Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Tiny Trains of Kintetsu

Utsube Station

A small single platform is tucked underneath the elevated tracks for the Nagoya and Yunoyama lines at Kintetsu Yokkaichi station. The large elevated tracks serve the normal gauge trains sending passengers on long express trains to Osaka and Nagoya. Down below are their little brothers Kintetsu’s Utsube and Hachijoji lines. In Yokkaichi are two of Japan’s four narrow gauge trains. The tracks are noticeably closer to each other, but it’s not until the brightly colored train pulls into the station that you realize just how narrow these trains actually are. It looks like the trains were bought in a closing sale from a failed Disneyland knock-off. The driver situated in the middle of the car seen in the front windshield seems too big for his little train.


The train stops and is quickly filled by the people waiting on the platform. It’s a tight fit for this mostly full train. The front and rear cars have a row of single seats along the sides while the middle car has a typical bench. The seats cannot change directions. If you are sitting in the back of this train you can watch the world drift away and only with a strained neck and twisted body can you see what is coming next. A change machine is at the far end behind the driver. Fares are collected by that driver at all stations except Utsube and Yokkaichi where the station is manned. PiTaPa is not accepted.

Utsube Station

There are two lines the Utsube and the single stop spur Hachijoji line. The latter originally traveled further into the countryside but was abandoned after a flood in the 1970’s. Both traveled into a mix of light industrial with residential neighborhoods of mostly single-family houses. I was pleasantly surprised how busy the lines were on the Saturday that I rode them both. Local ridership appeared high. At Utsube station, the terminal, riders exit through the small house that serves as the station while a few who remain loiter around. These are the train fans walking along the platform snapping photos as they wait for the return trip to Yokkaichi. A grandfather tells his grandchild about the train as he peers out the window. These trains, because of their rarity, are popular among train enthusiasts.

Nishihino Station
There did not seem to be much to see along the two lines other than trains themselves. The old wooden stations, especially Hinaga where the lines diverge, are quite pretty. These are some of the most unique trains in Japan and a pleasure to ride if you find yourself in Mie.

Utsube Line
Hachioji Line

Yokkaichi Station
The Utsube and Hachioji Lines are in blue and dark green respectively.
より大きな地図で Kintetsu Trip Feb 25 2012 を表示

Saturday, March 17, 2012

6670.1 Kilometers

Ichibata Electric Railway, Izumotaisha-mae Station

I put together a spreadsheet of all the train lines I've ridden in Japan.

As of today my grand total is:


Below is the entire spreadsheet in Google Docs. I'm quite proud of this accomplishment for what it's worth.

Click here to view the spreadsheet full screen.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


03.31KenrokuenSakura-1 by sleepytako
03.31KenrokuenSakura-1, a photo by sleepytako on Flickr.
May those who lost their lives be remembered and those who have been displaced be comforted.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Seishun 18 Kippu Pt.2: Planning 青春18切符

This is the second of a series on using the Seishun 18 Kippu to explore Japan. You can see the first post here.

A train at Bingo-Ochai Station (備後落合駅) in Rural Hiroshima Pref.
In planning my trips I use three rules.
  1. Make the best use of your money. For the Seishun 18 Kiipu, travel more than 2,300 yen in a single day. 
  2. Maximize the amount of territory covered. 
  3. Make sure include some breaks for some adventuring on foot and gathering provisions. (beer, snacks, bento
The Seishun 18 Kippu mentioned in Part 1 costs 11,500 yen, which is a great way to start planning your adventure. 11,500 divided by five is 2,300. To get your money's worth out of the ticket you have to travel at least 2,300 yens worth. It's really not too hard to do that if you ride a train for a few hours or if you are doing a single day return trip. I'm always checking my planned routes against the magic 2,300 number.

It is important to remember that you have five days to use also. I have found that using them all at once can be tiring. What’s worked for me is four days and then use the last one for a day trip. Or a three-day trip and a two-day trip a few days later. One of my long-term goals is to ride, at least, every JR line in Japan and as many of the private railways as possible. To complete this goal I try to maximize my journeys as to travel as much as possible on lines I haven’t been on before. This is all about my quirky goals and you are, most likely, not as manic-obsessive about this like me.

 Riding a train for five hours straight will fatigue you. A good break and walk around outside is worth it. It’s during these breaks that you will have time to get food, beer, and snacks. Grab a smoke if you are so inclined. Most important, this is a chance to get a better look at the landscape that you have been traveling through. And, although the majority of these trains will have bathrooms on board, I think we can all agree that we would rather use one that’s not rumbling while risking giving up your seat.

So in this post I’ll talk about planning your trip using those three rules.

