Catching trains is what I like to do in Japan.
I wake up on my normal schedule, despite that being way too early for Japan and after the exhaustion of the night before. Yet I ended up leaving in a hurry after discovering a hole in my pants and having to quickly (and poorly) sew it up.
It was raining outside, but I had lost the large compact umbrella I had purchased from a shop under the hotel. A shop that is still closed this early into the morning. So instead I take the underground Subnade shopping route to Shinjuku Station, where I hop on to a Super Azusa train for Kobuchizawa.
My intention is to catch Japan’s highest railway line, the Koumi.
But I can see that the rain will block all views of the mountains. What’s the point? I go through my list of other options, using the Hyperdia app on my phone. I jump off at Tachikawa and settle for returning to Tokyo Station to head towards the Boso Peninsula.
I’m half asleep.
The Limited Express Wakashio doesn’t leave until 11 am and it’s now 9.20. So I quickly catch a train up to Akihabara and peruse the model railway stock at the huge Yodobashi there. I’ll save buying until the return, don’t want to lug it around.
The LEx Wakashio is on platform 1, but not the same platform 1 I arrived on at Tokyo Station. It’s hidden away on the Keiyo Line platforms deep in the basement.
We are running out towards Chiba, the area I flew over last night. Urban Japan can be very grey, even more so under these skies. Past ports, warehouses and factories, past unremarkable apartment blocks. Green trees line roads, but they struggle to break up the near unrelenting dullness of the urban landscape of greater Tokyo.
Eventually the housing peters out and we emerge into a rural area, of rice paddies and bamboo and forest clad hills. It’s familiar from riding the Narita Express. There are no mountain vistas to spoiled by the rain. It is all close scenery.
I leave the train at Ohara. I have half an hour before my next train leaves. I go into the small shop affiliated with the private Isumi Tetsudo that I am going to catch. There are pickles, preserved sardines and crackers for sale. I buy a pack of the latter. I’ve had no luck finding the right umbrella, but I definitely need one. So I relent and buy a generic big clear plastic umbrella from the shop. It’s got a picture of the Isumi Line printed on it, so it’s special after all.
Now protected I wander out into the small town. Most shops are shuttered or just quiet. A couple look like they are straight out of the Tokyo-Edo Open Air Museum we visited last trip. A Meiji Era copper clad shop house right next to one of metallic gold.
I walk up to the Tourist Information kiosk. The lady only speaks Japanese and I understand only a little, but then she fetches someone from the adjacent cafe, who tells me that some of the area’s temple woodcarvings inspired Hokusai and his famous tsunami ukiyo-e woodblock print.
Unfortunately I have no car and no time to visit this trip and explore the town and area further. It’s time to return to the station.
I take my familiar position at the very front window of the diesel rail car and setup my action camera. The young driver appears to be under the supervision of an older driver, and loudly states every action and observation as we chug out of the station.
My exhaustion melts away and I am suddenly very happy. This is what I love doing, bumping along a narrow rural line through groves so narrow that bamboo slaps the front windows of the train. If only Japan promoted these scenic little railways more widely perhaps they wouldn’t be in such dire financial straits.
This is an intimate landscape, tunnels of trees, swirling brown rivers and valleys of farms. It matters not that it’s raining outside, perhaps it only enhances the view here. It is so pretty.
Now and then the supervising driver points out a sight. A grove of Moomins, Swedish cartoon characters that the Japanese have taken to heart. A bridge with a Moomin guardian to one side.
The older and younger driver swap at one station. The younger now points out the castle atop a hill overlooking the town of Otaki. The station, also strangely known as Otaki Dental Support, after the sale of naming rights, has samurai and ninja mannequins and looks like a great place to explore further.
Not this time.
The terminus of Kazusa-Nakano is tiny. An small wooden hut with an ashtray in the centre makes up the station where the Isumi Line meets the Kominato. Photos of the Kominato Line, published just before my last trip to Japan, inspired me to make this journey today. The town itself is mostly shuttered and there are abandoned shops and houses. Strangely a Kanebo cosmetics shop near the station remains, a quiet little grocery store still seems to be functioning without any customers inside. I think the petrol station is still operational, though I’m not sure if it’s currently open.
I return to the station.
An old orange and yellow KiHa 200 rail car trundles noisily up the Kominato Line and disburses blue jumpsuited workers, who take a smoke in the hut. I climb on board.
Sadly there’s no accessible view from the front and the windows are streaked with fog and rain. Soon the front area is taken up by the railway workers anyway. There’s a driver and, surprisingly, a conductor, who checks the tickets. Normally this would be a driver only operation.
Despite being more feted, I don’t quite enjoy the Kominato Line as much as the Isumi. Perhaps it’s the lack of a front view, but perhaps the landscape is a little plainer. More rice paddies, lightly terraced. Interesting station buildings, each with its own set of pretty flowers growing nearby.
We return to an urban landscape before reaching the terminus of Goi.
From here I catch the JR Sobu Rapid Line, a commuter service that completes the loop at Soga, meeting the Wakashio services and continuing up until I jump off at Kinshicho for a Chuo Line Local which takes me to Akihabara.
I join the mass of Japanese and tourists strolling past the maid cafe girls, the manga, games and duty free electronics shops. I’m after the Tam Tam Hobby Store, armed with a list of tracks to buy for Alex’s model railway layout. He demanded one during our last trip.
I emerge with just one track missing. I search another store, then Yodobashi. Nothing.
So I head back to Shinjuku, try the Yodobashi in West Shinjuku where I went last trip. It’s only small, but luck! They have the crossover!
Back across to the East side of the station and Tower Records. More luck, they have Naoki Sato’s soundtrack to the Space Battleship Yamato movie I watched on SBS a few weeks prior.
Overloaded with goods, I return to the hotel, dump them, then reemerge to wander around Kabuki Cho to find a late dinner. Tonkotsu ramen. And that’s it. I could barely keep my eyes open or walk straight.
But I’d caught some trains and done my (guys’) shopping. I’d call that a successful day.
With better weather, the Koumi line awaits tomorrow.