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.

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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!!


MAX Series Shinkansen to Retire in 2016

Earlier this year, JR East announced that they would be retiring the MAX Series Shinkansen, which currently serves the Joetsu, Tohoku, and Nagano Shinkansen lines.

E4 Series Shinkansen

E1 Series Shinkansen

The phase-out is slated to begin in July 2012, with a complete withdraw by 2016.

The E1 and E4 Series Shinkansen are 8 to 16-car double-decker trains. Between the E4 and it’s double-deckered cousin, the slightly older E1, they run under the service name MAX, which stands for Multi-Amenity eXpress.

brother and sister

Despite the name, it doesn’t provide any additional services outside of other Shinkansen running throughout Japan, but it does have the capacity to hold a lot of people. For example, a 16-car E4 train has seats for 1,634 passengers, which currently holds the record for the highest-capacity high-speed rail trainset in the world, and has held that title ever since the train went into service in 1997. In comparison, the E1 is a 12-car trainset which has a seat capacity of 1,235 and entered service in 1994.

12-car E1 Series - Fun Fact: You could fit the population of Vatican City into this one train. There's even enough room for the Pope to have his own car.

Soon after it’s upcoming retirement was announced, I was curious to why the MAX Series was slated to go into retirement in the first place.

However, after a little digging, it became apparent that it’s retirement was unavoidable. Here’s why:

  1. Shinkansen Technology

At first sight, the E1 and E4 don’t appear to be that aged nor worn out…and that’s because they’re not. Both have been in service for no more than 17 years, and when you look at the E4, it still has a very modern design to it. It’s a look that has been inherited by the newer E5 and E6 Shinkansen Series and will probably used for future trains beyond those. And when you compare the age of the E1/E4 with the 0 Series Shinkansen, the granddaddy of them all which was in service for 44 years, they’re still babies.

0 Series Shinkansen

However, within the last couple years, there has been a lot of development with newer technology, and there has been a much greater focus on…

2.  Speed

The E1 and E4 both have a maximum speed of 240 km/h (150mph). The E5 current runs along the Tohoku Shinkansen line at 300 km/h (186mph) and is slated to run at 320 km/h (200mph) from 2013. Because of their size, the E1 and E4 simply don’t have the ability to operate at that speed.

‘’But wouldn’t replacing a double-decker train with a single-leveled train reduce the overall number of seats available?” I thought to myself. However, replacing the MAX Series with faster trains would allow additional trains to enter the timetable, offsetting the reduction in seats.

Since JR East hasn’t released a formal press release as to why they’re going to retire these trains, the above reasons are purely speculations that I’ve gathered from a number of sites.

However, in my personal opinion, there is a third reason that should be looked at.

3.  Comfort

Because the double-decker trains sit slightly higher than single-level trains, it allows great views of the scenery along the way…IF you sit in the upper deck.

View from the upper level

When sitting in the lower deck, you either have a view of people’s feet, a wall, or nothing at all because someone decided to pull the shade down over the window due to the lack of scenery in the first place.

This video does a good job at explaining what I mean:

 

Enjoy this view of the platform because that will change to nothing in a few moments...

I think for those reasons, the lower deck is usually the preferred seat for most businessmen using the Shinkansen for commuting to and from work because it’s not as crowded as the upper deck, and they don’t give a hoot about what’s out the window since they’re usually focused on their canned coffee (or canned beer if leaving work) and Mainichi newspaper.

Also, the seat configuration is different depending on which deck you sit in. The seats in the lower deck have a 2+3 (2 on one side, 3 on the other) configuration and all seats have the ability to recline. The seats in the upper deck are in a 3+3 configuration and none of them recline.  This inconsistency in seating arrangement can be confusing to some, and in some cases, cause some decks to be completely empty while the other one is full. Perhaps another reason to retire the bi-leveled trains is to simply create consistency in one train since it better accommodates passengers, and also reduces the difficulty of having to design different arrangements for different parts of the train.

The retirement of the MAX Series also raises another question:

What will they be replaced with?

Nothing has been formally announced yet, but early signs point to them being replaced with the E5 Series.

On September 15th, the E5 was spotted at Echigo-Yuzawa Station in Niigata Prefecture during a test run. It was the first time the E5 was seen running along the Joetsu Shinkansen line.

i see what you're up to.

Since then, the E5 has been spotted on various days throughout the area.

Could this be the future of the Joetsu Shinkansen line? No one is expecting an E7 Series anytime soon, so this could become the norm for not only the Joetsu Line, but also the soon-to-be-extended Hokuriku Shinkansen Line (currently called the Nagano Shinkansen Line) to Toyama, which is slated to open from 2014.

