Category Archives: Densha de Dan: A Travelogue Series

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.


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.


Densha de Dan #7: Kirakira Uetsu

The Kirakira Uetsu is a Rapid Express train running along the Uetsu Line from Niigata Station, and then terminates in either Sakata Station in Yamagata Prefecture, or Kisakata Station in Akita Prefecture, depending on season as the schedule can change.

“Kirakira” is the Japanese onomatopoeia for “sparkling” or “glitter,” which is a very suitable name for this train since it cruises along the Sea of Japan coastline for a majority of the trip. Around the end of summer, the timetable aligns with the setting of the sun, leaving passengers with a beautiful sunset and a sparkling horizon beneath it.

now THAT'S KIRAKIRA!!

On this particular day, however, the weather was pretty bad. Not a whole lot of ‘’kirakira’’ to begin with, and as soon as I arrived in Akita Pref., it started pouring, which meant I had to abandon a bicycle ride to a local waterfall in the area. I could have waited for the weather to clear, but I only had about 2 hours until my return train back to Niigata, so the besides riding the train itself, everything was kind of a bust.

As for the ‘’Kirakira Uetsu’’ itself, it’s probably the most colorful train in the entire JR East rolling stock.

oh, the colors

interior of the train, which happens to be just as colorful as the exterior

It’s a 4-car passenger train, which seats a total of about 116 passengers. It also includes a lounge car, which passengers can use at their leisure.

Kirakira Uetsu Lounge Car

The lounge car includes a small gift shop and snack bar, which offers bento boxes, sandwiches, sweets, and beverages. You can also order a green tea set, which includes enough tea for about 2 to 3 cups (and if you ask the staff, they’ll give you additional hot water, free of charge), a sweet mochi ball dessert, and is served to you in the lounge by an attendant. Watching the sea fly by at 120 km/h while sipping on a cup of green tea wasn’t a bad way to spend a rainy afternoon.

Elsewhere throughout the train, there’s a rubber stamp pad, which includes the train’s logo, a small souvenir machine that sells stickers and other small items, and a small area for kids to color.

If you walk towards either end of the train, there are huge windows that allow you to peer directly into the driver’s room. You literally get to see what the train driver sees, which proved to be popular with children (like myself).

that will be me someday

Although I took the train throughout the entire route from beginning to end, there are plenty of other destinations in between that I strongly recommend, especially if you enjoy hot springs or hiking.

some hot buns i picked up in kisakata. now, i understand the pig looking ones are filled with pork. but the panda ones are filled with...?

luckily, i got to see a glimpse of a sunset on the way back home. kind of.

despite the poor weather, we have to at least agree that the view is still pretty damn nice

...and at last an Ekiben (train lunch box) and a beer to end the day

Finally, I want to finish with a new feature that may be implemented in future editions of Densha de Dan. On this train, I look video from the window looking outward, so that way it would give you a chance to see what I see when riding the train. It’ll include different sections of the line, from beginning to end, but I’ll edit it to a short 2-3 minute video. If you think it works well, or I should use more pictures instead, please leave a comment. Positive or negative feedback only makes the blog better!

With that, I introduce to you the first edition of Noseprint.

Why “Noseprint?” you ask? Well, these videos will give a perspective of planting your face right on the train window. When you lift you’re face away from the window, what’s usually left?

A print of your nose. (It’s actually more of a grease smear, but it doesn’t make for a good title).

Finally, here’s some basic information to get you started if you wish to trek around on the Kirakira Uetsu (which I strongly suggest going…IF IT’S SUNNY!)

  • Price: ¥4,080 (includes regular fare and ¥510 reserved seating fee)
  • Seating
    • ALL Reserved Seating
    • Tickets can be purchased from any JR Station that has a ticket service counter
  • Time and Distance
    • From Niigata Station to Kisakata Station
      • 3 hours 16 minutes
      • 204.7 kilometers
  • Schedule (As of 11/2011)
    • Runs every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and National Holidays
    • On some days, it only runs in one direction, so caution is advised.
    • Detailed timetable can be found here.

