Finally the day of our journey to the mountains arrived! I had bought the tickets on the Shinkansen (bullet train) weeks in advance because I had been told they fill up quickly. Our first challenge was getting to Tokyo Station early in the morning when the Tozai line is notoriously busy – fortunately we were travelling light and quite happy to squeeze together among the salarymen and women.
We arrived with plenty of time to spare and wandered around the shops in the central station for 45 minutes or so before heading through the barriers. This required using two tickets together which momentarily halted us but not for long, I’d fortunately purchased all the correct tickets.
We still had plenty of time before the train left and we sat in a waiting area facing a bakery that was selling luxury fairy cakes. The urge began to build and eventually I knew I had to buy one for Janna. I gave her the money (about 500 yen) and said she could go and pick one she liked. She came back with an intriguing paper box, but wouldn’t let me see her cake as she was saving it for the train.
We made our way to the platform and edged along to the place our carriage would stop. The train leaving before ours was just being cleaned before loading. I spotted our door (or where our door would be on the next train!) and outside it something strange happened. A man threw his hands in the air and started shaking, like he was doing a crazy new dance. The line of people waiting to get on the train were looking at him oddly, and then all of a sudden he fell flat on his face onto the platform. A train attendant realised something was wrong and immediately started shouting, pushing people back and ran to get some help. We realised there was blood on the platform.
Over the next 10 or 15 minutes, more and more station staff appeared around him, and when they had enough they made a little cordon to separate him from the lines of passengers still waiting to go in our door. Then the doors of the train opened, and the lines got on board, leaving only the little huddle around the injured man, and us.
The train pulled out and we took our place where the platform markers indicated to line up for the door. A handful of other passengers appeared and came to wait behind us. We were now right on the shoulder of the “cordon” and could clearly see the injured man, who must have had some kind of convulsion or seizure. They had turned him on his side, and he was moving a little, but there was still blood on the platform near his head. He had been given a pillow and a blanket to keep him warm.
Soon some proper medical staff arrived with a stretcher, and began to measure and medicate the patient. Also around this time, our train arrived and passengers were streaming off the train around the little medical oasis. After the platform cleared a little, while they were cleaning the train, the man was maneuvered onto a stretcher and wheeled away, and the medical team were replaced by a cleanup team to scrub the unsightly stains off the platform. And then the doors opened and we were invited to embark.
We found our seats – very spacious, and reclining, with power outlets. We tried to put the drama on the platform out of our minds and look forward to our journey. The whole carriage seemed quite empty – just a handful of other people besides ourselves, but the train had a couple more stops before leaving Tokyo city.
When we were underway Janna opened her box and showed she had bought a little white mouse fairy-cake. The cream frosting was very tasty, but the fairy cake had some indeterminate fruit filling I wasn’t keen on. Janna enjoyed it anyway.
Outside we watched the city flashing past as we picked up our final passengers and started to leave the central part of Tokyo behind. Very quickly mountains became visible, and it suddenly occurred to me we might be able to see Mount Fuji – it was a clear day and we had a good panorama of the landscape around the city.
Sure enough, the ghostly figure of the snow-covered volcano was hovering on the horizon, barely visible against the sky. As our train turned from a northerly to a north-westerly attitude the mountain took centre-stage in our window and it was hard to see how we might not have noticed it earlier.
Soon the land around us became more hilly, and instead of city-wide vistas, we found ourselves more often cutting through dug-out troughs where we could only see high embankments on either side. Occasionally we would go through a tunnel. The character of the land changed – fewer buildings, more fields, more trees, and the occasional dramatic river rolling under a bridge beneath us.
In no time at all we were looking at views of mountains – ski slopes lightly dusted white, carefully and deliberately cleared of trees and made safe for resort guests. We stopped at another station and the people joining us seemed to be carrying more luggage and wearing warmer clothes.
Finally, less than 2 hours since our train had set off, we pulled in at our final stop (though not the train’s) in Nagano station, Nagano City, Nagano Prefecture. The barrier ate our tickets but let us out, and we were in the city in the mountains. It was colder than Tokyo (but still nowhere near Russian-winter temperatures), but it was clear and there was no snow on the ground. Perhaps a few drops of rain were falling, but barely enough to go to the trouble of getting out the umbrella.
We found the local train station but decided to grab something to eat in the city before heading out into the potential culinary wilderness of the countryside. We walked around looking for likely places – they had a ubiquitous station mall, but the usual food shop chains I recognised from Tokyo weren’t here, barring the odd coffee shop.
We started wandering down the streets leading away from the station and it seemed the “touristy” parts of town dwindled away pretty fast. We saw a sign for an Italian restaurant and thought “why not?” It was up some stairs and not very busy for a lunch hour, but the lady attending the tables was pleased to see us and showed us to a table. There wasn’t much of a menu – I ended up going for garlic pasta, which was served without even tomatoes, but was quite tasty nevertheless. Janna had a salad and a coffee. Just what we needed to warm us up and prepare us for the next stage of our journey.