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Friday, June 29, 2007
Slow train is a coming
By MARIKO KATO
Special to The Japan Times
Not many sane people jump out of bed at 2 a.m. on a Saturday morning and speed to the coast to see the sunrise. Unless, that is, you're making your way to Cape Inubosaki, Chiba Prefecture, the Kanto region's furthermost eastern point.
The earliest sunrise in Kanto that day kicked off at 4:25 a.m., setting fire to the horizon. We reached the coastline in time to see the burning sun, its spherical shape sharply cut out in the cloudless sky, making black silhouettes of fishermen already out on the rocks. Boxed lunches in hand, we perched on a hill to absorb the view.
But the reason for visiting the Inubosaki region was the quaint, old-fashioned Choshi railway, running through 10 stops to the tip of the cape from JR Choshi Station. We drove past its small one-shack stations to get to Tokawa, the station furthest south.
In the small towns, embedded in hills along the coast, old men were already out on their morning walks at 6 a.m., and their wives were picking off weeds in the front gardens. We stopped our car by the sea, and with the salty air and sound of the waves coming in through the open window, we reclined our seats for a nap.
When we woke up to get on the train at Tokawa, it wasn't yet even 8 a.m. The one-carriage train rumbled along the narrow railway line stretching straight ahead, the view suddenly breaking out into large corn fields through bushes of pale blue and pink hydrangeas. Elderly folk sat with their eyes closed, their bodies swaying in motion with the train, and the only thing that shattered the illusion of having gone backward in time was a group of sweaty schoolgirls with dyed hair and short skirts, fiddling with their mobile phones as they rode the train to school for weekend extracurricular activities.
It took only 15 minutes to reach Choshi, home to the factory of soy-sauce company Higeta, the leading brand of its kind in the Kanto region. Wandering by the side of the railway tracks in bright sun that was steadily getting hotter, we reached the factory after 15 minutes in the middle of what appeared to be a normal, quiet housing district.
The factory buildings, which have been renovated since the company set up shop in the Edo Period (1603-1867), still retain an age-old feel. They do not open until 9 a.m., and the two female receptionists chatting in the small gift-shop area seemed a little surprised to see us poking our heads in the open gates.
Being a Saturday, the factory itself was closed, but the small quaint theater inside was open, and we had it all to ourselves. It showed an interesting movie on the history of soy sauce. This was followed by a personal guided tour by a member of staff through a section of the factory that allowed glimpses through windows of various machines at rest. Pleasantly surrounded by fumes reminiscent of sweet sake and salty miso in the stages of soy-sauce production, we were seen off with a free bottle of sauce.
Although we were hungry, it was too early for the eateries to be open for lunch, so we got back on the Choshi railway and stopped off at Inubo, the station before Tokawa, to collect our free nure-senbei ("damp rice cracker"), which comes with the day railway pass.
Having got back into our car at Tokawa, we raced back down to the coast and, sitting on the stone bank wall and dangling our naked feet in the sea breeze, we chewed the senbei and watched the local people bent low on the rocky beach, collecting small shellfish and dropping them into buckets. A quick lunch at a fresh-fish restaurant and yet another swift nap later, we drove to Tokawa port to hunt down some dolphins, so to speak.
The cruiser, appropriately named Flipper, takes between five and 30 people out into the sea for three hours in search for schools of wild dolphins. But how do the boatmen know where to find them?
"We don't really," smiled the lean, well-tanned veteran captain of the cruiser. "We use past data and our eyes."
Clutching onto the rails, we bounced off the waves straight into the middle of the sea, and after an hour the boat was racing along about 25 km from the coast, with sea all around us for as far as we could see.
"Look to the right!" one of the two female assistants on the dolphin-watching boat called out, pointing to white splashes in the distant waves, above which clusters of black fins jumped up to show their glistening white bellies. "This season is the breeding season for Pacific white-sided dolphins," she explained, "so each group we see are families with babies in search for food. At the moment, we're seeing small groups, but the most dolphins we've seen so far this season on one trip is 3,000. For 360 degrees all around the cruiser right up to the horizon, all you could see was dolphins."
We were soon able to detect signs of dolphins ourselves, fixing our eyes below flocks of sea birds that, recognizing that where there are dolphins there must be fish, circle around to get their own food. Fearing that chasing after the same group of dolphins for too long would give them too much stress, the captain changed direction and steered the boat in search for new groups every 10 minutes.
By the time we started heading back to shore after an hour, we had seen about 150 dolphins.
We got off the boat at 4 p.m., with faces and shoulders several tones darker — or rather, redder — and hair frazzled from the wind blowing the salt into us, and drove to the charmingly named "Where You Can See The Round Earth Observatory" (Chikyu no Maruku Mieru Tenbodai). Standing in the open, buffeted by gusty, chilly winds atop the 90-meter-building, we were surrounded at all angles by a low, flat horizon.
To the north was Tukuba Mountain, to the west stretched the Kujyukurihama coastline and to the east and south lay the Pacific Ocean. We waited for the sun to set in the warmth of the observatory's cafe, eating oshiruko (a heated, traditional Japanese dessert — rice cake with red-bean sauce) and at 6 p.m., we stepped back outside to see the sun, now much more diluted in color and covered slightly by thin clouds, sink slowly over distant wind turbines.
Choshi Station can also be reached by JR Express train "Shiosai" from Tokyo Station (approx. 2 hours). Choshi railway day pass is 620 yen, and trains run about every 25 minutes. www.choshi-dentetsu.jp/. Entry into Higeta soy-sauce factory (tel.  22-0080). is free, open 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. www.higeta.co.jp/museum/factory/kengaku.html For dolphin-watching reservations (3,500-6,500 yen yen), call (0479) 24-8870. You can see dolphins throughout the summer until October when whale-watching starts. There are also sunrise/sunset cruising available. For more information, visit www.irukanet.com/choshi/04—cruise.htm. The Where You Can See The Round Earth Observatory is a 15-minute walk from Inubo Station on the Choshi railway line. Entry costs 300 yen, and opening times are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (October to March) and 9 a.m.-6.30 p.m. (April to September), last entry 30 minutes before closing time.