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Useful Links:

Kirakira Uetsu – Official JR East Site with basic information about the train (English)

きらきらうえつ – Official JR East (Niigata Branch) Site with detailed information about the train (Japanese)

Official JR Pamphlet – Additional English information, with departure/arrival times at the stations. Also has information about using this train in conjunction with the JR East Pass, JR East Pass Special, and Japan Rail Pass. Pamphlet is dated from 2009, but after checking over the information, it remains accurate (as of 11/2011).


Densha de Dan #6: E5 Hayabusa GranClass Ride Report!

Luxurious seats, ample room, state-of-the-art technology, beautiful interior, and high-class service.

All of that is promised to passengers who ride the GranClass section of the recently debuted E5 Hayabusa Super-Express Shinkansen.

JR East holds these promises with such high regard, that they’ve even incorporated it into the GranClass logo itself.

But first, what is GranClass?

Most Shinkansen trains in Japan offer two levels of service: Standard Class (much like economy class in an airplane), and Green Class, which offers more legroom, better seats, and a bit more attention by service attendants selling bento boxes, drinks, and other items.

When the E5 Hayabusa Shinkansen was introduced, it hailed a new generation of high-speed transportation in Japan. Not only was speed an important factor in the development process, but design, comfort, and service was considered as well. I’m guessing that JR East wanted a train that could easily be differentiated from other Shinkansen in Japan. A new body design was created, including a color scheme related to the Tohoku region, and the creation of an even higher level of service beyond Green Class.

The result was GranClass (formally known in the development stage as Super Green Class).

On July 9th, 2011, I was given the opportunity to ride the GranClass carriage from Omiya Station in Saitama Prefecture, to Shin-Aomori Station in Aomori Prefecture along the Tohoku Shinkansen Line.

It was already a busy morning at Omiya Station, a major junction just outside of Metropolitan Tokyo. With all the lines going through Omiya, it took a bit of searching to find which platform I should wait at. I then turned the corner and found what I was looking for.

On the platform, there’s a sign on the floor which shows which train stops where, and what carriage number it is. But since there’s only one GranClass carriage on the entire 10-car train, it makes it pretty easy to find where I’m supposed to go.

plus, it's the only one with the GranClass symbol!

additional signage, written in both English and Japanese

All of the sudden, lots of railfans, small children, well, just about everyone started to gather around the platforms edge and began to start taking pictures.

That’s when I knew that Hayabusa was making its grand entrance.

It was like watching a celebrity walk down the red carpet. Hundreds of little flashes reflected off the nose of the Shinkansen as it was pulling into platform 17. There were people of all ages running along the platform as it was slowing down and when it finally stopped, people were taking pictures with it as if it were Mickey Mouse himself.

With pinpoint precision and not a centimeter over, the door for Car #10 stopped right in front of me.

every JR East Shinkansen currently has a huge red seal on it showing an outline of the Tohoku region, with it saying "Don't give up, Japan! Don't give up, Tohoku!"

As soon as you step on board, there’s a friendly attendant escorting you to your seat.

this seat will be mine and no one else's for the next 3 hours.

There’s a fresh scent of leather as you enter the 18-seat carriage, and the seats were definitely as comfortable as they looked. It was almost like someone was giving you a soft hug from behind.

Under the armrest was a menu.

written on the inner flap of the menu, both in English and Japanese, surprisingly.

On the menu was a variety of drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, snacks, and a choice of a Japanese-style or Western-style lunch.

All of which are FREE. Only in the GranClass carriage are food and beverages provided at no additional cost. As far as I know, this is the ONLY carriage in the entire Shinkansen system throughout Japan to offer this type of service.

As soon as the train leaves the station, you’re handed a warm towel and an announcement begins. You’re briefly explained what kind of amenities are available and then beverage service starts immediately afterwards.

I was torn between ordering a glass of wine, or premium beer until something else caught my eye on the menu.

fresh Aomori apple juice. just like biting into an apple...but in liquid form.

Aomori Prefecture is famous for apples, so it only made sense that I try a glass of their famous apple juice. The juice itself is a bit thicker than what we’re used to, but it was the closest thing to eating an actual apple. It was better than any apple pie, any apple sauce, any apple jam, hell, any APPLE that I’ve had before it. How could a drink this non-alcoholic, taste so good?, I thought.

