The end of the line

Where is that, the old track going?
Where is there, I want to know
Running away, I want to follow
Far away, I want to go

Into the distance, the old track leading
Into the unknown, I will follow
Hidden away, I will seek
Beyond horizons, I will go

Comes the time, the old track ceases
Comes the place, I find the end
Where it goes, I cannot follow
The passing of a dear friend

We begin this final installment of our 25 day trip around Asia at the end. Once the Shin’etsu Line ran all the way from Takasaki to Nagano and Niigata via the very steep (1 in 15) Usui Pass. So steep that it required a rack system, like that of the Oigawa Line of a week ago, before that was replaced by powerful helper locomotives.

With the opening of the Nagano Shinkansen in October 1997 the Usui Pass section was closed and the line split into separate sections. The section from Takasaki now terminates at Yokokawa and it was to there that we were heading.

It’s only half an hour by local train to Yokokawa, but it’s a pretty line up into the mountains, with the scenic peak formations and trees still bare of leaves. There are factories along the way too, including the Shin’etsu Corporation buildings with so many lightning rods on their roofs.

The railway tracks abruptly end at Yokokawa station. Or do they?

Just beyond the station is the Usui Pass Railway Heritage Park, emblazoned with a logo reading “Poppo Town”, whatever that is supposed to mean.

We paid the Y500 per adult entrance fee (Alex was free). Alex immediately jumped on a miniature Anpanman train ride, a one person train on an oval track. Each ride costs extra, but he still loves these simple rides.

You can sit inside the tight cabins of the EF63 banking engines and even pay Y1000 to control a simulation of one, though it was a bit too expensive for us.

There are HO and N scale model railway layouts that you can pay Y100 to run around in circles (they also have free shows). There is also some merchandise for sale. While B stayed warm inside I bought return tickets for the “torokko” (tourist) train along a preserved section of track up to Touge-yu.

Alex and I climbed aboard the two carriage train, now pushed by a diesel locomotive, as it slowly crawls up the beginnings of the pass, past the banking engine sheds and up to the new Touge-yu station, which I believe houses hot baths. Unfortunately, it is not as far as the viaduct, but you still get the impression of the motive power required and it’s pretty scenery.

One of the two tracks has now been converted into a hiking path, the gap between the rails filled in. The track we are on is also used by the heritage museum to run EF63 driver training sessions for the public, though these must be booked in advance and I guess that Japanese language skills are mandatory.

For what felt to be the first time on this trip it was really cold, with low grey misty clouds drifting through the mountains. We were all glad for our warm clothing. I liked the chill, because I knew that it would make the warmth of any building or train so much more appreciated.

A small steam train was puffing its way slowly around a smaller gauge track around the perimeter to the park, which houses a number of different locomotives and carriages on static display. We paid Y1000 for a family ticket to run an even tinier train around another track at the park.

Alex sat at the throttle controls and I behind him with both our feet on the break pedals. Just turn the dial and you are off. Don’t forget to sound the horn at the level crossings!

It was a lot of fun, bringing back childhood memories of miniature trains up at Tullamarine in Melbourne. But it was also very cold, so we headed back to the train station, quickly slurping up some unmemorable soba and udon noodles, plus a potted rice dish that seems to be the signature dish of Yokokawa.

We managed to just miss the train, which meant waiting another 40 minutes for the next one. I spent the time wandering the main street, while Alex and B waited in the warmth of the station.

Much of the town looked to be in poor financial straights. I could only find that single eatery, though there looked to be a big one servicing the highway on the other side of the railway tracks. The coffee house was unlit and a couple of cosmetic shops were half shuttered. I found a Yamazaki general store further down the street, staffed by an old lady. When I went to buy a block of pear flavoured chocolate, she turned it over to reveal a used by date of 2008 and apologised. I wonder how many items were far past their used by dates and how these shops survive at all. So many of them are full of dusty items that may have sat there for decades. Yet I found myself liking sleepy Yokokawa. With just a touch more life and a comfortable, reasonably priced ryokan, a place like this could make for a pleasant relaxing stay.

