Sapporo Trams and a Journey Through the Heart of Hokkaido

I woke early in my Sapporo hotel, and after checking out, I put my luggage in a locker at the station. I had all day until my overnight train to Aomori at 10pm, and had big plans for the day. The blue skies and warm weather of the previous day had changed to cold, wet and windy, and as I walked through the quiet early morning streets of Sapporo, I got wet.

Trams in Sapporo on a very wet morning

Trams in Sapporo on a very wet morning

The wet weather didn’t dampen my spirits and I soon found what I was looking for; Sapporo’s trams. Sapporo has one tram line, which runs along the inner city streets in a partial loop. The 2 termini are only a few blocks apart, but the length of the line is around 8.5km.  The little tram I boarded was crowded with commuters and school children, and we made our way slowly but steadily through the wet streets of Sapporo’s inner south-west. I boarded the tram at Shiseikan-Shogakko-Mae rode around almost the entire length to Nishi-Jugo-Chome. By the time I left the tram, the rain had abated enough to take some pictures of the frequent peak-hour trams.

A wet Sapporo morning from the front of a tram

A wet Sapporo morning from the front of a tram

The rain started again, so I walked (quickly) to the nearby subway station at Hishijuhatchome. I was surprised to find that the subway trains are rubber tyred, with a central guide rail. Another interesting feature is the solid overhead power (instead of the usual catenary wire or 3rd rail system). I boarded a train, and although it was just before 9am on a weekday, the little train was not full. I changed at Odori (Sapporo’s main subway interchange, where all 3 lines intersect), and caught a northbound train to Sapporo JR Station.

Trams pass at Nishi-Jugo-Chome in Sapporo

Trams pass at Nishi-Jugo-Chome in Sapporo

I had a seat reserved on the 10:00 Super Kamui to Asahikawa. Waiting on the platform was a 785 series train, which was a bit of a disappointment, as I’d been hoping for a (big nosed) 789-1000 series. The 785 was comfortable enough, and I had a spot to charge my phone. Super Kamui services don’t have Green cars, but I’d reserved a seat in the U-Seat reserved car (same seating as the regular cars, but with tray tables and power outlets).

A 785 Series running a Super Kamui service departs from

A 785 Series running a Super Kamui service departs from Asahikawa

We made our way quickly out of Sapporo and into the countryside. The rain had stopped, but there was still a lot of low cloud, into which the mountains were disappearing. We stopped only at Iwamizawa, Takikawa and Fukagawa on the 67 minute, 137km trip to Asahikawa. At Asahikawa, I had an 8 minute connection with a cross country branch line train to Furano, which was run by a single 150 Series railcar. The little 150 had about 10 passengers on board as well as a crew of 2; a Conductor and a Driver.

A 150 Series railcar stands at Asahikawa, ready to depart for Furano

A 150 Series railcar stands at Asahikawa, ready to depart for Furano

We departed Asahikawa and made our way out onto the Furano branch line, passing through open fields and small villages, stopping at wayside halts every few minutes. Most of the stations were no more than a short platform in the middle of nowhere, 2 or 3 people getting on or off at each location. The view out the window was picturesque, small farms and towns, nestled into valleys between the forested mountains. The little train kept precise time, the Driver pointing a white gloved finger at his timetable at each stop to ensure an exact on time departure.

The Driver and Conductor on the 150 Series railcar between Asahikawa and Furano

The Driver and Conductor on the 150 Series railcar between Asahikawa and Furano

We arrived in the small town of Furano just after 1pm. I had a 37 minute connection, so I bought some lunch at the ramen bar inside the station waiting room. The delicious noodles were expertly prepared by an ancient lady and there were no table or chairs, so the noodles were eaten in the Japanese style; standing at the counter.

Some of the stations on the Furano branch line are very basic and just long enough for a single car train.

Some of the stations on the Furano branch line are very basic and just long enough for a single car train.

