Seeing Japan from the slow train – part 2: Shinagawa to Kashiwazaki

Early on Saturday morning I grabbed my pack and walked to Shinagawa. The first stage of the route was the usual ride on any of the frequent Tokyo commuter trains to Ueno. Once there, I found the train bound for Takasaki. For some reason I had expected this to be an actual train for the nearly 2 hour ride, but it turned out to be just another commuter with a bench on each side of the car and lots of open floorspace for standing. It also started to rain and the windows quickly fogged, but there wasn’t a huge amount of scenery to be missed as the journey trundled on through the northern Tokyo suburb belt, though it did improve a little approaching Takasaki.

At Takasaki I changed for Minakami (and a real train this time with seating perpendicular to the direction of travel) and had a very pleasant hour ride up into the mountains, sharing my 4 seat section with 3 Japanese women probably in their 70’s who seemed highly amused by my frequent attempts to take pictures of the scenery through the lightly fogged window. This part of the trip generally goes up a valley with all the associated twists and turns, whereas the roughly parallel Nagano Shinkansen bullet train bypasses the scenery to take a straight line through nearly endless tunnels. The local line also has some tunnels, and coming out of one of them near Minakami revealed the entrance to winter. The Tokyo side of the mountains tends to be relatively dry in winter so there is less snowfall, but once over (or rathar through) the crest the snow was clearly melting but still piled high.

Minakami was yet another transfer, this time to Miyauchi. Even with rain and low clouds this section was simply stunning with mountains still covered by deep snow, twisting tunnels, and even a couple of stations inside of tunnels. There are also several ski resorts in this area and the bullet train emerges from it’s tunnels long enough to deliver skiers on day trips from Tokyo. This was one of the train rides that you hope just keeps going and going, but eventually it had to come to it’s end.

The transfer in Miyauchi for Kashiwazaki was over an hour long, which gave plenty of time to bypass the shops near the station and take a stroll through town in search of something for lunch, in the process stumbling across some interesting buildings and even a sake brewery. I also watched a bullet train go by on it’s elevated tracks at full speed, eerily silent from a quarter mile or so away. Once back on the train, it was a snowy and foggy descent out of the mountains to the Sea of Japan coast, again a ride that you hoped would just keep going.

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