On this final day in Japan I allowed myself to sleep in and relax. I open the blinds of the panoramic window and allow the bright morning light to stream in. As always, I will miss this place.
Where shall I go today? I am constrained by the hour and the need to be at Narita Airport inthe evening for my flight home. The tramway at Choshi makes sense, is close to Narita, but, being well known for its seafood it is the kind of place B would probably like as well.
Takasaki, to the west, has many lines radiating out of it. The Agatsuma, a line to nowhere with onsens along the way, makes sense, and the nearby Watarase Keiroku is a slow tourist line. But there is not enough time, so they will have to wait for another day. That leaves the private Joshin Line, covered by the Kanto Pass, to Shimonita.
Reversing some of yesterday’s trip, I catch a train to Omiya, where I board the anthropomorphically named Max Toki double decker Shinkansen to Takasaki. The lady at the JR booking desk works at top speed to reserve me a seat on a train leaving in five minutes. I don’t have time to board the correct carriage, lumbering through the narrow aisles with my bag of model train tracks and food stuffs to reach my seat.
There is very little view from my booked seat at the bottom of the train, so I take the time to relax further.
At Takasaki the first thing I do is find a locker to store my big bag and unwieldy Isumi Line umbrella. Suica charge cards are so much easier than fumbling for the 100 Yen coins otherwise needed for the lockers.
Near the entrance to the Joshin Line is a vending machine serving hot drinks and I treat myself to a cup of hot chocolate-strawberry milk. A train pulls up and disgorges its passengers, who proceed to take up the entire width of the path. One must have been too focussed on their mobile phone to look up and bumps into my arm, spilling half my drink.
Pity. It was quite nice.
The Joshin Line trains are two car electric sets that look quite old. There is a little celebration of rail history here with small two axle freight wagons and tiny German made electric shunters sitting in the yard. One passenger car has been turned into a waiting room and across on the JR side of the tracks are a set of old wooden passenger carriages.
I board our train and take up a position near the front, affixing my action camera to the front window, although the driver’s compartment blocks direct access to the very front. There are no seats there either.
Our rattly electric train takes off with no diesel chug or steam puff, but seemingly with more speed. It’s a very shaky ride, making it difficult sometimes to stay on my feet. Unfortunately, the ends of the carriages have no seat and the big gap is reserved for the driver to stand out of his cabin to collect tickets at the smaller unattended stops.
When you board you take a ticket from the machine and as you leave you hand it to the driver along with the fare, as displayed on a board, in Japanese only, at the end of the carriage. For unattended stations it is necessary to leave through the front door behind the driver’s compartment. At attended stations all doors open and the process happens as you leave the platform.
Outside, the urban landscape quickly turns to a typically Japanese mixture of housing and small farms. The golden yellow fields of rice ready for harvest comes as a surprise, as if they were tiny fields of wheat transplanted from the plains of Australia.
Other patches are brown and bare, some have the green of less mature rice or other crops. Ahead of us lie the dark mountains, shifting as the track curves and the train shakes.
In the other direction, greeting us at passing loops on this otherwise single line track, are some of the wide variety of train sets that operate on this line. Usually more colourful than our cream and green cars, these are decorated with zebra stripes and photographs of African animals, advertising a safari park elsewhere in the region, or with carton animals and dinosaurs for Hino trucks.
Then there are the odd old freight wagons, black with rusted steel, and another tiny German made DeKi locomotive sitting at Yoshii.
It’s a nice change on one of these rural lines to hear announcements in English as well as Japanese, as it is all too often rare. Perhaps it is due to promotion of the recently “World Heritage Listed” Tomioka Silk Mill, a Meiji era silk factory. Accessible via the Joshu Tomioka station I should like to to visited it, but time is pressing and I want to travel to the end of the line.
We leave the houses and farmlands behind as we climb up into the mountains through forests, the Kabura River flowing in the valley to our left. Tourists who leave the train at the silk factory will miss out on this most beautiful stretch of the ride, and judging by the fact that only three of us are left in a train that was previously well occupied indicates that many do.
It is a sign of what awaits us as we pull into the terminus of Shimonita.
Terminus. It is a word that suggests death and there is that aura around Shimonita. Perhaps the three of us, obviously not locals, who get out at the attractively old wooden station, a remnant of another time, are ghouls at a cemetery, though I like to think I can see life where others might imagine death.
