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Hacktreks 2

First Chapters


Taking the Slow Train
J T Brown in Japan

Having a picture taken at the corner of Hollywood and Highland. Waiting in line at Disneyland’s Thunder Mountain. Perhaps catching a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge during a whirlwind tour of San Francisco. Scenes like these continue to pass for "visiting America" for all too many a Japanese tourist. But much the same can be said for a majority of westerners traveling to Japan. An obligatory trip to a temple, an afternoon in Tokyo’s shopping districts of Shinjuku or Shibuya, and invariably a jaunt through Takeshita Dori -the well known little alley of curio shops and colorful Japanese teenagers. Much has been written about the above locales -worthy of pilgrimage all. Any guidebook to Japan, as well as Hacktreks by my fellow contributors to these pages, do justice to these and other prominent points of interest in this country. In addition to Tokyo, there are also the well-beaten paths to nearby Kamakura and Nikko, or the farther away Kyoto and Nara for a taste of Japan’s exotic heritage.

But today I would like to serve up something different. Should you ever find yourself visiting Japan –be it on holiday, business, or merely vicariously through the written accounts of others – keep a day open on your itinerary and let me suggest for it the following: get out of town! Now of course, Japan is an ‘all roads lead to Rome’ country. All the halls of economic, political, and pop cultural power are concentrated in Tokyo. The Emperor’s Palace, Asakusa’s temples, capsul hotels, youths with green hair, commuters squeezed excruciatingly into train cars by straining platform attendants (so that the doors can close) -it’s all here. For any first time venturer to Japan, Tokyo remains a must. But lamentably, in quest of the the peculiar and exotic, most short-time visitors overlook the more ordinary, yet still very fascinating communities that lie just beyond this biggest Japanese city. Sort of like seeing Disneyland and mistaking that for America.

So while you’re here, for a day, get out of town. You’ll be glad you did. You may not see anything astonishing or breathtaking, but you’ll take away memories and and tuck away vignettes of the daily life –much of the real Japan- that virtually all other tourists never have the opportunity to experience.
The easiest and best way to go about this, is to start by turning the "all roads lead to Tokyo" axiom on its head. As this applies to railways too, take a train line -a commuter train line, but any commuter train line. Almost all of them terminate in inner Tokyo. Just catch one on the inside of the city and ride in on out towards the boonies. To have a working example, I’m going to pick the Den En Toshi Line which can be boarded in the centrally located Shibuya and then we’re going to go westward out of Tokyo. I repeat, though, any of the other bedroom community-bound commuter trains would be find for this purpose.

The first stop where we may wish to get off the Den En Toshi and have a look around is about 30 minutes out of Shibuya -if you take the slow train- at a station named Kajigaya.(Though much faster, eschew the express unless you’re adept at making train transfers in Japan). You’re no longer in Tokyo proper now. Perhaps you noticed that we crossed a river -the Tama River- which means we are now in the city of Kawasaki. The famous motorcycle is from this city, as are many other industrial companies. Kawasaki used to be a rather bleak, factory-filled, working-class town. But many parts of the city underwent a facelift in the 1980’s and became quite residentially desirable due to the more affordable real estate prices yet close proximity to Tokyo.
Kajigaya is just such a little residential neighborhood. Located on a hilltop, it’s a quiet, pleasant place, home to many singles and young couples that opt for more cozy and peaceful environs than can be found nearer the city center. If you step outside the lone exit of the station, just on the right you’ll notice a small supermarket attached to the station building. It’s called the Tokyu Store, part of a chain of grocery markets owned and operated by the Tokyu Group, parent company of the Den En Toshi Line. The way things work in urban Japan is that a major railway operator buys up a lot of land, strings a train line through it, develops most of the land residentially, and commercially builds up the property closest to each station. Not a few residents along the various train lines pay their mortgage or rent, do their grocery shopping, and much of their department store shopping as well at railway owned establishments. It return for the captive audience, train fares are usually held down by parent company subsidies. Until the 1990’s, the richest man in the world used to be Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, owner of the Seibu railway and department store group.

Anyway, while in Kajigaya, have a looksee inside Kajigaya’s Tokyu Store. Observe some typical Japanese housewives picking out the food they’re going to prepare for the evening’s dinner. Outside the store, continue to your right and go around the bend. At the traffic signal, cross the street and wander up the hill. All around are Japanese-style apartments and condos. Perhaps you’ll see a young mother with a baby in a stroller, maybe two neighbors chatting over a balcony, or a deliveryman scurrying by on foot.

