Saturday, December 31, 2005

Navigating the Trains, part III

That's me in the Guam International Airport on New Year's Eve.

I expected this post to go something like this:

We arrived in Narita and took the same three trains that I took to get to Takaoka when I first came to Japan in November. The ride was smooth, the trains were on time, and Emily and I arrived back home with enough time to go out and buy a bottle of champagne to ring in the new year.

Yeah, right. This is my life, remember? Nothing can ever be that simple.

Emily and I were the only Non-Japanese on our flight out of Guam. Not that it had anything to do with our flight or our trip, I just thought it was fun being the only white people.

Our flight to Narita arrived on time at 7:55 PM on New Year's Eve. Emily and I disembarked the plane and started to walk towards customs and immigration when I realized that I had forgotten my (almost) brand new camera underneath the seat in front of me on the plane.

We had to walk all the way back to the gate and wait for everybody to get off the plane before we could go back and get it, which I eventually did, which was a huge relief. It slowed us down a lot; Our luggage had already been pulled off the conveyor belt and was standing all alone in the baggage claim area by the time we got through immigration.

When we finally got through customs and stepped out into the main termainal it was about 8:45. All we had to do was to get some cash out of the ATM machine, change it into Yen (if it wasn't already in Yen), and buy our tickets to Takaoka.

This is where the story begins to get interesting.

We couldn't get Emily's ATM card to work at the airport's only ATM machine (which was completely in Japanese). The money changers didn't accept credit cards and neither did the travel agencies on the first floor of the terminal. Oh yeah, and all of the banks at the airport were closed. I had about $100 US and about 3000 Yen in my pocket, so we didn't have enough cash to get the tickets. We were stuck between a rock and a hard place (which is different from President Bush, who is stuck between Iraq and a hard place)

Uh oh. Emily stared to lose it (she is soooo going to kill me for writing that). She never shed a tear, but she was pretty darn close. I was nervous, but I knew that if I crawled up in to a fetal position and started crying that Emily would be even worse.

We were in a pretty tough predicament; We didn't want to have to spend the night in Tokyo because it would be expensive and we were running out of time because the last train to Takaoka would be leaving soon.

It took us a couple of minutes of deep breathing and going through a couple different scenarios before we decided to just go down to the train station to see if we could find an ATM machine or use a credit card there.

We took our four suitcases, two carry-ons, and laptop bag down to train station and walked up to the only open window. I asked the young guy behind the counter if he spoke any English. He said "a little," which was good enough for me and I asked for two tickets to Takaoka.

He replied, "what day?"

That was a bad sign. I answered back "today?"

"Today!?" he snapped back, which was yet another bad sign. He was probably wondering why a couple of crazy gaijins would want to travel all the way to Takaoka on New Year's Eve, but that didn't stop him from flipping through the pages of the Japan Rail schedule and punching a few things into his computer.

He asked us if the Blue Train on the Hokuriku line was OK (I'm not really sure why he called it the Blue Train, maybe I misheard him, but it was definately a hokuriku train). It left Ueno Station at 11:02 PM and arrived in Takaoka at 5:48 AM. All we had to do was take the 9:02 Skyrider 40 train from Narita Terminal 2 to Ueno.

Sounded good to me. I was excited to take the night train because it is something that I have never done before. We tried to pay for the tickets with Emily's credit card, but on the first try it wouldn't swipe. This being Japan, it would never occur to the window attendant to try swiping the card a second time or to manually punch in the number, so we were told that the credit card didn't work. I paid with mine. It worked.

He handed me a single ticket for Emily and a single ticket for me. This was going to be easy. Now all we needed to do was board the train for Ueno, which was leaving in about 8 minutes.

We took a couple steps toward the turnstiles when I noticed that our tickets didn't say anything about taking Narita Terminal 2 to Ueno station. Uh oh. We knew what we would have to do to get to Ueno. We had to look up on the board, figure out the fair, and purchase the tickets at the ticket machine. Knowing and actually DOING are completely different things exascerbated by the fact that neither one of us can hardly read any kanji.


We loooked up at the board and scanned the hundred different names of stations for Ueno station without much success. We must have looked completely and utterly lost because a Japanese lady came up to us and asked us if we needed a little help. We told her that we need to get to Ueno, so she looked up at the board and 2.4 seconds later she told us that the tickets to Ueno were 1000 Yen. Relief! Thank you, kind Narita Airport lady!

