Train+Lines+Japan+Josh+Woollett

Train Lines

We’d sat in the baggage area for about an hour now. I lay head on my suitcase, feet propped up by a trolley I’m trying to save. Staring at the harshly lit ceiling. I remember reading somewhere in school that these lights are known to drain energy and reduce concentration levels. It was either that or the last thirty hours of travel that had left us bloody eyed and weary. Jackson still going back and forth with an attendant trying to navigate when and where his luggage would show up. It was 5 am and impossible to get in contact with anyone that organized our accommodation. A Google search of the place we were meant to be staying at returned nothing; as if we’d made the name up. This poor woman stuck with two Australian’s that spoke no Japanese, managed to track down a phone number and organize the delivery of the missing luggage for the following day. Confirmation came that there was no chance any baggage was left on the plane and we could finally move through security. A small hurdle but at least Jackson didn’t have to tow his snowboard alongside his 6’3 frame through the cramped Japanese subway.

Before we’d even left Australia, we were assured that getting to the hotel where we were supposed to meet the others was a short 15-minute journey across three stops. The kiosk that the others bought their travel cards at was closed and the alternative was a Japanese automatic vender bolted into the white brick. Pastel pinks and pale green protruding from the stale wall. The boxy vendors appeared as a tribute to the 80s arcade systems; buttons covering every inch. Navigating Japanese is stressful enough without a small character mocking you from the corner of the screen like some fever dream. If not for the help of two security guards and one especially kind English speaking bystander, I fear I’d have blown my money as if it were the pokies.

As the trip progressed I noticed the screen above the doors would occasionally flash a message about Coronavirus and to keep a distance from others. Kind of ironic given I could hear the heartbeat of the two women to either side of me.

The airport station sits directly below the airport terminal and is seemingly a ghost town. Myself, my brother, and three out of town businessmen stood scattered along the platform staring into the darkened tunnel as it cornered off. You could see the headlights of the train long before the train appeared into view. ‘Maronouchi Line’ the front neon banner read. “Is this us?” Jackson asked.

“I think so,” I responded apprehensively

“Well do we get on?”

“Yeah, I think this is the one we want.”

Finding seats in the empty carriages was easier than I remember it being from our last trip. The train was relatively empty, posters, and flags for the upcoming Olympics taking up most of the viewable space. As we approached the first station it became apparent that the space we had to spread out was about to quickly disappear. A sea of business attire waited at the gates as the train slowed into the terminal. I sat on my suitcase against the back wall and watched that space that we had so desired for our ride be taken up by trench coats and briefcases. With each stop, more people were pushed on by a man with a whistle and white gloves. Now pressed hard up against the back wall, I still sat atop my suitcase and Jackson holding his between his legs. As the trip progressed I noticed the screen above the doors would occasionally flash a message about Coronavirus and to keep a distance from others. Kind of ironic given I could hear the heartbeat of the two women to either side of me.

Train+Lines+Japan+Josh+Woollett

“I don’t think we are on the right train,” Jackson interjected with a look of worry.

“It’s literally the line we were told to get on, it has to be,” I snapped back with.

“But we’ve been past nine stops already, it said there’d only be three?”

“Maybe it’s a different type of train.”

I managed to swivel my suitcase around enough in the cramped space to see the route map stuck above the seats. I could see where we needed to go but that’s when I’d also discovered that there are three types of train lines in Japan. Local, rapid, and express. We were told to get on the express line, but I’d walked us on to the local line. With an extra 18 stops and 45 minutes of travel time.

Disembarking the train at one of the busiest stations in the network proved as an overwhelming introduction into the country. We hadn’t slept in who knows how long and trying to find the appropriate exit was almost impossible. North, East, South, and West all had two exits each, and I couldn’t quite remember which one we wanted. Thankfully Jackson managed to get onto WIFI long enough to scroll back through his messages to find out where we needed to be. Out of the West Gate, we went to be greeted by a very concerned looking family member.

“You said you were on the train an hour ago?” they asked.

“Yeah the slow one,” Jackson replied, glaring at me. 

