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?).
  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:

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.