February 10, 2016
2016-02-06 Trip to Sapporo.
A long time ago, back in October of 2015, I heard that a new Shinkansen was being built that would connect Tokyo to Sapporo. Good news! Actually, reading the information in Wikipedia (hopefully that stays about the same as when I read it) what is opening in March this year is the Shinkansen up to Shin-Hakodate, and the extension all the way to Sapporo isn’t supposed to be complete until 2030!
At any rate, that also means though that a luxury train that goes from Ueno to Sapporo overnight called the Cassiopeia, would be discontinued. That is too bad. Two or three years back another overnight train (I believe from Kyoto to Tokyo, and then maybe on to Saporro) was discontinued. When I saw that on TV I thought it would be super cool to take the family on a trip on a train like that. So once I heard that the Cassiopeia would be discontinued, I really wanted to get a reservation on the train for the family.
So I looked into it. Turns out a lot of people had the same idea as I did. So JR instituted a lottery system for reservations. I looked at the schedule, and thought about what would be fun to do. Since I also have always wanted to go to the Snow Festival in Sapporo I arranged for a two day (or three depending on how you looked at it) three night stay (including the train, if we got that) in Sapporo. I figured it would be easier to get train tickets on the way back to Tokyo instead of on the way there, so I decided to fly there, and take the train back. JR takes reservations a month before the actual date, so I had to wait.
Until I heard back in January at some time that we didn’t get the reservation on the Cassiopia train. Well, we did still have the airline reservation and the hotel reservation, and the JR travel agent could help me set up a train trip back to Tokyo, so I arranged for that. I was a bit rushed on the phone, and later realized that I should have done something a bit different - instead of flying there on Saturday morning, then taking the train back to Tokyo on Monday as I would have with the Cassiopia schedule, I should have taken a train to Hakodate and stayed overnight there before completing the train journey back to Tokyo. As it is now, we will have three trains: Sapporo to Hakodate, Hakodate to Shin Aomori, and Shin Aomori to Tokyo, taking a total of about 10 hours! Still, Alan likes trains, and so do I, so I think we’ll still have a great time.
So on Saturday morning, we got up at about 6am, and started to get ready to go. We had a 9:30am flight from Haneda airport to Shin-Chitose airport. There is a bus that goes from basically right in front of our house to Haneda airport (the Keikyuu Limosine) so we caught that at 7:39am, and got to the airport at about 8:00am. We exchanged our vouchers for the flight, and hung out at Haneda airport for about 40 minutes before boarding. The flight to Shin-Chitose took all of an hour and a half (compare this to the ten hours or so it will take for us to return on five different trains!) and from Shin-Chitose we could take an express airport train to Sapporo that takes about 39 minutes. Normally we could, but there were so many people with the same idea that we had that the first train departing was already full, and reserved seats for the next one were sold out. We lined up and waited the 15 minutes it took for the next train to come, and somehow managed to real seats for all three of us.
Of course, Alan left his bag back at the airport. I knew we should have made him take his backpack instead. (We called the airport later and they were kind enough to mail it back to our house, so we should see it again at some point.)
We got in to Sapporo and checked in to the hotel - it was only a few minutes walk from the station. A very cold walk. We then went out in search of lunch. Alan wanted to try some Ramen, and Lisa had some recommendations from friends who had lived in Sapporo. We went to a place called “Kiraito” ramen, in a neat shopping arcade two stops away from Sapporo station. It was really good! It was a small Ramen place that had only four things on the menu: Miso Ramen, Salt Ramen, Soy Sauce Ramen, and rice. The rice is just normal white rice, so it probably shouldn’t even count as a menu item. It was really good Ramen though. I’m not a professional ramen eater, so I couldn’t give you a review of the place, but it was good. I’m sure people more familiar with Ramen would be able to tell you the difference between a typical Ramen you would get in Tokyo compared to this, but I certainly can’t. I’m not even sure if that was typical Sapporo ramen, or what that would be.
After lunch, we headed over to Oodori park, where the Snow Festival is held. They have a lot of stands selling things, and every block or so there is a big snow sculpture. There were lots of people. You can only walk in one direction, so be careful about that. If you see a thousand people walking in the opposite direction that you are going, you should cut through the park and go to the other side. We got our picture taken at the big Church modeled after some church in Macao, and saw a few more sculptures. I wanted to check out the Shinkansen sculpture, and that was pretty cool. We were getting really cold though, so we walked back to the hotel, and picked up some pocket hand-warmers and foot warmers for the second try in the afternoon. On the way back we cut through a park that had a whole bunch of igloos with art installations inside. It was really neat! They were also passing out hot conbuchya (conbu tea - basically salty seaweed tea, not my thing) and hot Calpis (hot water mixed with Calpis - surprisingly good!)
After a bit of break, we headed back out. It was dark out now, and a bit colder, but with a whole bunch of hand and foot warmers and a back warmer strapped on, it wasn’t as bad as the first time out. Since it was dark now, many of the larger sculptures were using projection-mapped projectors to add color and animation to the sculpture. The one for the Shinkansen was really cool! There were lots of people though, and I was getting mad at people who would push by my while I’m holding up Alan so he could see.