Alex made friends with a five year old Japanese boy on the ride back to Takasaki. They ran around the carriage with Yukio making faces at me and I pretending to be scared. It was wonderful to see them having fun despite the language barrier. It all started when B got Alex to offer him a boiled sweet. Finally, at the end of the trip, he had found a friend to play with.

I had to return to the hotel at Takasaki to retrieve our luggage and then buy tickets for the Shinkansen back to Ueno in Tokyo. Without a JR Pass we found out how expensive these can be: Y4800 per person (~A$50). It is fortunate that the train had unused dedicated luggage space and Alex finally caught a Shinkansen again with a washbasin with integrated automatic water, soap and hot air dispensers.

We should have gone shopping at Ueno yesterday as it was only a quick trip and now we had to drag our luggage with us, the station lockers full and no left luggage service that we could find. We somehow squeezed through the market streets of the Okaido and Ameyoko, before finally finding a shoe shop for B. Eventually she made a choice of sneaker to replace her falling-apart-legendary-travelling pair and we could go to the Keisei train station for our ride to Narita Airport.

As I was catching the escalator my bags caught. The paper shopping bag ripped scattering contents everywhere while the big roller bag tipped over. An elderly lady behind me couldn’t evade fast enough and fell over. I had to quickly kick away my stuff before more accidents were caused, but it appeared that others were taking care of the poor lady, whisking her away to sit down, and many locals quickly came over offering spare shopping bags for our scattered plastic train tracks and sweets.

I swore that this was the last time that I had to carry so much luggage. The only piece which gave me no trouble whatsoever was the medium blue backpack. I’ve carried that pack all day on other trips and was still able to go sightseeing with it. I wish that the others could pack their belongings into similarly small packs and that we didn’t buy so much stuff. I also know now that Alex didn’t need so much entertainment. Suitcases, roller bags and huge backpacks are okay going from A to B by private transport, but are a pain when you are walking around or catching public transport.

I felt very sorry for the elderly lady, but was also not surprised. Old ladies in Japan are a bit like the Chinese, pushing in everywhere, assuming that everyone will move out of their way for them and not paying attention to their own safety around them. Most cultures that I know of have respect for the elderly, but as they become the majority it’s going to become increasingly difficult for the young.

We’ve never caught the Keisei Skyliner to Narita before, always using the N’EX thanks to our rail passes and Shinjuku being our destination. It was clean, comfortable, modern and fast (it uses some of the never-to-be-built Narita Shinkansen right of way) and took us a different route.

Once at Narita Airport we were confronted by a huge queue for Jetstar check in. They were having issues with their IT systems and technical problems forced the cancellation of the flight to Cairns.

After a long, long time we finally got to the desk and checked in. But now we had to go straight to the gate. We were delayed at security as they insisted on scanning all the electronics in my bag, then we had to catch the automated train to the satellite gates. By the time we got to gate 83 boarding was about to commence and the cafes were shuttering for the night. We’d had no dinner and no time to shop or wander around Narita Airport. I certainly wasn’t feeling relaxed.

Fortunately the aircraft was only about a third full. I would have thought many Cairns passengers would have been rebooked on this one, but maybe they were only going as far as there and not onwards like us from the Gold Coast. I was seated alone by the window, B and Alex in front of me. The leather seats were more comfortable than Scoot’s, though it’s a pity about the 2-4-2 configuration for the three of us, because I wasn’t giving up a window again.

We were late to push back from the gate. The safety demonstration was over and we were about to take a long taxi out to the main runway when we stopped, then the captain informed us that we were returning to the gate. Was it a technical issue? Would we have to be put up in a hotel for an extra night? I kind of hopped so, for I was in no hurry to leave Japan.

No, it was none of those things. Not even a sick passenger who needed unloading. It was a some idiot who had lit up his cigarette and now had to be escorted off the flight along with all his luggage from the hold. I was furious.

We wanted to catch our early flight back to Sydney so that we could pick up our dog Kita from the kennel. They would be closing at midday on this Easter Sunday and not reopening until Tuesday. Now we might miss him just because somebody couldn’t handle their tobacco addiction.

