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.

Fukuoka

An unexpected stop-over in Fukuoka. While the shinkansen stops for nothing short of an earthquake splitting the line down the middle, the local line to Nagasaki is closed past Sago owing to the impending typhoon. Fukuoka (whose station is confusingly called Hakata) is the terminus for the shinkansen (Fukuoka-Osaka-Kyoto-Tokyo line) and so that’s as far as I can get tonight…fuk.

To make up for things somewhat, I check into the Grand Hyatt, Fukuoka. Might as well be stranded in style…

Flying to Tokyo

Although there are no direct flights, it’s straightforward enough getting to Tokyo from Dublin. I flew via Paris with Air France, reaching Paris yesterday evening on a dinky little Cityjet plane.

We flew out across the city and got a wonderful view of the city centre, Poolbeg, Sandymount Strand – all the way from Howth to far beyond Dun Laoghaire, in fact, laid out before us like something from a next-generation edition of Google Maps.

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The flight direct to Tokyo, however, would take something a little more…(Jeremy Clarkson voice)…substantial.

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My first time on a Boeing and it’s nothing less than a 777. Not that I could tell you anything about it of course other than it’s really big (80m long?) and next time I want to fly first/business/god class and sit in a couch at the front of the plane – whatever those tickets cost, it’s worth it. Wow!

Anyway, extraordinary engineering aside it wasn’t the nicest flight ever: an overnight long-haul flight demands a good sleep enroute which is always very hard on a plane. On the plus side however, the food was good, plentiful, included a free bottle of wine and accompanied “Blades of Glory” very nicely.

On arrival in Narita airport, things (and people) are quick and punctual, as they always promised everything would be in Japan: immigration was unexpectedly brisk for us non-Japanese (450 Japanese vs. 25 foreigners) and baggage and customs a mere formality prior to collecting my Japan Rail Pass and boarding the 7.13 Narita Express to Tokyo Station.

And it did, indeed, leave – as promised by all the guide books – at precisely 7.13.

The Brooklyn Bridge

I really didn’t expect to have an entire afternoon free on this tour.

With the weather being beautiful we decided on something a little different and took the 6 train from the hotel downtown to the Brooklyn Bridge.

After this morning’s United Nations tour this perhaps could be another movie wish-fulfillment trip – it’s the bridge from “Once Upon a Time in America” and “Manhattan” to name just a few – but with the weather fine and visibility long it seemed the ideal thing to do. Sure how many New York sites haven’t been featured in a movie?

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Anyway, the bridge opened in the late nineteenth century and was a technological marvel of its age. A mile long, it towered above the city long before the skyscapers moved in. Nowadays there’s tons of bridges and even more skyscrapers but the Brooklyn Bridge seems to remain a favourite, an icon of the great city.

Pedestrians and cyclists share a wooden path above the traffic. Down there it’s all noise and congestion, up above it’s little different. Lone guys sell water bottles for a dollar; native tourist-weary cyclists narrowly miss bumbling Irishmen.

Strangers ask each other to photograph them in front of the New York skyline…

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Next stop: Docklands

Something of minor historical note happened last Monday. A new train station in the city centre opened; the first for 117 years.

117!

The new station, Docklands, began with brand new services operating between Clonsilla (on the Maynoon/Sligo line) and itself, which is located just east of Connolly Station in the northern docklands near Sheriff Street.

The project was completed significantly under budget and three months ahead of schedule.

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All good, but it could very easily be argued that this was not exactly the most important route to address…for instance, DART users would like more frequent services and Enterprise users would like the DARTs to get the hell out of their way – a serious problem and unsolveable problem with existing lines!

In comparison, a few extra services from Clonsilla (which don’t even serve Drumcondra station!) is hardly a breakthrough. Besides, the line already existed: it was the somewhat mysterious “Newcomen” line, built in 1892.

So, it wasn’t exactly rocket science to build and then when you emerge from the station you’re on Sheriff Street, 100s of metres from any useful bus or tram routes and with a very real concern that you’re about to get attacked or robbed!

No, rather, this has to be considered as only the first part of the Transport 21 plan. Eventually, this station will join with Pearse and Heuston via the proposed (and, I believe, approved) underground “interconnector” project. Unfortunately, this won’t be ready for another ten years or so.

Aware of this, Platform 11 have an interesting campaign to re-open (temporarily; until the interconnector is ready) the Phoenix Park tunnel to allow services run from Kildare direct to Docklands. They call this the “d-connector” and also propose the re-opening of Phibsboro Station. The argument against the Phoenix Park tunnel has always been that Connolly Station is overbooked: however, with the opening of Docklands this argument is no longer valid: the Maynooth/Newcomen lines are well under capacity.

Seems like a no-brainer to me…?

References:

TGV: Paris-Geneva

I may have mentioned in previous posts that I’m quite a big fan of trains. Whatever the reason for this (blame Dublin Bus), I’ve been looking for an excuse to take the TGV for a while. Paris to Geneva is a decent stretch of the legs, so why not.

