of?

  1. Northernmost – Wakkanai Station, Hokkaido (COMPLETED)
  2. Southernmost – Nishi-Oyama Station, Kagoshima Prefecture
  3. Easternmost – Higashi-Nemuro Station, Hokkaido
  4. Westernmost – Sasebo Station, Nagasaki Prefecture

So, I’m back at one, but that’s ok! It only means that I have a bit more traveling to do, and a few more blogs to write. A win-win for everyone.

Speaking of traveling, tomorrow marks the start of the Golden Week holidays!! A time of year where many national holidays are bunched together allowing most people to have a week or so off. Mine begins tomorrow and will continue till next Wednesday.

Tomorrow’s destination: Kyoto. However, I won’t be going by train unfortunately. Since getting a Japanese driver’s license, I’ve simply found it cheaper to be getting round by car. But can this mean the start of a new feature on the blog? Quite possibly! We’ll have to just wait and see.

Finally, a trip to Okinawa wouldn’t be complete without going to Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium.

oh.

Located towards the northwestern side of the main island, it’s one of the most famous aquariums in Japan. It’s one of the few aquariums in the world which have whale sharks in captivity, but that’s not even the main attraction! The biggest draw to this aquarium is their main tank, where you can see, well…I’ll let you find out on your own by watching the video I took below. Enjoy, and until then, see you next time!

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The Greatest Commercial Ever Made?

It doesn’t matter if you’re American, Japanese, a rail fan, whatever…this is a great commercial to watch.

On February 20th, JR Kyushu filmed a commercial to commemorate the opening of the Kyushu Shinkansen. Prior to filming, JR held a huge casting call, asking residents who live near or along the rail line to wave to the train as it passes by. Posters were put up in many of the stations to let people know of the event.

JR Kyushu estimates that 15,000 people came out to send their best wishes to the newly constructed line.

What makes this commercial uncanny is it’s timing. The commercial started airing on March 10th. The Kyushu Shinkansen was slated to open on March 12th, 1 day after the disaster in Tohoku. Because Kyushu is quite a distance away from the Tohoku region, the opening of the line continued as scheduled, but without all the ceremonies and press events that were originally planned.

In order to cope with the disaster, we donate our time, our money, and our resources in order to rebuild and make Japan even stronger. All over the place, I often see 一つになろう日本 (hitotsu ni narou nippon), meaning Let’s All Come Together, Japan. It’s on posters, on TV, restaurant signs, everywhere.

But after watching this commercial, I saw that, even before the disaster, we were already one Japan. Everyone can come together, and almost effortlessly, cheer for something they believe in. In the commercial, they’re not only cheering for a new train, but they’re cheering on the progress Japan has made, and also on what’s to come in the future. That gives me hope.

It was a well-spent 3 minutes of my life (15 minutes considering I’ve already watched it 5 times today).


Densha de Dan #2: Takada Park

Cherry blossom season always seems to finish as soon as it starts.

In most cases, there’s usually a 4-day window where they’ll come to full bloom, and then just as quickly, the pedals will fall off and green leaves will take its place. Although the time to go and watch the sakura (cherry blossoms) is short, it’s just enough for most people to escape the office or school and spend the day relaxing under the sakura trees, in an event called hanami.

Sakura season is serious business in Japan. For most people, seeing a sakura tree means the beginning of the school year, or the end of a freezing winter. For this year in particular, it can also mean despite whatever happens, there’s always something beautiful to be found. A sign of hope, if you may. Sakura is SO important, that it’s even on the back of a 100 yen coin!

Part two of the Densha de Dan travelogue series brings us to Takada Park in Joetsu City, Niigata Prefecture. To get there, we’ll be using the Shinetsu-Main Line to get to our destination.

The Shinetsu-Main Line runs from Niigata City to Takasaki City, Gunma Prefecture…but it’s probably the least direct route between the two. Also, it doesn’t even connect all the way. For some reason, part of the line has been abandoned and services have been taken over by a private railway company. Maybe it wasn’t profitable?