You see, using the rail station is actually very easy once you understand a little about what you are doing. When she told us the fair was 1000 Yen, all we had to do was to buy a ticket for 1000 Yen and then board the train. The way the price structures for the rail lines work are that you pay according to the distance you travel. You don't specifically buy a ticket from point A to point B, you just buy a ticket for X Yen that will take you Z miles. So that's what we did.

We made it in time for the 9:02 train. While I was sitting there I chuckled to myself over the conversation we had just had with the lady at the train station. On my Japanese language tapes they talk about Ueno station and Ueno park in almost every other lesson. A typical conversation on the disc goes something like:

"Excuse, where is Ueno Station? Is it over there?"
"Sumimasen, Ueno-eki wa doko desu ka? Asoko desu ka?"

"No, it is over here."
"Iie, koko desu"

"Thank you."
"Arigato Gozaimasu"

Did I not just have a similar conversation at the train station?

The train to Ueno station took about an hour and we had to make two stops before we got there. That gave us about an hour in Ueno station. It was enough time to use the bathroom, take some pictures of the station, get some food, eat said food, and still board the train with plenty of time to spare.

We really enjoyed taking the sleeper train from Tokyo (Ueno station is one of the bigger stations in Tokyo) to Takaoka. The car we had reserved had about 40 bunkbeds in it. The car was split up into about 10 different little cabins and each cabin had two bunkbeds in it. I think some of the cars may have been different, but I don't know for sure since we didn't take the time to explore any of the other cars.

We had reserved an entire bunkbed, so when we saw the accomadations, we piled our bags of luggage onto the bottom bunk and squished into the top bunk. We had two more stops to make before the train traveled across Honshu through the night, so we were nervous about getting in one of the other empty beds in the car because we were afraid that somebody else had reserved it.

The train pulled out of Ueno station at 11:03. We were asleep by 11:30.

We found out the next morning that we were sharing our car with only 3 other people, but in typical Japanese fashion, they were all crammed into one end. Why would you do such a thing? Because that is the correct way to fill up a sleeper car of course! Is there any other way of filling up a car, like spreading out the people perhaps? Of course not!

Sleeping together in the one bed was very uncomfortable. When we were sure that nobody else was going to be getting on the train and when we finally gave up on the idea of sleeping in the same tiny bed, Emily hopped over to empty bunk next to ours.

THINGS TO KNOW WHILE VISITING JAPAN #7: The night train is COLD at night.

I woke up an hour or two later freezing my little sun burnt tooshie off. The lights in the train had been dimmed and it was colder than the ice surrounding George W. Bush's black heart. I had been sleeping with only a sheet, but when my thick skull finally registered that I was freezing, I wrapped myself up in the blanket provided by JR. It was so cold that I had to go steal another blanket from another bed (I stole one for Emily, too). Only with two blankets did it feel comfortable enough to get a restful sleep.

The train was supposed to stop at Takaoka at 5:48 AM. At 5:49 AM the lights were still dimmed, they hadn't made any announcements, and we hadn't pulled into any train stations. Although we hadn't stopped at any train stations, I had woken up several times throughout the night because the train was stopped. My best guess was that the train had been delayed in getting through the mountains and that we had to keep stopping because of the snow.

It turned out that I was right. At about 6:15 they made an announcement that we would be arriving later than expected. The announcemnt was in Japanese, but I was able to understand the names of the stations and the times that we would arrive there. The announcer said that we would arrive at Takaoka around 7:40.

I told Emily to go back to sleep.

Around 7:15 the two of us finally got up and started getting ready to disembark from the train. The trains only stop at the stations for a minute or two, so we had to gather our belongings by the train door a few minutes before the train actually pulled into the station.

We couldn't help but notice the snow and the mountains as we gathered up all of our stuff. It was still early, so the sky was extra crisp and clear. Everything was covered in about a foot and a half of snow and the sun was rising in a perfectly blue sky. It was like riding a train through a painting. I still can't belive I live here.

The train was even later than 7:40. It was well after 8 AM when we pulled into Takaoka and dragged our luggage off the train. Then we dragged our luggage up a train station staircase, down a train station staircase, laughed out loud when the lady taking our tickets suggested that we drag our luggage to the North exit of the station for a 120 Yen Late Train Arrival refund, and trudged throught the ice and snow to get to our apartment.

It feels great to be home again. We are almost unpacked, Emily is about to brew a pot of fresh coffee, and we can't wait to go out and experience things that will eventually become more stories to share with my faithful readers (both of you).

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