2007/09/03

Road Trip (Railroad That Is)

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I'm sittin' in the railway station, got a ticket for my destination... we arrived in Shinjuku with an hour to spare. That's an older 7000 VSE Romance Car (in service since 1980) train behind her. Very retro looking in a cool way.

K did not get a long summer vacation this year as she shared duties with some of the other teachers at her elementary school - cleaning, watering plants, feeding the animals (no, not the children - I mean animals like fish, rabbits and chickens), so our vacation was a quick three days, and two nights to Hakone and Kamakura. It was a bit hectic and perhaps we should have stayed at one or the other, but we did enjoy both venues and we'd love to do it all again sometime - at a more leisurely pace (and with, ahem, better planning on my part).

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We started early, saying goodbye to Momo the Wonder Dog (she was cared for by K's mom) drove to neighboring Itako City (20 minutes) to catch a highway bus to Tokyo Station. (We can take the bus from Kashima City, but it makes several stops before getting to Itako from where it is nonstop to Tokyo, so easier just to catch it in Itako.) Timing was perfect and we walked from the car directly onto 8 o'clock bus. No danger of missing the connection though as the buses run every ten minutes. Along the way we could catnap for the next hour or so as we cruised the expressway across the Kanto plain, passing by Narita along the way.

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Direct distance from our house to Fuji-san is about 195 km (121 miles)

From Tokyo station, a train took us the short distance to Shinjuku Station - another part of Tokyo and the busiest train station in the world. There we would board the Odakyu Line's "Romance Car", a limited express train that would whisk us off to Hakone National Park at the foot of Mt. Fuji. With its beautiful scenery, views of Fuji-san, hot spring spas, and proximity to Tokyo, Hakone has long been a favorite "getaway".

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50000 VSE Romance Car - oh, and K

The Romance Car service is celebrating 50 years. The name comes from the seating configuration, which is paired seats with no arm rest between them. The train in the first picture is an older one (early 80's vintage). Our train was new, built just last year, called the 50000 VSE series, which has vaulted ceilings and wood trim interior. The reserved seating is very comfortable with lots of leg room and the 110 kph (~70 mph) ride is whisper quiet and as smooth as glass. We were traveling with a "Freepass" (5500 yen) which includes return train fare from Shinjuku and allows unlimited travel on all of the forms of transport within Hakone for three days - there are a lot of them as you'll see. It also gives you a discount at the many museums and other attractions. The Romance Car is a little extra (870 yen) over the regular train service, but I think well worth it.


From Shinjuku to Hakone took about 1 hour 25 minutes. Along the way we shared a couple of bento (ordered on board) of lake trout sushi, rice dishes and assorted other goodies.

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As the train glided south, the cityscape turned to lower density urban, and then to smaller towns and fields of grain. Mountains replaced skyscrapers.

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Above: Stopping next to a Buddhist temple in Yumoto to let a returning train out of the station - the end of the Romance Car line.

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At Hakone-Yumoto station, the landscape turns from plain to mountains. Since 1919, the Hakone area has been served by the Hakone Tozan line - a narrow gauge train that makes the 8% grade into the mountainous region, rising 540 meters in just 15 km (about 1800 feet in 9.4 miles), Japan's most steeply graded line. The present trains were built in Switzerland (the departure of the train is announced with a cow bell in honor of that) and the track has some amazingly tight turns - 30 meter radius - which I noticed have safety rails inside the main rails. The cars spray water on the wheels while on those turns to reduce friction, but there is still some squealing. As the elevation rises, the train makes use of tunnels, and of switchbacks three times along the steeply climbing route.

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But enough train talk, the scenery is beautiful. The car was pretty full, so I had to stand, but the view was still fairly good. The route is lined with ajisai (hydrangeas) which are fully in bloom in June and July. Though we were late for that, we could still enjoy some blossoms. There are also a lot of maples - the momiji variety with small leaves and large leafed varieties as well. Autumn must be quite a sight there, and in winter there is of course, a snowy landscape, and in spring - new green growth and cherry blossoms. It's always a good time of year to visit Hakone.

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Looking down from a trestle over the Hayakawa river, 43 meters below, which flows out of Ashinoko, Hakone's volcanic lake.
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The Hayakawa bridge was built in 1888 as part of a different rail line (Tokaido), and was moved to this location in 1917. (Perhaps a good thing we didn't know that until later.) Yes, they inspect and test it to make sure it is still safe.

