One of the often overlooked but essentially Japanese experiences is the slow train journey through the Japanese countryside in summer. One of the reasons I get to travel around so much in Japan is that I don’t mind spending hours and hours on the train, just staring out the window. A year and a half ago I took these photos while traveling through northern Gunma prefecture, between Minakami and Takasaki. It is difficult to get good photos through a moving train window but I still had to share these with you. The landscape in these photos are absolutely typical of the countryside, with the buildings, the bamboo forests, the distant mountains, village stations and much more. Just looking at these photos makes my heart ache for the next train journey through the summer Japan I love so much! Oh, and can you spot the real life house of Satsuki and Mei from the animated movie “My Neighbor Totoro” (となりのトトロ) in the sixth photo? Doesn’t it look just like in the movie? I could live here, just a couple of hundred meters past the Gokan station in Minakami-cho. Don’t miss the slow train when you visit Japan next!
Yesterday I blogged about the summer Bonodori festival and here’s another thing that I am really looking forward to in coming summer: going on long train journey on small local trains deep in the countryside! This is the Joshin Dentetsu Joshin Line (上信電鉄上信線), or the Joshin for short, running between Takasaki and Shimonita in Gunma prefecture, north of Saitama prefecture, north of Tokyo. There’s a special kind of feeling to go on one of these slow local trains, passing small stations, the blast of hot air when the doors open and the slow pace of life on the side of these tracks, where you don’t really know if the stillness and the quiet is because of the mid-day heat or just the countryside ambience. I’m really looking forward to this summer’s traveling!
Japan is heaven for train lovers. The country is criss crossed by hundreds of train lines operated by dozens of different companies and there’s a large number of train lovers who collect, travel on and document the trains of this country. When I travel around the country I like to explore the minor train lines that surround the bigger travel hubs, like here in Takasaki in Gunma prefecture north of Tokyo. This is the Joshin Dentetsu Joshin Line (上信電鉄上信線), or the Joshin for short. It is such a local train that it’s near impossible to find any information in English near the station itself. Not even the line name is written in English! In fact it is such a minor line that I challenge any reader of this blog to tell me that they have used this line more than once in their lives. Founded in 1897 to transport workers to the industrialized area of western Gunma, it was electrified early on and still has a couple of the original Siemens pre-war locomotives running, making it a famous line for people who’s special interest are early electric locomotives. Back in the good old days this line transported about 860 000 people yearly but recently the figures are less than 220 000 a year and the number of departures are limited to 2-3 per hour in rush hour and 2 on other times of the day. There used to be express and semi express services but these days all of the trains are commuter trains that stop on every station and the sole driver also has to check the tickets of all passengers. The tickets are of the old, now so rare, hard cardboard stock, hand stamped in red ink, too bad I couldn’t keep it as a souvenir. The train line itself travels through a rather picturesque landscape over several tiny wooden bridges crossing streams that water the many rice fields in the area. The decline in passenger numbers is a perfect illustration of the plight of rural Japan where people still to this day migrate towards the cities to find jobs and entertainment, and also, I suspect, to escape the long dark evenings of the Japanese countryside. Foreigners love to remark on the brightness of the cities, but do not know that the reason behind this is that they are populated by people from rural areas in which there is literally no street lighting whatsoever. After sunset, it is pitch black in the vast majority of Japanese towns and villages.
As a trivia, the end station Shimonita is included in the list of 100 Kanto Train Stations. Japanese love creating lists for promotional purposes and this list is one of them. Shimonita is in group three and the stations have been selected by vote for, I assume, nostalgic reasons (the official reason is for it’s role in the area’s culinary prominence, but as the only thing remotely famous about this town of 8000 people is the interesting geological formations in the area – take note, geologists planning to visit Gunma prefecture – I doubt this). Incidentally the far bigger and far more important Takasaki station is not on the list.
But the blingworthy thing about this train is that it runs one of the few official Galaxy Express 999 (銀河鉄道999) themed trains in Japan! Most people would recognize this monumentally famous animated series from the late 70′s early 80′s, penned by the legendary Leiji Matsumoto who is also famous for his space opera saga, The Space Battleship Yamato. Matsumoto is one of the heroes of the Japanese anime and manga industry. The outside shows characters from that famous anime, the leading characters Maeter and the street kid Tetsuro for example. The decoration continues inside with various posters of Matsumoto’s creations. Galaxy Express 999 is a nostalgic and tragic space saga where humans have achieved immortality by developing a method to transfer their minds to mechanical bodies. A must see if you want to learn about Japanese culture even if you are not normally into manga or anime. Just stay away from the awful US remakes. The originals are magical. I remember seeing this as a kid and I think most men my age have a secret crush on the beautiful and tragic heroine Maeter, at least I do!
The latest one in the series of semi-feral cats I’ve encountered traveling around this great country of Japan. This cutie was doing a good job keeping a watchful eye on the strange foreigner with the huge menacing camera while his sibling were in the background doing far more relaxing stuff like sleeping and grooming. This was as close as he would let me come! I met him a couple of weeks ago in the sleepy city of Minakami, deep in the mountains of Gunma prefecture, north of Saitama prefecture which is north of Tokyo. I probably should have a map on this blog with posts linked to the different places I have been, graphically represented on the map. Is that even possible using WordPress? Hello Administrators, are you reading this? I have an idea!