Train+Lines+Japan+Josh+Woollett

The streets were a flurry of constant movement. Men and women running to make crossings surrounded by hundreds doing the same. The hotel we were at for the day was just across from the station. The room looked directly down at the tracks and showed hundreds of commuters looking to join the already overloaded trains. It’s a strange feeling knowingly denying yourself the opportunity to sleep in order to make the most of a new place. While Jackson took his time to get ready I spent my time finding a coffee spot, something I’d been craving for 20 or so hours now. I had one from Dunkin’ Donuts in Singapore, I’m not confident of what went into it. 

Dragging Jackson back through the overcrowded train station to a place that sat directly above the walkway. The perfect vantage point for me to get my head back and appreciate the sheer amount of people passing through the breezeway. Thousands of people mindlessly strolled by in uniform. No discernible difference in dress. The only change I saw in the entire time was when an elderly postman who navigated the traffic to reach the small post office just to the right of us. His steps were short and his gaze unbroken. People noticed him from a distance and changed their path to be sure to miss him, but he never slowed. There were a few of these elderly gentlemen passing through with their trolleys full of letters and packages. Small white caps and windbreakers to match, a stark contrast to the grey, black, and blue blazers strolling by around them. 

There were no mass movements in the streets, no overpasses or tunnels. Instead, there were small cars and room to breathe, room to run.

We joined in with the crowd and followed along into a great network of overpassing bridges and under passing roads and walkways. There wasn’t much in the area being the business district of town. A small chemist, a stone’s throw from the station gate. A florist with stacks of bright yellow, warm orange, and deep red flowers. Men leaning against the glass balustrade; papers open. Proving difficult in a wind fierce enough for the temperature to dip below zero. Passers-by struggled to keep their jackets closed as if opening up would allow the bitter cold to lash at their skin. We walked through a small fish market that had only three stalls open, the rest abandoned. Colourful tents and flags littered the sky all torn from the battering wind. With only two hours before we were due to head north to the mountain region, we decided it was best to figure out just where we needed to be.

The bullet train system in Japan, while wildly impressive is one of the most difficult to understand of all train systems. Be it my lack of attention or distinct lack of the Japanese language, I was lost. Four different numbers on the ticket all of which I assumed would be the platform number. Stumbling from platform to platform hoping to see the same characters appear on a sign as they appeared on our tickets. One of the guys we were travelling with, having more sense than I, sought one of the platform monitors to try and decipher where we were meant to be. A decision that ultimately meant us making it onto the right train. As the train headed north we got our first glimpses of snow. Powder-capped mountains began to lay as the backdrop to smaller farming villages. The chaos of inner-city Japan began to subside and made way for apple orchards and small huts. It was obvious this was the older part of the land. There were no mass movements in the streets, no overpasses or tunnels. Instead, there were small cars and room to breathe, room to run. From the train, I could see the local grocery store; the only one in town. Slowly the numbers on the train began to dwindle alongside the suburban sprawl.

Train+Lines+Japan+Josh+Woollett

After one more train changeover at Nagano we were into the last leg of two days of travel. We boarded a small local train with leather seats and worn out latched windows. I nestled myself in one of the corner seats and watched as men and women in business attire joined us. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was their daily commute, given that we were now three hours from the city. We were the last stop of the line. A fitting metaphor for our travels so far. As we neared the end of the track the snow began to thicken and coat the windows of the train. I, completely unprepared for the conditions, was frantically trying to change out of my canvas shoes into something a little less absorbent before we pulled into the station. It was the most snow I’d seen and it only seemed to get thicker as we drove towards our accommodation. A welcome sight. 

Train+Lines+Japan+Josh+Woollett

It was nearly night and the last shuttle into town was about to leave. Quickly throwing our bags into the shared room; we grabbed our snow jackets and headed back out again. We were about 15 minutes’ drive from the village centre; not a walkable journey. Neon lights and snow covered patios dominated the main and only strip through town. People walking and sliding up the powder covered road; shared with any passing cars. Bars full of out-of-towners and restaurants that seated twelve were the main storefronts available. We’d heard of a small curry place just off the street with only one menu item and thought it appropriate for a first night’s dining. Inside was small, with four tables that sat six people at a stretch. We occupied the last remaining one and watched as group after group were turned away at the door. Back out into the snow to find another place to eat. Through the kitchen, you could see the family of owners enjoying their own dinner, and like us, a beer as well. Kids climbing the chairs and shelves. A stark contrast to what I had left back home only thirty something hours ago. 

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