Railway Travel

Today we managed to go on 4 different types of railway… 

It was a good day for an engineering nerd.

Aimi did well to tolerate me!

Last morning in our micro flat as we are off to somewhere new today. In the surrounding hills of Mt. Fuji there is an area called Hakone. This is the caldera of ancient volcanic activity that created the huge lake Asai when it cut off the river Haya. This activity continues to this day resulting in hot springs that feed the local towns Onsen baths and keep the lake from freezing in winter. It’s a magical place with legends of virgin eating dragons and stories of protective spirits. So as all Harry Potter fans know, to get there, you need to board a train!

Firstly we got a pretty standard commuter train, as we have been doing for the whole week. This took us, and our bright pink bag of clothes, into Tokyo station where we boarded the Shinkansen. Known the world over as the Bullet train and its been running regular services for over 60 years at speeds up to 320 kmph with a ZERO fatality record. 

This is something that I’ve wanted to ride since I was a little boy watching “MEGA MACHINES” on Discovery channel. I missed out (so far) on the fastest airline jet service with the retirement of Concorde, but now I can say I’ve been on the Bullet Train. Well… Shinkansen (新幹線) in Japanese means ‘new trunk line’ or ‘new main line’, which is not so sexy, but it is accurate I suppose.

The Shinkansen is a much wider than average train, and the windows are shaped like aircraft windows, small and rounded. The train is incredibly long and there are 3 seats on one side and 2 seats on the other going down the train. It has incredibly good legroom and the chairs recline a long way. No wonder the Japanese use this just like we use short haul budget airlines in Europe. Except this is gloriously smooth, peaceful, spacious, clean, reliable, fast and easy. It’s everything air travel should/could be.

We aren’t travelling on the fastest section, as we are only making a relatively short trip. But the speed is like nothing in my experience in Europe. Its a powerful, smooth experience and before we knew it, we were at Odawara changing back to a (comparatively) bumpy clanky old normal train to Hakone-Yumoto.

Here we board the third type of train for the day, the hill climbing, reversing, “Hydrangea” railway up to Gora. This train is 3 cars long and more like a tram, in that its slow, can take really tight turns, and climb hills that are much too steep for normal trains. I’m interested to know how it does this, but I’ve not worked it out yet. This is part of the Tozan travel network which I’ll explain tomorrow, but on its way up the hill it can’t make tight enough hairpin bends like cars can. But what it can do is stop, switch some points, and then reverse direction up another line to continue up a steep section of hillside. It does this 3 times on the way up to Gora station! 

It was a wonderful ride up into the mountains past trees and over waterfalls which soothed Aimi’s growing embarrassment having married a train nerd! The simple reason it’s nicknamed the Hydrangea railway is due the the vast number of these flowers along it’s route. We may have missed the Irises, but we experienced a full bloom of Hydrangeas which was glorious.

At Gora station, perpendicular to the hill train, is the cable car. Our fourth train of the day. Where trains, even hill trains have to follow the contour of the land to gain height gradually, the cable car goes straight up the hill. Its not the cable car you might be thinking of, hanging from cables above the peaks of Switzerland. This is a railway car, on rails pointing straight up the hill and works more like an elevator than a train. There is a long thick steel cable that loops over a big pulley at the top and comes back down to another railway car. A motor on the pulley at the top turns, lowering one car and raising the other. There is only 1 track so in the middle, just before they meet, there is a passing point where each car goes into a small siding too pass and then returns to the centre. Its a wonderfully simple system.

We arrived in Gora early to check in so took our time enjoying a nice ramen lunch. We only had to walk up a short section of steep hill with the aforementioned big pink bag before we were very happy to pay for the cable car for only 2 stops to reach our hotel’s terrace. A short walk later and we reached our new home for 5 nights. 

I said hotel, but this is actually a Ryokan with an Onsen (hot spring) bath. Its a traditional type of Japanese inn where you get all you are expecting in terms of tatami matting, low tables and cushions, not chairs, sliding paper panel doors, minimal decoration and communal spaces to speak with the other guests and owner. 

I chose this place specially because it has private Onsen so Aimi can use one. She’s not allowed into public bathhouses (not that she would ever get naked and bath herself in front of a load of strangers – who would do that!?) because those with tattoos are viewed with intense distaste. So much so that its likely she would be asked to leave by older generations. This was the only way she can experience Onsen in Japan.

And what an Onsen! I’ll go into more detail about it another day, but it’s incredibly peaceful and tranquil around there. Soaking in the hot water surrounded by nature. Perfect after a long journey.