We planned for dinner at a fresh fish Izakaya, and headed out that way. One the way we stopped at the exhibit near the start of the park sponsored by the White Lovers confectionary group. It was a huge ramp and they have a snowboard exhibition. A whole bunch of snowboarders were doing tricks off the jumps and stuff there. What was really amazing is that the first kid down was 10 years old, and he did a back flip in the air. A ten year old kid. That is just crazy. Apparently, kids can start (and often do!) snowboard or skiing lessons here from age 4. Wow.
We were getting pretty cold again, but instead of walking to the restaurant above ground, we decided to pop down into the Sapporo underground. The underground is really amazing, about the length of two train stops, from Sapporo station to Oodori station. It goes all over the place. We were able to walk about 95% of the way from the park to the restaurant.
Dinner was at a small Izakaya with a real local vibe. I wish people hadn’t been smoking there though. That is unfortunately a common complaint in Japan though. I discovered a new Japanese food that is totally disgusting and that I will avoid in the future. イカワタのルイベ. It is basically taking the guts of a squid, and freezing it, and then slicing it thin. Maybe they do some other things. It is disgusting. The rest of the food was good though, very nice Sashimi, and some good fried chicken and fish. I ate too much, truth be told. We took the underground back to the hotel and rolled into bed.
2016-02-07. A meeting with an old friend.
Just by chance on the previous day, a friend of mine posted that he went to the Sapporo snow festival for the first time, despite living in Sapporo for the past three years. I messaged him and told him that we were in town too, and he proposed that we get together. So we got up and had a nice Japanese breakfast courtesy of our hotel, and shortly after we met up with Takashi W. He and his daughter (slightly younger than Alan) took us to the nearby Ban.K snow park. We spent an hour or two on the slopes, then went inside for some hot chocolate. The snow was really great, and when we were walking there from the parking lot I even sank up to my knees in some of the snow. It was pretty crazy; I hadn’t seen snow like that since high school maybe. Or longer. You definitely don’t get anywhere near that amount of snow in Tokyo.
After a morning of skiing we headed to the Aeon mall and had dinner at a Kaiten sushi place, where we met T’s wife and youngest daughter. Alan really liked the Kaiten sushi place because they had two rails, an upper rail with a Shinkansen train that would deliver plates, and a lower rail with a boat that would send things along. Those are pretty cool, they send made to order sushi to your table. We also ate too much there.
After lunch T. took us to a really nice bakery / gelato shop called Yoshi Yoshi. They had some great gelato there. Apparently in the summer it is just impossible to get in, but in the winter it isn’t too bad. We still had to wait in line and had trouble finding a seat in the small shop. Finally, we swung by a fresh fish market, similar to what you would see in Tsukiji, and bought some fish to direct mail back to the in-laws. Alan loved watching the crab tanks. Lots of crabs there.
Tonight we plan on having Genghis Khan (apparently a popular type of meal?) for dinner, and then tomorrow morning we start our epic 10 hour train ride back to Tokyo.
We took a taxi to get to the restaurant, Musubi Tei (結び亭.) It was a Ghengis Khan place, which is a type of Yakiniku where you get a hot coal burner, and slowly cook meat and vegetables on it. I had a small bottle of a Hokkaido wine, which was pretty good, and Lisa had two local beers, which were very good. Still, I haven’t had wine in a long time, and it was nice to get back to my preferred drink. The meat was very good - also it was all lamb, and not beef. The vegetables were pretty good too. We had both a sauce, and mix of salt and herbs so playing with those options was nice. When I went to the restroom there was a sign for the 2011 Tokyo Marathon - the only marathon I have ever run! I asked the waitress about it, and she did in fact run that marathon. Then we talked a bit about that, and how it is very hard to get a berth in that marathon now. She’s also interested in running in the New York marathon at some point. We also chatted with the owner (? Cook?) of the place on the way out, and talked about the upcoming Shinkansen. They are pretty excited about it, but not as excited that it will take until 2030 for the Shinkansen line to reach Sapporo.
The cab ride over to the restaurant was very good, the taxi driver knew where he was going and knew about the traffic changes due to the Snow Festival. The taxi ride back though was terrible! The taxi driver didn’t know that traffic was different because of the Snow Festival (it has been going on for three days by this point, how can he be a taxi driver in Sapporo and not know that?) and he also had a bad attitude. By which I mean he wasn’t super friendly and easy to talk with; he was taciturn and unresponsive. I was really surprised because all the taxi rides I’ve taken in Japan have been uniformly very good.
2016-02-08 Lots and lots of trains.
We got up at about 7am, and had a nice buffet breakfast. The trains today start from about 10:00am, so we had plenty of time. Here are the trains that we will be taking today:
- 10:22am Sapporo Station to Hakodate Station 13:54pm, Super Hokuto #8. (Three and a half hours!)
