Monday, April 24, 2006

The Great Train Ride

4/8/2006 - 4/9/2006: The Great Train Ride

Okay. Okay. I know I've taken my own sweet time with this one, but I felt I needed to give the story a little time to develop. That, and I wanted to get the other stuff out of the way first so I could explain exactly why it took me so long to get this thing written in the first place.

Saturday, April 8, 3:45 AM.

Telephone alarm. Cell phone alarm (Twilight Zone theme). Cell phone alarm (Barney Animal Hospital song). Synchronized. And LOUD.

I shot out of bed (which can be a bit dangerous, as I sleep in a loft). Judy and Scott were startled out of their short slumbers as well. I grabbed a change of clothes I had set out the night before and hit the shower.

Fifteen minutes later, we were loading our bags into the car and getting ready to depart on a ROAD TRIP (see map). We hopped in the car, I loaded in a CD, and we took off for Tomakomai.

We beat the sun up, which gets to be a more difficult feat as the days progress. Of course, as the trip continued, the black color of the sky gradually started to lighten into deep, and then lighter, blues. When we stopped to fill up for gas in Shiraoi, all three of us headed across the highway to get pictures of the morning sky off to the east.

Like this one.

No time to dally, though. We had a schedule to keep. We had to be in Ikeda Town (over near Obihiro) by 9:30 at the latest, and there was a lot of road still ahead of us. So it was back on the road and off to the east.

We got on the toll highways at Tomakomai West Interchange, and picked up a bit of speed. Until we came around a corner and saw this.

Of course, we had to make another stop and get some photos of this brilliant sunrise. We all agreed it was a good omen for the trip, and then we hit the road again.

We drove down as far as Monbetsu, and then turned up and headed towards Hidaka Town and Nissho Pass. On the drive up, we got stuck behind a truck hauling hazardous materials that was stuck behind a car driving along at a country bumpkin rate. We passed the truck and got in behind the car. I looked at something else for a second, and when I looked back, the car had burned up the asphalt and was speeding away like it had just found a hornet's nest. The three of us were dumbfounded.

What. The. Heck?

Our theory was that the driver of the car looked in his rearview mirror and saw three white people driving on this lonely mountain highway, and it put the fear of the Devil in him. Honestly, there was no other viable explanation, because he slowed down a little while later and we ended up catching up to him. At which point Scott said, "We're still white!"

Story of my life, in three simple words.

After a brief stop for breakfast at a convenience store in Hidaka, we headed east to cross over Nissho Pass.

A quick note on the naming of Nissho Pass. It is a mountain pass that connects the Hidaka and Tokachi regions of Hokkaido, so the name of the pass takes a kanji from each region and combines them together. There are some differences in pronunciation that come with the combination, but if you take a look at the chart below, you can see how it works. (The kanji for mountain pass makes me laugh. Mountain, up, down. Visually self-explanatory. I like that.)We went through a tunnel and came out on the Tokachi side of the pass. And all three of us gasped as we saw the snow-covered Tokachi plain spread out before us. Absolutely gorgeous. We stopped for some photos at a lookout point, but we couldn't get up to the spot that would let us take photos of the site, as the staircase up to it was covered in two feet of snow left over from the winter. Wasn't happening. So I took a photo of the mountains instead.

Beautiful stuff.

From there, we made our way down into the valley and aimed for Obihiro Station.

I suppose here is where I should get around to explaining the actual point of the weekend's journey. There's a train line (Hokkaido Chihoku Highlands Railway) in the Tokachi region that was going to be shut down on April 20th. I'm interested in trains, and so is Scott. I let him know about the train line shutting down, and we batted about the idea of heading up and riding it once before it shut down for good. Nothing specific came out of the conversation.

For a while. Then, one day he told me that his wife would be having a musical rehearsal in Shihoro, a town near the train line, the weekend of the 8th and 9th. He was planning on riding the train and would I like to come along. Of course I WOULD, but one problem. School party on the night of the 7th. I told him there was no way I could make it if they were leaving Friday night (which turned out to be the plan), He countered with a, "Well, if you don't mind leaving early Saturday morning, and we can get there by the 9:55 departure time..."

Hmmm. I like the way he thinks. So we decided to have him crash at my place on Friday and we'd leave early Saturday morning. I called up Judy, another teacher here in Muroran, and asked her if she was interested. Her response? "You're going to go ride a train?"

