A Broken Train and a Lost Taxi

Photo cred: Juliana Mills

Getting to Koyasan takes about 2 hours from Osaka main. First you need to get to Namba station, then you have to transfer to the special Koyasan line that rattles along for about an hour through some very sleepy, remote towns. As if that wasn’t enough, once arriving at the final stop of the train, you get to take a nearly vertical trolley up the side of a mountain. Admittedly, it’s a beautiful trip through the rural mountains of Kansai, but if traveling by night, there isn’t much to see.

After a tiring day exploring Koyasan, we are working our way back to Osaka well past nightfall on one of the last trains down from the mountain. To pass the time, the topic of scary movies has come up and we are sharing the plots of our favorite horror flicks. Mind you, I’m fearless when it comes to extreme sports, but I’ll cry if forced to watch a scary movie of any calibre. Just as everyone is getting all worked up over Paranormal Activity, we realize the train has stopped. That’s when the fun begins. 

We look around the compartment to see what is going on. For about twenty minutes, everything seems normal. Then, we notice people have started running up and down the platform outside. A few people go out to ask what is happening, but no one can get a straight answer. First we hear that the lights on the track are broken, then we hear that the train battery died. Either way something is wrong and it doesn’t seem like they will be able to fix it. So, after about 40 minutes of confusion, we are told that we’ll have to exit the train and take a taxi to the next station.

Mind you, we definitely haven’t made it as far as Osaka’s outskirts. The town (or rather, village) we are in is already fast asleep at 8pm. Not only that, but it seems to be a valley town, surrounded by chunks of dark mountain. Great.

The walk down from the station is treacherous, to say the least. It’s a steep road that zig-zags past precariously perched homes on the mountainside. As we walk, the station attendant reminds everyone to watch their steps, at it’s dark and dangerous. A few people have pulled out their phones to help with lighting. On the way down, we make friends with the other foreigners from various parts of the world. There is a stunningly beautiful French girl who tells us she is studying textiles at Kyoto University. There is also a German girl who lives in Nara but has taken a few days off from work to visit Koyasan. In this odd situation, we’re all brought together by one thing: confusion. I mean, most of us understand Japanese fairly well, but that doesn’t mean we have a clue what’s going on.

Once we reach the bottom, we’re all asked to wait as taxi’s arrive one by one to take people to the next station. Of course, the nearby roads are all barely big enough for one car, let alone four taxis. That in itself becomes a problem. It’s almost comical, all the odd things that keep happening. At some point, when looking for the next group to go in the taxi, everyone kindly says to let the foreigners go. Not sure why this happens, but we aren’t going to argue. Becky, two Korean girls, and I pile into a waiting cab and set off for the next station. But, the fun isn’t over yet.

At first, our kind, but timid taxi driver confirms our destination. Seeing as I’m the only one in the car who speaks enough Japanese to formulate something that resembles an answer, it’s my job to communicate. We’re already off to a bad start.

We drive down roads that are already too small for our four-door towncar, when suddenly, the road starts getting narrower and narrower. Did I mention that it’s also getting darker and darker? Eventually, the pavement ends and it becomes a dirt road surrounded by a bamboo forest. There are barely any houses around, and I can’t see where the other taxi cars have gone. Finally, the driver stops and admits defeat. He’s lost. To make matters worse, there is no way to turn the car around, so we’re going to have to back down this road.

On the way up the road, I couldn’t help but notice that the left side is essentially a sheer drop into a not-so-peaceful-looking mountain river. Now, it’s my job to watch the left side of the car (occasionally giving out warnings such as “Watch out! dog! dog!” in broken Japanese). This whole backing-up-down-a-tiny-and-dangerous-windy-road-in-the-middle-of-nowhere business lasts for longer than I care to notice. Meanwhile, I’m trying to remember my Japanese while simultaneously trying not to think about all those scary movies we had just finished discussing. Who would die first if we were found by the mutant, cannibalistic family that lives in this town? Becky is a good runner, so she’s fine… maybe the driver? That’s the rule I think… if you get a generic name like “the driver” or “the doctor,” you’re the first to go. But, then agai–NO STOP IT! Focus.

Eventually, to our great relief and thanks to the GPS we make it to the next station. Of course, not before getting dropped off on the other side of the tracks and having to figure out how to get around the barbed-wire fence and cross over the tracks. That said, we finally made it. The other half of the group was wondering where we’d gone to, and our other foreign friends have already snuck onto an express train, lucky them. Becky and I can’t figure out which of us is carrying the bad karma, but we do eventually get back to Osaka without being consumed by Hannibal Lecter’s distant Japanese cousins.

And all this after explaining to Julie that the Japanese trains are the most efficient and reliable in the world. Figures.

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