September 16th, 2007

Manga Kevin

Clever Folks at Toyota

While looking around Toyota's "Megaweb" auto exhibits on Odaiba Island on Friday, we encountered their test track for their little two-person electric commuter car. For JPY200 per person, you could ride around their test track in the car. The car steers itself; you don't do anything other than press the start button. After the ride, we stepped out and I climbed into a static model nearby for a photo opportunity (shown behind the cut).

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Later, I noted that Toyota are really clever. They've managed to set up an exhibit where people pay them to test-drive their vehicles.

I will add, however, that this little car is surprisingly comfortable, even for a big guy like me. Assuming it had sufficient acceleration and top speed, I could easily see using something like this for commuting to work (50 miles/80 km round trip) or for short trips around town. I certainly wouldn't want to take a cross-country trip in it, though.
Conrunner Kevin

Luggage Logistics

While wrestling our luggage on and off the Cassiopeia a few days ago, it dawned on me that what we should have done is taken out of our respective bags just what we needed for the night on the train and then had the hotel ship our bags down to the Shinagawa Prince Hotel here in Tokyo, where they would be waiting for us when we got there. We're used to thinking in American terms, where convenient luggage-delivery services don't exist. And as far as having oversize luggage on the train goes, an Amtrak overnight train has an area on each car where you can store the big bags while you only carry the small ones up to your room.

Ah, well, like many of the things on this trip, this is something we'd do better if we were doing the trip again someday.

Speaking of luggage, we have to do some shuffling today if we want to not be loaded down with luggage. If we knew that the train station in Chioshi had the large-size lockers -- one of my bags won't fit anything smaller -- we could take our stuff out there on the limited express we expect to take this morning. Because we do not know this and don't want to get stuck in a bind, we'll instead take our luggage the short distance up to Tokyo station, store them there, then take the limited express to Chioshi and spend the day exploring that area and its quirky local train, then come back to Tokyo on another limited express, get our bags, and return to Narita and our hotel nearby. Fortunately, we can sleep in tomorrow.
Kevin and Lisa

Goodbye Tokyo

We were out of the hotel by 0800, and after a routine and quick check-out, we rolled across the street to Shinagawa Station. There we decided to go ahead and get up to Tokyo before making seat reservations for the limited express train from Tokyo to Choshi. This may have been a mistake, but it's hard to tell. We popped down to the Loop Line and caught the next train up to Tokyo Central, but then -- thanks to our unfamiliarity with the station -- exited the wrong gate and had to go back in the same gate we exited after Lisa had a session with the only groundside reservation agent at that gate. She said he talked like he had marbles in his mouth and she could only barely understand him, but that it appeared that the train we wanted had no more seats, green or otherwise, available to reserve. He did, for some reason, go ahead and book us reservations on the return train from Choshi to Tokyo and a Narita Express from Tokyo to Narita Airport that evening.

Heading into the station core, we went to one of the larger reservation counters, where Lisa found a female agent she could understand better. (Lisa says she can understand women speaking Japanese much better than men.) She worked out that while the limited express was sold out, the local all-stops train is unreserved and would still get us out to Choshi with a few hours to do what we wanted. Furthermore, we could get on an "Airport Rapid" train to Chiba, then come back from Choshi only as far as Chiba before taking the Narita Express to the airport (and thus on to our hotel by shuttle bus). This was overall a better deal for us, because it meant we could go store our luggage at Chiba rather than at Tokyo, saving us around two hours of back-and-forthing to retrieve it. So Lisa booked the tickets and we hied our way down to Chiba.

Exiting the Chiba station, we looked for lockers. Good news: Several of the large lockers were available. Bad news: while internally they were large enough to hold my bag, the doors were too narrow for the bag to fit into the locker. I had to partially unpack my bag to get it to compress thinly enough to fit through the door. The ten minutes or so we spent fussing over luggage meant that we couldn't even try to get on that limited express train to Choshi (it had been gaining on us from Tokyo). That train has unreserved standard seats as well as reserved and Green cars, and we might have been able to grab a couple of seats, but we'll never know.

