Sunday, 21 November 2010

Living Life Backwards on the Romance Car Express

Ever since the very first time I visited Japan, nearly three decades ago, I've wanted to travel on the Odakyu Line's Romance Car Express. They have these really cool trains with the driver's cab 747-like on the roof, so passengers in the first car have a panoramic view of the track ahead. And how could you resist the name? I've even contemplated travelling the length of the line just for the sake of it. On a recent trip I finally had a reason. We were travelling to Hakone, for a stay at a traditional Japanese inn (ryokan) and to do some autumn leaf spotting, and the Romance Car is the ideal way to get there, in fact the only direct service from Tokyo.

So we went out to Shinjuku station, supposedly the biggest station in the world if Tokyo hasn't overtaken it by now. Tickets are only available from machines, and while I suppose I could have figured it out in the end, I was very relieved when a helpful member of staff showed up and guided me through the whole thing, including buying the special all-inclusive Hakone Tour ticket. This kind of extraordinary personal service only happens in Japan. I chose our seats in the very end part of the Romance Car, and off we went to catch our train.

All passenger trains in Japan have the locomotive built in, from the Shinkansen down to the humblest one-car rural train. That means they're symmetrical - the front is the same as the back. And in the case of the Romance Car, that means there is an observation car at the back as well as at the front. And guess where our seats were... the booking system doesn't warn you that your view will be of the track receding behind you.

The view of course is exactly the same. But - which I hadn't expected - there's something very surreal about seeing the world zooming away backwards behind you. After a while it begins to feel like your whole life is running backwards. The journey only lasts about 90 minutes. If it lasted for several hours, I'm sure you'd start to get younger, eventually becoming the little boy in short trousers whose Dad used to hold him on the bridge parapet to watch the trains go by.

The most surprising thing is the level (grade) crossings, of which there are a great many. They open within seconds of the train passing - whereas they close much earlier, for safety. So as soon as you pass, the barriers open and - Japan being a crowded place - cars, bicycles and people flood across the road.

On the way back we bought regular tickets for a car in the middle of the train. We weren't sure we could take the Living Life Backwards experience again.

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