Sunday, March 25, 2012

Journey to Izumo: Aboard the Sunrise Izumo

The man at the ticket counter does not want  to sell me this ticket. 

“You do realize that you’re going to be sleeping on the floor?” he says. 

Yes, I know exactly what I am getting into, I assure him. I am reserving a ticket on the overnight train from Tokyo to Izumo city. It’s called the Sunrise Izumo. The train departs promtpy at 10:00 pm from Tokyo station, and twelve hours later you find yourself on the southwest coast of Japan, just before 10:00 am.

 With a Japan Rail Pass, this wonderful journey is completely free…if you sleep on the floor. The alternative is not much better: pay almost $120 for a private room with a twin-sized bed. That’s more than most budget hotels in Tokyo. 

I’m going to suck it up and become one with the floor for twelve hours, but the man at the ticket counter doesn’t believe me. Listen buddy, I’ve slept in far worse places than the floor of a train, but I won’t get into those stories here.

“No bed,” he says, “twelve hours with no bed.”

Maybe they’ve had problems with foreigners before. Like, the ticket man tells them that they will be sleeping on the floor, and then they board the train and are shocked to find that they will be sleeping on the floor. 

Somehow, after five minutes of bilingual negotiation, he hands over two tickets for two spaces on the floor of the Sunrise Izumo. What a relief. I had to fight hard to get these tickets, not just with the ticket man, but the whole reservation system. When taking overnight trains in Japan, you absolutely must have a reservation. However, it is impossible to make this reservation outside of Japan, especially if you are using a rail pass. The night trains are also popular, and almost always get full. Therefore, if you plan to take an overnight train the day after you arrive in Japan, it means you better hope and pray that there are still spaces available, but very likely there are not. We got lucky, my friend and I. We booked the last two spaces two days before we planned to leave.

Back in Tokyo, we’re waiting on the platform for the Sunrise Izumo to appear. There is a group of very cute twenty-somethings next too us, and for a brief moment we hope to share a space on the floor next to them, but alas, they continue on to the next platform, and are replaced with a group of old, drunk businessmen. Then I remember the final, foreshadowing words of a Japanese friend, just before we departed.

“Watch out for those old perves on the train. The men like to get really drunk before taking the night train.”

Don’t want this to turn into an all-night touch fest. I motion to Danny that he better be on his guard. At this point, I’m getting kind of nervous. I mean, I know we’re sleeping on the floor, but how bad can it be? Before we left I tried relentlessly to look up pictures of the Sunrise Izumo, so I could get a good idea of the interior, but I couldn't find much at all. I was about to board terra incognita.


The train pulls in, and it is immediately obvious that this is one old piece of machinery. I guess after taking some many Shinkansen, your expectation is that everything in Japan must be shiny, new, and extremely fast. This tin box is probably older than me.
The doors open, and we board.

Finally, the interior of the  Sunrise Izumo is revealed!

The train car is divided into two levels, like giant bunk beds. The floor is partitioned into individual-sized sections, with very little privacy. At least the touching perameters have been established.

Danny and I thought this ominous black lens was a (not-so-hidden) hidden camera, put in place to monitor any unauthorized touching. But it turned out to be a reading light. God we are so paranoid. 

The partitions are  wide enough to say, “this is my space, jerk,” but not wide enough to allow for any amount of privacy. The only way to escape from being within inches of a total stranger in the small window in each cubicle, which allows for a private view of the outside.

As soon as the train departs, it becomes obvious yet again that this is no Shinkansen. The train vibrates heavily and sways from side-to-side like a sinister baby cradle. Its going to be a long night.

Thank god I'm a light packer. Any more luggage and I wouldn't be able to fit my body in here....

My fellow floor-mates were quite the disciplined bunch. They went to sleep effortlessly as soon as our tickets were checked, and they made no noise or fuss about anything. When I  awoke around 8:00 am they were all dressed and staring out their little windows, which made me feel like a teenager waking up on the couch of a friend’s house....
The sunlight was glorious that morning...

Since I had woken up earlier than expected, we had an hour to kill before arriving. We decided to wonder around the train and check out what we had been missing...

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