Riding the Rails in Japan

Riding the Rails in Japan
Me and Adam in Ueno Park

“Akasaka Mitsuke…Akasaka Mitsuke!” I can still hear the female voice announcing our subway station. Poppa and I rode several trains in Japan, but Tokyo’s subways formed our introduction to riding the rails in Japan. Don’t misunderstand me. We paid for all our tickets, so we weren’t really “riding the rails.” In our ten days on Japan’s main island of Honshu, we not only rode the Tokyo Subway, but also a 1930s style train pulled by a coal-fired locomotive, a 1960s style passenger train, and the fabled Hikari Shikansen, the “bullet train.”

A note on the photographs: All of the photographs in this post have been scanned from slides Poppa took while we were in Japan. They are not my photographs, and, indeed, not the best of Poppa’s work. I have been unable to find the slides we used for presentations. I beg your indulgence for the poor quality.

In Tokyo, we stayed at the Asia Center of Japan. Located in the Akasaka section of the city, the Asia Center in 1965 seemed more like a hostel than a fancy hotel. The rooms were plain, but adequate, and the lobby featured a restaurant where I clearly remember the cashier. Before entering the total on her new electronic cash register, she carefully added our charges on an abacus. Our first morning in Tokyo, I awoke around 5 a.m., dressed, and stepped outside where I saw merchants washing the sidewalks in front of their shops. A block away, a major thoroughfare held, among other things, the Akasaka Mitsuke subway station. During our time in Tokyo, I remember us riding in two taxis. Usually we took the subway.

The Tokyo Subway System

Hibiya District, including the subway entrance, one place we were riding the rails in Japan
The Hibiya Subway Station Entrance

Tokyo has an outstanding subway system. I confess that I have no concept of how the city looks above ground. We always rode the subway. Poppa and I took the subway to Hibiya, but not to visit the Imperial Hotel. Poppa did take a picture of the Frank Lloyd Wright building that served as the main hotel before 1967. We went to Hibiya because Poppa banked with Bank of America, and their main Tokyo branch was in Hibiya.

We rode from Akasaka Mitsuke to Ginza, but not to shop. The headquarters of the United Church of Japan lay in the Ginza District. At the beginning of World War II, the Japanese government forced thirty-three different Protestant denominations to merge. After the war, several groups pulled out of the United Church of Christ in Japan. Nonetheless, it remains the largest Protestant group in the country. The denomination’s headquarters served as a main contact for Poppa, and arranged much of our travel in country.

Of course, we did shop while in the Ginza. I remember buying a slot car in the form of a Japanese police car. It even had a functioning red light on the roof. I remember the young women in white gloves welcoming us to the elevators and escalators in the fancy department stores. Once inside an elevator car, I remember Japanese business men in 3-piece suits addressing me. “What’s the weather like up there?” Just what every 15 year old boy wants to hear. Especially from properly dressed Japanese businessmen. In 1965, the Ginza district was nothing if not fashionable.

Ueno Park

We took the subway to Ueno Park. Created in 1873, Ueno Park covers 133 acres in central Tokyo. Home to a zoo, lots of cherry trees, and numerous museums, Ueno Park stays in my mind for two reasons. One Ueno Park museum is the Museum of Western Art. I can honestly say that I saw more Rodin sculptures in Tokyo than I ever saw in Paris. That’s me with Rodin’s Adam in Ueno Park at the top of this post.

But what stays most clearly in my mind is getting on the subway at rush hour. Talk about riding the rails in Japan. I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures of officials pushing riders onto the trains at rush hour. We didn’t experience that, but I clearly remember one extraordinary moment. Looking over at Poppa, I asked “Have you ever been anywhere all you could see was hair.” We were literally head and shoulders above everyone else in the car.

A “normal” train ride

I’ve talked about our trip on the President Lincoln. We traveled to Japan as ocean-going cowboys in charge of 25 Holstein heifers. The cows were bound for Hokkaido, but had to go into quarantine in Yokohama. Poppa and I wanted to go to Hokkaido, but we were in Japan in mid Summer, and the trains were packed. Airfare from Tokyo was out of our budget.

The United Church arranged for us to visit a church-run hostel and farm in Iwate Prefecture. Japan’s second largest Prefecture, Iwate lies near the northern end of Honshu Island. Morioka serves as Iwate’s capital city. The train we took between Tokyo and Morioka would have seemed at home on any rail line in the States. As I recall, we had sleeping berths, which meant climbing into an upper compartment to lie down. At least I did. I think Poppa had a lower berth. One more way of riding the rails in Japan.

In Morioka, we met an American missionary who had been in Japan since the 1930s. During World War II he was imprisoned just a few blocks from his wife and daughters. He spent the duration of the war in prison, with no word from or about his family. After the War, he stayed in Japan, indeed in Morioka, and played host to us while we were there. He drove us around the area, and I am convinced he never learned the Japanese drive on the left. One of the places he took us, Koiwai Farm, has become a major tourist attraction. I don’t recall it being that popular in 1965, but it fascinated Poppa and me. I’ve shared a link to the Farm’s website below as my Guest Site of the Day.