Soon after, lunch came.

what's in the box?

Inside were many different items grown or found in Aomori Prefecture, including scallops, regional pickles, and of course, apples. Sometimes I find it difficult to eat every item in a traditional (hardcore) Japanese bento box, but ALL of it was delicious.

not even a grain of rice left behind.

After lunch, I felt it was time to relax, put on the slippers provided under the seat, order a beer, and watch the scenery fly by at 300 km/h.

free to take home as well! i have mine sitting next to the front door at the moment.

the endless rice fields of tohoku

After watching the countryside fly by for about 15 minutes, I finished my beer, which left me contemplating what to have next. When you’re in an all-you-can-drink kind of situation, I really try to milk it for all I can.

On the opposite armrest, there is a control panel that allows you to recline the seat and raise the foot rest if you’d like. But there’s one more button that caught my eye.

see the button with the attendant on it?

The GranClass carriage has two attendants that only pay attention to that particular carriage. Not even the Green Car gets any love from them. ANY TIME you want something, you simply push the button. Within seconds, they’ll be at your side asking if you need something. I’ve ridden in Business Class on an airplane before, and I thought that service was really good, but the hospitality provided by the GranClass attendants was outstanding.

am i on an airplane?

See that picture above? The Asahi Newspaper wrote a news story about the training attendants have to go through. Coincidentally, the attendant who served me was also featured in that news article. You can see that here:

Around the same time we were making our first stop at Sendai Station in Miyagi Prefecture, I was handed a small envelope by the attendant and she informed me that it was a survey that rates the overall quality of the trip…but what she DIDN’T tell me was that there was a gift inside!

As a thank you for filling out the survey, I received a train pass holder with the GranClass logo on it. Nice, I thought until I read the note enclosed with it. It said that this train pass holder is made out of the same leather the seats in GranClass are made out of. So you’re literally taking a piece of the train home with you. This pass holder cannot be purchased anywhere and only passengers in GranClass can receive it. Awesome, huh?

With about an hour left before arriving into Shin-Aomori, I took the time to have another couple glasses of apple juice, an apple pie, a coffee and a newspaper (I cannot read Japanese newspapers…but I like the pictures!).

oh kanji, you devil

Finally, in what must have been the fastest 3 hours of my life, I arrived at Shin-Aomori Station.

And then, it was finished.

By the time I got off the train, there was already a crowd of people taking pictures.

So, that ends my ride on the E5 Hayabusa. After arriving into Aomori City, I spent the day walking around town, eating even more apples, and then made it back to the station that evening to ride the Hayate series Shinkansen back to Tokyo…via Standard Class. HUGE difference!

So, how much does it cost to ride GranClass?

From Tokyo to Shin-Aomori, it costs ¥26,360 (about US$330) one-way. That includes ¥9,870 for the fare, and ¥16,490 for the GranClass seat.

If traveling by Standard Class, the price comes down to ¥16,870, again including ¥9,870 for the fare, and ¥7,000 for the seat.

Would I do it again?? Of course! It’s a lot of cash to drop for a ride in GranClass, but I think whether you’re a rail fan or not, with everything that’s included in the trip, it makes it worth the cost.

So, let’s hope I can do it again. But until then, I’ll just have to take whiffs of the leather-made pass holder to put me back in a place when I was riding the most luxurious train in Japan.


Densha de Dan #5: SL Banetsu Monogatari

Today’s edition of Densha de Dan takes us along the Banetsu West Line running from Niitsu, Niigata Prefecture to Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture.

Outside of the winter months, you can ride one of the few Steam Locomotives (SL) that run throughout the country. The SL that runs on this particular line is the Banetsu Monogatari.

the SL Banetsu Monogatari

From Japan-i.com, they have the following description about this train:

[The] SL Banetsu Monogatari is a special express train that runs on a 126-kilometer track from Niigata to Aizuwakamatsu in Fukushima. On an approximately 3.5-hour ride, it stops at 10 stations on the way to Aizuwakamatsu and at nine stations on the way back.[…] This steam locomotive is a C57-108 type train that was in service from 1946 to 1969. By restoring and repairing the train that had been stored at an elementary school in Niitsu City, its routine run on the Banetsu line began in April 1999. The interior of the train and the uniform of the crew are designed in a style unique to the Taisho era which is also the period when the Banetsu line was opened.

running along the agano river.

