Wednesday, March 06, 2013

My First trip to Japan, Or How I Almost Missed My First Shinkansen Ride

My First trip to Japan; Or how I almost missed my first Shinkansen ride.
(First written in the late 1990's) 

I have been a long time Rapid Transit fan since I was a little boy growing up 10 block away from the Elevated F-Line in Brooklyn NY. I never thought at that time that I would ever see any transit system beyond my native Brooklyn. As a teenager I moved to the northern suburbs and experienced commuter trains. Somehow I got a job in the Semi-conductor industry and received a job transfer to Oregon as a Field Service Engineer. This job requires travel. With this job I have seen many different transit system of the US. So far my favorite place to visit is Japan. The intensity of rail service is a traction buffs dream come true!

 My first trip to Japan was in December 1990. I had to go to Oita Prefecture on Kyushu. It is here that I first experienced Japan’s rails for the first time. I had a Sunday off, so 2 of my American co-workers and I decided to fly from Oita to Hiroshima, then take the trains back. We had made arrangements for a taxi to pick us up at a local train station at a certain time to bring us back to our hotel (we were out in the boondocks, but a 10-yard walk to the ocean.

 We walked around Hiroshima. I would recommend everybody to stop at the war memorial and museum. It is very sobering, and would cause even the greatest warmonger to understand the importance of peace. Anyway, it was time to go to the train station so we could catch a Shinkansen to Kokura, from there we would transfer to a local train to our destination. We jumped on a streetcar to the train station. This was very brave because we did not have a clue if we were taking the right one or how much it cost. I have proven to myself that the Just Do It! Phrase does work. We arrived at Hiroshima Station without incident. The problem was the person who keep the time, mis-read the time of our train. We went up to the ticket window to purchase our tickets. The ticket clerk told us we had no time to purchase tickets; our train was scheduled to arrive in 2 minutes. He told us the track # and that we should RUN! Which we did. We ran through the wickets and down to the platform just as the train stopped. We jumped on board. The conductor told us to walk to the unreserved section, which we did and found seats for our journey south. I don’t remember much about the actual train ride except there were a lot of tunnels. When we arrived in Kokura we walked downstairs to the Fare Adjustment window to pay our fare from Hiroshima. We got on our local train and caught our taxi without incident!

 I had two nights to spend in Tokyo on my return. I found out about a train that went to Narita Airport. Back in 1990 the JR Narita Express did not exist, but the Keisei Skyliner did. I went to Shinjuku Train station for the first time (I had taken the subway the previous day, but not seen the craziness of the main station. I had to ask a wicket (the automated turnstiles were not in place), how much to Ueno Station and which track, he was most helpful and guided me correctly. I took the Yamanote Line to Ueno. I then had to figure out how to get to the Keisei Ueno Station. While looking I found the JR Shop, which I enjoyed looking through (But seems to be gone now). I found the station and took the Skyliner to Narita. However at this time the station under the airport did not exist. The train stopped outside the airport (I think this is called Higashi-Narita now). We had to go through Security checkpoint in a CRAMPED and CROWDED building before being shoved in a bus for the short trip to the terminal.

 I am glad now the Narita Airport stations now exist. I have since been on both the Narita Express and the Skyliner. Skyliner is much cheaper and less crowded then the Narita Express. True the Narita Express doe go into Tokyo and Shinjuku. I usually take the Narita Express into town and the Skyliner out of town. Or if I have a lot of time, and am feeling well I’ll take one of the Limited Expresses for a really cheap ride.

This article is only the first of a series I plan on writing on my trips to Japan. I have been to Japan on 10 different occasions over the past 9 years, and to Korea once. I have done some crazy weekend trips to ride a streetcar line or my favorite subways. I try to take photographs of my trips, but I tend to be a little timid in taking photos, so I don’t have as many as I should. However, I have posted photos of Japan’s trains on my website along with trains/transit from the US and now Europe.

A Transit Fan Visit to Prague

Prague Traction

In June 2012 I was attending two conferences in Dresden, Germany. Dresden will be a subject of a future article. I had a weekend off between the conferences. I had purchased train tickets to go to Prague in the Czech Republic, which is just over 2 hours away by train.

I boarded the 9:00am Intercity train to Prague at the Dresden Hauptbahnhof. I had reserved a window seat in a compartment. There were 5 other passengers with me. The train ride started along the Elbe River to the Czech border, then across the Czech countryside and other rivers before arriving in Prague. Announcements were poor on the train. We pulled into a station called Praha Nadrazi Helosovice. I panicked, and grabbed my suitcase to get off the train. A young girl was doing the same. The door in our car did not want to open. We went to the next car, and its door did open. We jumped off the train just as it started pulling out of the station.  That was a thrilling experience. Later I figured out I should have gotten off at the next Prague station, Praha Hlavni Nadrazi, but so be it.

 I found the Transit Ticket office and bought a daypass and got a map of the metro/tram system. I worked my way down to the metro to head towards my hotel for the evening. I was so turned around by getting off at the wrong station that I boarded the subway going the wrong direction. I quickly figured it out at the next station to head in the right direction.