A natural response, indeed.

Scott and I were able to convince her to come along, so she crashed at my place as well. Regarding the trip, since it was going to be by car, I needed to see what the parking situation was. I made some phone calls as to the availability of parking at Ikeda Station, the starting point for the train trip. The stationmaster at Ikeda Station said parking was free, but it was also first-come, first-served. Fair enough. He also told me that if I swung by Obihiro Station on the way out, I could pick up a round-trip discount ticket for the line.

That was good news, and that's what put the three of us at Obihiro Station at 8 AM on Saturday morning. (For Scott's much more cohesive perspective on this trip, check this out.)

A hotel near Obihiro (pronounced Oh-bee-hero) Station. I just think that that's got to be an awesome hotel to stay in.

Me praying at the Humvee altar. We found this Humvee parked at the Obihiro Station parking lot. Random, yet extremely cool.

We picked up our tickets, and then took off for Ikeda Station. There are trains that connect from Obihiro, but the parking isn't free, so off to Ikeda it was. After about another forty minutes of driving, we pulled up to Ikeda Station. Tickets? Check. Cameras? Check. Parking? Check. We were good to go.

We went into the station, which was not very large, yet was packed with people. Just as I had feared. Everybody in the freaking country had the same idea as Scott, Judy, and I. LOTS of people in the station wanting to ride that train.

The stationmaster opened up the gate about thirty minutes before the train was scheduled to depart. We went over to the train, which had all of (count 'em with me, folks!) ONE CAR. "Wow, you'd think they'd add another car on this train, especially since they knew crowds like this would be coming."

Scott made a good point here. "They might not have another car to add." Hmmm, you might be on to something there.

We piled on and found a seat next to an elderly couple, and then Scott and I hopped out and snapped some pictures.
Scott snapping a shot or five of our Kitami-bound train.

Scott got trapped up front, which he didn't seem to mind so much because he was able to take lots of photos. Judy and I took up our seats next to the elderly couple, and at 9:55, the train headed out. After a some time passed, Judy and I ended up talking with our seatmates. The woman was quite friendly. The times didn't seem to be too happy to be sitting next to a foreigner, but he was nice enough too. They had taken this train line from Ikeda to Kitami on their honeymoon however many years ago, and as it was a special memory for them, they wanted to ride it "just one more time". That was pretty cool.

Something that wasn't so cool was the sheer amount of people packed in the train. I think some people actually had to give up trying to get on the train at some stations. Too many people...And never mind that when a train would pass us going the other way, it always seemed to have two cars. What's the deal?

All told, though, it was a relaxing ride up. Lots of farmland, lots of places still covered in snow, lots of stacks of tires...

Yep. Tires. I think Japanese tires come to Hokkaido, more specifically the area along the Hokkaido Chihoku Highlands Railway, to die.

A sign at Rikubetsu Station, the halfway point on the line, proclaiming Rikubetsu to be the coldest town in Japan. That's saying something! Apparently, the temps get down into the -40's, which is the same in F or C, DAMN COLD.

I slept a bit during the ride, but mostly I just looked out the window and enjoyed the scenery, which was quite beautiful.

We arrived in Kitami at around 1 PM. We grabbed some lunch at the department store next to the station, looked around a bit, weren't too impressed with what we saw, and then headed back into the station to buy souvenirs and get in line for the train back.

When the stationmaster opened up the gate for all of us to get on the train, I made a mad dash for the train so I could get three seats. Luckily, I found a place for us all to sit on the way back before everybody started piling in.

The dang train was PACKED, both on the way out and on the way back, although we were lucky enough to find seats both times. It was much worse than what you can see in this picture.

A couple of scenery photos from the train window.

On the ride back, we ended up having a conversation with Go Yukawa. He was from Yokohama, and had flown up that morning to ride the train once before it shut down. (See?) The impressive thing was that he was going to be flying back that night. That's what I call dedication. He echoed our sentiments when he said that while he had hoped to take some pictures and make some nice memories of the ride, he was afraid that all he was going to remember was the packed-in-like-sardines mass of humanity that was stuffed into that single car.

It was pretty overwhelming at times.

He was a really nice guy with fantastic English. He'd worked in Portland, Oregon (REPRESENT!) for a few years back in the 90's. So we got along just fine.

Mr. Yukawa, Judy, and I had this picture taken before Mr. Yukawa hopped on his connecting train to Obihiro.

