Ask anyone in Japan if they love the shinkansen, and they’ll probably say yes. Commonly known as the bullet train, it’s convenient, handsomely designed, and the train’s aerodynamic nose is surprisingly an artisanal masterpiece, carefully formed by hand out of numerous metal plates in order to achieve the perfect curves.
Becoming a conductor of one is a typical kindergarten dream, and while a lot of kids grow out of that phase, some emerge as bona fide train fanatics who go by many monikers: tetsu-ota, tetchan, tetsu-kichi (as in “crazy”), you name it. Unfortunately, travel by shinkansen may be fast and luxurious, but it’s generally not cheap—for example, a three-hour one-way ride from Tokyo to Ōsaka can cost around 14,300 yen (US $140).
So what’s this about a 240-yen ticket in Nīgata Prefecture that has train enthusiasts all abuzz? A seasonal train station that’s actually part of a ski resort? A place called “Cowabunga” 125 miles north of Tokyo? Let comedian and self-declared train otaku, Ayako Suzukawa, be your guide today!
▼ The train we’ll be taking in this article:
There seems to be as many kinds of tetsudō (railway) otaku as there are trains: for example, tori-tetsu take photos of all aspects of their paramour, nori-tetsu love the actual ride, and oto-tetsu take pride in their knowledge of any railway-related sound. Ayaka may be all of the above; just look at her Twitter feed.
As for the actual trains, quite popular is the relatively new, high-acceleration N700 series, or the E5 series from the Hayabusa service. The fastest in Japan at 199 mph, its name is Japanese for peregrine falcon but it always reminds me of Perry the Platypus from Phineas and Ferb.
▼ Yes? No?
In this article’s video, Ayaka will be riding the E4 series—it boasts double-decker cars and can become the highest-capacity trainset in the world when all 16 cars are connected. It services the Jōetsu Line, which runs between Tokyo and Nīgata Prefecture (Nīgata is a part of Japan’s yuki-guni, or “snow country”, a popular winter-sports destination that’s also renowned for its rice and hot springs).
The $2.34 one-way fare in question today is famous for being the cheapest bullet-train ticket in Japan, and covers the 1.1-mile ride (!!) between Echigo-Yuzawa Station and Gala-Yuzawa Station.
The Gala-Yuzawa train station, which was built in 1990 after the Gala-Yuzawa Snow Resort opened, is said to be the only station in existence that’s directly incorporated into a resort facility. While the resort is accessible all year round, the station itself is only operational during the winter season and services passengers who want to hit the slopes with as little hassle as possible.
▼ I wonder if these makeshift signs are indicative of the station’s limited use…
Complete with storage lockers, equipment rentals, and an eight-seater ski lift called the Diligence, the train station functions as an entrance to the resort. Incidentally, the facility is called the Ski Center Cowabunga, and I seriously did not expect to be reminded of Bart Simpson while preparing for this piece.
▼ Inside the train station/ski center:
▼ And up we go!
I’m as baffled by the hubbub as you may be, and sure, it would make more sense to go straight from Tokyo or any city to the ski center. But some train enthusiasts decide NOT to go the extra mile, in this case, for the sake of buying the extremely unusual 240-yen ticket and delighting in this remarkably unremarkable shinkansen trip!
In the photo below, the 140-yen ticket on the right is the unchin (base fare), and the 100-yen one on the left is the tokkyūken, or the limited-express fare, which distinguishes the ticket as a shinkansen’s and not your regular local train’s.
Since the ride is so short, you probably won’t be experiencing the 150 miles per hour the E4 series is capable of, but you can certainly brag to your train buddies that you went on this singular excursion. In fact, the entire E4 series’ trains were recently transferred to the Jōetsu Line and the series will be retired by 2016, so there may be only two or three winters left if you want to ride this particular type of train on the unofficial “Gala-Yuzawa Line”.
Watch as Ayako gets on the train at 10:27 AM and arrives at the Gala-Yuzawa Station a mere 3 minutes away!
As you can imagine, she was the only passenger to board at Echigo-Yuzawa at that time, and despite her excitement she noticed that there wasn’t enough time to even enjoy a hot can of tea. Her twitter followers’ comments ranged from “I’m gonna check it out right now!”, to “Three minutes isn’t enough to savor the ride!”, to “This shinkansen is slower than a regular train (^～^;)”.
Well, with the money you technically saved on the train, why not get a daifuku made by a shop in nearby Minami-Uonuma City? Available at the station’s shop, the sweet is named “Yuki-Gassen (snowball fight)” and is filled with sweet adzuki paste and matcha-flavored whipped cream. Or drop by the popular onigiri shop, “Yuta”, that recently opened at the Gala. Legions of fans line up at its pop-up store every year at the illustrious Fuji Rock Festival, which happens to take place at a ski resort in Yuzawa-City, Nīgata (in the summer, that is).
So if your significant other is a little train-crazy, let the tori-tetsu go on a photo spree while you ease your stress in the shops, lounge, or spa upstairs. Since you only got to sit for three minutes on the E4, your feet might need some TLC.
▼ The Irori Lounge:
▼ This is the third floor of a train station?
Those who share Ayaka’s passion for all things tetsudō should definitely check out her Twitter page and YouTube channel. But for the average traveler, her posh trip on the highly anticipated E7 series (which debuted this March) may be a tad more relatable. So where do you fit when it comes to the train-love spectrum? If you know any cool photography spots or unusual stations, share with fellow readers in the comments section!