The next leg of my journey was a single 40 series railcar on the Nemuro line from Furnao to Takikawa. The 40 series seem to be the most prolific rail vehicle in Japan; I’ve seen them as far north as Sapporo (Hokkaido), as far south at Nagasaki (Kyushu) and on most branch lines in between. They are very simple railcars, single sliding doors in a vestibule at each end, basic seating and a single toilet up one end. The Driver sells tickets at unstaffed stations.

A 40 series railcar passes a shunting locomotive on approach to Furano,

A 40 series railcar passes a shunting locomotive on approach to Furano,

Our train was a little late, but none of the 13 passengers seemed to mind. There were a few young adults, who may have been university students, the rest of the passengers were senior citizens, clutching bags of shopping or pushing trolleys. All of the passengers were babbling and laughing, it was a very happy little train running through the Hokkaido countryside! Instead of following the valleys like the previous train, this train made its way into the mountains; first climbing, then running through tunnel after tunnel – one tunnel took over 6 minutes to traverse.

A 40 Series railcar stands at a platform at

A 40 Series railcar stands at a platform at Takikawa

We arrived at Takikawa and I transferred to another 785 series running a Super Kamui service back towards Sapporo. After a short trip to Iwamizawa, I changed to another 40 series which was bound for Tomakomai via the Muroran cross-country line. This was not the quickest way to get from one place to another, but was certainly more scenic, with the train running through picturesque countryside. After an 85 minute, 75 km journey, I left the train at its terminus of Tomakomai and transferred to a 183 Series DMU on a northbound Hokuto Limited Express to Sapporo.

Tight curves and picturesque countryside on the branch line

Tight curves and picturesque countryside on the Muroran branch line in central Hokkaido

When I arrived back into Sapporo, it was still before 6pm, so I had over 4 hours before my overnight train to Aomori. Instead of getting dinner in a Sapporo restaurant, I made the most of my rail pass and caught a Limited Express Super Soya to Fukagawa. The train was operated by a 261 series tilting DMU and was quite full as there are only 2 Super Soya services per day, running from Sapporo to the far northern Hokkaido town of Wakkanai.

A series 261 DMU stands at Sapporo, ready to run a Super Soya service to Wakkaini

A series 261 DMU stands at Sapporo, ready to run a Super Soya service to Wakkani

Our journey into the dusk was quick, and we stopped only at Takikawa before arriving at Fukagawa, where I left the train and walked out into the small Hokkaido town. Although it was a Friday night, the town was very quiet; most of the shops were shut, and there was very little traffic on the road. I walked for about half an hour, and thought that I might not find a restaurant that was open! Finally, as I was heading back to the station, I found a ramen bar. I was a little concerned, because I was the only customer, but my concerns were unfounded and I had a delicious bowl of ramen with freshly cooked gyoza (dumplings). I caught a Super Kamui service back to Sapporo, and was delighted to find that it was run by the 789-1000 series EMU I had missed out on earlier in the day. We rushed though the dark  countryside, arriving back into Sapporo at 21:30.

A 789-1000 series EMU stands at Fukagawa on a Super Kamui service

A 789-1000 series EMU stands at Fukagawa on a Super Kamui service

Back at Sapporo, I made my way to the platform for the Hamanasu Express to Aomori. I had just enough time to take a look at the DD51 diesel locomotive, before locating my sleeping berth. It was the same B Couchette accommodation as I had endured on the Hokutosei from Tokyo to Hakodate, but I was tired, and as soon as I was settled, I zipped up the privacy curtain and fell into a deep sleep.

A DD51 diesel locomotive at Sapporo, ready to haul the Hamanasu overnight train to Aomori

A DD51 diesel locomotive at Sapporo, ready to haul the Hamanasu overnight train to Aomori

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One response to “Sapporo Trams and a Journey Through the Heart of Hokkaido

  1. I can’t say that I am in your travel league, but I too love train travel and particularly in Japan and it’s range of options from the Shinkansen to my favourite, the single car job. I share your enthusiasm for looking out the window, but no nothing of the technical issues.
    Your last series of posts on north east US also bought back memories, we were there doing similar things only last year.

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