Crazy train

A recollection from my youth.

My Uncle Jim was coming to visit us by train, so my father took my older brother and sister and me to Waterloo, Indiana (population 2,000), to meet him at the station. I was maybe seven years old; it was some time in the 50s.

The train station was small, with wide steps leading up to the waiting room and the platform beyond.

interior train station

I raced my siblings to be the first one up the stairs. Ahead, I saw an older man, leaning back on a wooden bench, smoking a cigarette. I got to the top just as the cloud of smoke around the man’s face dispersed.

I froze where I stood, and stared in disbelief. The man had no nose – just a gaping hole where his nose should have been.

I was horrified, and sometimes wonder what my face looked like as I gawked at him. My father surely hustled us through the station, but that image has stuck with me all these years.

Now, I’m not saying that the experience put me off traveling by train. The sad truth is that train travel in America lost its luster a long time ago (unless you live in the Northeast and commute into the city).

When folks plan a vacation, trains run a distant third after airplanes and cars.

Recently, I spent three weeks in Japan, and I was astounded by the crazy network of trains. Here are a few tidbits about our experiences.

SHINKANSEN – The Bullet Train

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Talk about luxury; these babies have everything: comfortable tilt-back seats, fold down trays, cup holders, even power chargers for your electronics. And they are much roomier than those cramped seats on an airplane.

Attendants, wearing snappy uniforms, push trolleys of food and beverages up the aisle with everything from Bento boxes of sushi, to cold green tea. The young ladies look like airline stewardesses from the 60s.

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Every time an attendant gets to the doorway leading to the next car, she turns and bows to the passengers. The ticket agents do, as well. Such politeness.

The Shinkansen doesn’t just go to a few select cities; it runs through the entire country.

Shinkansen map

And they are as fast as you have heard. They use a different track than regular trains, so the ride is incredibly smooth. (If you’d like to know why, go find an engineer.)

So, let’s do a little travel comparison here.

Hubby and I took the train from Atlanta to New Orleans for our honeymoon. New Orleans is 470 miles away. The trip took 12 hours because of all the stops. (Yes, we could have driven it in 7 hours, but I thought the train sounded romantic.)

Do the math. We were averaging about 40 mph.

We took the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. Distance 240 miles. 2.5 hours travel time, including stops. That’s over 100 mph. (Max. speed is 200 mph) Crazy!

REGULAR TRAINS

If you’re traveling to a small town, you’ll have to transfer from the Shinkansen to a regular train. These aren’t as smooth-riding, or as luxurious, but they’re still comfortable. And they sure beat driving on the wrong side of the road.

We transferred from the bullet to a regular train in Kyoto and headed north to the small resort town of Kinosaki. The train was probably 8 cars long. At one of the stops, we watched a railman uncouple the back half of the train. The conductor told us the back half was heading east. Off they went, being pulled by an engine our train had been hauling.

We clapped when the process was complete, and the conductor smiled. (You can see outside where the rest of the train had been.)

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TRAIN STATIONS

When we visited NYC in 2000, we checked out Grand Central Station. It was as glamorous and enormous as I had imagined. The new Penn Station didn’t have the same historical mystique, but it was certainly as big.

Nothing prepared me, though, for the vastness of the train stations in Japan.

The Tokyo Station is a fabulous old building, like Grand central.

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But while we were in Tokyo, we only rode the subways, so we didn’t spend much time inside this station.

We were in Kyoto for three days, and took several day trips, so we learned our way around that sucker, and let me tell you, the station is huge.

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I don’t know the acres, or hectares, of their underground network, but trust me, you can walk for miles and never see daylight.

There are countless restaurants, clothing shops, convenience stores, and souvenir stands. There are two hotels directly linked to the station.

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This is one of the entranceways to the Hotel Granvia Kyoto.

There are also two malls (The Cube is five stories, and comparable to Macy’s), a museum, and a musical theater. Trust me, if my Aunt Pearl took the train to Kyoto, she would never leave the station.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking. “Traveling by train in Japan can’t always be that great.” And you’re right.

I mean, they do have those crazy squatters in the bathrooms.

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