The Prague metro is the first Soviet style metro I have ever been on. The first line opened in the early 1970’s. It is a three line system with all 3 forming a triangle in city center. Some stations are deep underground which of course doubles as bomb shelters. The escalators are long and steep, but move very fast, faster than any escalator I have been on. The stations are not nearly as ornate as Moscow or St. Petersburg, but the typical Soviet design is evident in the older stations.

I wound up at my hotel about 20 minutes later and they allowed me to check-in despite it being only 11:30am. I stayed at the Hotel Ibis in Mala Strana. It was a quick five minute walk from the Andel metro stop and a major tram junction. Right next to the hotel was a shopping mall, which was originally a factory that made streetcars for Tatra as well as tanks and such during WWII.

After having lunch at the shopping mall I headed out for a full day of walking and riding. I boarded the metro again to head towards the north end of the city. I then boarded a tram to take me to the Prague Transport Museum. The museum is located inside an old carbarn. They have a huge collection of trams with some busses, and trolley busses. Unfortunately each car had locked gates to prevent entry into any of the vehicles. As I was walking around the museum, I heard classical music. At first I thought it was background music. Then I realized the music would suddenly stop and restart. I turned the corner down one aisle, and there was a small orchestra with singers. They were playing Bach (I believe). I later found out they were rehearsing for a performance later that day inside the carbarn. How neat is that? The acoustic in the carbarn was very nice for classical music. But, I did not have time to wait for a concert. I had only 24 more hours in Prague, and there is so much to do!!

From the museum I boarded the Tourist/Museum tram line route #95. It leaves from the museum on the hour for a trip into the old city and back. This was a neat way to see Prague via tram. The daypass is not applicable to this line. After a 45 minute ride into town they kicked everyone off the car for its return trip to the museum. From here I boarded other trams to see the city. I walked across the famous Charles Bridge. I eventually wound up at the city’s only remaining funicular at Petrin park. I rode it to the top, and then went up the tower for an amazing view of the city and its surroundings. My feet were getting sore and my belly was hungry. At the bottom of the funicular across the street was a pub. I sat outside and enjoyed a nice meal and a find Czech beer. The purpose of sitting outside was to watch the trams parade by J.

After my meal I did a bit more tram riding, but my feet were killing me so by 7:30pm I went back to the hotel for the night. The hotel was abuzz in the bar since it was Euro Cup Soccer (football) time, everyone was watching the TV and drinking…..

The next morning I had a nice breakfast included with my room rate at the hotel. I thus checked out, leaving my luggage at the hotel. Today would be another busy day. I headed out to first find a few geocaches (my other hobby which uses a GPS to find objects that others have hidden around the world). I used the metro to get to a location with a cluster around the main train station. I walked along an esplanade overlooking Prague’s main train station. I was soon back on trams to head to Prague Castle. Instead of taking the long stairway up to the castle, I took the tram up the hill. I spent a good 3 hours touring the massive castle complex. I also enjoyed a find lunch there. I could have spent all day touring the grounds, but I did not have all day.

I walked down the steps to board trams to head the old city. I got to the town square by the Astrological clock which is a glockenspiel that plays every hour. My feet were again killing me, so I sat down in a café and enjoyed another fine brew will waiting for the top of the hour. The square gets quite crowded waiting for the clock to chime. With much fanfare the clock declared it was 2pm, and then the crowd dispersed. It was time for me to leave as well to get back to my hotel to grab my luggage and head to the train station. I used the metro to get to my hotel and back to the train station.

My train was a little late. I had several people coming up to me asking questions on where there train would be and such. I would always figure out the answer, but I must look like I know about trains or something.

For the trip back to Dresden I was in a window seat in a regular coach. The train was super crowded to begin with, but at the last stop before Germany many people left the train. Once in Germany, train announcements started again. Apparently the German rail system was having problems due to a fire along the line. Passengers with connection to the high-speed ICE trains, they were advising different routings to Frankfurt and Munich and some passengers had no options due to a line closure. Good thing I was getting off at Dresden.

My brief trip to Prague was great. It is a beautiful, tourist friendly city. The metro is the fastest way around town, but the trams are definitely a better way to see the city. Prague has an immense tram system with up to 5 lines running on certain streets. There are major tram junctions, even a few Grand Unions. You definitely need a tram map to identify which line you want. Most lines run every 10 minutes, so waits along busy stretches can be as short as 2 minutes. Another great aspect of the tram system is the variety of equipment in operation. Cars from the 1970’s thru 2012 are all in operation in several different designs. The fare structure is very complex; I highly recommend buying the 24hour day pass. It is good on trams, busses and the metro, for about $8US, a real bargain for the amount of service provided.

Prague Castle is a must for any visitor. For bare minimum touring allow 3 hours, but 5~6 would allow a complete visit. Seeing the Astrological clock and crossing the Charles Bridge are also a must. The architecture around the city is simply marvelous. I would recommend taking a cruise along the river and through the locks, but I did not have the time.