Friday, June 04, 2010

Over instead of Under

A few weeks ago a friend invited me up to Niigata Prefecture for a local festival. I was interested in the trip, but a little worried due to the expense of taking the Shinkansen there. I have always been a 'faster' instead of 'cheaper' person, but this time I opted to take the much slower local trains instead of the shiny new bullet train.

While this required me to change trains a whopping 7! times, it saved me a lot of money and let me see the high mountain scenery that lies across the spine of Japan. Gunma lies right at the edge of the vast Kanto plain, where the Japan Alps thrust up from the flatland. Niigata lies to the west of Gunma, on the other side of the massive Echigo Range. Trains, as a rule, dislike steep grades, and the high speeds of the Shinkansen require a very flat operating surface with wide, sweeping curves.

This makes it very hard to climb mountains, so the engineers did one better, and dug right under them! The Shinkansen enters a tunnel a little way outside of Maebashi, and rarely comes out until it reaches the next stop, at the ski town of Echigo-Yuzawa. It goes underground again there almost all the way to the coast of the Japan Sea!  While this makes for a speedy trip, tunnels don't really offer much to look at.

I picked a great day for such a leisurely train journey, the weather was perfect. Clear blue skies and warm winds made for a remarkable contrast to the chill rain that has characterized much of this Spring. Many of the farmers along the route were using the nice weather to plant their summers crop of rice. The whole trip just put me in a great frame of mind, which is something I hadn't expected when I was looking at the rather epic amount of time it was going to take.

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