The SL has a total of 7 carriages, with one being an observation carriage and another with a small shop on board, selling bento boxes, snacks, drinks, and special souvenirs that can only be bought on the train.

observation car

gift shop and food car

passenger car

Despite tens of millions of people using the Japan Railway System everyday, riding an SL is a completely different experience all in it’s own. It brings you back to a time before tolled highways and bullet trains, when riding a steam train was once a luxury for most people. Although riding a steam train today isn’t as expensive as it was in the first half of the 1900’s, it still feels like you’re riding something special.

peek-a-boo!

The service on the Banetsu Monogatari is particularly unique as the train conductor and other staff hold events and activities throughout the ride. During the journey, the conductor will come through the carriage and engage with the passengers in a game of rock, paper, scissors.

the odds of winning were definitely on our side as there were only about 7 people riding in that carriage

Through elimination with the conductor, the last 2 passengers to win wins a commemorative pin with the train’s seasonal logo. In the observation carriage, there are several different arts and crafts projects that children (and adults still children at heart) can participate in. For example, on this day, we made chopstick holders.

the arts and crafts table

our finished product!

These small touches make the normality of riding a train non-existant.

This is one of my favorite routes for a number of reasons. The Banetsu West Line runs along the Agano River, which allows the train to travel over steel bridges, through narrow forests, and numerous tunnels. Monotony is what you will not find on this route.

since im from california, it still surprises me how green a place can be

Before arriving into Aizu-Wakamatsu Station, the line separates from the river, allowing passengers a great view of rice patties that scatter the countryside with Mt. Bandai and the surrounding mountain range dominating the horizon.

delicious fukushima baby rice

Whether it’s a one-day trip into Aizu-Wakamatsu, or an overnight venture, there is plenty to do before heading back home. There are castles, hot springs, museums, and the area is famous for it’s ramen.

take home the taste of ramen in convenient...candy form?

If staying overnight, it’s worth staying in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) in the Higashiyama Hot Springs area, in the north part of town. Combining a stay at a ryokan with the experience of the SL is certainly one of those moments where you step back and say, “Wow, THIS is Japan!”

people waving from the platform as the train goes by

The Banetsu Monogatari runs each weekend (and during national holidays) from April to October, and also a few times during the Christmas season.

So, how much do tickets cost to ride the SL Banetsu Monogatari? Surprisingly, not that much. It’s only ¥510 in addition to the normal fare from start to finish.

For example, the fare from Niitsu to Aizu-Wakamatsu is ¥1890. If riding the SL, it all comes to ¥2400.

and you get free stuff?!

ALL seats are reserved, so tickets MUST be bought in advance and are only available at stations that sell tickets (Midori no Madoguchi). They CANNOT be bought from automated ticket machines.

Recently, I’ve gotten questions like, is it safe to travel to Fukushima? What about the radiation? Damage?

And I usually reply with, what about it?

I’m not going to start a debate whether or not there is a radiation risk, but to not visit Fukushima Prefecture because of these worries will leave you missing out a beautiful (and delicious) part of Japan. We were only in Fukushima for a short bit, but even in that time, the warmth and hospitality that was provided by the people of Fukushima was the cherry on top. Don’t think about it. Just go!!

Finally, I have to admit that this wasn’t my first encounter with the SL. In fact, this was my third. -lowers head in shame-

I’ll leave you with a video that I made during my first trip on the SL almost three years ago. Enjoy!

_____________________________________________________

Related link:

SL Banetsu Monogatari – Official webpage from the JR East website. All information in English!


Densha de Dan #4: The Niigata Stamp Rally (Part Two)

Welcome back to part two of the Niigata Umasagisshiri Stamp Rally.