- 14:03pm Hakodate to Shin-Aomori 16:08pm, Super Hakucho #28. (Two hours! Basically just going through the undersea tunnel.)
- 16:38pm Shin-Aomori to Tokyo 20:04pm, Tohoku Shinkansen Hayabusa #28. (Three hours and twenty minutes, and a distance of about three or four times the previous two legs.) This is the only Shinkansen part of the trip.
- Tokyo to Osaki, on the Yamanote line about 20 minutes.
- Osaki to Shinagawa Seaside on the Rinkai line, about ten minutes.
The last two trains are trains that we are on all the time so I’m not going to worry about schedules there. I’m actually pretty excited to ride the other trains. The first, the Super Hokuto, is a train that can go faster than normal because it can tilt and take the corners at higher speed than older trains. That sounds super cool. I plan to get Alan a toy train of those three trains we take, I know the Shinkansen will sell one on the train, and the other two might as well. I’ll also have to go back and read more about the trains and put some information here. Probably just links to Wikipedia, but I really like the JR introduction page for the Super Hokuto:
This is the first "tilting express train" introduced to Hokkaido.
The tilting mechanism increases driving stability when rounding curves. The Super Hokuto has a blue head, made in the image of Funka Bay, and carries the dreams of the north, connecting Sapporo and Hakodate.
(Emphasis mine.) The Super Hakucho train is going to be discontinued in March, when the Hokkaido Shinkansen starts running from Shin-Aomori to Shin-Hakodate. I suppose the Super Hokuto will stick around until the Shinkansen replaces it too, but I don’t know when that will happen.
We got up and had a nice breakfast before heading over to the train station and doing some shopping for gifts. We ended up with a surprisingly large amount of luggage. We got some bento for lunch on the train later, and boarded. The train was pretty popular, and we didn’t have any spare room to stretch out, unfortunately. The three of us fit well enough into the two seats though, so no big problem there. The scenery through Hokkaido was very nice! It was a long trip, and unfortunately, as with most Japanese long-haul trains I’ve been on, they kept the cabin temperature too hot. I have the same problem on Japanese planes too though. If it wasn’t for the too hot cabins, I would really enjoy travelling on Japanese trains. Alan fell asleep for about an hour, but he wasn’t feeling too well (because of the heat?) It could also be that the train swayed a bit - the train itself would lean into curves in a way that was slightly disorienting. Combined with the slightly too hot cabin temperature, I wasn’t feeling well, and neither was Lisa. I actually got us some motion sickness medicine (which I always keep in my bag since this isn’t an uncommon problem for me) and I started to feel a bit better. Unfortunately, Alan wasn’t and he returned the majority of his bento to a plastic bag that we luckily had handy. We were also getting a bit concerned because the train was slowly losing time. We had nine minutes as a buffer to transfer trains at Hakodate, but the train was running 10 minutes late. I was pretty worried.
We made it to Hakodate, and changed trains to the Super Hakucho, which had in fact waited for our train. Many of the passengers went across the platform to board the Super Hakucho, and I guess JR knows that is a pretty common route, so they make allowances for delays. So we had no trouble making the transfer.
The Super Hakucho goes through the Seikan tunnel under the Tsuguru Straight. 33 miles of track going under the sea. The majority of the time on the train is in tunnels, or it seemed that way to me. I’ve taken that train one time before. The first time through I thought that the train stopped once under the sea at a small platform that had a vending machine, but maybe I was just imaging things. We didn’t stop this time, just went straight through.
We got to Shin-Aomori, and had about twenty minutes before our Shinkansen. Enough time to get some drinks and not worry about making connections with all our luggage at least. The trip back to Tokyo was uneventful, but again, the train was too hot. The Shinkansen is amazingly fast, and very smooth. Once back to Tokyo station, we had a standard progression on the Yamanote line to the Rinkai line to get home, something we’ve done many times. We got home at about 9:30pm or so, nearly 12 hours on trains all day! It sounds like it would be pretty tough, but actually I enjoyed it. If the trains were at a reasonable temperature, it would have been relaxing. Certainly I don’t think we’ll do it again; flying in an hour and a half (plus about an hour and a half on the front end with all the airport stuff) it much faster, and you spend less time in vehicles that are too hot. I think Alan enjoyed the trip, he got to ride on lots of trains, and since the trip he has commented on how he rode the Shinkansen when he sees one on TV. The Snow Festival itself was nice, and getting out of Tokyo was really fun. I’m going to have to try to take more small trips within Japan; there are many places here that I have never been, and Alan is getting old enough to start appreciating travelling around Japan more.
I’ll be sad to see the overnight trains disappear from Japan. There are still a few around, and I feel like there will always be some “luxury” overnight trains set up for the train-obsessed culture over here, but it really feels like the times are changing and we aren’t going to see many of these any more outside of real specialty niches.
By the way, a day after returning, I took a quick trip to Sendai from Tokyo (an hour and a half on the Shinkansen) for work, and the train was too hot going and coming. Every single time I take the Shinkansen it is too hot.