Revelling in the Railways of Japan
As the Christmas decorations start appearing in the streets and shops of England I am reminded of an evening I spent in in Japan. I was not stranded there waiting for a train I had gone there for an evening out. Stations in Japanese cities are not the drab, utilitarian places we are used to in England. They are innovative complexes and often the best places to shop and dine in the city. Kyoto station is one of the most impressive with ten levels accessible by escalators or stairs and a walkway on the top level between the two sides of the Matrix, the main hall. The Christmas decorations were on display when I visited in November – a splendid sight. While I was there a dance competition was taking place. The roped off arena was full so the only way to get a good view was to keep going up and down the escalators.
I was travelling around Japan by train having purchased a on the internet. The JR Rail pass is valid on all mainline trains including the . Five companies run the Shinkansen but the JR Rail Pass is only valid on three of these companies so careful planning was in order – use the wrong service for any stage of the journey and the full fare becomes payable. Once I had decided my route I would reserve seats for the journey – an easy task at the JR office in any train station. There are also forwarding services so it is not necessary to carry large cases on the trains, just an overnight bag. I loved the freedom my pass gave me. Once I was settled in my hotel in Kyoto I planned a day out in visiting both and the . It was a wonderful day out. I had a great view of the torii gate of the famous as our boat (free with the JR pass) arrived at the island. I spent the morning exploring the island and, in particular, enjoying the splendid foliage in the Momijidani (Maple) Park. I also met some of the residents of the park, sika deer, although most of them were on the waterfront bullying new arrivals in the hope of cadging a tasty snack.
Back on the mainland I got the tram to the Peace Park. Soon after I entered the park I came across the the only building left standing when the first atomic bomb exploded in the centre of the town in August 1945. The building has been preserved as a stark reminder of the consequences of war. Crossing the river to explore the main area of the park I found several interesting monuments in a beautiful wooded area each with its own sad significance. But always, amongst the sadness there were messages of hope. I was ensnared by several groups of school children collecting messages of hope in English to complete a project. I found their cheerful chatter very uplifting. It was a memorable visit and not at all the sombre experience I had expected.
My Rail Pass was supplemented by a pre-paid IC card which covered local public transport such as the subway. This works like an Oyster Card as money is taken off every time you enter or leave a station. But unlike the Oyster card any money left on the card can be spent in either a 7 Eleven or a Family Mart. These convenience stores are open twenty-four hours a day seven days a week and offer a wide variety of food at very reasonable prices as well as clean toilets! While in Kyoto I used this card to travel around this sprawling city visiting attractions such as the . This temple is famous for its ten thousand small red torii gates positioned so closely together they look like long orange tunnels.
Kyoto was not the only city I visited. I also went to the pretty town of a fusion of ancient and modern as illustrated by two of its most famous sites. is one of only four original castles remaining in Japan. It has been christened the Black Crow due to its mainly black exterior. The giant is a modern interpretation of traditional customs. Its huge globe opens up on the hour to display mechanical figures inside. While I was in Matsumoto I used my rail pass to take a trip out into the country to visit the Daio Wasabi Farm. This working farm is surrounded by parkland – a perfect contrast to the busy cities.
Of course, was on my itinerary and I started and finished there arriving at the biggest station in the world, . This amazing complex features high-rise shopping and the busy Southern Terrace which featured a festive wonderland in lights. A lovely finale to my trip.