Aside from passing cars the streets of Shimonita were near silent but for the dreadful muzak playing from pole mounted speakers. Perhaps it is a futile attempt to convince the declining population that some sort of activity remains.
I follow a narrow laneway out from the station and almost felt that I had entered the spirit world of Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away. Tiny shops with crumbling facades, old stock still on display, of the owners I can see no trace. Perhaps, like the streets of that movie, they exist for the spirits or the ghosts of the past, alive in another plane of existence.
I can easily imagine an ancient and rusting pachinko parlour, tucked away in an alley rather than dominating the edge of town, coming to life in the night, light bulbs flashing to the rattle of falling balls.
Those living that remain seem to require an inordinate amount of cosmetics and haircuts, two of the most common stores across tiny Japanese towns, Shiseido and Kose signs jutting out into the street, spiralling red, white and blue barbers poles remaining here, long gone at home.
I count at least three clothing stores still open. We of the cities and shopping malls are used to seeing only fashion chains and familiar labels, but out in the country, both here and at home, are clothing stores without pretence, no doubt selling items designed to be worn rather than displayed.
An agricultural shop sells hardware and seeds, for farmers, for the householders who bring colour to the grey towns with flowers and decorative vegetables.
Two shopkeepers wait for customers in a manga comic store, the exterior decorated with maps of Shimonita’s remarkable geology, pikachus, Doraemon the robot cat and even some Christmas hangings.
A temizuya, for cleansing, and a torii with rich red paint cracking and peeling guard the Ryuseiji shrine. The wood carvings of dragons and birds are exquisite, but the stone lanterns are crumbling. At the rear I can hear the sound of the river.
But not all is decayed. A freshly painted storehouse sells konnyaku, a tuber derived jelly that the region is famous for. In its normal state it is flavourless and soaks up the flavours of the dish it is added to, such as a stew. Here they have sweet flavoured jellies, like those sold in the Asian sections of supermarkets, though these are finer. I am tempted by some with yuzu citrus peel inside, but fear Australian quarantine laws, so I choose a clear block of strawberry gel to take home instead.
Elsewhere in the town a “French” patisserie seems to sell on madelines, many with bean paste inside. Vanity or a viable business, I cannot tell.
I walk past a couple of karaoke bars, but their signs for laserdiscs would indicate that the nights are free of drunken singing.
I come to an area looking down into the river valley. The view of mountains and river is attractive. The whole town is really. If this were some other country it might be turned into a place full of arts and crafts, shops selling rather than being antiques and quaint little cafes. It might attract those seeking an alternative lifestyle and it would thrive on tourists.
Turning back, I hear voices and my mouth waters at the scent of cooking in a small restaurant. I poke my head in, but cannot decipher what is on offer. My time is now limited and I cannot afford a confused wait, so I back out.
I come across the Toshiba electronics store featured in Spike Japan’s wonderfully evocative article about Shimonita. The rice cooker and cassette player were still there in the window, but the CD player had disappeared. Perhaps the spirits listen to compact discs now in addition to singing along to their larger karaoke cousins.
The Hilo cafe opposite the station doubles as a souvenir shop. New and most definitely occupied, it lacks the character of its other cousins around the town. But it did have photos of the tonkatsu special and I was now in even more of a hurry, so I order and enjoy it.
I make it into the train with a minute to spare. It’s one of their Series 6000 EMUs and the front window is barred in such a way as to make video not worth it, so I sit down to enjoy the ride back to Takasaki.
On my return to Takasaki station I check the large local produce store for anything I can find as a birthday gift for B. I do find miso paste to replenish our stocks, but the bags are held closed by rubber bands and I am not sure if customs will pass them.
The queues for seat reservations are too long, so I grab my big bag out of the locker and take my chances with an unreserved seat back to Tokyo Station.
This time I’m on the upper deck of a Max Toki as I ride the now familiar route back towards the capital. Once there I need a seat reservation for the Narita Express to the airport, but I go to a blue, not a green, ticket desk and wait fruitlessly in the queue. Fortunately, the small green office outside the nearest gates is quiet and I get my reservation in time.
Sadly, now it is time for the all too familiar ride back to the airport. I gaze out of the window as we pass out through the suburbs of Tokyo, through Chiba and the quiet rice paddies and bamboo clad hills while feeling the sadness of leaving, the eagerness of returning to see my family and the fear of the journey ahead.