Anyway, with 40 minutes or so to kill before the local to Choshi, we went looking for breakfast. However, we were unable to find much close and convenient to Chiba, so instead we grabbed a couple of breakfast pasteries from a cafe next to the station and then bought bento boxes, rice, and drinks from stores in the station, and headed up to the platform for the nearly 2-hour slog to Choshi.
Kevin and Lisa

Commuter Train to Choshi

The local train to the end of the JR line at Choshi is definitely an all-stops service. The first stop seemed to me to be as close to Chiba station as Montgomery Street station on BART is to Powell Street -- about two or three train lengths. Fortunately, the subsequent stops are a little bit more separated than that. Unlike the limiteds, Shinkansens, and suchlike that we've mostly been patronizing, this is clearly a high-capacity, low-frills service intended for lots of people standing, much like the local loop line trains in Tokyo. Seats are longitudinal (down the length of the train), not transverse (across the width), and there's lots of standing space and strap handles for standees. Today was quiet and everyone got a seat, and only about half the space in our car was filled.

It takes nearly two hours to get to Chiba, through some pretty semi-rural areas, punctuated by small towns, farms, and the seemingly inevitable pachinko palace. We weren't the only people digging in to our bento boxes as the train rolled through the Japanese countryside. It looks to me like people who can afford it must be moving out here and commuting to jobs in the Tokyo area, which is feasible given the good transport.

The only drawbacks to riding on this service is that in the commuter-type seating you don't have tray tables or anywhere to put things while you're eating, and also while the air conditioning on the train is good, with three doors per side, all of the cold air leaks out at each station stop and you have to start over again.

After eating my lunch, I watched the land roll by, dozing from time to time with the rocking of the train. Even Lisa, who doesn't sleep well at all on any form of transport sitting up, napped a little bit.
Wig Wag

Slow Train to Tokawa

After our local train rolled in to Choshi on time and after a brief stop at the restrooms at the JR station, we went down to the end of the platform on which we'd arrived, where stands the tiny station and single car of the Choshi Dentetsu [Electric Railway]. It seemed like a significant number of the people off of our eight-car commuter train were trying to fit into the single car of the little electric line. We bought a couple of day passes (JPY620 each) to give us the flexibility to get on and off as we chose, and squeezed aboard the little electric car.

This railroad is in chronic financial trouble. Lisa observed that if the line ran this full every day, rather than just on Sundays, they wouldn't have to worry about money. We bounced and jostled our way down the 6.4 km, ten-station, mostly single-track railway to the end of the line at Tokawa, where stood one of the most dilapidated train stations I've ever seen. Yet the station reproduced in miniature many of the things we've seen at mainline stations throughout Japan. There was a ticket gate, food service (a couple of vending machines), station information, and even coin lockers (only the little ones).

We could see the sea in the near distance, and at Lisa's suggestion, we walked down to the harbor and looked at the fishing boats and the queue of our fellow passengers at what at the time looked to be the only restaurant in the village (this was not the case, we later found). Fortunately, we were not hungry thanks to having eaten on the train down from Chiba. Having exhausted our interest in the waterfront, we walked back up the hill, passing a man patiently slicing up squid by the side of the street.

Lisa was thirsty, so the first shop we passed that had cold soda in it, she bought one. It looked like the proprietor was running a konbini out of the front room of his house. At the top of the hill, we found a grocery store, which was good because Lisa needed to buy more batteries for the cameras. Our cameras are good, but they go through batteries the way fans go through chocolate. Our timing was good, as the next inbound train to Tokawa was arriving as we got back to the station, giving Lisa a good shot at recording it. After a short layover (trains run three times an hour or so), it headed back, with us aboard.

