2014
06.18

TRANSIT

SYNOPSIS:  About a twelve-hour journey in which I made nine transfers, used ten different modes of transportation and reached the holy mountain Koyasan.  This blog is mainly about a few observations on the various ways of getting around.

By the time I arrived in Koyasan it was 8:30 PM, but this little mountain town was already asleep.  Nobody on the streets, no sign of life, no open store, no restaurant, no traffic.  The full moon was hanging over the mountains and this sleepy mountain village at 857 meters elevation promised to be a special place.  After all, I had gone out of my way to get here and this was the special headquarters of the Shingon sect.

So here it is about transportation if you care: in Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku, I started out with the two Belgian girls and on a whim decided not to take the train back, but to leave via the ferry with them.  We shared a taxi and reached the port of Matsuyama, where ferries to the mainland depart regularly.  If you want to shave off about 45 minutes of the 2.5 hour ride, you can pay double.  With front seats overlooking the waters ahead of us we enjoyed the slow ride and had a relaxing and beautiful time.

One thing has to be said about transportation in Japan — there is always a connection to get to the next place and these connections are either frequent or timed incredibly well.  I boarded a tram at the port to get to Hiroshima station.  The trams everywhere operate on an honor system.  You get in at the back and when you leave you drop the flat fare which is posted everywhere into the box near the driver; but nobody is counting.  Theoretically, everyone could cheat, but nobody seems to.  Just like with the discipline of taking care of your own trash, how is it possible to train an entire people to be honest?  I bet there are exceptions, but they seem to be negligible.

From Hiroshima I could have taken the next fast train (Shinkansen) to Osaka, but instead I opted to take care of some business since it was convenient: change money and send a package of souvenirs back to Tokyo.  That took quite a bit of time.   But given that there is a train to Osaka every hour or more frequently during peak times, who cares?

Despite the frequency of trains, the Shinkansen was completely full.  In more than three weeks of traveling I have yet to see a single train to be late!  And that goes for the local trains as well as the fast ones.  With all due respect, the German system does not live up to that.  I heard that if the Shinkansen is ever late, you will get your money back!

With the disciplined passengers and the well-marked lines for boarding, the Shinkansen stops typically no longer than 2 minutes.  One minute unloading, one minute loading and off it goes — whizzing at about 130 kilometres per hour for the ones I am allowed to take on my railroad pass.  There are faster trains, mainly because they don’t stop as frequently and can gain more speed along the way, but I would have to pay extra and really — who needs faster than fast when you are not on business?

In Osaka things got more complicated as I had to leave the state-run JR system and get onto the privately operated Nanki lines.  A loop train took me to a transfer point.  This was the first time I was able to board one of those “women only” cars that I had heard of.  It was nice — much less crowded, women and children only.  The car itself is marked, and the boarding area on the platform is too, in big red letters.  In general, red seems to indicate female and blue is the male.  That goes for toilets, public baths, and other entrances.  Often, entrance doors have cloths hanging in front of the door.  An all-blue cloth might need some investigation before just entering as a woman and vice versa.  One young man must have not paid attention or been in a hurry to board; as soon as he realized that he was in the women’s car he made for a quick exit, transferring to the next, much more crowded car.

From the transfer station in Osaka, I had to walk 5 minutes to the train station connected with the private rail — a few of those operate throughout the country alongside, or instead of the the JR lines, as in this case.   There I got stuck: no ticket counter, no official to help — automated ticket machines with everything written in Japanese.  But after asking a few people for help, I got into the system.  The interesting thing is that you will always have to pass a check point with a ticket (automated) when you enter a platform.  When you leave, you are checked again.  If, as in my case, if you paid too little, you will be charged the difference then.  No shame in that — no implication of having wanted to cheat, just matter of fact rectification — you fall short, here is how much you owe.  I had paid for the regular train but then I boarded the more expensive express train.

Luckily I had ended up on an express commuter train —  it took long enough as we moved away from the big city into the outskirts and soon the mountainous areas South of Osaka.

At one point everybody left the train.  Now what?  I thought I had purchased a ticket to the end?  A guy noticed my confusion and just escorted me across the platform.  Koyasan?  Yes, I guess that’ s where most of the foreigners go to when they have made it this far.  And within five minutes an even more local yokel train left for the mountains.  The scenery got better and better.  Breath-taking mountains, deep valleys, the sun setting — wow!  At each station the elevation was indicated and you could feel the train working hard to make its way up and up and up.

Fewer and fewer people remained on the train.  In the end only about 10, mainly foreign touristy types of people were left.  And finally, in darkness already, we reached the last train stop.

From here there was only a steep cable car to make the final stretch to the top.  A jolly big, round guy from Spain helped me to carry my suitcase — this was not a handicap-friendly station.  It turned out that he had come from Osaka this afternoon and completely miscalculated the time it would take to get here — no more than 70 km on the map does not look like much.  On the Shinkansen a mere 30 minutes or less.  The way we had come though, this stretch took closer to three hours.  He did not even come with a tooth brush, as he thought he would already be on his way back by now.  That was quite funny.  But he was assured that there was one spot where he would find lodging.  The next day he had to be back at a conference in Osaka — I hope he got to see at least a little bit of the town in the early morning hours.

And finally, there was the bus that picked us up right from the station.  The bus driver kindly checked all of our hotels so that he would know when to direct us to depart.  The bus system is another type of honor system.  At each station there is a fare amount displayed in a window high up near the driver.  You may take a ticket when you board the bus which displays the number of the stop: #1, for example.  The longer the bus goes, the fare increases.  You then have to watch the amount corresponding to your stop so that you know exactly how much to pay when you depart.  In case you don’t have the exact change, a change box will take up to $10 and spit out coins in exchange.  Again, you drop a handful of coins into the box as you exit, but who is counting, or who is checking your ticket?  But it seems to work.  I am impressed!

And there I was, let out by the bus driver who pointed backwards and towards the right — now I had to find my hotel.  It’s not a hotel, but one of the many monasteries who house visitors as they have since the beginning of this mountain retreat.  But more about all that tomorrow.

It’s been a long day.  Good night.

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  1. Wow!…I hope you had some adrenaline left for the rest of the mountain trip! Or maybe just sleep when you get home right? My record for transfers is only 7 : (