Anyways, the journey from Nagaoka to Joetsu is definitely a scenic one. From Nagaoka, the line changes direction towards the coast and as soon as you pass Kashiwazaki City, you’re treated to some really nice views of the sea.

Omigawa Station

Just after you start riding along the coast, you’ll come to Omigawa Station, which is the closest station to the sea than any other station in Japan. The train continues to hug the coast for another 30 minutes or so while passing through a few tunnels. Finally, came our first transfer at Naoetsu Station.

we werent the only ones who thought it would be a good day for some cherry blossom viewin

From Naoetsu Station, we continued onward to our final destination, Takada Station.

Takada Station

From the station, it’s about a 15-minute walk to Takada Park.

On the way, you’ll pass streams and rivers lined with cherry trees, and some people stop to take pictures, but little do they know what’s ahead.

yes, it gets better!

After living here for a while, I’ve learned that Japan likes to rank things. But instead of a Top 10 list for things, it’s the Best THREE, and trust me, there’s a list for everything. There’s a list for the Top 3 Hot Springs, the Top 3 Summer Festivals, the Top 3 Places for Ramen, the Top 3 Night Views, the Top 3 Comedians, even the Top 3 Largest Buddhas. Who exactly makes these lists, I’m not sure. Sometimes they can be spot on, other times not so much.

As for Takada Park, it’s considered as one of the Top 3 Best Places to View Sakura.

It’s a title it totally deserves.

what can make this even better? how about a beer.

So what do you do at a hanami? Well, most bring a giant tarp, bring some food and drinks, and simply sit under the sakura for hours on end. For me, it’s the closest thing to having a BBQ at the beach.

Mt. Myoko in the background. Great snowboarding in the winter!!

This park is huge draw not only to the locals, but people come from far away to visit. I came here last year and I remember it being tough to find a spot to lay down our tarp. This year however, there was still a lot of people, but a noticable difference from the previous.

its literally 360 degrees of this

For many, the draw can be the countless sakura trees. Around 4,000 I’ve been told. However, another huge draw (ok, maybe not so much for others, but for me) are the food stands. Like any good festival, there are plenty of places to get your grub on.

go ahead. go nuts.

All in all, there are about 300 different food stands. Amazing, yes. And although you’ll be able to find most of the usual Japanese stall-food fare, like yakisoba (fried noodles), takoyaki (battered octopus),  and okonomiyaki (a Japanese-like pancake?), there’s plenty of other food. How about a meat-wrapped riceball? Or a crepe filled with tuna and pizza sauce? Those willing to stick to the classics will find something to enjoy too, like ice cream, candied apples, and even fried chicken and french fries. Literally, something for everyone.

no shortage of octopus here.

Once sunset starts to hit, lights are illuminated throughout the park bringing out the pink from the sakura trees. It’s also around this time that you realize that you probably should have brought another jacket, as it gets cold…FAST.

Finally, it’s time to pack up the tarp, recycle the cans, finish the big plastic bottle of grandpa’s basement wine, and head back home.

sadly, thats not us.

It’s rare when JR adds additional train services to a route due to a event or something, but SO MANY people come to Takada that they had to create a special rapid train to handle the capacity. They named this the Takada Hanami Rapid Express. All aboard!

its uh, the top one.

From Nagaoka to Takada, the local train costs ¥1280 and takes a little under two hours. There’s also a limited express that runs between, but the price goes up more than double. Easily adds up when going both ways. With this special rapid train, the cost remains the same, but only takes about an hour and 15 minutes to complete the trip. Also, I found some kids to play rock, scissors, paper with along the way. They grew tired of it and soon evolved into a game show where we were quizzing each other about poop and stuff. They were six. And it helped the time pass.

unfortunately, we had to stand the whole way

For some reason, I didn’t make it to Takada Park until my 3rd year in Japan. And I’m still kicking myself over that fact. I wish I went sooner!! If you live anywhere in the Kanto/Tohoku/WHEREEVER part of Japan, it’s definitely worth the trip.

