Last day in Japan and I have much to do. I wake early, feeling very refreshed despite the interruption, and pack my belongings.
There is no free breakfast in the hotel. I hope to find some small cafe outside selling a breakfast of thick Japanese toast, some salad and hot chocolate and tea. Unfortunately, everywhere seems to be still closed, so I am forced to grab some more bakery products for later consumption.
The sky is bright blue and the mountain air feels very fresh. A perfect day to be out exploring.
I have a choice of three terminating rural railway lines that I would like to take from Takasaki. The private Joshin line runs frequently but will cost extra, the Omae line is too irregular and slow. But the Shin’etsu main line is quick and frequent so I choose that. the train is leaving soon, so I hurry down to the two car electric train, white with pink and green stripes. Lots of schoolkids and other passengers are already aboard, so I hang around the door.
Most passengers leave at the next station of this local service. We rattle out through the suburbs of Takasaki, then out across fields of yellow, passing the Toho Zinc smelter and Shinetsu chemical factories. Our route is taking us up towards the mountains, their craggy, eroded profile giving them an exotic appeal, the scenery even more attractive as we ride into their midst.
The line terminates at Yokokawa, but once it ran all way up into the mountains to Niigata, from where I came yesterday. It is now split in two, with the section between Yokokawa and Karuizawa abandoned. That section once featured a 66.7% gradient through Usui Pass, so steep that a rack and pinion railway in operation until 1963, when it was replaced with powerful helper locomotives. Sadly, this middle section of the line was closed in 1997, for it must have been a spectacular ride.
I suspect that there might be a walking trail along the old railway route, for I saw some passengers setting off in the direction of the old line. The station has a diorama of the rack railway, along with some track, on display.
Much more is on display at the curiously named Poppo Town right across from the station. This is a cross between a railway museum and amusement park and it’s something I definitely have to see.
I pay my entrance fee and walk past the little Thomas and Ampanman rides on their small circular or oval tracks, past motorised ride on pandas to an engine shed housing locomotives and trains used on the Usui Pass section of line.
There’s a 183 series that is much like the 485 I caught beween Akita and Niigata yesterday. These had to be hauled by additional locomotives over the pass, the specially built EF63 class. Some of the very cramped cramped cabins of the EF63s in the engine shed have been converted into simulators, with big screens displaying scenery. All the rides and simulators cost extra and I didn’t feel like paying for them this time, but if I could bring Alex back to here one day…
Up the hill behind the engine shed are many more trains on static display. Steam engines, electric locomotives, snow ploughs, passenger cars. Most can only be viewed from the outside, but they are quite a sight against the mountain backdrop.
There appear to be a couple of operational trains, perhaps for short rides up towards the Pass. One electric locomotive is shunting, but no action is happening with the brown open sided diesel hauled Poppo Town train. Perhaps it only runs on weekends.
A couple of miniature trains run on tracks around the park. The smaller of these has little level crossings where the footpaths cross its track: Alex would so love that. I catch the larger, diesel hauled train with little wooden carriages. It takes us very slowly on a loop around Poppo Town, across the overpass overlooking the park.
A building houses a HO and N gauge model railway layouts, complete with an alien and mechanoid invasion, along with a museum and small shop which sells some model railway goods. A Y100 coin will send a train running around the layout. Unfortunately, I didn’t really find the inspiration I was looking for in my own layout at home.
I doubt if Poppo Town is one of the great railway museums or amusement parks, but it’s pleasant and cute and a place that Alex could have a bit of fun for a few hours. I wished that he was here with me now.
There was still a bit of time before the next train back to Takasaki. Unfortunately, they run a little less frequently around the middle of the day. I found a Post Office bank with it foreign card ATM, then wandered the quiet streets of Yokokawa. So often we race past these tiny rural towns, but I always feel an urge to get off an explore. A number of shops were shuttered and I wondered if they would open again. A grey torii marked the entrance to a shrine up the side of a pine covered hill, while water flowed noisily down a stream nearby.
A couple of the eateries were open near the train station, but time was getting too short for a sit down meal, despite my hunger. I so wanted to sit down in the tiny coffee shop, just a few basic tables inside, assorted flowerpots outside, for a simple meal, but no, it was time to go.
I decided to relax and enjoy the ride rather than take so many photographs on the way back down. Once back in Takasaki I realised that I really didn’t have that much time left and should make my way to Tokyo. I still hadn’t bought some toys for Alex and I.
As I boarded the sleek Asama Shinkansen there was again confusion with someone sitting in my seat. The older lady offered me the window seat, her bag inconveniently big, and I gladly accepted. She was curious about me and had a decent command of English so we got to chatting. Though she now lived near Takasaki, she hailed from Kagoshima in the south of Kyushu island and was now off to a high school reunion in Osaka, where she was going to meet a friend she had not seen for 44 years.
I suggested that with such clear skies she should get a great view of Mount Fuji on her Shinkansen ride to Osaka.
Before long we enter the great metropolis of Tokyo and arrived at the main station, where we part ways. I quickly hop on a Yamanote line train to legendary Akihabara, home of electronics. My research said I should find lots of hobby and toy shops here.
Akihabara is also one of the busier and more confusing parts of Tokyo. I realise that I haven’t the time to hunt down TamTam hobbies or some of the other shops, so I took the easy option and crossed over to the big (and new looking) Yodobashi Camera, so familiar from my frequent Shinjuku jaunts.
In addition to phones, cameras, computers, audio and household electrical appliances, and unlike their Shinjuku branch, Yodobashi Akihabara also sell toy and hobby goods. I find what I wanted for Alex, a Tomy Plarail level crossing and some construction vehicles, plus more than I could carry home. The model railway stock is a bit limited and, though I got some inspiration from one tiny display layout, I decide to wait until my next visit to purchase goods.
Now I really am getting hungry, but this part of Akihabara is all chain stores. I think I’ll try to get to Narita before my flight out. It should be easier to find some food there for dinner.
Back on the Yamanote Line to Tokyo station. I really was hungry so I look for somewhere to eat, but again all I can do was find bakery goods. I need to book a seat on the Narita Express, so I go up to the ground level offices of the station. Outside people are milling around and taking photos of the very recently opened refurbishment. I really is quite grand and in quite stark contrast to the dingy underground platform where I wait for the NEX.