Rule #1 Travel more than 2,300 yen in a single day. 

iPhone Norikae Apps
The easiest way to check prices for distances is using any of free the online train route websites (norikae annai 乗り換え案内). My favorites are Jorudan, Google Maps, and Hyperdia all of which have English interfaces. I prefer using the Japanese sites for many reasons mostly because some of the romanji station names are strange and that the Japanese sites have more options. For those stations that have difficult kanji, I recommend finding them on Google Maps clicking on the station icon and cutting and pasting the names into the sites. Searching the stations name on the Japanese Wikipedia is also helpful as a phonetic spelling in hiragana and sometimes in romanji typically follows the station’s name in Kanji. Remember when searching that you limit your search to JR trains only for the Seishun 18 Kippu.

For iPhone users the built in routing via the Maps app works well, but for more control the free version of the 乗換案内 (Norikaiannai) app from Jorudan is hands down the best. A good alternative, although it is ad sponsored, is 駅すぽあと (ekisupoato).

The cost of a journey is calculated regardless of when you travel as the costs are defined by distance. To make sure I hit that 2,300 yen a day target. I search a general route typically with Jorudan in their Seishun 18 Kippu search to see if the distance covered will cost a sufficient amount.

ChizuKyuko's norihodai ticket with stamp rally sheet and eraser.
Another worry is that sometimes JR trains run on what is known as Class Three Railroads that lease access of their lines to JR for their express services. Two examples are the Chizu Kyuko line in Hyogo and Tottori prefectures and the Ise Railway in Mie both of which allow JR express trains run on their lines with the costs included in the ticket price, but the local trains are run by the railway companies themselves. The Seishun 18 Kippu will not cover any segment of your trip on these lines. There are some deals to be aware of. Chizu Kyuko offers a single day norihodai, all you can ride (乗り放題), pass for riders coming to their lines on the Seishun 18 Kippu for 1,000 yen offering a slight discount on a normal one way ticket for the length of their line. They even had a stamp rally and gave out an eraser, hand towel, and stickers for completing it. These Class Three Railroads are few in number however and it can be a safe bet that you’ll not end up on one unless you are actively trying to.

Rule #2 Maximize the amount of territory covered. 

Railway Mapple
This requires a map. Google does a decent job although it can be hard to focus only on the train lines when zoomed out. The graphic JR route maps are useful but lack English in rural areas and don’t represent distance. The best map series to plan and take with you on your trip is the Railway Mapple. There are seven in total covering the regions of Japan. They are small and light enough to fit in your bag and also have enough detail to get your bearings in the larger cities. Every station has its name in hiragana and kanji written along with the distance between stations in kilometers. It is easy to get an idea of what kind of territory each line covers. Tunnels, interesting views, tight curves, and steep inclines are all listed using icons that are understandable even if you cannot read kanji. I typically take trips into rural areas but if you are traveling into a larger city I recommend Shobunsha's series of compact maps. Even though they are all in Japanese they are much more detailed than any English language map available and used together valuable to navigation. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Shobunsha compact maps
Rule #3 Make sure include some breaks for some adventuring on foot and gathering provisions. (beer, snacks, bento

It's important to take a break from being on the train. Ekiben, omiyage, jizake, and jibiru for eats and tips for exploring a the ekimae area while you're waiting for the next train will be covered in the next post.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Yokkaichi City, Mie

Behind A Ramen Shop - Yokkaichi, Mie
I recently got a Holux GPS logger to help make maps of my trips and geocode my photographs. Trying to do the latter led me to download and tryout the new Lightroom 4 beta. I've been using Lightroom since 1 and currently run 2.7. The improvements in 4 are wonderful, although the publishing to flickr is a bit confusing. Most likely I'll sick with Jeffrey Friedl's plugin. I'm extremely happy about the lens correction that gets rid of a lot of the warping and stretching that always annoyed me about my zoom lens. These three photos are a bit of a test for my new workflow.

Tory's Gets a Kiss - Yokkaichi, Mie
I took a stroll down through the shotengai and nightlife district in front of Kintetesu Yokkaichi station last Saturday. The mizushobai district was quite large for the size of the town. There were some interesting snacks. The Suntory Tory's character making an appearance on a snack sign. while another nearby snack was called 酔人 "Drunk Person." There was also a pretty beat up looking x-rated movie theater down a little alley. All of this next to the city's children's park which had a really fun looking playground and rental riding toys. Gotta love spatial relativism.

Ropponica Theater - Yokkaichi, Mie
This was my first time to explore a Mie, Pref. city since walking around rather rural Kameyama a few years back. I was surprised how modern and clean the most of Yokkaichi's ekimae was. With many new buildings and pedestrian walkways. The influence from Nagoya was noticeable here just as the lack of influence was when I arrived in Matsusaka later that day. I was surprised to see a Lalaport run mall, an Animate store, and Vedett-a white Belgium beer-being advertised by a modern looking bar all right there next to the station. However, this modern, clean Japanese landscape quickly faded into the shotengai and mizushobai streets to the east and the old neighborhoods to the west. Not to mention the very bubble-esque  Kintetsu department store that served as an anchor to the entire area.