Although I am excited at the possibility of riding new trains around where I live, I’ll miss the MAX Series, the E4 in particular.

you think this distracts the driver?

The E4 was one of the very first high-speed rail trains I’ve ever ridden after coming to Japan, and it was the train I always relied on to take me back and forth to Tokyo. From my old apartment, I was able to see the shinkansen track from my balcony and there were countless times where I’d wait there to see the massive machines speed by. I guess I could say that the E4 is partially to blame for my deep fascination (obsession, maybe?) with trains. Heck, even my birthday cake a few years back was a MAX!

next stop: my mouth

However, the opening of new lines and the operation of new trains mean that there will be new places to explore. With all the new development within the railway industry that is happening throughout the country, it only leads me to believe that my train journeys in Japan is just getting started.

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Quick note about the pictures:

Some of them are mine, others are gathered around the web. The ones which ARE NOT mine, have been hyperlinked and will direct you to the source from which they are from. Although a majority of them are from Japanese blogs and other sites, they’re still worth looking at as some of the pictures are down-right gorgeous, whether you’re into trains or not. Just thought you should know.


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.

_____________________________________________________________________

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).


The train factory will have to wait…

In the previous post, I wrote about a train factory in Niigata Prefecture allowing the public to view the inside of the factory. The event will still continue as planned tomorrow, but I’m afraid that due to a very sudden family emergency, I will be not be able to make it and instead have to head to Tokyo.

It’s unfortunate as this factory opens it’s doors only once a year to the public, and I thought it would make a very interesting article, but I’ll just have to try again next year.

However, I know that until then, there will be plenty of train adventures in between that time! So, there will always be something to look forward to.

Since I’ll be in Tokyo for the weekend, if I see anything interesting (train-related or not) I’ll post it to my Twitter page.


Where do baby trains come from?

Ever wonder where baby trains come from? This question literally keeps me up for hours (not really).

Well, the answer may come soon as on Saturday, October 8th, 2011, the Niitsu Rolling Stock Manufacturing Factory will be opening it’s doors to the public!

The facility is a massive JR train manufacturing factory located in the southeastern part of Niigata City, Niigata Prefecture.

It’s an extremely rare opportunity to enter this factory as it only allows the public in once a year, much like the Wonka Factory, but no golden ticket will be necessary as admission is free.

Although there are several JR East-owned factories throughout Eastern Japan, this factory’s main product is the E233-Series train, which if you’ve ever been to Tokyo, or have lived in or around there, odds are you have ridden this series.

E233 Series 5000 Model

The E233 Series has numerous models serving many lines in and out of Tokyo including the Keihin-Tohoku Line, Keiyo Line, Chuo Line, Negishi Line, Joban Line, and a couple of others, all which are major arteries in the entire Tokyo Metropolitan transportation system. On this day only, visitors to the factory will have the chance to ride an E233 fresh from the factory line itself, right before being shipped off to Tokyo for service.

Other activities throughout the day include:

  • A tour of the factory itself
  • A ride along a miniaturized version of the E233
  • A ride along a miniaturized version of a Steam Locomotive (SL)
  • Model Train exhibition

…among others.

Below are some links that have additional detail about the event:

Detailed list of events: Here.
Poster of the event: Here.

Factory opens at 10:00am and will close at 3:30pm. There’ll be a free shuttle running from Niitsu Station to the factory, or you can choose to walk, which takes about 15 minutes.

I’ll be doing live updates via Twitter throughout the day, and will write a report about the factory in the days to follow.

Any questions about the factory, about the site, or have a suggestion for something I should cover? Leave a comment!


NitTwit

Thank you, thank you! This blog has hit 3,000 views!!!

Since opening this blog last December, I’ve made 23 posts, have gone on at least 7 trips throughout the country, and there are a few of you who have commented on my posts, which I look forward to more than anything else. For that, thank you!!

I love traveling, whether it be my train, car, monorail, boat, bicycle, mule, whatever….and I want this blog to be a bigger part of my travels not only in Japan, but around the world. For these reasons, I’ve decided to start a twitter page (and it seems like I’m the last in the world to start an account…).

Follow furenchitoasto on Twitter

On Twitter, I’ll be making posts as I’m on the train, taking pictures of whatever seems interesting. It’s almost like you get to ride along with me! Also, I like to think of it as a Behind the Scenes view into what goes into this blog.

Whether you follow or not, thanks for reading!

Finally, I want to make a promise. I will update this site at least ONCE a week from now on.

There have been a few times where it can go weeks without a post, but I’ve realized that the deeper I dive into the Japanese Railway culture, the more stuff there is to talk about. Until next time!


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