The slow train to Atami

ATAMI, Japan – The regular commuter train from Tokyo to Japan is slow, to say the least – especially compared to the high-speed bullet trains that speed across the countryside. The local train stops at town after town, and the crowd of people aboard the train as we pulled out of Tokyo thins out more and more with each stop.

The world outside the train’s window turns from cityscape to countryside with each mile of the Japanese countryside we traverse. At some of the stations, I stick my head out the door as the train idles, waiting for the precise moment of scheduled departure. I snap a few pictures during the one hour and 45 minute ride, trying to capture the moment. Finally, the train arrives in the city – the end of the line, I believe.

Located on the Izu Peninsula that juts into the Pacific Ocean, Atami has long been a getaway for the Japanese. Best known for its hot-spring spas, Atami – which means “hot sea” in Japanese – doesn’t top the list of most travel guides. There may be no history here, but there are a number of hostels and a red-light district, according to the travel guides that do include a write-up about the city.

For the visitor, the city is home to a number of onsen or traditional Japanese bathhouses, which are usually located on hot springs.

The streets around the city center are steep, not surprising given the fact that the city is built on top of the remains of a volcano that long ago partially fell into the sea. The landscape seemingly comes to an abrupt end, giving way to the Pacific Ocean. For a tourist destination, the streets are eerily quiet. There are shopkeepers tending to their stores. Fresh fish are on display in front of a few stores.

The juxtaposition between Atami and Tokyo is amazing. There are no neon lights here. Overall, the pace seems much slower. Frankly, it’s funny to observe the difference between the city and the country of a faraway place like Japan. It’s no different, I suppose, from starting out in New York City and heading to rural New Jersey – the landscape changes.

Outside the train station in Atami a small steam locomotive is on display. The Atami Railway S.L. No. 7 (presumably S.L. means Steam Locomotive) once ran between Atami and nearby Odawara from 1907 until 1923. Traveling at a top speed of roughly 6 mph, the locomotive made the 16-mile trip in two hours and forty minutes.

Imagine taking the No. 7 from Tokyo to Japan. You’d spend your entire vacation making the trek. Now, that’s a slow train to Atami.

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