Sapporo – Tokyo

On reflection, I realise I’ve never taken an internal flight at all – not even in the states. Naturally, this owes, at least in part, to my slight train obsession. This time, however, I simply don’t have time to indulge that passion – an entire day on the train was “fun” once but I can’t do it again without sacrificing my last full day in Tokyo.

So, I swallow my pride and book an internal flight from Sapporo to Tokyo. Miraculously, a flight with Air Do at only 24 hours notice costs only 17,000¥ (about €100). The surcharge alone for the 16 hours overnight train from Sapporo is about 22,000¥. I don’t feel so bad and now I console myself with the knowledge that at least the trip is noteworthy, in one fairly major way, for being the busiest air route (domestic or international) in the entire world (easily beating even Dublin-London) with about 25 million passengers per year.

Time to build a new shinkansen perhaps…?

Anyway, it was surprisingly easy to book this over the phone but trying to spell “Trevor” in an Irish accent to a Japanese speaker is an exercise in patience and international relations.

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As is customary, after a very nice and very leisurely day I still somehow end up in a bit of a panic when the “express” airport train turns out not to be so fast at all. I encounter another strange bit of Japanese time-keeping when querying the rail attendant about this:

I thought the train only took 36 minutes?

Yes, 36 minutes, express!

But 8.10 to 8.58 is 48 minutes?

(check in time for the 9.20 flight is 9.05)

That’s right, 36 minutes!

(she ushers me proudly but quickly towards the platform)

When I arrive I have, by my calculations, a full 4 minutes in which to check in. Never in my life will I negotiate any airport with such fluidity as I have tonight (although this is more a reflection on the good people at New Chitose airport than myself): I check in with 1 minute to spare.

The staff and airport are a study in composure: my baggage is processed in seconds, there’s no passport control (I forgot about this) and it’s a quick walk to the gate. I suddenly see why internal flights are so popular.

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90 minutes later, back in Tokyo, I take the monorail from Haneda airport back to Tokyo Station, briefly passing through the most impressive bit of infrastructure of the whole trip: at one point, the monorail is suspended about 100m in the air above a regular rail line which, in turn, passes over a road which – unless I was mistaken, as it was dark – ran over a car park. And there was a river nearby, too.

Definitely back in Tokyo!

Sapporo at Night

Very soon, I’m very glad I trekked up to Sapporo.

The city lies off the Shinkansen line but is the third largest city in Japan; this probably explains why the Sapporo-Tokyo air route is the busiest in the entire world. I suspect that in a day or two I may well be come the latest person to travel this route but, for now, I’m very impressed with Sapporo.

The station reminds me of Kyoto’s: it’s quite new, has at least three shopping centres attached – plus about 50 restaurants – and a JR hotel offering discounts to rail pass holders. Unlike Kyoto, however, this station is very easy to navigate and, crucially, it’s situated at the very heart of town.

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As such, it makes for a wonderful base from which to explore the city. I have just a little while to wander about and so I seek out the “famous” Sapporo clock tower. Like Hakodate and Nagasaki, Sapporo was a port town opened up to the west much earlier than the rest of Japan and so has a number of nineteenth century buildings along with a very non-Japanese street layout.

Even from this quick nighttime tour, it reminds me – more than anywhere else in Japan – of New York with its grid system and bright neon-lit squares that are just jumping. This only makes it all the more unusual that a fairly nondescript western-style clock tower should be a symbol of Sapporo, but nonetheless it’s closely associated with the city.

I take a quick look and am, like Will Ferguson – with whose progress through Japan my own now coincides – suitably underwhelmed.

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Far more interesting is the Sapporo TV tower, situated at the site from which Sapporo street addresses emanate. This is just about the only city in Japan with a logical street address system; modelled on a similar system to Washington D.C.’s, this TV tower is the equivalent of their capitol building.

Unlike the capitol building, the TV tower an open-air beer garden underneath as part of the Sapporo beer festival (this is beer country). Unfortunately, I’m too late to sample anything.

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Energised by all this, I take a wander down to Susukino, which must be the liveliest night-time district north of Tokyo.

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What glorious excess before bedtime. I silently add Sapporo’s simple two-line subway to my private list of underground systems taken and head back to the hotel.

Onoma Koen Quasi National Park

It was such a beautiful day (again – after two weeks of rain, rain, rain) that I postponed the tour of Sapporo brewery for another day in favour of exploring Onoma Koen Quasi National Park.

The park lies just 20km north of Hakodate on the Hakodate-Sapporo line and, on a suitably clear day, affords magnificent views of the dormant volcano of Komagatake.

Lake Onuma contains hundreds of islands, many of them linked together with bridges. A map from the tourist office shows the walking route, which you can easily cover in a couple of hours; I took my time to photograph everything, get a little bit lost and even sample some of the Onuma Craft Brewery’s wares.

But, before that, amateur photographer heaven: blue sky, water and a volcano. It might not like subtle dusk views of Kyoto, but by god even my trusty Ixus 50 can photograph a volcano in broad daylight:

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Showa Shin-zan

A real life, active, steam-emitting and – as recently as 2000 – erupting volcano made for a very welcome change from temples, shrines and cute tame deer.