The three intrepid explorers in our moment of glory.

I also had a couple goofy photos taken for posterity...or something.

Cool! A tourism advertisement for Shimane! (Well, for the San-in region, anyway. The picture is of Lake Shinji, though!)

Scott wanted to get a few pics of the train as it ran its course along the rails, so we drove along the line until we found a spot he liked, took a few pics as the train passed, and checked out one of the stations on the line (Samamai). From there, we drove back into Obihiro to get some dinner. Obihiro, just like every other place in Japan, has a famous local delicacy. In Obihiro, it's the butadon, or pork rice bowl. Eisaku advised me to have one while I was there, although his sales pitch was a bit...lacking.

"They're not that great, and they are a bit on the expensive side, but at least you can say you've had one, and then you can enter the elite world of those who are allowed to talk about butadon."

Gee...if you put it that way...I can't help but feel so...excited.

Actually, I was pretty interested, though, and I put the idea up to my travel companions. They seemed to think that butadon sounded pretty good, so I aimed for Obihiro Station, figuring since it was the local delicacy and all, there was a pretty good chance that a restaurant serving butadon would be near there.

Scott came back with a suggestion. "I don't want to eat in a really touristy place. I'd prefer a grungy, down-home, greasy spoon kind of place, if you can find one." Judy nodded in agreement.

Okay, I'll see what I can do...

Something caught my eye. Out of the corner of my eye, across Rt. 38, I saw a small sign taped to a poorly-lit wall. It said...


I swung the car off the main road and around so that I could head back the other way.

"You guys mean something like that?"

"Hell yeah!" came the duet.

Marumatsu Shokudo, our dining location of choice for the evening. I parked my car on the sidewalk next to the store as it was the closest thing to a parking lot as far as I could tell, and then we headed inside.

Wow. Greasy spoon central. Our faces lit up. Yes. This is it. Just what we've been looking for.

A woman was standing behind the counter and smiled at us as we came in. After we looked at the menu for a minute (it was taped up on the wall), I said, "Three butadon, please."

"Comin' right up!"

After a few minutes of nice smells and sounds coming from the grill, she brought out our butadon.

DAYAMN. That's a fine looking bowl of pork-on-rice. That sauce...mmm, that sauce. It was an amazing meal.

Never, ever, EVER, get between me and my food.

The really great thing was that she also brought out three bowls of miso soup and set them in front of us, saying, "Saabisu desu. Dohzo. (It's on the house. Enjoy.)" She was just a really awesome lady. As we paid and were getting ready to leave, she asked us to sign a guest book and let her take a Polaroid of us to paste in it. It's a store tradition, apparently. She was so nice and friendly to us...I'm definitely going there again next time I'm in Obihiro. I can't emphasize this enough. That food was GOOD.

How good was it? After we went in search of a hot spring in which to get cleaned up in, we were still talking about how good it was an hour after we'd eaten it. That's when you know you've eaten some good food; you're still talking about it long after you've finished.

Then it was out to Shihoro to sleep at the community center where Maureen was rehearsing "Guys and Dolls". I was fading fast. We dropped Scott off at a restaurant where a bunch of the "players" were having dinner and then made tracks for Shihoro. Judy and I unloaded our sleeping bags, went inside and found the room where everyone was sleeping, found a couple of empty straw mat areas, and went to bed.

Sunday morning. The "Hokkaido Players" were off to rehearse, and Scott, Judy, and I hit the road again. Judy kindly agreed to go along with whatever we wanted to do, and Scott and I wanted to take more pictures. So that's what we did. Basically a lot of driving up and down the line, finding out-of-the-way stations and getting some shots of trains as they went past.

This is Aikappu (translation: Love Crown) Station. The station building is designed to look a little like a crown, and apparently it is a popular place with couples, even to the point of people having weddings there.

Whatever works.

A little bit more driving around, taking photos and seeing the sights, even picking up a few railway souvenirs. After that, it was back out to Shihoro to pick up Scott's wife Maureen and head back to Muroran. Maureen was teaching some local elementary school students one of the dances from "Guys and Dolls", so we had about half an hour to wait. I climbed up to the top of the seats and had a ten-minute power nap. The minute that practice ended, Judy, Scott, Maureen, and I all headed out to my car and hit the road for home.

