December 17, 2001
This would turn out to be the most scenic and enjoyable of all my rail trips in Japan.
The are marvelous transport machines, but they fly too high and too fast for one to get a truly intimate look at the country and its people. The conventional ‘Limited Express’ train I’m on this afternoon runs at ground level, fast in rural areas yet slowly enough through the city for me to look into the eyes of the people waiting at the street crossings and to see some of the details of the buildings we’re passng.
The Shinkansen tend to stay in wide, relaively flat valleys. They tunnel through hills instead of going over or around them. This train will leave the flatlands and venture far up an ever-narrowing river valley and into the mountains. The wide, shallow and sluggish river we cross shortly after leaving the Bullet Train behind us will turn into a fast-running, fast-descending mountain stream with impressive gorges we can look down into from our train. The railroad will become less ‘Japanese’ and more like the mountain railways you’d encounter in Switzerland or northern Italy.
The village of Minakami itself could easily have passed for some Alpine hamlet: Taxis lined up to ferry people to nearby hotels, a horse-drawn hack for nostalgia, a fast-moving river below and snow-capped mountains above. The only things spoiling the illusion were the ‘Welcome’ sign and the billboard advertising white-water rafting expeditions --- they were in Japanese.
Minakami had two or three attracive looking hotels. It was only 2-1/2 hours away fron Tokyo by train, but an infinity away in terms of ambiance.
From journal Tokyo: 3 Days Aboard the Bullets