Train journeys are always a joy in Japan. It’s easy, comfortable, clean and convenient. We took the 7-day JR Pass, which allowed us to move from town to village with ease on the vast network of connections. From Minakami Onsen we headed for Unazuki Onsen, another small onsen town in the foothills of the Japanese alps. The first leg of the train ride on the fast Hakutaka train was a series of showy breathtaking vistas as the train burrowed through hills and mountains, bursting out of dark tunnels to sprawling farm land, villages, water-logged fields and always the majestic snow-capped peaks of the Japanese alps, before hugging the coast briefly.
But that was not the only story that was told. The slow commuter electric train that would bring us on the second leg of the day to Unazuki Onsen showed us an entirely different but equally rewarding landscape – one that is slower, up-close and intimate. To go from shinkansen to neighbourhood train in one day and to see two different sides of scenic Japan is always a pleasure.
With the JR Pass it is a breeze to hop on and off the shinkansen as if it were the neighbourhood bus. The trains all run on time so it’s easy to hop via shinkansen to the next stop at Echigo Yuzawa where we change trains to the Hakutaka. While not as fast as the shinkansen, this is the next best thing.
We had enough time before the train arrived to stop at the ticket window to get reservations. Japanese trains are great. Love the wide comfy seats that could recline for a snooze. But with the gorgeous mountain scenery, who could nap? It would take us about two hours to get to Uozu but those would be spent taking lots of pictures at the view whizzing past.
At Uozu on the coast, we took the small commuter train at the Shin Uozu station just across the tracks from JR Uozu. The train ride to Unazuki Onsen would take about an hour. No big wow views here but a quieter side as we traveled deeper inland.
The rail track cuts a path through residential neighbourhoods in suburbs on the outskirts of town – in some places, skirting so close to the homes that you could look inside. That always leaves me curious about the people who live there. Who are they? What are their lives like? What do they do for a living? What is their daily routine like? What would it be like to live in their skin? They are probably no different from us with the same transient blips of happiness and angst. We all worry about success and failure, acceptance and rejection. Strip away culture and geography and fundamentally everyone’s pretty much the same. But still, that does not stop me wondering.
The train stops at different stations, some are merely open platforms, with a nothing but a simple wooden hut as a waiting area. These are the sort of small stations you find in small towns that I would dearly love to explore. At these stops, people ring the bell, get off and walk home or unchain a waiting bike and cycle home. Obachan wait at traffic crossings patiently with plastic bags of groceries. Someone walks a dog. A teenage boy easily jumps over the low fence that separates the track from the road.
School must have been out because the train is filled with elementary school and high school kids on their way home. In their white and dark-blue uniforms, bright yellow caps and backpacks, they remind me of my kids back home. They gaze at us with I guess, the some sort of curiosity I have about them. I try to surreptitiously take a couple of pictures.
One rosy-cheeked boy summoned up enough courage to venture a polite but shy “Konnichiwa”. I smile back delighted at the hello and say konnichiwa too. Then the train stops and he’s gone.
We travel on through green leafy tunnels of branches, feathery bamboo brushing past in some places. The train climbs upward a little. A river, more rocky bed than water, slowly flows by. Houses grow sparser and farther apart. As we go deeper into the countryside, the clouds become a sullen grey. It starts to rain heavily, water lashing the windows as we rumble across a bridge set high above the river. And then just like that, the sun comes out and in a matter of a few minutes, we arrive at the terminal station – Unazuki Onsen.
Welcome to the gateway of the Kurobe Gorge.