Instead of heading back into Obihiro and driving over the pass from there, we took the main highway through Shihoro that also connects up to the pass. Nice scenic drive, I figured.

Yeah. Real scenic. Being stuck behind a row of Ground Self Defense Force trucks makes for a great view. (Did spot an ostrich and emu farm along the way, though.) The funny part of it was, I started to pass the trucks when I had a chance, and then finally they followed the road one way, and we followed the highway. YES! Free of being stuck behind slow-moving GSDF trucks at last!

Until about ten minutes later when I came up on a stop light that was just turning red. No prob, just wait until the light changes...might as well look at the cars going past...hey...that's odd...there's another one of those GSDF trucks...huh, they're out in force today...and there's anothe...wait a second! IT'S THE SAME CONVOY! Ohhhh yeah, and you could see the drivers laughing as they passed us waiting there. I saw more than a few "Hey, White Boy, weren't you in a big hurry or something?" looks. After a few moments of intermittently swearing and laughing, the light changed, and I pulled back in behind the line of trucks. Well played, SDF, well played.

Fortunately, they turned off into a base, and we continued down the road for a while, until we came over the top of a hill, and saw this.

The Hidaka Mountains off in the distance, the Tokachi plain stretching out in front of us, a dazzling sun shining down on it all...we all gasped and three voices came up begging me to stop. Hey, I was way ahead of them.

And then we got back on the road, headed back over Nissho Pass, cruised down from Hidaka to Monbetsu, over to Tomakomai for dinner and a failed attempt to get me a raspberry mocha (which left me in a bad mood and the car in silence for about twenty minutes) before hitting the road again for home. We were back in Muroran before ten.

Thus ended my first really big road trip in my new car. Exhausting and long, but one heck of an adventure.


A short epilogue to this story: Today (April 20th) was the last day of operation on the Chihoku line. They had some features about it on the various news channels. Politicians making speeches, people singing songs, children waving flags, train freaks of all makes and models out taking pictures...the works. Some of the news really gave me pause and made me think. High school students talking about how they enjoyed the train ride to school every day. A town mayor talking about how the elderly townspeople in his area used that train to go to the hospital. A reporter talking about how this line was the only real public transportation system connecting the various towns along the line. A man who fought for years to convince politicians and businessmen to support the line and keep it running talking about what he will do now that the line is closing. This train line was really a lifeline for a lot of people. Even though buses will replace the trains, a part of what defined these towns died off today.

Sure, I enjoyed riding the rails that Saturday, but it was just an event for me. It was interesting and educational, and I got to see a lot of country I wouldn't have been able to see otherwise, but it didn't really hold much more than a superficial interest for me.

I'm reminded of an elderly woman who couldn't get on the train at Yutari Station because it was so crowded with people wanting to ride the train once before it shut down. To her, the Hokkaido Chihoku Highlands Line was a necessity, a way of getting from place to place. For the majority of us on the train that day, it was a fun way to spend a weekend. And I don't know how I feel about that...

Somewhere there's a high school student who now has to take a bus to go to school.
Somewhere there's a town mayor trying to preserve a stretch of track as a park and run a train along it.
Somewhere there's an elderly person who has to take a bus to the hospital now.
Somewhere there's a man who fought to keep the train line alive sitting down and arranging all of his files in order to preserve the Chihoku Kogen Line for future generations.
Somewhere there's a construction crew at work dismantling railroad crossing guard systems. (They were scheduled for dismantling as soon as the last train on the line pulled into its final station - apparently some of the line is already pulled up as well...what's the rush?)
Somewhere there's a stationmaster who worked on this line for forty years trying to figure out what he will do now.


Blogger Sizzlean said...

A few points

-Thanks for the Sox Hat pictures, but next time that better be Mariners or SeaSquawks.

-nice Sunset pictures... nice like the moons of Drayan II your heart out.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006 10:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article. You should send it to the Japanese press as an observation from a foreigner. The epilog is especially appropriate.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006 1:43:00 AM  
Blogger Scott Lothes said...

Very nice post. I really enjoyed reading another perspective on the trip, and being reminded of some of the adventures of the road, which I had overlooked. The epilogue is very poignant, an excellent ending to make readers keep thinking long after they finished reading. I kept thinking my account should have a more reflective ending, but it didn't seem to fit with much of the mood of my post. I'm glad you took care of that with yours. Well done!

Thursday, April 27, 2006 8:25:00 PM  

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