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Saturday, March 26, 2005

JAPAN LITE

Riding on the 'pachinko train' to Reno


The train dropped me off at night right in the middle of Reno, Nev., where neon lights flashed everywhere and casinos lined the streets. The railroad to Reno was built in 1868 and the train runs over the mountains, not through tunnels. This is probably whey we don't have bullet trains in the U.S. -- they'd turn into roller coasters.

This train from San Francisco to Reno could be dubbed the "pachinko train," as it takes you straight to the center of Reno, an entire city of pachinko parlors, where people have been gambling since the 1930s. I booked a room at the Peppermill Casino for $49 per night. This does not include obligatory extraneous charges that show up on your bill at checkout, but hey, this is the American way!

The Peppermill Casino, one of the "Top 10 casinos in America," is a city within itself. Along with over 2,000 guest rooms, the casino houses 14 bars, eight restaurants and all the gambling tables and machines you could dream of. It's a wonder I got out of Reno neither married nor broke. When I went to check out of the hotel, my $49-come-$102 room charge included a $3.50 "energy" charge. So that explains why I was so tired when I left Reno.

I was soon back on the Amtrak train en route to Denver. I wanted to stop in Salt Lake City, but one soon learns that the train is not always so convenient. Although Amtrak passes right through Salt Lake City, and even stops there, it does so at 3:30 a.m.! If you've ever taken a long distance bus in Japan, you know that the bus driver pulls over in a rest area and waits for a few hours while the passengers sleep. What he is really doing is timing the arrival to be in the morning, when everything is functioning in the destination city. But when you're traveling across America, it would take a week if the train stopped like that. You arrive when you arrive, or you stay on the train. I stayed on the train.

Whereas trains in Japan are about speed, train travel in the U.S. is about relaxing, taking in the scenery and appreciating nature. Don't expect trolley carts coming down the aisles selling food and drinks; the American train is meant to be moved around on, lived in. As soon as the bar opens, people start drinking and interacting, greeting their fellow passengers with, "Isn't the train great?" And the other passengers are sure to agree, praising the virtues of train travel. Train passengers are loyal to this vagabond way of travel: ambling through the mountains and deserts from one place to the next.

From the second floor observation car, with windows in the walls and ceiling, you have a good vantage point to watch the world pass by. Some children were counting something outside that I couldn't see. They were at No. 43 of whatever it was when I sat down across the aisle from them.

Soon we were passing through red desert rock formations, over dry yellow plains, our guidebooks replaced with reality. Surely Indians would appear on the mesa in the distance. We observed wildlife up close and personal: a moose, families of deer, three bald eagles swooping down over the river, ducks bathing in streams.

Once in Colorado, the scenery gradually changed. There were more trees, green grass, coal trains and furry cows drinking from streams. Then finally, the first signs of civilization: trailer parks.

"Fifty-eight!" yelled one of the children. "Look. Over there!" yelled another.

When the children were up to 60 in their count, I turned and greeted them. "Isn't the train great?" I said. "Oh, yes," they agreed. "We've counted 60 dead deer already!"

Check out Amy's new book, "Guide to Shiraishi: Island of Mists & Trances," at www.mooooshop.com/MooooBooks/order/index.htm


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