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Japan's Last Sleeping Car Train - Sunrise Izumo Express

Serious rudder problems with my Seattle – bound 747 from Taipei during a night of driving rain at Narita Airport finally resulted in the cancellation of the flight, and a subsequent enforced night in Japan. But all I saw with the dark bus ride to the outskirts of the city to a high – rise seafront hotel, was the dreary morning rain the next day. Less than 24 hours later, I flew away, finally winging my way to Seattle. I had no positive impressions of the country.

I fell in love with Japan during my second trip, a couple of years later. Ten days in Tokyo, working with a Japanese company and preparing for a multi – month journey into China. Japan’s contrasts and mystery captivated my senses. Crowded streets of this city with 13 million inhabitants seemed nearly soundless, as the polite drivers rarely used the car’s horn unlike in many other crowded cities in Asia. Traditional wooden Shinto shrines of old Edo stand alongside imposing modern structures of the new megalopolis. Tokyo exhibited an obvious efficiency, orderliness and contrast of reverence for the past and hardworking worship for the present, often taken to the extreme.

During this second trip, I fell in love.

The lilting Japanese language when spoken sounded like soft water droplets on smooth marble. I remember my first sensations of hearing the incomprehensible but soothing soft litany of the Japanese public address announcements echoing through the rabbit warren of the Tokyo subway system, visions of soft Japanese women, with impossibly white skin, impossibly red lips. I soon realized I was being seduced by Japan.

I was to take crash courses in the Japanese language and made several trips to Japan, traveling extensively throughout the country in my continuous struggle to improve my use of the language.

But the main event of my latest trip to Japan was to ride the last remaining sleeping car train in the country and then to take every local train I could find moving in an easterly direction along the north coast of Honshu on the Japan Sea, finally returning to Tokyo on the Shinkansen from Kanazawa. Sleeping car trains used to blanket the country, serving most main cities, radiating outward from Tokyo; to Hokkaido to the north, to Nagasaki and other major population centers of Kyushu and southern Honshu. But now, however, only one of these grand trains remains; and I was going to ride it.

Passengers should stock up on food and beverages as the Sunrise Izumo has no dining car. On my way to Tokyo station Saturday evening (for a 10 pm departure) I had to buy provisions for evening and morning meals. Finding some good bento (“lunch”) boxes at Tokyo station, a nice bottle of French red wine, orange juice for the morning and water, I managed to find track 9 and waited for departure time. I also found some cold Asahi beer to take to my compartment in celebration of my departure and the inauguration of my long – awaited journey.

Thinning crowds of late night commuters were finally making their way home through suburban stations along the busy Tokaido main line - Yurakcho, Shinbashi, Shinagawa; but I was only beginning my journey, passing them by as the Sunrise Izumo slithered smoothly out of Tokyo Station at precisely on the advertised. During the night I would pass Yokahama, Kyoto, Osaka….and Okayama in the early morning where the train would split into two…one section to Takamatsu on Shikoku Island, and the other to Izumo-shi on the north coast of Honshu. While the Sunrise Izumo passed through Kurashki in the early morning hours, I had a welcome hot shower in the next coach just a few meters from my compartment.

There are really two sleeping car trains leaving Tokyo: Sunrise Izumo departing Tokyo is combined with the Sunrise Seto; in total a 14 car train set operating as far as Okayama. After Okayama, the 7 coaches comprising the Sunrise Seto are separated and turns out over the Great Seto Bridge that separates the main island of Honshu with the smaller island of Shikoku to its final destination, the city of Takamatsu. The remaining coaches of the Sunrise Izumo turn northward from Okayama to cross the spine of mountains running longitudinally down the length of Honshu, to the coastal town of Izumo. The 954 km from Tokyo to Izumo takes nearly 12 hours and the second half of the train takes just over 8 hours to Takamatsu on Shikoku.

