I awoke in a curtained bed of a couchette car aboard the Hamanasu overnight train from Sapporo to Aomori. It was early, but I could hear the other passengers around me stirring, so I unzipped my curtain and found that we were running through the suburbs of Aomori. We had just emerged from the longest main line rail tunnel in the world (the 53 km long Seikan tunnel) connecting the Japanese islands of Hokkaido and Honshu. The time was just before 5:30am and we would soon arrive at the terminus at Aomori station.
We arrived at Aomori right on time at 5:39, giving me 38 minutes to make my way to Shin-Aomori station to catch the first Tokyo bound Shinkansen of the day. I allowed myself the luxury of photographing a 485 series EMU departing on a Tsugaru service to Akita, before hurriedly boarding an Ou line local service operated by a 701 series EMU for the 4 minute journey from Aomori to Shin-Aomori.
I made a quick stop in the station convenience store to buy a makeshift breakfast of pre-packaged sushi, a tub of yoghurt and can of coffee (yes, a can of coffee – very popular in Japan). The line in the convenience store was quite long, and looking at the station clock as I left, I found that I only had 4 minutes until my train left! I rushed up to the platform, and made it with just 2 minutes to spare. Alarms were ringing and rapid announcements were being made in Japanese on the platform, so I boarded the closest carriage and walked through the train to my seat in the Green car. After the rushed boarding, the journey aboard the long nosed, green E5 series Hayabusa Shinkansen was uneventful, and I didn’t even notice our train attaching to an E6 series from Akita during the brief stop at Morioka station.
I had planned on catching the Sunrise Express overnight sleeper train from Tokyo to Takamatsu that night, but due to typhoon damage, the service was suspended. This had caused me to revise my travel plans, as the service suspension meant that I would have to spend an extra night in a hotel. Normally this would be easy to arrange at short notice, but it was the Saturday of a holiday weekend and I was having trouble finding anything under ¥30,000 per night (about A$310). My lack of accommodation for the night had me rather worried, it also meant that I didn’t have a fixed destination.
The hotel I had stayed at in Sapporo was part of a large Japanese chain, and I had picked up the English version of their in-house magazine. It had an advertisement for their booking website, and as I raced along through the countryside of northern Honshu, I logged on. I was lucky enough to find a hotel in general area that I wanted for ¥8,750 (about A$90). The hotel was in a town I’d never heard of (Aioi), but the website bragged that was only 2 minute walk from the Shinkansen station.
Now that I had a destination, I had to plan the rest of my journey. I could have taken this Shinkansen to Tokyo and changed to another that would have had me in Aioi by 2pm; a straightforward journey, but too easy! I decided to avoid Tokyo and take a more scenic route via Nagano to Nagoya and on to Aioi. I left the train at Utsunomiya, and made my way to the booking office to buy my tickets for my revised journey. It was very crowded due to the holiday weekend and I waited in line for about 25 minutes, missing several trains. I finally made my way to the counter and booked my tickets on 4 Shinkansen services and a cross country train to Aioi.
The next leg of my journey was aboard an older E2 series Shinkansen on a “slow” service. This was a Tokyo bound train, and I alighted at the first stop of Omiya, 24 minutes later. From Omiya, I could have boarded an Asama Shinkansen service direct to Nagano, but I wanted to travel on a MAX Toki service. The MAX Shinkansen services are operated by E4 series Shinkansen sets; double deck trains capable of 240 km/h. Their streamlined front and dark tinted windscreen makes them look like an angry duck wearing shoulder pads. Although I think they are the most interesting looking Shinkansen trains, they are the least comfortable to ride in. Designed for short runs, they have reduced luggage space, loose seat frames and generally feel cramped and low budget because of the lower ceilings.
I left the angry duck at Takasaki, where I waited for an Asama Shinkansen to Nagano. I was delighted to find that it was operated by a brand new E7 series. Most JR East Shinkansen trains are bold and bright; from the blue and pink of the E2 Series, to the bright green of the E5 series and the red of the E6 series. The E7 series are subtle and stylish, with a royal blue nose and gold stripes at the front which extend along the roof line. Inside, they are all of the good bits from the other JR East Shinkansen trains rolled into one; comfortable, subtle, stylish and smooth.
We soon arrived at Nagano station and it was time for lunch. Outside the station, I found myself in a pleasant mountain town with a cosmopolitan, international feel. Although it was a small town, there was a wide range of international restaurants and cafes thanks to the town hosting the 1998 Winter Olympics. As I ate lunch, I examined my ticket for the next leg; car 1, seat 1A aboard the “Limited Express (Wide View) Shinano 18” to Nagoya.
After lunch, I headed back to the station for the next leg of my trip. The name of the train sounded enticing, but I was slightly disappointed to find a very normal looking 383 series EMU standing at the platform. I boarded the train, and found that it was more interesting on the inside; wide comfortable 2+1 seating in Green class and with large windows along the length of the carriage. I was in the rear car, and the bulkhead wall behind the Driver’s cab was glass with a clear view through the rear windscreen (if I was travelling the other way, it would have been the front windscreen).
We departed Nagano, and started climbing into the mountains surrounding the town. Higher and higher we climbed, with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and back down the valley towards Nagano. The conductor came around to check tickets, and I went to show him mine… but couldn’t find it! I thought back, and realised that I’d left it on the table at the cafe in Nagano! Fortunately, I had my JR Pass, which I showed the conductor. In halting English, he told me that I needed a reserved ticket with a seat number to be in the Green car. I tried to explain that I had a ticket, but had lost it, and that this was my seat. He didn’t seem to understand and looked around uneasily. In very non-confrontational Japanese style, he said “sorry” and walked away. Despite his seat being in the rear cabin just behind mine, he didn’t speak to me or make eye contact for the rest of the trip (but I got to stay where I was).
We ran through tunnels and forested valleys as we made our way south through central Honshu. Soon, daylight faded into darkness and we arrived at Nagoya just after 6pm. I changed to a 700 Series Hikari Shinkansen for the final leg of my journey to Aioi. Just over 90 minutes later I arrived. I left the station, and found my hotel directly across the road; 2 minutes walk as promised. I checked in and made my way to my room after travelling for just under 24 hours, on 6 trains, covering almost 2000 km.