Tag Archives: travel

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).


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!


Steam trains are loud.

I was taking a trip to Akita Pref. when I had to make a transfer at Niigata Station.

Little did I know, I was just in time to catch this leaving the station:

This is a C57-180 series steam locomotive, which usually makes the trip from Niigata to Aizu-Wakamatsu along the Banetsu-East line. However, due to heavy rain, flooding, and landslides from a storm that ripped through the area at the end of July, part of the line has been washed away and is still undergoing repairs.

So, railway officials have changed the course of the SL until the line can be repaired and also changing the name of the service to SL夏休み体験号, or the SL Summer Vacation Experience Train. The trip isn’t as long as the one to Aizu-Wakamatsu, but at least it allows JR to continue to run the steam train during the summer vacation.

Anyways, I wasn’t in Niigata to ride the SL. I was there to ride this:

Kirakira Uetsu

I’ll be writing about this in a soon to be published post, so keep an eye out for that.


The Most Mysterious Station in Japan: Doai Station

Doai Station is just one out of the hundreds of stations that exist in the JR East family. But like most families, there’s going to be that very distant fifth cousin that no one really knows about.

Doai Station is located near the Niigata/Gunma Prefecture border along the JR Joetsu Line.

When heading southbound on the Joetsu Line towards Takasaki/Saitama/Tokyo, Doai Station looks like any other station positioned in the middle of nowhere. There are no station attendants checking or selling tickets, no signage letting you know where you’re at exactly, and not a hint of civilization. But plenty of nature!

it's just you and the mountain bugs

When heading northbound towards Niigata, it’s a completely different experience. Technically, this station has two different platforms, resting on two different levels, far, far apart from each other. This is because at the station just south of Doai, which is Yubiso Station, the Joetsu Line becomes double-tracked, meaning one direction goes one way, and the other another way.

Doai Station at the top, Yubiso Station at the bottom

While the southbound platform is remains outdoor, the northbound platform is deep in the middle of an adjacent mountain. How deep is it?

486 steps deep!! Or 70 meters underground. It’s SO far into the mountain that its been given a special name: 日本一のモグラ駅, or Japan’s number one station for moles.

entrance leading into the station

From the platform to the entrance of the station, it’s more or less a 10-minute walk, depending on how quickly you can go up 486 steps. When reaching the 462nd step, there’s a sign on a (broken) door saying:

From top to bottom: Job well done! 462 steps. Distance from here to the ticket gate is 143 meters away, including two more stairways totaling an additional 24 steps. Good luck!

I believe those little red dots above “Good luck” point out sarcasm…

would it really be that hard to fix it?

At the 474th step, you’ll reach another tunnel with windows looking out towards a river running below.

A few turns later, you’ll come to the main building, which serves as the main entrance to the station. Not the most beautiful place in the world, especially since it looks as cold as the concrete which its built from.

feels more like entering a bomb shelter than a train station

Although there is fixed lighting throughout the entire route, it still remains pretty dark, almost to a point where you’d need a flashlight if venturing around at dark.

As I made my way outside, I got my first glimpse of what was in front of the station. After allowing my eyes to readjust, I was better able to get an idea of what was around.

unfortunately, the station was getting a new paint job during my visit

In front of the station is a bus stop that leads up to Tanikawa-dake, a popular hiking area in the summer, and a great place to take the ropeway up to the top of the mountain and see all the leaves change their color in the autumn.

thats the bridge that leads into the mountain

other half of the bridge leading into the mountain

Beyond the road was quite possibly the clearest, bluest river I’ve ever seen in Japan.

not photoshopped or enhanced!

Since I had an hour to kill before catching my return train, I took the opportunity to dip my feet in for a bit.

“For a bit” may be an overstatement as the water was FREEZING. Instead, I found a nice rock to sit on and tried to take in the nature as much as I could.

Heading up the road, you can see the railroad bridge that crosses over the river. I thought about walking up to the ropeway, but I wasn’t exactly prepared to go hiking, so I make my way back down towards the station.

Following the road back, in the distance was a gift shop, which I’m guessing is a place tour buses stop at when going to and from the ropeway. I already had lunch planned out later in the day, but a snack did sound nice, so I walked over there to see what they had.

wasn't even sure it was open, considering the absence of cars in the parking lot

Inside, was a gift shop that sold local specialities and sweets. Adjacent to that was a restaurant that sold your typical Japanese lunches, such as curry and rice, pork cutlets, and udon and soba noodles. I ended up getting Tanikawa no Tsuki, which is a small cake that can be filled with various flavors. I got the chocolate filled one, which ended up being a good choice!

also comes in strawberry cream and custard flavors!

also comes in strawberry cream and custard flavors!

It was then time to head back to the station. It’s hard to visualize what it’s like descending nearly 500 steps to a train platform…

…so I took a video of it for you to enjoy.

looking northbound

If you’re a hiker, it’s a very convenience station to go to because of all the trails in the area. If you’re a train nut like myself, these quirky, unique stations are a treat to visit. But I would imagine that anyone outside of those two interests would find little reason to get off at Doai Station. According to a report released by the Gunma Prefectural Government, an average of only 16 people use this station in one day. Amazing when you consider the fact that nearly 3.5 million people use Shinjuku Station in Tokyo every day.

However, if it means that I can travel to more places that so few people get the chance to do, then it only makes the journey a tad more memorable, yeah?


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!


Snakes on a…train?

From The Daily Yomiuri:

A red-and-black snake about one meter long was found Monday on a Shinkansen train running between Shin-Osaka and Kyoto stations on the Tokaido Shinkansen line, police said.

A conductor found the snake on a seat in the No. 3 car of the Kodama No. 642 train at about 9 a.m. Monday. The train originated in Shin-Osaka and was bound for Tokyo.

The conductor asked the sole passenger in the car to evacuate to another coach and closed doors to confine the snake. Staff from the prefectural Animal Shelter in Konan, Shiga Prefecture, captured the snake and turned it over to local police. No one was injured.

The snake is believed to be a Honduran milk snake, according to the Japan Snake Institute in Ota, Gunma Prefecture. The species is not poisonous and is often imported to Japan as pets. Dogs and cats can travel on Shinkansen trains for an additional charge, but snakes are prohibited.

What this article doesn’t address however, is how the snake got there in the first place? And was it intentional? Obviously, who ever brought the snake on board didn’t intend on harming anyone, but still…weird.

Anyways, here’s a video that provides some pictures of the snake:

trying…so…hard….not…to…..throw…in……a…..Samuel…L…..Jackson….reference…………………….


%d bloggers like this: