A Most Un-Japanese Japanese Train

I was waiting on platform 13 at Ueno station in Tokyo. It was about 6:45 in the evening and quite a crowd had gathered on the uncharacteristically grimy and dingy JR platform. There were old, young and in between and there was excited anticipation in the air. A few Western faces stood amongst the Japanese throng, myself being one. The biggest crowd had gathered at the dead end at the south of the platform; eager faces with cameras big and small jostled for a good postion.

My journey to this point had started in earnest several days before, on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. I was in a ticket office at Hakata station, having just picked up my 7 day Green JR rail pass (my precious). After booking a few long distance tickets, I shyly asked the agent if there were any tickets remaining on the northbound Limited Express Hokutosei. I was thrilled with the ticket agent’s smile and response in the positive. I handed over a further ¥9540 (about A$98) on top of my rail pass and was given a light green rectangle with my carriage assignment.

Back to the present, the atmosphere was growing more excited on platform 13. Suddenly, some movement was seen at the northern end of the platform; cameras snapped to attention and everyone stood watching the old blue carriages being backed into the dead end. The Limited Express Hokutosei is one of the few locomotive hauled passenger trains remaining in Japan;  an all sleeping class overnight train running between Ueno station in Tokyo and Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido. Jointly run by JR East and JR Hokkaido, it runs daily, taking just over 16 hours to complete the 1214 km journey. Of course with the Shinkansen and modern limited express trains, the journey is possible in 9 hours, but judging by the number of people who had come to pay respect to the train (only about 50% of the people on the platform were actually travelling), the old ways are still respected.

The Hokutosei at Ueno station in Tokyo

The Hokutosei at Ueno station in Tokyo

A shunter stood on the front of the rear carriage and efficiently waved it back to the precise stopping position. The carriages are from the era of “Blue Trains”; a large network of Japanese luxury sleeper trains which reached a peak just before the onset of the Shinkansen “bullet trains” in the 1960s. These rains had been the pride of JNR, but today the train looks quaint and old fashioned in amongst the sleek, modern multiple unit trains on the surrounding platforms.

Elegant, but old fashioned. The crest on the side of the Hokutosei

Elegant, but old fashioned. The crest on the side of the Hokutosei

The excited but obedient Japanese crowd waited at their designated car markers until a polite announcement was made over the PA system, before filing aboard in an orderly manner. The train has 3 classes of sleeper; A, B and B Couchette. A sleepers are deluxe private rooms (twin and solo), B sleepers are small private rooms and B Couchettes are shared sleepers with 4 passengers in 2 sets of bunks per room (similar to a Chinese soft sleeper). I was travelling in a B Couchette (not for budgetary reasons, but by the time I booked, all of the private compartments were sold out).

My top bunk on the Hokutosei

My top bunk on the Hokutosei

I found my top bunk in car 1 at the rear of the 11 car train. The bunks were upholstered in a salmon pink velour, with matching privacy curtains. On each bunk was neatly stacked a blanket wrapped in a sheet, a small pillow and a kimono with a JR pattern printed on it. Leather slippers were neatly set out for each passenger (sadly, too small for my large western feet). I took off my shoes and climbed into my bunk. It was surprisingly Spartan, with a reading light and that’s about it. I was surprised and a little disappointed to find that there was no power outlet, I would have to be careful with my mobile battery usage! There was a false ceiling over the corridor which provided storage space for top bunk users. I hoisted my bags up and secured them close to my feet.

The lower bunk in a B Couchette

The lower bunk in a B Couchette

A fold down seat in the corridor gave me a place to perch as we waited for departure. At precisely 7:03 pm, the Limited Express Hokutosei lurched into motion. I say lurched, because unlike every other Japanese train I have been on, where the train glides into motion, this old train stretched out and bumped together as we pulled out of Ueno station. Far from being unpleasant, it was a refreshing departure from the normal Japanese precision.

As we made our way through Tokyo’s inner north, the usual prolonged announcement in clipped, courteous tones was made in Japanese. There was no English translation made for my benefit (as far as I could tell, I was the only English speaker on the train – I had seen another westerner, but I think he was German), but it didn’t matter, I was going from the first station to the last. I had my bunk, I was just soaking up the atmosphere of this very un-Japanese Japanese train journey.