Japan’s workhorse railway lines do not carry the swish Shinkansen (which operates on American and European “standard gauge” tracks of 4’ 8 ½”) but the vast network of narrow gauge tracks (3’ 6” gauge) where ordinary commuter and freight trains operate, serving virtually all cities and towns of the country. During previous trips, I had seen these ordinary trains from the windows of the Shinkansen flashing past small stations and villages, and wondered where they were going? What would it be like to ride a long distance in these ordinary trains? I was soon to find out.

A heavy morning mist hung over the small villages nestled in river valleys in the mountains of central Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture. Above each of these traditional villages were family graves, on the terraced mountain slopes. I nibbled at my bento breakfast of steamed rice, dried fish and various unknown vegetables. The Sunrise Izumo drifted slowly through the tight curves following the river course on its journey through the mountains. In many places, the railway line was cut into the sides of the mountains, and in order to minimize the chance of rock falls or landslides in rainy weather, thick layers of concrete were slapped over the bare rock and earth side walls of the embankments along the railway line. I always thought this was a particular ugly construction technique, spoiling the natural beauty of the mountains and rivers. This concrete marring the tranquil mountain landscape of Central Japan reminded me of the debate in China regarding the debate that raged in that country allowing foreigners to construct railways in their country during the 1860s:

Foreigners are mostly of Roman Catholic or Protestant faith and are ignorant of the spirits and gods whose abodes are in the mountains and gorges. Where the projects (railway lines) are interrupted by rivers and streams the foreigners would sink huge blocks of stone and iron into the bottom of the river and build iron bridges of the top, paying no heed to the abodes of the nymphs. (Author unknown)

Arrival to the seaside town of Yonago signalled the completion of our trek through the mountains and from this point, the rail line lay along the coastal plain of the Sea of Japan. Breaking through the heavy morning mist, the sun showed itself briefly, revealing snow – covered peaks, the highest being the volcanic peak of Daisen rising 1,729 meters above sea level.

Izumo-shi to Toyooka

A grey, dripping chilly December day greeted me as the Sunrise Izumo slid into the Izumo-shi station at mid-morning, and the bone – chilling wind driven cold remained until the departure of the Tottori – bound diesel rail cars a couple of hours later.

I had four trains to take today before my overnight stop at Toyooka (pop. 85,000), a town that most Japanese when questioned, never heard of. My first train was from Izumoshi to Yonago, where I changed for the next train to Tottori. While sporting four universities in the city, Tottori Prefecture has the distinction of being the least populated region of Japan. From Tottori I boarded the train to Hamasaka where finally I changed for my last train of the day to Toyooka. For all these connections, I had at least 15 or 20 minutes, sometimes one or more hours to wait. However, I was anticipating with some trepidation the next day when I had a three-minute connection at Tsurgu. Most Japanese trains operate on time, but would it be true here in the far – flung region of north central Honshu on these local trains making every station stop?

Many local trains in Japan have colorfully – painted anime characters, very popular with young Japanese, as shown on the Iwami Characters Train. The second train shown below is a “Conan Train”, bound for Tottori, population over 200,000 on the north coast of Honshu. Detective Conan is a popular animated character featured in a series of Manga comics; these animated stories have been translated into 27 languages.

However, most kakuekinodensha trains are ordinary diesel multiple unit train sets, as shown below of this West Japan Railway trainset at Hamasaka station.

There is a very reasonably priced hotel chain in Japan Green Hotel Morris with properties in nearly every small and large city providing reasonably priced accommodation ($43 for a large single room in Toyooka, including wifi and breakfast). Less than a 10 – minute walk from railway station I found my hotel easily. As Toyooka’s claim to fame is reviving the once – extinct stork population of Japan. The town also was on the road to becoming an endangered species due to a long term loss of population emigration to larger urban areas. An estimated 4.7 million visitors annually are being wooed to visit hot springs resorts near the town, as a manufacturing hub for high – quality bags and a regional center for performing arts. Over 70% of non – leather bags made in Japan are manufactured in Toyooka. Tourists arrive at Stork (“Konotori”) Tajima Airport and are only a 15-minute drive from the conservation area.

