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The Kurobe Gorge and then heading north – On trains (lots of them)
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Mon 5 Aug – day 87  After an excellent night’s sleep on the futon I was up early and having showered and dressed, a traditional Japanese breakfast was served; I even managed to eat some of the fish!!

When I checked the owner (another name I have already forgotten) got her son to take a photo of the two of us outside the entrance.  The night I spent there will live long in my memory and I would urge anyone travelling to Japan to stay at least one night in a ryokan.

Having said my goodbyes (much bowing) I walked across the bridge and then up through the town to the Unazuki-onsen station where I deposited my rucksack in a coin locker as that was something that I did not want to lug around during the morning.

From Unazuki-onsen station it was just a short distance to the Unazuki station which was the lower terminus of the 2′ 6″ narrow gauge Kurobe Kyokoku Line that ran between Unazuki and Keyaki-daira through the deep V-shaped valley.

 

The Kurobe Gorge Railway (as it was now called) was built in the early 1950’s in order to transport materials to the site where the Kurobe Dam was being constructed and even today remains a wholly own subsidiary of the Kansai Electric Power Company.  The company also bored the tunnel through the mountain from Shinano-Omachi now part of the Alpine Route.

As I walked up the road I could see electric engines that pulled the trains and diesel engines that did the shunting.  Then a sign welcomed people to the railway.  Adjacent to the ticket office was an indicator board with a light against the next train to depart and this showed the location of all the different types of carriages.  I had booked a place in one of the open carriages (3rd class) and this was quite adequate on what was a clear and sunny day; if it had been pouring with rain then that would have been different.

 

I made sure that I was towards the front of the queue when the ticket barrier opened so that I could get a seat at the back of the carriage I had been allocated.  No problem and the gaijin effect happened; no-one else sat on the bench seat I was occupying and so I had a seat for four people all to myself.

As the train pulled away, right on time as you would expect, the staff on the platform that had been selling sweets and drinks waved us good-bye.

The first few yards were in a tunnel under the station and when the train emerged we could see the first of the many bridges of the journey and these allowed vehicular traffic and walkers to make their way up the gorge.

 

We crossed the gorge on the Shin-Yamabiko Bridge, which at 166 meters was the longest on the railway and from here we could see back down the gorge to the town.  Then almost immediately we passed the Unazuki Dam, this was the newest of the dams in the gorge having only been completed in 2001 and although its primary purpose was to provide water of the hydro-electric plant, of greater significance was its ability to prevent flooding further down the valley.  The reservoir that had been created was large and the water was a dirty light brown due to all the sediment that was in suspension.

At Shin-Yanagawara the power station had been built to resemble a European castle.

As the reservoir behind the Unazuki Dam filled up it meant that the monkeys that lived in the forests could not get from one side of the gorge to the other, so the company built what was now described as the ‘Monkey Bridge’.

All the way up the gorge, rivers poured down the side valleys and these helped to maintain the level of the reservoirs.

Where the Hotokeishi Valley entered the Kurobe Gorge a rock formation in the shape of Buddha could be seen.  At one time when a tea house had been located here people proceeding further up the gorge used to stop and pray for a safe journey through the mountains.

 

 

 

 

The steep sided terrain meant that for the majority of the trip the train was running on a single track line.  Kuronagi was the first station we stopped at and here a passing loop had been constructed to allow trains to pass each other.  Immediately after the tunnel the line ran over the Atobiki Bridge which although only 64m long, was 60m above the Kuronagi-gawa.  Just a little way up the Kuronagi Gorge was what looked like a road bridge, but it was in fact the Suirokyo Aqueduct which transferred water from the Dashidaria Dam to the Shin-Yanagawara Power Station.

 

 

 

 

The Kurobe River No 2 Power station, like each of the dams and adjacent turbine houses had a railway spur running up to and in some cases into the building and any materials needed were brought up by train.

 At each passing loop, the train travelling downhill was given priority, but as the scenery was getting more spectacular the higher we went up the gorge, the short stops allowed people to sit back and admire the views.

Directly in front of me sat a father and mother with their young daughter and she had first looked at me as ‘the gaijin from another planet’, but a “Konnichiwa” seemed to change things and after her parents had told her to reply, she did and then gave me a smile.  On the way she got quite animated and her father had to translate her questions, which he did after asking if I was prepared to answer them.  Certainly, so the usual – how, when, where, why.  At one of the stops I opened my large map and showed her where I had been and she soon grasped that it had been a long journey.  I think that her parents were more impressed than she was; her mother did not speak, but was listening intently to everything her husband said.

All the outstanding parts of the scenery were well signposted.  Then we crossed the Kurobe Gorge on the Kantesuri Bridge and the river that flowed through the gorge at this point was much reduced by the Koyadaira Dam just upstream.  During the spring melt I expect that this would be a raging torrent and even at the beginning of August there was some snow still remaining in the gorge; but just like on the Alpine Route it was very dirty.

 

Then when the train went round a corner Keyaki-daira station came into view; as the gorge narrowed significantly at this point the line continued through a tunnel for some distance before emerging out into the open again.  However this was far as the trains went because the line of the track further up the gorge had been destroyed by an avalanche a number of years ago.

I just had time to alight at the station and go to the toilet as I was due to catch the next train back down the gorge.  By each urinal in the gent’s toilets, brackets had been installed where you could hang your umbrella, what will they think of next?