After getting settled, I went for a walk along the train. It appeared that apart from the meticulous Japanese maintenance, very little had been done to the carriages. There was copious amounts of stainless steel; basins, doors, wall panels all stainless steel. All doors, internal and external, were manual and satisfyingly solid. As we raced along the express lines, our train made an old fashioned “clickety-clack”, a sound that has gone missing with the evolution of Japan’s rail network. As the train sped up and slowed down, the carriages lurched about and clunked.

Although well maintained, the carriages on the Hokutosei have not been changed from the original, right down to the squat type toilet!

Although well maintained, the carriages on the Hokutosei have not been changed from the original, right down to the squat type toilet!

The train had 2 B Couchette cars at the rear of the train, the other 7 sleeping cars being private rooms. In the centre of the train was the dining car (“Grand Chariot”) and the lounge/shower car. I purchased a “lunch box” from the dining car for the outrageous price of ¥1,100 (about A$13 – my lunch of curry chicken and rice had cost ¥600) and took it back to my car. The “lunch box” was curious (read: concerning); it had a portion of cold rice, with room temperature sashimi and pickled veggies. I hesitated, but figured that if they were selling it on a Japanese train, it must be safe to eat.

As the evening wore on, we stopped at stations in Tokyo’s northern suburbs; Omiya & Utstunomiya. Passengers waiting on platforms for local trains looking at our train curiously, as if it were in a time warp; what was this funny little blue train doing on their platform? Our train was frequently put aside to let faster trains pass; it didn’t matter, we were in no hurry – we had all night. Before long, the rocking of the train and my comfortable bunk got the better of me and I drifted off to sleep.

I woke early the next morning with a changed perspective on the old sleeper train. The novelty had worn off and the old, lumbering carriage was cramped. The air conditioning was noisy and ineffective, so my top bunk had become hot and stuffy. There was dust in my nose, an my eyes felt gritty. I could hear low voices in the corridor outside my bunk, so I opened my privacy curtain and was rewarded with a beautiful sunrise over the Tsugaru Strait. I consulted my map, and discovered that we had not yet arrived at Hakodate on the south coast of Hokkaido. After a quick calculation, this meant that we were running about 45 minutes late (very un-Japanese)! This was a blessing in disguise, as I had wanted to visit Hakodate, but had thought that the train would pass through too early. I made a quick decision to abandon the cramped stuffy Hokutosei and explore Hakodate; I could catch an express train up to Sapporo later in the day.

We arrived at Hakodate 49 minutes late. No one seemed to care about the late running, I guess if they were in a hurry they would have taken the Shinkansen to Shin-Aomori, then a fast express train. I left the train and stepped out onto Hakoddate platform; although it was just after 7 am, it was pleasantly warm. It had rained overnight, but the skies were now clear and the sun shining.

A sleeping car on the Hokutosei. The windows are positioned for upper and lower solo berths.

A sleeping car on the Hokutosei. The windows are positioned for upper and lower solo berths.

Hakodate is a terminal station with dead end platforms and is also the end of the electrification for northbound trains. The train had reversed direction overnight, so my carriage was not the front. As I left the train, the old ED79 class electric locomotive was uncoupled from the front, and a pair of DD51 class diesel locomotives were coupled to the other end of the train for the final leg of its journey to Sapporo. This was done with typical Japanese efficiency, and the train was at the platform for no more than 10 minutes.

An ED79 class locomotive at Hakodate. This locomotive hauled the Hokutosei from Aomori.

An ED79 class locomotive at Hakodate. This locomotive hauled the Hokutosei from Aomori.

As I watched the old blue carriages pull away from the platform, I wondered what effect the opening of the Hokkaido Shinkansen in 2015 would have on this train. I predict that the service will quietly be withdrawn, and I wonder if the use of such old carriages is a conscious decision by the operators to soften the blow when it happens. I suspect that few Japanese will mourn the loss of the slow old train when they are sitting on a comfortable 300 km/h Shinkansen, completing the journey in a quarter of the time.

If you want more information on the Hokutosei, check out these websites:

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