We rode only one stop this time, to the line's main station at Inoboh, where they have their gift shop, restaurant, and other things to occupy your time. (See this link for someone else's video of one of the line's cars -- not in service the day we rode -- arriving at a much-less crowded Inoboh station.) Had we enough time, we could have gone out to the lighthouse that is one of the area's attractions; however, we did not have that time, and contented ourselves with exploring the gift shop and buying souvenirs. Our day passes included one free rice cake. Apparently sales of the rice cakes and other confections are (barely) propping up this railway line's finances. The crackers have an interesting taste, but not one Lisa cared for that much.

After exhausting our interest (and wallets) here, we caught the next train heading back toward Choshi. Due to the large numbers of people on the line today, they were now double-heading one of their trains, and we hopped aboard the trailing car, which was being towed by the car we'd came out on originally. (Actually, it's unclear whether the car was being towed or if the two were simply coupled together and being operated individually, a la steam train double-headers.)

This time, we rode to first stop out from the line's origin at Choshi, that being Nakanocho, the line's shops. We spent a few minutes exploring the line's yard and shops -- they let people wander around and take photos, giving it the air of the Oregon Electric Railway Museum to us. I wanted to buy the commemorative pin set, but they were sold out, so I settled for yet another key ring. The double-headed train came back through, and we got to see them cut out the second car and take it out of service, passenger loads having subsided sufficiently to do so.

Finally, we boarded yet another car -- we managed to ride all four cars that were in service on the line today -- for the 500 meter ride back to Choshi. Here we had roughly an hour to explore the area near Choshi station before the Limited Express Shioshi #14 was scheduled to leave for Chiba. (A couple of local trains came and went while we were around.) We walked a few blocks out and back from the station and picked up some take-out food for the return trip. Unlike the morning express out to Choshi on which we were unable to get a seat, this train seemed mostly empty, and only a handful of people were in the Green car.

The relatively luxurious limited, with transverse seats, fold-down (albeit unstable and tippy) tray tables, was a great contrast to the local commuter train on which we'd come to Choshi. Of course it doesn't run as often, and it makes fewer stops, and covers the distance back to Choshi much more quickly.

We had a great time at the Choshi Dentetsu. While it imitates mainline railways in miniature, what it really evoked to me was the classic interurban railway (except for the lack of street running), with its bumpy track, slow speeds, un-airconditioned cars, and tiny stations. It also got us out into the Japanese countryside, away from the big cities, which people have been insisting that we should do at least once on this trip. In the end, we missed some of the "big name" attractions in Japan, but have seen other things that we thought were at least as interesting, if not more so.
Manga Kevin

Final Night in Japan

Have made it to the Holiday Inn Narita Airport, after a long day playing with trains in the Japanese countryside. I will post back-dated entries about it later, but wanted to check in right now from the hotel once I got the internet working.

I turned in my rented phone. Like it seems everyone else who rented phones from G-Phone, the people at the desk had no idea about the deal offered to us with no minimum usage charge. (This despite the fact that there is a prominent sign at their desk announcing that this is where Nippon 2007 members can turn in their mobile phones.) It's only about a $30 difference in what I'll pay, but it's the principle of the thing. They say they'll investigate and let me know later what goes on. But anyway, that's one less thing I have to do tomorrow before my flight, which isn't until late in the evening anyway.

The luggage I had delay-shipped from Yokohama was waiting for me when we arrived, which was a great relief.

This hotel is the most Western-style in which we've stayed, which means the room is spacious and you can't do anything without having a car. It's so isolated that the hotel runs a one-shot shuttle bus to a local convenience store at 22:00 (only), waits for you ten minutes at the konbini, and takes you back to the hotel. We're booked for the shuttle ourselves. I think that we're going to miss having 24-hour convenience stores practically on our doorstep.

For anyone trying to contact me, I expect to be at this hotel until maybe Monday, September 17, 1200 local time at the latest, but then to be without internet access except maybe in the Northwest WorldClub or equivalent in Narita Airport and at Honolulu until we get to Portland, which won't be until around Midnight that same day local time in Oregon. Bleah. In other words, expect contact with me to be sporadic until you see otherwise from me here.