Although the previous day required a lot of traveling around to different ends of the Prefecture, this day in particular really knocked me out physically…

…but more on that later.

Let’s review from yesterday. I’m in pursuit of 10 stamps around the Prefecture. I currently have 6. The remaining areas to cover will be Tsubame-Sanjo, the silverware capital of Japan, and Shibata City, the, um, other city up north.

As usual, everything starts at Nagaoka Station.

random fact: speakers above the platform play a looping track of birds chirping. if you memorize the timing, you can act like a bird and scare passengers

In all honesty, I wasn’t too excited about going to the Tsubame-Sanjo area. As far as sightseeing goes, there isn’t a whole lot. I’m sure its a nice place to live, but it makes me wonder why they put a Shinkansen stop there in the first place. The stamps that I need in Tsubame-Sanjo can also be found at the nearby Mt. Yahiko hot springs town…

…but I’ve already been there. And isn’t the point of this trip to see new things? Maybe there’s something interesting I haven’t discovered in Tsubame-Sanjo yet. We’ll see.

As you can see from the map, the first leg of today’s journey isn’t very far, as it only takes about 40 minutes to get to Tsubame-Sanjo Station. From there’s, its a 10 minute walk to the day’s first destination.

Destination #1: Silverware Center, Kitaro (洋食器センター キタロー)

should i be worried that part of the sign is missing?

I can’t exactly say I was skipping with joy to the silverware center. I mean, how excited could one person get? However, I did read somewhere that they have a spoon-making factory inside. Then I was like, “Well, I like factories. I watch TV shows like that all the time, where they enter a factory and show how stuff is made. Its fun.”

Right?…

…So, inside I went. And no one was there, except a few workers. I went to the back of the building where the ”factory” was, and it was closed. They had exactly what you would expect from a silverware center: silverware. Spoons and forks of all sizes. Pots and pans made out of expensive copper. And a wall of knives. There was a restaurant connected to the place, but that too was empty. However, I felt I should buy something before getting my stamp. In front of the register was an ¥80 bin. I rummaged through it and found a decent bottle opener, something I felt I should always carry around. You’d be surprised how often I’ve found myself in a situation requiring a bottle opener.

¥80 and a few steps later, I found my stamp.

7 down, 3 to go

With a new bottle opener in hand, it was time to head off to my my next destination.

...thanks?

Destination #2: Tsubame Sanjo Regional Industries Promotion Center (燕三条地場産業振興センター)

I chose to get a stamp here for two reasons.

One, it was within walking distance of the silverware center. And two, I had a coupon for a free crab spoon.

Considering the name of the place, I really didn’t know what to expect. What exactly is a regional industries promotion center, anyways? Was it some kind of convention hall? Or a tourist center?

Unfortunately, I didn’t care about getting the answer for either question because as soon as I was walking up to the doors, a huge bus pulled up and unloaded about 30 old people. I wasn’t sure if I should have taken it as a warning sign, but I entered anyways.

Inside, there was a restaurant, meeting halls, and a few displays with local metalwork and silverware goods. The stamp I needed was in front of the sales and exhibition hall, which was where most of the old people were making a bee line towards.

random question: do they still show those Ginza knife informercials back in the States?

Since I wasn’t in the mood to go silverware shopping, I presented my coupon for my free crab spoon, found my stamp, and got the hell out of there.

8 down, 2 to go

crab spoon posing with the alligator tongs i bought at last minute

With Tsubame-Sanjo out of the way, I walked back to the station to finally make my way to the last major area of the weekend.

to Shibata City!

From Tsubame-Sanjo Station to Tsukioka Station, it’s about a two hour ride via the Shinetsu and Uetsu lines.

The last spot of the day will be a hot springs resort area called Tsukioka Onsen, where I’ll be able to get the last 2 stamps needed.

Upon arrival, I assumed that Tsukioka Onsen would be within walking distance of the station since they share the same name.

That wasn’t the case.

Tsukioka Station

Looking around, there was absolutely nothing except for rows and rows of rice patties on one side of the station, and a few houses here and there on the other. Surely, there had to be a bus, I thought.

