Scenes from 27 Hours on a Moving Train: 北海道 (Pt. I)

There is a certain romance associated with solo long-distance train travel. A veritable “journey of the self,” with no shortage of introspective revelations about the human psyche along the way. Throttling though space along a ceaseless span of metal track, there is that longing for a faraway place and the physical sensation of traveling hundreds of miles over a variety of terrains to get there. There is the ever-changing panorama of scenery, the hours left entirely to your own devices, and the gentle sway of the heated train to lull you in and out of sleep. Not to mention the thought of striking up conversation with an interesting foreign mate to keep you company on the journey. The quintessential romantic love story. Just ask the folks in Before Sunrise.

I was spared no exception to this spell of train travel. 12-hour Greyhound night bus rides from New York City to Cleveland didn’t quite fill me with the same sort of longing for travel as a cross-country rail freight on par with the Transcontinental Railroads of early 20th-century America. Short distance subway and bus trips have become such an innate part of my life that I hardly flinch at the thought of a two or three-hour commute anymore. But I have never embarked on a voyage where the journey has filled me with as much exhilaration as the destination. A voyage, indeed, where both the journey and the destination are new experiences.

This desire for long-distance train travel came about as early as last January when I suggested to the other Shansi Fellows how awesome I thought it would be to have a reunion in Asia along the Trans-Siberian Railway from Beijing to Moscow. I needed only to look at their expressions to gauge their relative level of excitement. Two weeks locked on a train with only ourselves and a couple bottles of vodka to keep from going insane. And this was my idea of a good time? I tried to reason it again in my mind: just think of the friendships you’d make, how much you’d learn about yourself, the greater appreciation you would have for even the most mundane things in life…

Given the skepticism, I figured I should start small. The destination itself was easy. I had always wanted to go to Hokkaido but had never gotten around to it when I was studying abroad. The fact that it's winter also made it the perfect time to visit. Sapporo (the capital of Hokkaido) is famous for the Ice Festival it holds every February, and even though I would be missing that, I would surely still be in town for more snow than I would need to get a “true” Hokkaido experience. The why was pretty easy too. As a way to justify traveling to Japan over, say, Vietnam this break, I knew that I had to convince myself of at least seeing some new things. Basing myself in Tokyo was the first step in that argument. But especially given my tenuous relationship with the city as of late, a new change of scenery was the best thing I could ask for.

Having done my research before-hand, I knew what I was getting myself into. The distance from Tokyo to Sapporo is a little over 500 miles and takes just over 24 hours by train, with at least another two factored in to get from Sapporo to Kutchan, the small town where my friend Tom would be hosting me. No less than twelve separate train transfers, with a wait time ranging from a couple of minutes to over an hour at each stop along the train’s route. The longest section would be the final leg—a seven-hour stretch on the Hamanasu express train via the Seikan Tunnel that connects the two islands of Honshu and Hokkaido. For fans of random trivia, the Seikan Tunnel happens to be the longest railway tunnel in the world, as well as the world’s longest undersea tunnel.





















Here's my one-way route from Tokyo to Sapporo as shown on a timetable...

...and here it is illustrated on a map (original map and timetable courtesy of Editing done by yours truly).

Now it's high time that I make a confession. You might be asking yourself: shouldn’t there be faster, more convenient ways to get from Tokyo to Sapporo than this 27-hour behemoth? And the answer is absolutely. There are at least three other ways—flying, taking a combination of limited express trains and the shinkansen, or taking an overnight sleeper—that would have significantly cut down on travel time and been far simpler to navigate. So why the dire need for adventure? More than simply the experience itself, this trip (like most of my schemes) was an effort in frugality, thus making an alternate title for this post: The Thrill Seeker’s Guide to the Absolute Cheapest Way from Tokyo to Sapporo.

The way this whole thing works is through a little known rail pass called the Hokkaido & Higashinihon Pass (Hokkaido & Eastern Japan Pass). More commonly known especially among Westerners is the Japan Rail Pass, which offers unlimited travel on JR trains for a period of one to three weeks. However, at nearly $300 for the one-week pass, I knew that I had to find a cheaper way if I was going to make it to Hokkaido. Sleeper options didn’t look much better either, fluctuating between $200 and $300 for a one-way trip. That’s where this handy pass comes in. For about $100, you get unlimited travel for five days in all of Eastern and Northern Japan, including all requisite travel within Hokkaido. So what’s the catch? The pass must be used on five consecutive days and (here's the real kicker) is only valid on local trains. This is the principle difference between this pass and the Japan Rail Pass. The only exceptions to this rule are the sections shown in blue on the timetable above—non-JR trains from Morioka to Hachinohe and the aforementioned Hamanasu express train from Aomori to Sapporo. As hard as it is to believe, these exceptions cut down significantly on travel time, but I was still looking at over two full days of travel, leaving less than three days to actually experience Hokkaido. Still, I knew it was something I needed to do.

A trip of this scale and to this exacting degree of accuracy would only be possible in a country like Japan, where trains run so punctually that I hardly had to check where I was going so much as when the various trains were leaving the station. But also because it was Japan, there was no motion picture-worthy conversation and no new friends to be made. Fortunately, I had plenty to keep myself amused—in between listening to the Garden State soundtrack on my iPod and reading back issues of The New Yorker, I dedicated at least half of my travel time to sleep. In fact, there was no shortage of "Garden State moments"—peering out over an endless prairie in the rural Japanese countryside, I mused over whether or not I could truly be “The Only Living Boy in New York." I also managed to make decent headway on the longer novel I had brought with me—Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections—but the subject matter (a dysfunctional family on the brink of collapse) didn’t quite make for the most uplifting respite from 24 hours with nary a word spoken aloud.

The most magical part of the whole trip had to be watching the change in landscape go through at least four distinct cycles—from wheat-planted flatlands to small rural townships, and snow-covered evergreens to the Pacific Ocean. I felt privileged for the chance to get a glimpse of Japan that is rarely seen by Japanese people, let alone by foreigners. The gradual rise in snow along the way was like a barometer of relative nearness to my final destination. At times I would wake up to a slightly higher level on the ground and a small decrease in temperature. By the time I eventually got to Sapporo, it was a great deal chillier than where I started. At that point, station signs in English had also become all but nonexistent—an indication that this train route was not in any way a tourist favorite. Less exciting on the whole, though, were the pins and needles in my legs and feet, the inconvenience of my massive suitcase, and the cheap udon and soba noodles I had to scarf down for lunch and dinner in between slightly longer train transfers. But fortunately for me, sitting in a train for two full days didn’t exactly invoke a sizable appetite.

Though I don't regret the experience at all, 48 hours later, I can’t say I would ever really want to do a round-trip like that again—at least not another one alone. Or if I did, I would hope to spend a much longer time in the final destination than the time it took to get there. But I must admit, it did make Sapporo that much more special when I reached it, as it did Tokyo on the return. And in case you were wondering, I still haven’t given up on the Trans-Siberian Railway idea either.