The stork motif pervades the city’s shopping street “Sun Stork Avenue”; in fact, by following these signs, the route led me to my hotel. As many local restaurants were closed this Sunday evening, along Sun Stork Avenue I found a nice Italian Restaurant that was not only open for business but offered a quite acceptable pizza and bottle of Italian red wine.

Toyooka to Kanazawa

Heavy early morning fog greeted me the next morning as I prepared to venture out of my hotel to the railway station and to hunt for the departure platform of the Kyoto – Tango private railway. Operated by Willar Trains of Kyoto, subsidiary of a group that primarily operates busses, the Kyoto – Tango Railway would take me from Toyooka for a two – hour ride through the mountain territory of northern Hyogo Prefecture to Nishi – Maizuru. Actually, the two – coach diesel rail car set acted more like a bus, with the driver collecting fares from alighting passengers as the train trundled through the canyons of long grasses along the track as it made its way through the thick bamboo forests of Hyogo Prefecture. These local trains are popular with schoolchildren and crowding can be a problem during school day afternoons.

Higashi Maizuru marked the start of the unlikely – named Obama Line of Japan Railways. Upon reaching Nishi (West) Maizuru, I had to soon look for the next train for the short (7 minute) ride to Higashi (East) Maizuru. The Obama Line links Higashi Maizuru with Tsuruga, where I would have my dreaded three-minute connection for my last train of the day the Limited Express Thunderbird train to Kanazawa.

One of the odd features of this trip is the passing through of the town of Obama. The Obama were a samurai clan of feudal Japan with a literal meaning of “little beach”. The town has the dubious distinction of being one of the locations where North Korea abducted Japanese citizens on July 7, 1978. When the then Senator Obama visited Japan in 2006 he was surprised to hear that the immigration official who examined his visa at Narita Airport was from Obama. From then the “Obama craze” hit this small town of 32,000 with “I love Obama” t shirts, Japanese confectionary with Obama’s face and that upon his inauguration as president, groups of women danced the hula at the Hagaji Temple, just north of the town of Obama.

Anxiety about making the three – minute connection at Tsurga gnawed in the pit of my stomach after passing Obama station. However, my concerns proved to be unfounded as the local Obama Line train arrived at Turuga on the advertised at 15:31; I asked the conductor who was standing just outside the train as I disembarked, which track was the “Thunderbird” for Kanazawa, due to leave at 15:34. (I was told “track 3”) and hurried up the steps to the pedestrian overpass and moved down the steps to the platform next to track 3. Just after I stepped on the platform, the “Thunderbird” arrive, I hurried to my assigned car number, and just after sitting down, the train was on the move to Kanazawa. Just after leaving Tsuruga, the train entered the 14 km Hokuriku Tunnel. Over the train’s loudspeaker system, the conductor announced the train would be entering this tunnel and that, unfortunately, cell phone service would not be available during the nine-minute underground ride. After the quick 79-minute ride from Tsurga, the “Thunderbird” arrived at Kanazawa, and my second marathon day of railway experience had ended.

With a light rain falling I quickly found my hotel, just next to the Kanazawa Station, and headed for the nearest source of refreshing Japanese “Nama beeru” (draft beer) and a plate of gyoza (fried dumplings).

The next morning I had a short walk around the city, while waiting for the Hakutaka Shinkansen to return me to Tokyo that afternoon. I admit that I welcomed the return trip on a fast train…..I fulfilled my dream of riding the last remaining sleeping car train, those slow trains that poke along through the Honshu countryside, stopping at every station and saw many parts of Japan that were new to me.

I stayed in small hotel rooms with big prices ($75/night at APA Hotel Kanazawa Ekimae) and big hotel rooms with small prices ($43/night in Tooyoka at Morris Green Hotel).

Among my lessons learnt was that trains in Japan operate on time – whether the swish Shinkansen or the very ordinary kakuekinodensha. In Tokyo, I was told that the average delay to Shinkansen trains is one minute per year; I would apply the same performance standard to the trains I rode during the past three days. But, it is all delicious; riding the swish Shinkansen at more than 300 km/hr or discovering new territory while bumping along on slow local trains with magnificent views of the Japan Sea along the north coast of Honshu.

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