But in front of the station was a sign for Tsukioka Onsen. “10 minutes by car, 40 minutes on foot” was written at the top. No bus services available on weekends. -sigh-

im lost.

After all the rice patties (and sore feet from walking), you’ll finally come to the town of Tsukioka. Being a hot springs enthusiast, I was pretty excited to start looking around. I heard there’s a foot bath around, and after all that walking it was something to definitely look forward to. But other important matters come first.

Destination #3: Tsukioka Waku Waku Farm (月岡わくわくファーム)

Tsukioka Waku Waku Farm is a complex that promotes locally grown food, and also has a few restaurants, also featuring local ingredients. I thought it was going to have a hippie vibe, but it wasn’t that way at all. In fact, this place really seemed to appeal to couples and families. In the middle of the farm was a small courtyard, and it was there that I noticed that everyone was eating ice cream. After some snooping around, I found something better than an ice cream stand, a gelato stand!

chocolate banana! tiramisu! strawberry! aspa....huh?!

I know gelato shops are a dime a dozen in the States, but in Japan, it’s a rarity. The choices were plentiful and included flavors for everyone.

And then it caught my eye. Is that an asparagus spear sticking out? Indeed, it was. May is asparagus season, hence the asparagus gelato. The light green color kind of turned me off so I instead opted for the Echigo-Hime Strawberry gelato, a local (and sweet!) variety of strawberries grown in Niigata.

As I was heading out the door, there it was:

9 down, 1 to go

A farm wouldn’t be complete without a few animals. In addition to all the food they had there, there was also a goat and few rabbits.

random goat fact: they're good swimmers.

Starting to feel the pain from the 40 minute walk, I thought it was about time to finish this trip up.

Destination #4: Tsukioka-ya (月岡屋)

the finish line?

Tsukioka-ya is a manju shop. Manju is a traditional Japanese sweets that can be found throughout the country. In general, manju is about the size of a golf ball and has a soft, cake-like flour texture on the outside, with sweet bean paste filling on the inside. Each region has it’s own variation, such as green tea flavor, chocolate flavor, maple flavor, etc., so it’s worth while to try them out whenever traveling around Japan.

The manju I got didn’t taste any different than most I’ve already tried, but it was still delicious.

The old woman working at the counter was courteous enough to offer me some iced green tea, which was a welcome surprise. Was it that easy to see how exhausted I looked?

But it all paid off, because right next to the register was the final stamp.

FINISHED!!

Feeling accomplished and satisfied, I thought I deserved a foot bath.

Finally getting the chance to catch a break, I take a glance a brochure I found about the hot springs town and find out that there’s a shuttle that can take me back to the station!! There was no way I could do another 40 minute trek back to the station, so I found the bus stop and waited there.

The pick-up time came and went, and I started to get worried. Maybe I read something wrong? Maybe it’s just running late? As I was reading over the brochure more closely, I was struck with a gust of wind and looked up to see the bus driving away. Panicked, I thought about running after it but it was already too late. Why didn’t it stop for me? But after looking at the bus stop signs, I realized I was waiting on the wrong side of the road.

And it was the last bus of the day.

Next to the bus stop, there was a liquor shop where I bought a couple beers. Using my newly purchased bottle opener, I cracked open a tall bottle of Sapporo and started my 40 minute walk back to the station.

Feet blistered, and a little drunk, I arrived at the station, boarded the train, and  headed back home.

accomplishment is delicious.

Completed stamp card in hand, I filled out all the important stuff, and off it went.

safe travels

I have to remember that this is a contest. A time-consuming, slightly expensive, and exhausting contest. By mailing this in, it’s not guaranteed that I’ll actually win anything.

But for me, that wasn’t the point. On this 2-day trip around Niigata Prefecture, I was able to realize that there’s still stuff worth doing. It just takes a little searching, that’s all. And the reward FAR outweighs the effort. It’s nice that to say that I was able to try TEN new things and places in such a short amount of time. How many people can say that about where they live, especially if they’ve already been there for years and years.

Point being, any town can become boring, no matter how big or small it is, if it’s left unexplored.

…whoa, deep.


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