We would not be taking the Hakone Tozan to the end of the line. Our destination was Miyanoshita, a small onsen town nestled in the rugged mountains, home to Japan's oldest western style hotel, the Fujiya, established in 1878.

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Leaving Miyanoshita station for Fujiya Hotel - a five to ten minute walk. Don't worry, I took the bag from K.


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Almost there - the distinctive roof of the Fujiya Hotel is visible ahead


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Fujiya Hotel accommodates a maximum of 300 guests in 146 western style guest rooms at the 5 hotel houses (Main Building, Comfy Lodge, Restful Cottage, Flower Palace and Forest Lodge) built in 1891 thru 1960 and in 3 Japanese rooms at Kikka-so Inn, a former imperial villa, built in 1895. The old houses of the Main Building since 1891, the Comfy Lodge and the Restful Cottage since 1906, the Restaurant House since 1930, the Flower Palace since 1936 and the Kikka-so Inn since 1895 have been appointed Cultural Assets by Japan's Cultural Properties Protection Commission.

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Our room was located in "Comfy Lodge" which was built in 1906. It was very large and the ceilings were about 12 feet high.

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Ye olde bathroom. The hotel has an onsen (hot mineral spring spa) which can be privately reserved for 45 minutes for about 2100 yen per person (we passed on that).

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Where's my hairstylist? Oh, and the glove? - no I wasn't doing a Michael Jackson imitation, just protecting my fingertips which were sore from some weird condition my dermatologist still hasn't figured out.


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A picture in the window of a local photo studio shows that Pandabonium and K aren't the only celebrities to have stayed at the Fujiya. This photo (of John Lennon, Yoko Ono, their son Sean, and ?) was taken at the same spot in 1978 - 'Imagine' that. (Now that I notice Yoko's hair, I don't feel so bad about not having mine neatly combed.)


We had checked into the hotel at 2PM and looked forward to exploring it more, particularly the extensive gardens behind it, but no time to dilly-dally this afternoon. It was back to the station to catch the train to Chokoku-no-mori, the next stop up the line, to visit the Hakone Open-Air (sculpture) Museum and Picasso collection.

つづく (to be continued).... in "Putting on Airs"

14 comments:

Martin J Frid said...

Wonderful essay about your first leg of the Hakone trip. I do love the atmosphere at Fujiya Hotel. You room looks so nice!

Swedish king Carl Gustav XVI stayed there in 1990 and his grandfather Gustaf Adolf, then crown prince, stayed there in the 1920s.

FH2o said...

That was a nice read with wonderful photographs. Most informational too. Thanks for sharing your wonderful trip with us.

bonnie said...

Looks wonderful. I should do a writeup of my forthcoming train trip to Lake Champlain - with photos of the clock in Penn Station ticking away towards the 2-hours-delayed departure, and appetizing close-ups of whatever microwaved horror I buy for dinner in the dining car.

LOVED the frog! Actually when I left Iolani when my folks moved to the mainland before my junior year, one of my friends gave me a little brocade coin purse with a kaeru charm in it. He was embarrassed, I think his mother had picked it out at Shirokiya, but I really liked it. I think it's still around at my parents' home on Oahu - good place for it, that's someplace I want to be returning to for a good long time.

Swinebread said...

Great use of words and pictures (as always). Too bad you couldn’t get off the train on the Hakone Tozan line to get pictures of the switchbacks and tunnels. ;). I’ve ridden the bullet train before on my one of my trips to Japan. It’s so maddening that we don’t have it here.

Pandabonium said...

Martin - Fujiya has a turn of the century charm to it and a warmth that makes one feel at home, yet elegant at the same time.

It is the kind of place that has attracted dignitaries and celebrities over the years. Interesting that Swedish royals have stayed there.

Our room was a special rate, so faced inside an atrium, but I liked the spaciousness and old style furnishings.

FH2O - hi unker. Thank you. Please check back, there's more to come.

Bonnie - 2 hour delay? Ack. Almost never happen in Japan. The average in Japan - which includes stopping for earthquakes, typhoons, and such - averages out to 40 seconds per trip on the Shinkansen lines.

Would love to read/see about your trip though. Do takes lots of pics and share them on your blog. Who knows, you may be surprised by a very enjoyable train trip with a delicious meal.

You should carry a kaeru with you on your travels.