The name must surely be a joke: “Big Fast Train”. But accurate! It’s double decker, goes at 300km/h and is about six miles long. The specs are impressive…train nerd heaven!

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We pull out of the Gare du Lyon (served by the very swanky, driverless, suicide-proof No. 14 metro line – deserving of a blog entry by itself) at 10.30.

By 11 we’re more or less fully accelerated and it stays that way for another hour when we make our first stop.

Still in France, we take off again but never regain top speed; soon we’re winding through mountain country and it’s not long until we’re into Switzerland. The Paris-Geneva line is scheduled for an upgrade to TGV standard but not for some years to come.

Full speed was fun (for one thing, I’ve never heard an electric engine make so much noise) and now it seems unbearably slow even though we’re surely still doing at least 70 miles an hour. Irish speeds!

Or not…for some unknown reason we arrive in Geneva about 20 minutes late. Swiss Rail or French Rail…? Not impressed!

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Notre Dame

In retrospect, it should have been the obvious day to visit Notre-Dame. The guide book mentions the possibility of a free organ recital on Sundays at 5.

It hasn’t clicked yet…

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It’s a church…it’s Sunday…I get mass. Normally I’d go out of my way to avoid mass, but I end up staying for most of the service.

It’s not a normal service. It’s mass alright but with professional singers, Bach-like organist and an army of priests. People wander in and out and about and take photos. Nobody seems to mind. I suppose it’s just not a normal church.

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It is every bit as huge and impressive as you’ve heard. You get the feeling that the aprocryphal story of the German soldier charged with blowing it up in the second world war could almost be true. In a weird way, you wish it was…

The service is well over 90 minutes long but I end up staying for all of it, mostly because the organ is just fantasic. It takes a big instrument to fill this venue but when you see it it’s easy to see that it does. However, hearing how it does is, of course, the point.

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Truly glorious. It’s almost enough to drive you to religion.

Musee D’Orsay

Something of a late start, but no matter: today is the first Sunday of the month and both Musee D’Orsay and thte Louvre sport free entry. Reasoning that the Louvre would be unreasonably busy today of all days, I opt the Musee D’Orsay.

This advertises impressionist works, such as by Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet, Manet, Cezanne and Picasso. All good. I can pass away the afternoon here.

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It turns out the building was originally a rail station built for an exhibition; it more or less fell into disrepair and assumed a number of roles before becoming a musuem as recently as 1986.

It hardly needs saying, but this must have been some railway station.

Anyway, I start with the older works. These lie on the ground floor, either side of a central walkway which contains mostly scuptures.

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I skim through here before ascending to the top floor where the most modern (and famous, and popular, and crowded) works are displayed.

Highlights for me are the Van Goghs and – pardon my ignorance – the “dotty” paintings. I’ll eventually work out what they’re called. Examples of both follow… such as below:

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The only point I have to make is that having been to so many museums in America it’s only now I realise how excellent those museums/galleries really were – it’s so hard to follow the MOMA and Metropolitan Museum of Art even just for French art…even when you are in Paris.

Well, anyway – it’s still an excellent gallery. After a middling coffee and an excellent waffle, I leave.

Arrival in Paris

The flight to Paris happened without incident and in much less time than I had anticpated – 1 hour and 10 minutes. Forgot about the time difference.

After some very brief confusion (should I pick the TGV or RER – now I know the latter are the regional French trains) I discover it’s only €8.10 into the city centre, including a further metro journey from wherever I disembark from the RER. There is an accordion player in my RER carraige; I can only assume this is provided free of charge on every French train carriage.

Perhaps not, but nevertheless only 45 minutes later I’m at my hotel which is directly beside the Montparnasse-Beinvenue metro. And when I say directly…it’s about 4 steps away.

First impressions, therefore, are excellent: the metro is as efficient, all-encompassing and well-signposted as I could have hoped, the hotel is very convenient to it and at least two major sights are very close to me: Tour Montparnasse (which dominates the view from my window) and the Eifel Tower is not too far away, either.

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But they can wait until tomorrow.

I’m directly overneath something called the “Cafe Leffe” so there really is no decision over where to go for a late dinner. I get a huge plate of chips and an even bigger bucket of mussels; for €12 that’s incredible value. The accompanying glass of milk – at €4.90 – is not.

There’s an eclipse underway up there when I’m ready for bed. Unfortunately, I can’t find the moon – stupid buildings. Hopefully, I ask the hotel reception,

Em, where can I see the moon?

The what?

Er, the moon – la lune.

I point upwards.

Ah….the moon. Em, what do you mean?

There’s an eclipse! Tonight….un eclipse.

A what? Tonight? The moon is there every night!

Ah, never mind.

He’s right – it’s there every night. But I miss the Eclipse. Ah well.