Kevin Standlee (kevin_standlee) wrote,
Kevin Standlee
kevin_standlee

Making the Rail Passes Pay

Today was the longest single-day trip during the two weeks we are here, and is one of the segments that make buying a three-week Green (first class) pass worthwhile: Osaka to Aomori.

As planned, I was up at 7 AM to check mail, get showered, and pack for leaving. We breakfasted on stuff we bought last night, as has been our practice everywhere we can manage to do so. We were up and out of the room as planned just after 9 AM, and had good timing checking out of the hotel, as just as we were leaving, a large batch of people headed toward the desk.

Thanks to us having checked the route last night, getting to our platform was a breeze, and we dutifully hopped aboard the first train at the platform, as all trains calling on platforms 7/8 stop next at Shin-Osaka. As it happens, the first train arriving at the platform wasn't the first one leaving it, so we waited a full five minutes to leave as two other trains came and went on the adjacent platform. On the other hand, we were comfortable enough, and we knew we were in no hurry, so we sat it out.

Getting to Shin-Osaka, we transferred Shinkansen-side and picked up a couple of bento boxes and some drinks for the 553 km trip to Tokyo. Lisa scolded me for my impatience in getting up to the platform some twenty minutes before we had to do so. That's the kind of traveler I am, I guess – I like to be there early and in place just in case there's a hold-up. I reckon that if we were not carrying luggage or if I was traveling by myself, I might be more willing to cut things more tightly, but with lots of gear and any traveling companions, I tend to plan more conservatively. And while intellectually I understand how punctual Japan's trains are and how many there are, it's really difficult to get a feel for this, so my traveling instincts are still set to American, where you are supposed to turn up very early and expect lots of unpredictable delays (and the trains, if they exist, tend not to run very often, so the consequences of missing one are dire). In any event, our train was indeed on time and our reserved Green car seats were waiting for us.

The trip from Osaka to Tokyo passed uneventfully, although the gloomy weather and rain meant that there was no view of Fuji-san at all. We ate our bento boxes and looked at what scenery we could.

We arrived at Tokyo at 13:13, having covered 553 km (337 miles) in 2:54, for an average speed including stops of 190 kph (116 mph). If I'm doing my math and reading my maps correctly, this is roughly equivalent to getting on a train in San Jose shortly after 10 AM and arriving at LA Union Passenger Terminal three hours later. At those speeds, a Bay Area resident could meet someone for lunch in LA and be home in time for dinner.

Changing trains wasn't too traumatic, despite the maze that is Tokyo central station. I think we must have gone down the wrong end of the platform exits, however, as we ended up having to groundside again and go around through the central concourse before getting to where we needed to go. We also briefly stopped to pick up a couple more bento boxes for the journey north. We cleared two more ticket barriers before getting around to Platform 21, where our Hayate ("swift wind") Shinkansen sat awaiting us and our 13:56 departure.

This train actually is two trains – a ten-car set bound for Hachinohe and a five-car set for Akita. The two sets are coupled together as far as Morioka, at which point the front five-car set splits from the rear ten-car set and heads off to Akita. Splitting and combining sections of trains used to be common practice on American railroads, but today it survives on only a single round-trip of the Empire Builder between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest, with the two sections splitting/combining at Spokane.

We settled in to our first-class seats, accepted the complimentary tea and coffee, and watched the Tokyo metro area unroll around us. The first section of the trip – the 30 km out to Omiya or thereabouts – is relatively slow, and the train does make a very quick initial stop after leaving Tokyo central at Ueno. (UK side note: I think this is roughly the equivalent of the Edinburgh-Glasgow trains making a stop at Haymarket, which I noticed on our trip two years ago.) Ueno is where our sleeper train will end on Wednesday morning.

Getting out into the countryside, the train really got moving. While I set to writing, Lisa went for a wander around the train, and spent a little time talking with the conductor, whose office was in our car. The conductor's station displayed our exact distance from Tokyo and our current speed. Lisa observed at that time that that we were traveling 270 kph. His monitor board also had a diagram of our train showing the cars' status including their temperature. The thermostats were set for 20C, but the actual temps were around 25C. Indeed, this train is the first one we've ridden, including some commuter trains, that seemed too warm to us.

At Sendai, Lisa hopped off the train for a moment to buy a soda, as they did not have one she liked in the on-board selection. This almost led to disaster, as we had originally thought this was when the train separated – we hadn't looked closely enough at the route map and schedule. Looking out the window, I could see the platform staff getting ready to wave us off, and Lisa hadn't returned. I hustled down to the vestibule, looked out the door, and urgently looked for Lisa, calling out, "Where's my wife!" The conductor yelled at me to get my head back inside the train, and I heard the whistle for departure. I saw a blonde-haired streak heading for car 6, three cars behind us, as the doors-closing chime sounded. The train pulled away, and a few minutes later, Lisa arrived, slightly out-of-breath and holding a can of cold soda. She said that she'd had about 30 seconds to spare. Whew! Mind you, trains run often enough here in Japan that I assumed (rightly, she said later) that she would simply catch the next one 34 minutes later and that I would have just sat at Hachinohe and waited for her to catch up. It's not as though I could go anywhere – she has both our passes, so I wouldn't be able to exit the station!

After Sendai, we broke out our bento boxes. This is where we discovered that the woman back at Tokyo had misunderstood Lisa (or not realized what she was pointing at) and instead of a box of rice with fish slices over it had given me a box of rice balls with a mysterious-looking paste inside. With some apprehension, I bit down on the rice ball, and was delighted to discover that the inside was shrimp, which I like a lot, so culinary disaster was averted. Lisa also decided that her box was more than enough and shared some of her fish with me.

We arrived at Morioka at 16:21 and departed five minutes later, five cars shorter. Presumably the Akita section pulled away a couple minutes earlier, but by the time we passed the junction with the Akita line, it was out of sight, leaving red signals behind it. By comparison, Amtrak can't add or subtract cars from a train set in under twenty minutes, in my experience.

According to Lisa's Japanese rail timetable – which she can read and I cannot -- Tokyo to Hachinohe is 632 km (385 miles), and the scheduled time platform to platform is 2:59, for an average speed of 211 kph (129 mph).

It's so nice to travel in a country that actually knows how to run a railroad!

[Posted later after we got checked in to the hotel and got the internet service running, not actually on board the train.]
Tags: japan, trains, travel
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