Swinebread - thank you. I do get mesmerized by the transport here, and Hakone fits right into my "Japan as life sized Disneyland" concept. When I get around trains and planes, I turn into a big kid.

Russia and England are buying high speed trains from Japan now and France is starting a high speed run from London to Paris. The US needs a national policy and leadership (doh) in this area. Right now each state is doing its own thing pretty much and there is only one high speed train in the whole country. Shameful.

On the west coast, a high speed line connecting Eugene, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver BC would be useful, as would San Diego, LA to San Fransisco and Sacramento. Would save a lot of energy and cut down CO2. (Not to mention save a lot of wear and tear on passengers who now drive long hours or get stuck in the gulags we call airports.) Sigh.

Don Snabulus said...

Another excellent travelogue. Thanks for the beautiful pictures and great word pictures as well.

It makes me pine for Japan.

Pandabonium said...

Snabby - thank you. I've only begun. as for pining - come on down...

Martin J Frid said...

There should be high speed train lines like an "H": down the west coast, accross the continental US, and down the East coast. It would make sense in so many ways.

I could also imagine a line down the Mississippi, all the way from Minnesota to Texas.

Of course, the West coast line should continue to Mexico, and the East coast line should go up to Canada.

What is stopping this?

Pandabonium said...

said...

Martin - you are absolutely right, but that's a big can of worms you just opened. ;)

The short answer is: politics. The corporations are running the government and the country's needs are not the criteria for decision making.

Briefly - Auto and truck makers, oil companies, and tire manufacturers conspired to put rail out of business. They even went so far as to buy up local rail systems in cities ((900 of them) and replace them with buses. Then came the interstate highways which were funded as part of the cold war and took freight business away from the railroads. Those interests still have a hold on Washington.

As for routes - I don't know about across the entire US, but certainly the west coast areas I mentioned, the north eastern area (where the one and only high speed train runs) and on down to at least Georgia, plus Chicago to Texas or the Gulf as you mention.

Lots of people have pointed out the need for this, and some states have been trying to move forward on their own, but a nationally organized effort won't happen any time soon. Even if the politics weren't against it, there is no money to fund it.

The Moody Minstrel said...

The last time I went to Hakone, my second visit, actually, was the last time my parents came to visit, which was in March of 2000 when my son was three months old. I think I'm about due for another visit. I really like that area, too.

I didn't stay in a fancy hotel either of the times I went there. We opted for smaller, "budget travel" hotels (no, not "love hotels"...get your mind out of there!) which nevertheless surprised us with their cozy accommodations and kind, attentive service, all of which would put a lot of more expensive hotels in Tokyo to shame!

You, on the other hand, went all out. I'm eager to hear what happened.

bonnie said...

oh, that's funny, I had two comment windows & I accidentally left a comment for you over on Rosie's blog.

So I feel like I should leave a comment about inner 6-year-olds, outer 40-year-olds, and the desirability of cottontail rabbits as pets here.

Pandabonium said...

Moody - We usually travel as you do. K got a special 'room only' rate (no meals) at Fujiya so it wasn't as extravagant as one might think. Next time we'll be staying in Hakone longer, so Fujiya will be out of the question for us.

Bonnie - cottontails. That brings back childhood memories. No, I didn't have a pet, there were wild ones all over the foothills of the San Fernando Valley, CA. My dad would take us on early evening "cottontail" drives during which we'd watch the rabbits come out at dusk. We also had a neighbor who used to babysit me and would fix me a Shirley Temple to drink. I was about 5 years old and would call it a "cotton tail" instead of "cocktail".

Aren't you glad you brought that up? ;^)

bonnie said...

oh, and the comment I meant to leave for you was basically that I've actually taken Amtrak to Montreal and my approaching trip is on the same route, you just get out earlier.

So I'm actually speaking from experience when I talk of microwaved horrors in the dining car.

HOWEVER - the scenery is AMAZING, and I'm pretty excited to be finally having a chance to visit Lake Champlain because on the trip to Montreal, I was just blown away by how pretty Lake Champlain was.

Of course I was on my way to a multi-day paddling trip in Georgian Bay so it wasn't TOO hard to stay on the train!

You bet there will be pictures.

Pandabonium said...

Bonnie - I've never been to NY, though my dad was from Buffalo (brrr) and my brother and his SO are building a house on one of the finger lakes. One of the WWII vets I took flying in Maui was from up in that area too. From pics and postcards I've seen it's really beautiful. Looking forward to your pics. Have fun.