Finally we were underway again and had to endure a second safety demonstration. Our long, long taxi out to the runway gave me my first glimpses of the Boeing 787. There were a number of them belonging to JAL, ANA and United just parked there, engines covered, unable to fly until their battery issues are rectified.

There were brief views of city lights as we took off, then we were in the clouds. For once we actually awaited the food service, as we had brought no drink or dinner with us in the mad rush. I bought drinks and a couple of sandwiches for myself. B and Alex just wanted to sleep, moved over to the middle rows opposite me.

As B took up the entire row space, Alex moved back next to me and lay on my lap. The two of them slept almost the entire way. Lucky them, I barely got a nap. But I did watch the soon expiring movie Source Code on my phone and a couple of Doctor Who episodes on my tablet.

There were quite a few patches of high cloud along the way and much of the flight was quite bumpy, though the seatbelt lights were never lit. I was not in the mood for turbulence and didn’t enjoy it. When the high clouds disappeared and the Moon was reflected in a shimmering sea below, then I was happier.

Alex awoke at sunrise, always so beautiful from above. He occupied himself as a drifted down towards the Gold Coast. I suffered a microsleep on descent, missed crossing the coast. Sadly no gorgeous sunrise over the water this time, the sky was already bright.

They didn’t even check our bags at quarantine, just taking our (truthful) word about our declarations. When we went to drop off our bags for our connecting Jetstar flight down to Sydney we were informed that we had been rebooked to a later flight due to our delay. She managed to squeeze us into the last three seats on the 9.35 am flight, but we would still be too late to pick up the dog. Curse you smokers! At least we were given $24 worth of vouchers for breakfast. We had what we missed most, milk, hot chocolate and fruit salad.

We asked our neighbour to pick him up for us and called and called the kennel to discuss, always getting their answering machine. It turns out that they were actually closed, despite informing both B and I otherwise.

While we waited for our flight to board we watched the Saint Kilda AFL team lining up to fly Tiger Airways, which seemed a bit rough on them. I guess they did lose the match.

Boarding of our Jetstar A320 was via the rear stairs and we were in the rearmost seats. Normally, after long, sometimes rough, overnight flights from Japan, the shorter domestic leg is a very pleasant cruise through clear morning skies and very enjoyable.

Not today. There was high cloud almost the whole way with constant bumps. Being in the rear we felt them all. I couldn’t wait for this flight to end, but Sydney was clear as we touched down from the south.

I saw the AirAsia flight to Kuala Lumpur, the same one that had taken the M-i-L there on the first day of our vacation. At the Gold Coast, a Scoot flight had taken off shortly before ours. As we taxied to our gate I gazed at the international terminal and thought to myself, despite having a couple of rough flights, I could get on one of those aircraft and take right off again. It’s that sense of anticipation of an adventure to be had that you don’t get upon your return.

With all our luggage we decided that a taxi was the only way to get home. The price of a ride with a garrulous driver who loved to talk about traffic fines was over two thirds of the cost of our last Shinkansen ride at 250+ km/h.

We arrived back home to quiet house virtually devoid of food and we were hungry. Being an Easter Sunday, virtually nothing in the area was open. So it was Maccas for lunch and ingredients from a petrol station convenience store for a pasta dinner eaten in front of the television with the latest episode of Doctor Who premiering. That was nice, a private meal.

Alex was glad to be back with his toys. B hid chocolate eggs, purchased before our departure, around the house to give him the Easter egg hunt he missed out on at childcare. B too was glad to be home.

But I stepped outside, savouring the wamrth and the rare peace of an Easter Sunday, and I could hear the sound of jet aircraft flying through the clear skies and I wished that I was up there again, heading out on another adventure.

So much of my life, my work, so many of my contacts outside of my family, are online now that it doesn’t matter where I am so long as I have internet access. I enjoyed the freedom of not caring what time or day it was, except for those fixed points of flight schedules. Life is so repetitious, so routine, at home, at work. It feel unnecessarily, constrained by others. That’s what holidays and travel give you, the potential to be unconstrained.

So after twenty-five days, four countries, nine flights, almost thirty thousand words and many thousands of photos we come to the end of the line. Until next time.

Yokokawa to Ueno photos
Flight home

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