The following is a trip report for a journey I took in July, 2012.
Because I could (and I wanted to make full use of my JR Pass), I decided to travel to northern Honshu for the day. My journey would take me by Shinkansen to Shin-Aomori, then along a branch line to Akita and finally back to the Shinkansen for the return to Tokyo – a journey of over 1550 km.
I arrived at Ueno station about 15 minutes early for my train for Shin-Aomori. There was a constant stream of Shinkansen trains of all shapes sizes and colours using the 4 standard gauge platforms. They ranged from the white, blue and pink E2 series Hayate – to the blue, yellow and white double deck E4 series Max and the pink and white E3 series Komachi used on the Akita line. My service to Shin-Aomori was a sleek 8 car green, pink and white E5 series Hayabusa, with a long nose and a bubble for the Driver, looking somewhere between a jet fighter and a Formula 1 racing car. It was coupled to an 8 car E3 series Komachi which would be uncoupled at Morioka and head off for Akita.
As expected, we departed Ueno exactly on time, and were soon speeding north along the Shinkansen’s elevated track. The service was a “Super Express”, and stopped at very few stations, even overtaking some slower Shinkansen when they were paused at a station. Most Shinkansen stations have at least 4 tracks (2 in each direction). At the smaller stations, there are only platforms on 2 of the tracks, with the express tracks passing through the centre. The stopping train will pull off the main line and into the platform and minutes later, the express will storm through at speed. Once the express has passed, the stopping train pulls out of the station and back on to the main line behind the express. It’s like a dance, performed with precision timing to avoid any delays!
At Morioka, our train was uncoupled from the E3 Series Komachi for Akita during the station stop. Within 3 minutes of stopping, our portion of the train was underway again. The rest of the journey to Shin-Aomori was fast, smooth and uneventful, with the E5 Series Hayabusa Super Express arriving precisely on time.
After arriving at Shin-Aomori, I went to the ticket office, and booked a green class ticket on the next Tsugaru service to Akita (departing in just over an hour). There was no shortage of trains passing through Shin-Aomori to pass the time, including a “Resort Hybrid” (diesel/battery powered train) and several 485 series EMU sets, with their distinctive raised driving cab (similar to a 2000 class DMU from Adelaide). My Tsugaru Limited Express arrived (operated by a E751 series EMU), and we set off for the cross country run to Akita. The green car on this train comprised of a portion of the front car.
The train passed through heavily wooded mountains and remote villages, a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo and Yokohama. On this cross country branch line, there was a distinct difference between railway stations and infrastructure from the main lines; everything still worked well out here, but on the main line, all stations were gleaming with marble passageways and escalators to each platform. Here in the countryside, there were little wooden footbridges and stained stone platforms. The paint on the woodwork was peeling, and weeds grew in the rail yards. On the main line, it was all Shinkansen and modern 10 car EMUs, on the branch line, our 4 car E751 series EMU was the most modern train running. At junction stations, ancient 2 car DMUs and EMUs which appeared to be over 30 years old waited to depart on smaller branch lines.
We reached Akita after around 90 minutes travel time. Akita station is large and busy, with trains constantly arriving and departing. There were the little 2 car silver and purple 701 series EMUs on local services, 485 and E571 series EMUs on limited express services, 40 series DMUs on branch line trains and the E3 series Komachi Shinkansen. I spent about 45 minutes watching and photographing before I decided it was time to get lunch.
It was the middle of the afternoon, and I found it difficult to find a restaurant still serving lunch. Most cafes and restaurants were either closed or serving afternoon tea (green tea and sweet pastries). After searching for about half an hour, I found an open door at the top of some stairs which led down to what appeared to be a basement restaurant. Normally I don’t like to go down stairs when I don’t know what’s at the bottom (especially in a foreign country), but in this case I was so hungry that I decided to risk it.
At the bottom of the stairs was a dimly lit bar, of which the bartender was the only occupant. He was young (at a guess, early 20s), and wearing traditional headband and robe and seemed surprised to see a customer (especially someone who was obviously not a local). I noticed some chopsticks in a container on the table and I gestured towards them. He pointed towards a pile of menus, which were written in Japanese, but conveniently had pictures. I pointed to a picture of curry with meat and rice. The bartender grinned, gave me the thumbs up and said “OK!”. he disappeared and I heard the clanging of pots and pans. About 10 minutes later, the bartender reappeared and a plate heaped with steaming Japanese curry with pork, vegetables, pickled radish and rice was placed in front of me. The curry was delicious (or perhaps by this stage I was so hungry anything would have been delicious).
After paying and saying “arigatō” (receiving a bow in return) I made my way back to the station to catch my E3 series Komachi Shinkasen back to Ueno in Tokyo. Departing Akita, the seats were facing the wrong way (against the direction of travel). All was explained at the first stop, after which our train changed direction.
The Shinkansen line from Akita to Morioka is Unusual for several reasons. It is dual gauge, shared between the Shinkansen (1435mm gauge) and conventional trains (1067mm gauge), it is at grade with level crossings (restricting our Shinkansen service to 130 km/h) and it is single line, with many crossing loops. We made several stops, and after about 90 minutes we arrived on time into a vacant platform at Morioka. An E5 series Hayabusa from Shin-Aomori was attached to the back of our train 2 minutes after we arrived; the combined train departing 2 minutes later. By this time, it was dark outside, so there was not much to see on the fast trip back to Tokyo.