2014
07.09

SYNOPSIS:  An almost uneventful long day in transit, except for bizarre weather changes and another “cult” train, the Hakone-Tozan Rail, that tops even the previous ones I have seen.  About conductors and their work.

 

Where in the world is there a train where you pay for special pleasure night rides going back and forth?  The point is to enjoy the lit-up flowers that line the tracks and that are in full bloom just now.  I had not heard of one until today.  To make it a real touristy thing for which you can charge extra, you paint one of the trains very nicely, equip it with a slick-looking viewing car front and back, call it Romance Train and you are in business!

That’s exactly what you can get in June and July when you ride from Yumoto Station to Gora.  I came too early in the day for the special rides.  And I would likely have been too cheap to pay the extra money…   And I would definitely have felt lonely to go on a “Romance” train all by myself.  So I got the ordinary ride from Yumoto to Gora instead.

But that was not bad either.  Since it was getting dark, parts of the stations and the tracks were already lit up.  This was peak season for all the flowers which were blooming in white and all shades of purple and pink.  That these flowers survive with dozens of trains going by every day tells you something about the speed of the train.

When the four-car train is not screeching around corners or bumping through tunnels, it tuckers along rather leisurely between these flowers frequently changing directions to manage to get up the steep mountains.  I experienced that once before, crossing the Kyushu Island from Komamoto to Oita as an ingenious way to climb.  It works really well.

Not only does the train change direction, the two accompanying personnel also switch.  Work etiquette of the conductor and the driver is highly regulated.  They wear uniforms and white gloves at all times, but they also greet each other very formally when switching sides and they have outright funny gestures at any time there is a crossing, a traffic light, or a station.  The driver in a very loud, stylized voice calls out commands or assurances such as:  “clear”, “safe”, “checked x,y, z”.  I did not understand a thing of all this but a nice older lady who had some knowledge of English explained it to me when I asked.  The conductor always gets out at the station and checks if all the lights of the trains are still working and gives commands when the train is ready to roll again. I hope these guys don’t do this in their dreams!

I arrived at my newly opened guest house — literally, they have been in business for just one week — and to a small but lively international crowd: there were Thor, Kari and Helena from Norway and Marko from Germany.  The five of us had fun chatting in English and drinking the draft beer from the guest house.

At the end of the night there was the onsen, the hot spring right beneath the house.  It is neatly divided into male and female sections indicated by an artificial rock formation separating the spring but uniting the bathing area under a common ceiling.  The Norwegians had retired to bed already and so it was Marko on one side of the rock and I on the other who across the formation continued our conversation in German.  A somewhat bizarre scene if you picture it.

And who would not sleep well after a day like this?  I did.  Good night.