The following is a trip report for a Journey I took in October 2015. Since this journey, the Hokkaido Shinkansen (Shin-Aomori – Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto) has opened and the Hamanasu Sleeper Express has been discontinued. There are now no regular locomotive hauled passenger trains running in Japan and the only regularly operating sleeper train is the Sunrise Express (Tokyo – Takamatsu/Izumoshi).
I had arrived in Aomori from Fujisawa and had just over an hour until the Hamanasu sleeper express to Sapporo departed. Knowing that there was no dining car on board, I found a small restaurant outside the station and had a simple but delicious dinner of grilled salmon and rice.
Back at Aomori station, a small crowd had gathered awaiting the arrival of the carriages for the Hamanasu. These were not passengers, but railfans. Since the axing of the Twilight Express (Sapporo – Osaka), the Hokutosei (Sapporo – Tokyo) and the Cassiopeia (Sapporo – Tokyo), the Hamanasu was (at the time) the only regularly scheduled locomotive hauled passenger train remaining in Japan.
As the 50 year old blue carriages were shunted into the station, I took some photographs with my Japanese railfanning brethren, before climbing aboard to find my berth. My accommodation was in a Nobinobi (carpet) car, which was literally just a piece of carpet on the floor to lie on. The Raised carpet area ran across the carriage, with a linoleum walkway along one side. There was a set of steps beside my “bed” leading to an upper tier of berths which ran lengthways along the carriage. There was no mattress, but there was a pillow and a blanket. It was obvious that shoes were not accepted on the carpet, but slippers were provided at the end of each “bed”.
I arranged my belongings as best I could (there were no luggage racks), and lay down. The worn loop pile carpet was not thick or soft, but the blanket provided some relief from the hard floor. Thankfully, the carriage was well heated and I did not need the blanket for warmth. The Nobinobi car was quite full, and by the time the Hamanasu pulled out of Aomori, all of the berths around me were occupied.
Despite the hard “bed” I fell asleep before we left Honshu, and didn’t wake up until we were almost in Sapporo. I was expecting to be stiff and sore from lying on what is essentially the floor all night, but I was well rested and feeling surprisingly pain free and alert. It was a Sunday morning, 6:30 am and nothing was open. I put my luggage in a locker at the station, and went for a walk through the charming city of Sapporo. The streets were empty, but the autumn sun was shining. I walked to the tram terminus, and took some photos of early morning trams before taking the subway to Shin-Sapporo, then a local train back to Sapporo. By this time it was 9 am, and the city was beginning to wake up.
I had a day in Sapporo and decided to take a ride through the north-west of Hokkaido on the Oshamambe line. After breakfast, I caught a local train formed by a pair of KiHa 150 series railcars which ran out though Otaru to Kutchan, before running on to Oshamambe. The train ran through some beautiful remote countryside; past wooded hills and farms taking just over 4 hours to complete the cross country journey from Sapporo to Oshamambe. At Oshamambe, I transferred to a 183 series DMU running an Hokuto Limited Express, which whisked me back to Sapporo along the Hakodate line.
The next morning I boarded a modified 183 series DMU on an Okhosk Limted Express. The 183 series DMUs used on the Okhotsk services have a raised cab and flat face, looking like they are straight out of a 1970s sci-fi cartoon. They wear a distinctive white and purple livery, running between Sapporo and Abashiri. I left the Okhotsk at Asahikawa, where I transferred to a pair of 40 series railcars on a local service to Nayoro. The little train stopped at every platform, some in small towns and some seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Occasionally, we would pause for a little longer to pass another train on the single tracked Soya line.
Mid afternoon, we reached the town of Nayoro, where my local train terminated. I had about 90 minutes until my train to Wakkanai, so I walked out of the station and into the city centre. It was like a ghost town; despite being mid afternoon on a Monday, most shops were closed and there were hardly any cars on the road. A city bus rumbled by, with the driver as the sole occupant. The only life I found was at a mid sized department store, where people were doing their grocery shopping. After having a disappointing lunch in a cafe where I was the only customer, I returned to the station to wait for the Sarobetsu service to Wakkanai.
Time seemed to stand still in this forgotten town, and it felt like an age until a blue 183 series DMU rumbled into Nayoro station. I found my seat, and settled into the half full first carriage. An elderly Japanese railfan was sitting in the front row, and had a video camera set up pointing through the glass bulkhead and out through the front windscreen.
The Sarobetsu is a limited express service, and we zipped past many of the smaller stations on the remote Soya line. We stopped only 6 times in the 3 hour journey to Wakkanai. Afternoon turned to evening and we arrived at Wakkanai after dark; the northernmost station on the JR network. Wakkanai is a port city at the northern tip of Hokkaido, an isolated city of approximately 37,000 people; closer to Vladivostok than Tokyo. From the northern part of the city, the Russian island of Sakhalin can be seen.
I stepped out into the crisp night air and heard a ship’s fog horn not too far away. The streets were well lit, but almost empty, as the crowd from the train dispersed into the station surrounds. I had no trouble finding my hotel; one of the few high rise buildings in the town. As I walked from the station to the hotel, I noticed that the shop signs were in Japanese and Cyrillic (Russian) characters.
I checked in to the Dormy Inn and was immediately regretful that I would only be there 12 hours. The room was massive (about 4 times the size of the rooms I had been staying in so far in Japan) and had plush carpet. In the middle of the room was a massive bed and there was a very large and luxuriously appointed bathroom. Sadly, I had little time to enjoy it, as I had to be up at 6am the next morning to catch a Super Soya Limited Express train south.