It’s a shame that sakura can only be seen a couple days out of the year, but as soon as it ends, you’re already looking forward to next years.

Luckily, there’s PLENTY to keep me busy until then.

heres to you, nature!


No Reason Not to Continue.

Hello again. A few things to cover before getting started:

I’m fine. The earthquake/tsunami which hit Japan on March 11th was definitely felt where I live, but I live well outside of the disaster areas. I’m also far from the troubled Fukushima Nuclear Power plants and it’s mandatory evacuation zones. Although Niigata Prefecture is Fukushima Prefecture’s neighbor, there was relatively little damage sustained. The Iiyama Line, a route connecting Niigata and Nagano Prefectures, suffered a partial collapse, closing the line until it’s repaired. It’s expected to be reopened sometime around the end of the month.

Iiyama Line - Source: Asahi Newspaper

All other lines in Niigata Pref. continue to run, some with limited services. The seasonal Banestsu Monogatari steam train running to and from Aizu-Wakamatsu in Fukushima has indefinitely been suspended. Other trains which often serve tourism purposes have also been cancelled for the time being. Although inconvenient, it still pales in comparison to the extend of damage caused on the east coast of Japan.

The Joban Line, which runs from Tokyo to Sendai, runs along the coast for most of the journey. Needless to say, much of it was devastated.

after the tsunami

The Yamada Line, which runs from Sendai to Miyako, Iwate Pref., and the Kita-Riasu Line, going from Miyako toward Hachinohe, Aomori Pref., was also heavily damaged, if not completely washed away.

Otsushi Station, Yamada Line - Source: Nikkei Newspaper

In the hours after the disaster, numerous trains went missing and were swept away from the tsunami. There are stories of passengers leaving the train and leaving for higher ground, but I haven’t been able to find information on everything.

The Tohoku Shinkansen, also sustained damage to its power lines and support pillars on hundreds of spots along it’s 675 km route. Consequently, about 75% of the line was closed for inspection and repairs, which is a shame since the new E5 series shinkansen was only in service for about a week before the disaster happened. Sendai Station also had a lot of structural damage. You can see the extent of it here (fast-forward about 59 seconds in):

Although the line has been reopening in sections, its expected to continue full service on April 20th. Remember, this was a freakin’ 9.0 magnitude earthquake. The quickness of repairing not only the shinkansen line, but all other lines has been nothing short of amazing. Freight lines were also quickly reopened in order to transport relief goods to the affected areas.

So, I’ve been thinking. How can I help? I’ve already donated money, but I wish there was more I can do…

…and then the answer came to me. Continue to travel. Japan is amazing, and while I’m here, I want to continue to see as much of it as I can, whether it be by rail, car, bicycle, piggy-back a drunk businessman, whatever. From what the numbers are saying, foreign tourism is way down. Not only that, even those already living here are a bit timid to start traveling to and fro again.

Despite the continuing aftershocks, and the uncertainty of the nuclear “crisis,” I don’t think thats a reason to stay home. I see continuing to sightsee as a win-win for both Japan and myself. The money I spend goes right back into the economy, and the memories I receive are priceless. The entire Tohoku region still has incredible places to visit, and I’m still determined to visit it someday.

Japan WILL recover, and I hope to contribute to the recovery effort as much as everyone else. It’s the least I can do.

Finally, some things related to the site. I know it’s been a while since the last update, but there are plenty of things to write about, so expect some new posts throughout the week. First, I’ll be taking the train out to Joetsu City tomorrow to do a little cherry blossom partying. Also, Golden Week holidays is upon us at the end of this month, which means a trip to Kyoto and Hiroshima!! Finally, I’ll update about my trip to Okinawa last month, including a ride on the Okinawa monorail.

Until then, see you next time!

がんばれ東北!がんばれ日本! - Source: Nikkei Newspaper


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