By Coal Train to Okunakayama

Four 15-year-old school boys in Okunakayama

When asked to name three fascinating places I’ve visited, I always list Okunakayama. I doubt many Americans (or other non-Japanese) have ever been there. In 1965, to reach the community by rail, you changed trains in Morioka, getting off a perfectly normal passenger train and getting on to a 1930s-style train. The locomotive burned coal, and the smoke drifted back into the passenger cars. One more fascinating way of riding the rails in Japan.

Researching Okunakayama today, you find site after site talking about the ski resort. When we were there, I never heard of any resort. At that time, Okunakayama represented extreme poverty. Poppa took the only English speaker in the area, and toured farms. Some of the farm houses were built with sticks and mud, wattle and daub. You could see holes in the walls–and this in an area with heavy winter snows. Poppa asked “How do they stay warm in winter?” “Many don’t,” his guide replied. While Poppa toured farms, I stayed at the hostel and tried to talk with my contemporaries. They spoke little English, and I had my Japanese in 30 Hours phrase book. But we had fun. Yes, all those boys in the picture above are the same age.

To Kyoto by Bullet Train

The Railway Platform for the Bullet Train, one of the ways of riding the rails in Japan.
Waiting for the Hikari Shinkansen

In October, 1964, Tokyo hosted the Summer Olympics. Also in October, 1964, a new high-speed train line opened with service between Tokyo and Osaka. The train made only two stops between its termini, Nagoya and Kyoto. Today, the Shinkansen (New Trunk Line) covers most of Japan, but in July, 1965, we rode on a very new, very fast train. I remember very little about our time in Kyoto. It rained all day, every day. But it was great fun riding the rails in Japan, The new bullet train–to my knowledge, the first high-speed passenger service in the world.

Guest Site of the Day

A barn at Koiwai Farm near Morioka, Japan
A Koiwai Farm Barn

There are many wonderful sites I could choose, including Tom Baker’s great posts about life in Japan. For today, I want to share a bit more about Koiwai, the experimental farm we visited outside Morioka. The farm’s website is, of course, in Japanese. With the assumption that few people outside Japan speak the language, let alone read it, the site has an English translation which I share here. I have to admit, the farm pictured on this website bears little resemblance to the one we visited in 1965. If you look closely, you’ll notice that one of my featured photographs (above) matches a building shown on the site. Founded in the late 1800s, Koiwai today is a “nationally designated important cultural property” according to their website. Like Seurasaari outside Helsinki, the farm functions as a living outdoor museum. Read about Koiwai on the farm’s English-language website. (The link takes you to the Japanese Language version. Click on “English” in the upper right corner to see the translation.)

Recipe of the Day

Momma raised me to eat whatever she put before me. In Japan, I faced many new dishes. The Canadian bacon and egg dish I dug into in Okunakayama turned out to be fried tomato and egg. The delicious looking green river soda I ordered in Tokyo was luke-warm honeydew melon juice. The only Japanese dish I knew before leaving the states, was tempura. In my experience, tempura contained shrimp and vegetables, dipped in batter and fried.

In 1965, Japan faced a shrimp shortage. When I ordered tempura, they served fried octopus instead of shrimp. This would serve me well later in life when I ordered calamari en su tinta at Elu’s Basque Restaurant in San Francisco. I figured that if I could eat octopus in Japan, I could eat squid in San Francisco. Today, my favorite way of eating octopus is in the Japanese salad Tako Sunomono. (Tako たこ is Japanese for octopus.) Easily made, assuming you can find octopus at your local supermarket. The salad combines thinly sliced octopus, thinly sliced cucumber, and a dressing of rice vinegar, sugar and soy sauce. This recipe for tako sunomono calls for wakame seaweed and sliced ginger, both of which I consider optional. Try it. You might like it.

Video of the Day

A 1961 Japanese hit made it across the Pacific two years later, renamed for a non-Japanese audience. Much to everyone’s surprise, I would imagine, this simple tune, sung entirely in Japanese, made it to the top of the Billboard charts. The song, known in Japan as Ue O Muite Arukou became Sukiyaki for the rest of the world. As one critic writing in Newsweek put it, that’s “like issuing “Moon River” in Japan under the title “Beef Stew.”

Ironically, the song was written as the lyricist was walking home from an anti-American demonstration. While purposefully vague, the lyrics serve as a comment on how sad the writer was at the demonstration’s failure. We knew none of this backstory when I was a kid. What we knew was we liked the song.

The version I’m sharing has a static image of the singer, Kyu Sakamoto. The lyrics, in romanized Japanese with English translation, flow across the screen. I’ve watched other videos of Sakamoto singing the song live. In none of them does he appear sad–and the lyrics are, indeed, sad. The often repeated line “Hitori botchi no yoru” translates to “Tonight I am alone.” Wikipedia tells us the song sold over 13 million records world-wide, making it one of the most popular songs ever sold. Number 1 in Japan, Australia, Canada and Norway, number 2 in Germany. The song made it to top position in both Billboard’s Hot 100 and Adult Contemporary charts. All this despite the fact that almost no one outside Japan understood a single word. So, without further ado, as they say, I give you Kyu Sakamoto singing Sukiyaki.

That’s All Folks…

I hope you have enjoyed riding the rails in Japan with me. 1965 was more than a lifetime ago for many of you. For this 15-year-old boy, it was the experience of a lifetime. One I still carry with me. Try the pickled octopus while listening to Sukiyaki. It won’t kill you!