Next stop on this journey, we detrain at a station called Tama Plaza. Tama Plaza is a major stop on the Den En Toshi, offering a host of department stores, outlets and boutiques that attract people from many of the smaller surrounding stations and communities. While not quite as swank as Tokyo’s most haute districts, Tama Plaza is one of the tonier addresses in Kawasaki. Do some window shopping, take a stroll along one of the many tree-lined boulevards. And all the while, know that you may well be the very first tourist to ever set foot in these parts. (Right about here, David Letterman would probably suggest that you just ‘drop your pants and mingle’.)
At a station called Nagatsuda (not really as hard to pronounce as it looks), our tour entails a train transfer. Since making the transfer means once more exiting the Tokyu Line, take the opportunity to walk about this area too.

Nagatsuda is notable for absolutely NOTHING. This will be the most nondescript, frankly unimpressive place you could visit on this Hacktrek. But it’s real. It’s down to earth. And it’s more genuine than the neon and the fashion fads of Shinjuku or Shibuya. A few strips of old-fashioned Japanese businesses and shops –for futons, fish, vegetables, a neighborhood real estate office, a book store (standing room for about two; one, if you boast an American derriere)- can be found on either side of the station. If you keep walking north for a while, you’ll even run into some rice paddies, no joke. Don’t spend too much time in Nagatsuda, but snap a picture or two while stretching your legs and you’ll take home a souvenir that will considerably add to your understanding of ordinary Japanese life.

Now should you get lost here, or anywhere along the way, a good word to remember is "eki "(pronounced "eh-key"); it means "station". Just say it with the rising intonation of a question, and somebody should figure things out and point you in the direction of the station. If after about five attempts they still remain impervious to your earnest efforts to communicate and just stare at you blankly, you can give them a series of rapid fire head slaps on the top of the head the way Benny Hill used to always do to the little old bald man. This always gets you to the station right away.

Back at Nagatsuda Station, now enter the JR(Japan Rail) Yokohama Line. If you’re packing your trusty JR Railpass which I wrote about in February of this year Japanbargains.htm, you can ride for free on this train. Our destination is to the south, Shin-Yokohama. For those of you who are soccer buffs, you might remember that Shin-Yokohama was the venue for the 2002 World Cup Final. It is also one of the stops on the famous Japanese bullet train. Recently developed, Shin-Yokohama is a highly built up commercial district plopped down in the middle of what was otherwise, pastoral agricultural land. But what we have come here for is to give you a quick fix: both of food, and of mainstream sight-seeing.

Roughly a five-minute walk from the station, is the quaint but extremely popular Yokohama Raumen(sic) Museum. Ramen is of course from China, originally. But it caught on in Japan during the last century and especially took off wildly during the post-war years. Today, many a young Japanese single man subists on this fare daily, and trendier chains have sprouted up appealing to young women and families too. Varieties of ramen have developed up the wazoo. You can learn all about ramen and its history in Japan by exploring the Raumen Museum. Exhibits have truncated explanations in errant but understandable English. The museum is not very big, but admission is only 300 yen (about US2.50). And the best part is underground, where a miniature Tokyo Old Town cerca 1958 has been recreated.

That era, the late ‘50’s, holds a special place in the hearts of all Japanese. Those were hardscrabble days when Japan was still poor and emerging from the rubble of World War II. But history was on the verge of smiling on a then yearning and youthful country. The late 1950’s would come to represent the end of an era and dawning of another. As you descend down a staircase into this Old Town, the lighting becomes dim, piped-in sounds of old subway cars rushing by surround you, and you emerge at sunset in a little Japanese neighborhood from a time gone by. Costumed attendants pop up here and there, acting out roles that their predecessors might have done for real half a century ago.

Beyond several old-fashioned store fronts, actual ramen shops are open and will serve you a bowl of the piping hot stuff. Prices are a touch high compared what you might pay outside the museum back in the year 2003, but the ambience more than compensates. Just a very few back alleys and odd blocks remain looking like this in the older parts of the real Tokyo. But they’re disappearing fast. Hence the museum. And hence the lines of visitors for the more popular shops in the Old Town. It’s all, well…, like Disneyland. And now we’ve come full circle. Enjoy your train ride back.

(As an accompaniment to this article, I’ve set up a site at Geocities where you can click through a photo gallery featuring some of the places and sights mentioned. Have a peek.)

© J.T. Brown May 2003

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