All the produce that needed to brought up to the summit station and the nearby onsens was carried in small freight wagons.  The electric locos were uncoupled, run round on the passing loop and then recoupled for the return (downhill) journey.  Having found my carriage I boarded and sat at the rear; there were very few people onboard as the vast majority were going sightseeing, something that I would have liked to do, but unfortunately I did not have the time as I had a series of trains to catch if I was going to arrive at my hotel for night at any sort of reasonable time.  So may be another visit to the gorge would be required at sometime in the future.

As the train made its way downhill the views through the gorge had a different perspective to the uphill journey, even though we were travelling quite a bit faster.  We passed a train going uphill loaded with bags of concrete and that was holding in the passing loop as we had right-of-way.  All the major work on the track, dams and power houses had to be carried out during the summer months because all the bridges on the line were dismantled and stored in the tunnels before winter set in, so that they were not swept away by snow or avalanches.

Having arrived back at Unazuki station I walked the short distance downhill to the Unazuki-onsen station and having retrieved my rucksack from the coin locker boarded a train on the Toyama Chiho Railway that took me back down to the coastal plain.  I changed trains at Uozu, going from the rather tatty Toyama Chiho Railway station via the underpass to the JR station which was only slightly better.  There was just over an hour before my train was due to arrive and so I went and sat in the (quite plush) air-conditioned waiting room as the temperature on the platform was about 10° C warmer than it had been up in the mountains.  I used the time to write more postcards and had a bite to eat, plus lots to drink as I needed to keep rehydrated.

I boarded the Limited Express Hakuetsu 5 to Niigata; these trains could be driven from either end, but each end of the train was a completely different shape from the other – very strange.  As I was now back into JR Railpass territory, my reserved seat was on the left (west) side of the train and so I had a good view to the flat calm and deep blue Sea of Japan.  It was great to just sit back in comfort, as the bench seats on the Kurobe Gorge Railway had been hard on the posterior.

I had opened my map and using it and the Japan By Rail guide book I was able to follow the progress for the train as it made its way along the coast.

After a quiet couple of days away from the hustle and bustle of city life I arrived at Niigata station in the rush hour and so all of the platforms were thronged with people.  The station concourse and bus station immediately outside were just as bad and so I was glad that my hotel for the night was only a short distance away.

Having checked in and then put my rucksack in my room I went off in search of the post office and using the city map in the Japan By Rail guide book, I located it without any difficulty.  Having bought lots more stamps I affixed them onto the postcards (no licking as they were self-adhesive) and then sent the mail on its way it the international mailbox.

After a small dinner it was back to my room for a shower and then bed.

Tue 6 Aug – day 88   Today I was leaving Northern Honshu and heading for Hokkaidō and the journey would take nearly 9½ hours onboard three different trains.  There was no Shinkansen line up the west coast of Honshu, not that I would have used it even if there had been one; so I would be travelling on Limited Expresses today.

The first from Niigata, Limited Express Inaho 1 (a similar type of train as I had arrived on yesterday) took me as far as Akita and this was a great journey with the Sea of Japan on the left and the mountains to the right.

Akita was the terminus for the Shinkansen line from Tokyo and E3 Series Komachi use the normal high speed line before turning off at Morioka and then using the normal tracks to reach its destination.  Unusually the Shinkansen lines were at the same level as the local lines, but through a totally separate barrier.

It was Festival time in Akita and the city authorities had arranged for singers and musicians with traditional instruments to perform on the station concourse.  Also on the concourse was a very detail model of the last series of express steam engines that used to haul trains along these lines.

From Akita I took the Limited Express Tsugaru 3 to Aomori and along the way we passed Hachirogata where the second biggest lake in Japan had been reclaimed and was now rice fields on an industrial scale – an area in size equal to the space inside Tokyo’s Yamanote Line. So huge!!

At the northern end of this line JR had introduced so called “Joyful Trains” in order to boost tourism and maintain a rail link for the local communities; these trains operated at weekends and during holiday periods.  The trains had large windows and a lounge area and in each carriage there was a compartment where the seats pulled out so it was as if you are sitting on the floor.  Musicians and traditional storytellers moved from carriage to carriage entertaining the passengers.

At Aomori it was a very quick cross platform change to the Limited Express Super Hakucho 25 which would take me to Hakodate.  The highlight on this journey was the trip through the 53.85Km long Seikan Tunnel under the Tsugaru Straits between Honshu and Hokkaido, the longest underwater tunnel in the world and this makes the Channel Tunnel look like an underpass.  It was built as straight as possible in order to accommodate Shinkansen’s and the train actually travelled on sections of the new track on either side of the tunnel.  Construction was proceeding apace and the extension from Shin-Aomori to the current station of Oshima-Ono which will be renamed Shin-Hakodate was expected to be completed and the Shinkansen’s running in 2015.  The line would then be extended to Sapporo.

On each seat back was a graphic of the tunnel and a timetable telling you when you would enter, reach the deepest point and then exit.  The train stopped at Tappi-kaitei inside the tunnel and it was possible to take a behind-the-scenes of the tunnel on a day trip from Hakodate.  Not for claustrophobics!!

I had hoped that when I arrived in Hakodate the temperature would have dropped somewhat, but outside the station it was as hot as ever and so I decided to take a taxi to my hotel rather than getting onboard a tram that would be full of sweaty bodies.

My hotel for the next two nights was at the top end of the city, but it did not take very long to make the journey even though it was still in the rush hour.  Again a very quick check in and having signed for my suitcase which had arrived on the luggage transfer service from Matsumoto it was then up in the lift; the hotel had a coin laundry and so it would be washing and ironing time tonight.

So having done all the domestics it was time for bed.