My new travelling buddy C. has no such qualms about getting up early, and she has no qualms about getting me up either. It is a good thing she has come into my life and I can forsee a future of going on cheap exciting adventures together, across the Japanese islands and beyond. We can explore the Mongol grasslands together! Cruise Greenland's Disko Bay in the midnight sun! In late March 2005 we embarked on our first of hopefully many trips, to the old Japanese capital of Kyoto. It is remarkable that despite living in Japan for more than four years, this was to be my first trip to Kyoto. I used to think it wouldn't be anything special, just a larger variation of Kamakura or the myriad other old towns around Tokyo. How mistaken I was! As my old criminal move maker buddy Garnet told me once, "Kyoto is the best place in Japan." Having been there, I agree with him. At the very least, it is the most beautiful city in Japan!
The most amazing thing about this journey is that was so cheap. The total cost, including the 18-hour round trip by rail from Tokyo to Kyoto, a one-day Kyoto bus pass and the entrance charges to a couple of Kyoto's premier attractions, came to only about 4000 yen ($40 American). By contrast, Japanese tourists often blow 10 times that amount on a Kyoto holiday, most of it expended on ultra-fast (but ultra-expensive) transportation via the Shinkansen bullet train service. The reason why this Kyoto Sojourn was so cheap, was that C. and I were using a Seishun 18 Kippu ticket, which enable the carrier to travel Japan on any train they want, so long as it is a slow train, for about 2000 per day. Now, Tokyo to Kyoto is a long way by slow train -- the round trip took 18 hours, as I posted above, and involves a number of gruelling transfers at cold windy stations. Most people would prefer to hop on the Skinkansen, which takes only 2 hours to reach Kyoto (but costs about 20,000 yen return.) While it is tough, I prefer to use the Seishun 18 Kippu. Travelling slow can give you a better sense of the environment than you would gain flying across it at about 400km/h. I want to feel like I am a part of the environment, which is why slow travel is often good for me.
To start at the beginning: Just before midnight on the night of March 29, 2005, C. and I boarded the Moonlight Nagara train at Shinagawa, armed with our Seishun 18 Kippu's. The train was an all-nighter, slow enough to qualify for the Seishun 18 Kippu, but comfortable enough, with reclining seats and the like. It would be a 5 hour plus something ride to Ogaki, where we could transfer to another slow train to Kyoto. So we took our seats, and headed south. I was filled to the brim with excitement. At long last I would be able to see Kyoto -- and a whole new slice of Japan! I had that delicious feeling of adventure I sometimes feel arriving in the dead of the night in airports in south-east Asia -- I was on the move, I had been freed from my moorings, and anything was possible. At least I had a cute travelling buddy to cuddle up with on the long journey ahead. We set off into the night. The neon valleys of Tokyo/Yokohama sped by outside. We were on our way.
According to The Japanese Railways Page, the Moonlight Nagara represents the cheapest way "to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto and Osaka than any other transport during Seishun 18 kippu seasons. Ogaki itself is a small city, but changing the next local train, you can easily extend your journey to western Japan or even Shikoku and Kyusyu Island. Leave Tokyo in midnight, change trains at Ogaki and Maibara, and arrive at Kyoto and Osaka in the next morning before 10 a.m. Moreover, reach Hiroshima in the afternoon and Hakata (Fukuoka) in the night within 3,000 yen!
"Running the busiest corridor in Japan, this is the most popular overnight local train. This train consists of reserved seats only (although some of the carriages change to non-reserved seats on the way). When 18 kippu is valid, tickets are always sold out as soon as being put on sale in ten o'clock one month prior to the departure. So additional local train operates between Shinagawa (the third station from Tokyo) and Ogaki in such busy season."
At 2.08am we pulled into Fuji for a brief stop, me all tired and cramped in the leg, and there was time to remember my sunny visit to the town in early January 2005, and to try to make out the imposing shape of the volcano in the absolute night darkness. Things had changed a lot since Jan 05, and I was living in a new Golden Age. It was time to feel triumphant. And then someone blew a whistle, and it was time for this night train to resume its course. We were travelling west, on the way to Kyoto!
One point you should note about the Moonlight Nagara: though it is cheap, it is also very difficult to sleep on board (especially for a light sleeper like me), so it turns out be a very gruelling ride. As one previous traveller has remarked: "The lights stay on, and there are frequent onboard announcements, so it is hard to get a good night's sleep." As it was, I spent most of the night awake, occasionally lapsing into sleep-like states punctuated by the sounds of snoring and wheezing, and the inevitable old man clearing his throat and nose behind. It was a bit of a hard ride, I am afraid to say! To pass the time, I sent emails to myself, so that they could be reproduced here.
For example, just before 2.40am, I sent myself this email: "As the train wheezed in snoredom, we rolled into the boring confines of Shizuoka. I hadn't been able to snatch any sleep, but I was enjoying a drowsy reverie, and thinking about all the recent changes in my life."
A little later on, we (the good folk of the Shinagawa Moonlight Nagara) caught up with our fellow travellers on the Tokyo originating, sister Nagara, at Hamamatsu Station. Both trains were packed, a sign of the popularity of the service, and the number of people heading west to Kansai every night.
The train rolled on, through the great city of Nagoya, which I visited in 2001 with Mayumi, where I stormed the top of the castle and ate portions of octopus which were still jerking around on the plate in front of us at the izakaya! It looked grey and surreal in the early dawn, a concrete wasteland, black crows flapping the way erratically through the murky air. Nagoya led to open plains and truly new territory -- territory I had never seen before -- on to the sprawl of Gifu, surrounded by a walls of dark mountains.
According to local Prefectural authorities: "Gifu City is located almost in the center of Japan -- it is located about 250 km west of Tokyo, about 140 km east of Osaka, and about 30km north of Nagoya. The city is situated in the northern part of the fertile Nobi plain that was created by the Nagara, Kiso and Ibi rivers. (You can see here how the Moonlight Nagara got its name!) Mt. Kinka is located next to the Nagara river, and is 329 meters above sea level."
This time we only passed through Gifu, but I am sure I will be back some day for a longer stay. The morning developed, it got sunny, and snow glinted off of distant mountains. There was a mad scramble at Ogaki Station, where the terminating Moonlight Nagara was met by the local train to Mihara, on the way to Kyoto. Passengers bumrushed the slow train for seats, and as usual, the Japanese grandmothers (obaachan) ended up with the best selection. I didn't care -- I was happy to stand after such a long time spent comatose in a chair. We passed through a place called Sekihara, which C. said was famous in Japanese history for some battle which took place there, between the forces of Kyoto and Tokyo. At Mihara we changed again, and boarded the final train to Kyoto. The closer we got to that venerable city, the more and more packed the train became with salarymen and office ladies on the way to work. Sometime around 8am, we pulled into Kyoto Station, and my introduction to the Capital City had begun!
Kinkakuji Temple | Ginkakuji Temple | Ginkakuji Temple Sand Garden | Kiyomizudera Temple Views | Ojizosan