Hakodate and the Limited Express Hokuto to Sapporo

I had arrived in Hakodate in the early morning after travelling overnight on the Limited Express Hokutosei sleeper train from Tokyo. I had a ticket booked all of the way through to Sapporo (another 320 km), but due to the cramped sleeping accommodation and poor air conditioning, I had decided to leave the train early. The decision to leave the train at Hakodate was a good one; it was a beautiful day with blue sky, no wind and about 21 degrees.

After watching the Hokutosei reverse direction and depart for Sapporo, I made my way to the ticket office to buy a ticket on to Sapporo on a “Limited Express Hokuto”. Limited express Hokuto services run approximately every 2 hours and are operated by 183, 281 and 283 series DMUs, with the 320 km journey taking around 3½ hours. After reaching the front of the surprisingly long ticket queue, the ticket agent told me in halting English that all Limited Express Hokuto services were sold out for the morning. I pointed out that I had a Green (first class) JR Pass, which changed everything; green seats were available on all trains!

A tram in Hakodate

A tram in Hakodate

As well as being a charming, quiet fishing town on the Tsugaru Strait, Hakodate also has a small (2 line, 11 km) tram network. I arrived during the morning peak and the little trams were frequent and well patronised, packed with office workers and students  on their morning commute. There is a good variety of trams, ranging from brand new articulated trams, to a vintage single bogie tram from 1910 that was introduced when Hakodate’s tram network was first electrified (originally a horse tramway).

A modern articulated tram in Hakodate

A modern articulated tram in Hakodate

The streets of Hakodate are wide and most buildings are only 2 or 3 stories tall, which was a nice change from the crowded streets and high rise buildings common in other Japanese cities. The wide main street with its tram lines and shop – front verandas reminded me of some parts of my home city: Melbourne, Australia.

A vintage tram dating back to 1910 in Hakodate

A vintage tram dating back to 1910 in Hakodate

I spent a pleasant few hours photographing and riding on Hakodate’s trams before the time came to board my Hokuto service to Sapporo. At the platform was a 183 series DMU, I was a little disappointed as I had been hoping for a newer 283 series. Despite my initial disappointment, I found a comfortable, wide seat with a 110v power outlet to charge the depleted batteries of my various electronic devices. A nice, personal touch was the hand drawn train information in the seat pocket, written on a laminated A3 sheet of paper and folded over to form a booklet.

Hand drawn information card on the 183 series Hokuto

Hand drawn information card on the 183 series Hokuto

Green car passengers on JR Hokkaido services are served a complimentary drink after boarding, and I sipped my green tea as the train headed north. The floor on the green cars are of 183 series DMUs are slightly raised and the windows larger, giving a better view. To compensate, the roof is higher than other cars and the windows curve into the roof line. The trip up to Sapporo was very enjoyable, with the train following the coast for most of the journey. There were picturesque views out over the Tsugaru strait, with countless fishing boats plying their trade in the calm waters.

A side view of  183 series DMU, showing the slightly larger green car.

A side view of 183 series DMU, showing the slightly larger green car.

We reached Sapporo mid afternoon, and after checking into my hotel (right outside the station), I went back to check out the local railway action. At random, I chose to take a trip to Minami-Chitose and booked a Green seat on the next Super Tokachi. I made my way to the platform, where I was happy to find a 283 Series tilting DMU waiting. The impressive looking 283 series lurched into movement and we had a lively run through inner Sapporo. I say “lively”, because it was not only rapid, but the train jumped around with each gear change. The diesel hydraulic transmission of the 283 series is not exactly smooth.

A 183 series Hokuto service at Minami-Chitose

A 183 series Hokuto service at Minami-Chitose

The main line trains of JR Hokkaido have great names such as the “Super Kamui”, “Super Ozora” and “Super Tokachi”. They look interesting too, with raised driving cabs and big noses. One funny thing about all of JR Hokkaido’s trains (including the freight trains) is that they don’t use horns. They have funny little 2 chime whistles, that sound like they belong on a little steam powered tug boat! It made me giggle seeing a 789-1000 series Super Kamui depart from a station and blow a dinky little whistle!

A 261 Series EMU on a Super Tokachi service at Minami-Chitose

A 261 Series EMU on a Super Tokachi service at Minami-Chitose

I found that Minami-Chitose was an excellent spot for photographing not only the variety of trains, but aircraft as well (the station is right next to the perimeter fence of New Chitose airport). I stayed at the Minami-Chitose for just over an hour, photographing the frequent and varied trains as well as the occasional slow moving aircraft. As soon as the sun had disappeared from the sky, a chill descended, and I regretted not bringing a long sleeved top with me. I caught a 283 series Super Ozora to Shin-Sapporo, then a 731 series EMU operating a local service back to Sapporo.

Minami-Chitose is not only good for the variety of trains, but is right next to New Chitose airport

Minami-Chitose is not only good for the variety of trains, but is right next to New Chitose airport

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