The day started badly: trains to the the nearest “major” town, Toya, aren’t exactly frequent so there was no time for breakfast. Upon arrival in Toya (90 minutes on the slowest, hottest and bumpiest train I’ve encountered in Japan), the local bus to Toya-ko Onsen has left 5 minutes earlier and the next is 45 minutes away. Fine, I’ll get some food – but, and surely this a first for a Japanese town – there is not a single restaurant open. Definition of a one-horse town: Toya.

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A taxi whisks me to Toya-ko Onsen, home to the caldera lake of Toya-ko and the tiny island of Oshima contained therein. It’s a pleasant little lake-side town and a necessary stop since it’s a short bus ride from the volcano. Right away I find a lovely restaurant serving enormously filling scallop curries with rice (for less than €5 – how on earth do these places survive?) and the bus to the volcano is just round the corner.

Wow:

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This is Showa Shin-zan. It’s not the volcano, however (Usu-zan, behind the camera, is the volcano); this is a 405m lava dome / mountain that was formed in 1943 over the course of just 18 months. Its presence was feared as a beacon to enemy bombers and its existence was covered up until after the war but a local vulcanologist chronicled its entire creation from start to end. This same vulcanologist later bought the land and refused to ever charge people to see it.

Today, Showa Shin-zan is a “Special Natural Treasure” of Japan and Mimatsu Masao has a rather nice memorial statue and museum in his honour.

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At the end of the usual row of souvenier and ice-cream shops lies the entrance to a ropeway running to the top of Usu-zan, the volcano itself which last erupted only in 2000. The town of Toya-ko was evacuated for three months, at which time it re-opened with lower prices…this might explain the price of my scallops earlier.

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Unlike the two workers above, I favour the conventional inside approach to ropeway journeying. At the top lies a viewing point with the volcano of Usu-zan behind and the Pacific Ocean ahead.

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This viewing point also leads to a short hiking trail around a crater at the top of the volcano; I trekked a tiny bit of the way – just enough to see, well, a smoking hole in the ground…

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All very impressive and kind-of-dangerous-albeit-in-a-very-safe-way but the real highlight for me remained Showa Shin-zan. There’s another viewing point for this but I found it looks better from the ground. I returned there simply to wander around admiring the lava dome before catching the bus back to Toya-ko for a quick look at the lake.

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Hokkaido Bound

I’ve had this strange compulsion to reach Hokkaido – having ventured to Nagasaki in the very south-west, it seems only appropriate and somehow fitting to reach the very north-east. Coast to coast, as it were. It is a three-week long trip and I did buy this rail pass, so what else am I going to do?

Riding the shinkansen is a little odd: it is the fastest train in the world (or thereabouts; certainly the most extensive/fastest) but it really doesn’t feel like it. The track is so smooth and the engines so quiet that the air conditioning is considerably noisier than both. Ocasionally you feel a burst of acceleration when the turbo booster (or afterburner, warp engines or whatever these things have) engages…but you still only get a slightly higher pitched engine noise for its troubles.

However, when you venture off the beaten track a little to where the shinkansen doesn’t shine, you realise just how fast it is. It’s as if its speed cannot be observed directly; it must instead be inferred from slower, inferior trains. Or something like that.

A trip to Hokkaido certainly requires you to leave the comfort and regularity of the shinkansen behind. While the Nozomi 700 blazes through the 1174km from Tokyo to Fukuoka in under 5 hours, it’s at least 11 hours from Tokyo to Sapporo – with two changes along the way.

Starting this morning from Kyoto I figured I could reach Hokkaido today, but not Sapporo (the main city). Instead, I could spend a night in Hakodate and then head for Sapporo. The guide-book lists a number of interesting diversions at Hakodate (more than Sapporo, as it turns out) so it’s a day or so in Hakodate then up to Sapporo for another day before returning to Tokyo and, soon after, home.

Anyway, all today’s travelling required three separate train journeys, for a total of 11 hours:

  1. Kyoto-Tokyo
    Three hours on the Hikari super-express. When I arrive, the track is miraculously near Yaesu North, the one part of Tokyo Station I’m familiar with. It’s funny how I cursed this vast labyrinth of a station before but today it’s kind: I find a (big) locker for my (big) luggage, then the replacement ipod cable and USB 2.0 hub I need in, literally, 30 seconds of arriving before a quick lunch and espresso prior to searching for track 23.
  2. Tokyo-Hachinoe
    Almost three hours on the Hayate super-express. At 16 carraiges, this is surely the longest train ever. Soon I realise it splits in two at Morioka; a wonderful sign disembarking at Hachinoe says “dead heading train” (de-heading, i.e. splitting, train?).
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  3. Hachinoe-Hakodate
    Yet another three hours on a local service. This is notable for passing through the Seikan Tunnel. According to the Rough Guide this is – at 54km – the longest underwater tunnel in the world (over 200m below the sea separating Honshu and Hokkaido in parts) and the second-longest tunnel of any type. It took 40 years to build and, as if to commemorate in some small way this effort and the train’s progress through it (took us about 40 minutes) the train has the cutest little graphic I’ve ever seen:
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Getting back to Tokyo actually presents a minor problem; it’s either an overnight train (16 hours!) or an internal flight (boo). Indeed, the long journey time between Tokyo and Sapporo has led to terrible under-use of the Seikan Tunnel (after all the effort building the damn thing) and Tokyo-Sapporo to become one of the busiest air routes in the whole world.

We’ll see…

UPDATE 16/8/2007: this was a distance of 1417.6km.