The following is a trip report for a journey I took in July, 2012.
I had seen some double deck E4 series MAX Shinkansen trains at Ueno, and I decided that I must travel on one. It was also the day we were to leave Tokyo (our train was at 10pm), so after breakfast, we took our luggage to Tokyo Station and left it in a locker.
I consulted the departures board, and found that there was a MAX Shinkansen departing north in 15 minutes. I purchased a Green Car ticket for a station about 90 minutes north of Tokyo and decided to make my way back by regular train.
The white, blue and yellow E4 series Shinkansen pulled in, looking like an angry duck with shoulder pads. 2 8 car sets were attached to make a 16 car train. Inside, the top level of certain cars were Green Class, with 2×2 seating instead of 2×3. As the MAX trains are used on shorter distance runs than other Shinkansen, the features are a little more basic (no overhead reading lights, no trolley service for food, etc), but it was comfortable enough for the short journey.
I left the train at Utsonomiya and walked towards the main city area. After 15 minutes walking, I found a large Shinto shrine (I later found it was the Futaarayama-jinja Shrine); an unexpectedly beautiful place in the centre of the city. There was a torii gate incongruously nestled between modern high rise apartment blocks. Behind the torii, was long set of stone steps leading up to the main shrine, which was surrounded by large trees.
I climbed the stairs, and found myself in a cool courtyard. The trees insulated the area well against the noisy city, and the courtyard was calm and peaceful. People in traditional Japanese dress walked purposefully around the courtyard, and 2 stone beasts guarded the entry to the main hall. Just in case you had forgotten you were in 21st century Japan, there was a bank of vending machines in a shelter to one side of the courtyard.
Next to the main hall was another torii, with a hand painted wooden sign. The sign was translated to me; the Emperor had visited this area in the year 42, and had used water from the spring to have a cup of tea. The water had taken on spiritual properties, and could now heal the sick. Behind the torii was another, smaller temple, guarded by what appeared to be two stone foxes.
After leaving a donation in the box, I headed off to the main shopping area. I needed to buy a charger for my laptop (I had left my charger in Australia) and I thought that this would be no problem in such a techno-savvy nation as Japan. After walking for an hour, I had been unable to locate any computer shops, so I went into a department store. After locating the correct floor, it took me about 15 minutes to convey what I wanted to the shop assistant. Once he understood what I wanted, he said one word “no”. I went to the other department store I had seen, and talked to the shop assistant there for about the same length of time. She didn’t have what I wanted, but drew me a detailed map of where I could probably find one, including the store name in Japanese characters. I followed her map, and it led me back to the first department store. I gave up and went back to the station.
Back at the station, I managed to obtain a railway map of JR lines in the Greater Tokyo area. This was quite a coup, as I hadn’t been able to find a decent map so far. I was at the very northern tip of the map and my ultimate aim for the day was to travel on either a Fresh Hitachi or a Super Hitachi, for which I would have to make my way to the Jōban Line. From the map, the most direct route was to take the Tōhoku Main Line to Oyama, then change to a Mito Line train to Mito. The journey from Ustonomiya to Oyama was a 10 car E231 series EMU and Oyama to Mito was a 5 car E531 series EMU (with no green class).
A curiosity of the JR system, is that most trains have chimes which sound prior to the train departing from a station. The chimes are not just a beeping noise, but are usually a simple melody. These chimes vary by line, and as the E531 series train prepared to depart Mito, I heard a strangely familiar tune playing. At first I couldn’t work out what it was, but as the train’s door closed, I finally worked out what was playing over the station’s loudspeakers; “If You’re Happy And You Know It Clap Your Hands”.
I discovered that the Super Hitachi (E657 series EMU) services did not stop at Mito, but Fresh Hitachi (E653 series EMU) limited express services did. I obtained a green car ticket for the next Fresh Hitachi service (about 45 minutes away) and spent the next half hour taking photos and video of all of the trains running through the station.
When my Fresh Hitachi arrived, I boarded the Green Car and it was unlike any other Japanese train I had experienced so far. All other Japanese trains had had a subdued air about them; everyone keeping to themselves and either not talking or talking below the level of ambient noise. Stepping on board the Fresh Hitachi was like stepping into an upmarket bar at happy hour. Everyone was talking and joking over cans of Japanese beer. Someone was sitting in my allocated seat, and when I smiled and pointed to my ticket, he grinned sheepishly like a schoolboy caught out and gave a friendly mock-bow, before taking his beer and moving to his allocated seat. Everyone seemed jolly on this train, even the JR employee bringing the food and drink trolley was smiling having a joke with the passengers. The happy little train rocked and rolled through Tokyo’s northern suburbs at around 130km/h, and soon arrived at Ueno station.
Now I was back at Tokyo, I was sure I would be able to find the charger. I walked through the markets for about 30 minutes without any luck, before I found a computer department store. I found the right department and went through the rigmarole of explaining what I wanted. This time I got 2 words: “no stock”. Frustrated, I walked through inner Tokyo looking for another likely store. Time was passing quickly, and it was almost time to go back to the station, collect my luggage and board the overnight train to Takamatsu. As a last resort, I went into a mobile phone shop. The friendly young man spoke passable English, and was very apologetic that he did not have a charger, but he knew where I could get one. He told me to take the subway one station to Akihabra, and take the South Exit. There would be a computer market there and I could buy my charger there.
I did as instructed, and to my relief and delight, I found the charger almost straight away. I triumphantly made my way to Tokyo station to catch the overnight Sunrise Express to Takamatsu.