September 12th, 2007

Wig Wag

Off Line Until Thursday

Because we will be on the overnight sleeper from Sapporo to Tokyo Ueno today, I will be off-line until sometime later in the day on Thursday after we get into our hotel in Tokyo. We assume that they won't let us check in the morning that we arrive, but hope they'll let us store our bags until later in the day, which will save us another JPY1000 in storage locker fees.

While dealing with doing laundry this evening, I composed a long entry about our very interesting day yesterday, but until and unless LJ lets me upload the photos, I can't actually post the story. And we have to be on a train in just over five hours as I write this message, so I'm not going to wait much longer. If necessary, I'll post a back-dated entry -- which is probably a good idea anyway on account of the story being so large with all of the photos -- and note that I've done so at the time.
Manga Kevin

Aomori to Hakkodate, Second Verse

[Posted 14 September]

After only four hours' sleep, we were up again at 6 AM and madly packing our bags, having had to leave much of our laundry from last night hanging about the room to dry on account of the coin laundry's driers being so inefficient. But we somehow managed to get out of the room on the stroke of 7 AM.

An aside about the room: This was the first time I've stayed in a hotel room where in order to get the room lights to turn on, you have to put your key card in a slot and leave it there. When you remove the card, a few minutes later the lights (but not the power outlets) shut off.

We were checked out and walking down the street by 7:05, and at the station by 7:15, with plenty of time for us to pick up a couple of bento boxes for breakfast and get over to platform 6, even with a large group of kids on what looked like a school outing of some sort ahead of us.

Aomori station has escalators that go up to the bridge over the tracks, but neither escalators nor elevators back down to the platforms. I presume there is some alternative route for handicapped people – I saw what the British would call a barrow crossing between the platforms at the station mouth. At the top of the stairs down to platforms 5/6, an older Japanese woman appeared to be struggling with her luggage, and I offered to help carry her bag down to the platform. She declined, and explained (in passable English) that her husband would help her. She asked where we were from, and we said, "California" – no reason to confuse people with the complicated actual situation – and she said she had visited Virginia.

We boarded the train, but found people sitting in what we interpreted to be our seats in car 2. Examining our seat reservations, we realized that we had been reading the wrong ticket, and that car 2 is where our seats for the connecting train from Hakkodate to Sapporo are. With five minutes left before train time, it was easier to get out and walk down the platform to car 6, where we boarded our private car and private compartment. That is, there was not a single other person in car 6, and thus we had the Green Car (the rear half of car 6) completely to ourselves.

Although the trains we took yesterday to and from Tappi-Kaitei also had Green Cars, our reservations were not in them. We figure that was because of Tappi-Kaitei's short platform only serving car 2 of the six-car train sets, and the desire to book us as close to that car as possible. If I'm reading the signs correctly, car 2 is non-reserved, but car 1 is, which is why our seats for those trains were on Car 1.

Anyway, as we headed north again from Aomori, the tea-trolley lady came briefly through our car and checked with the rear train attendant riding in the rear cab if he wanted anything to drink, and then, much to our surprise, rolled right on past us without even a suggestion that we might buy something from her cart. We felt mildly snubbed.

We then settled in to eat our bento breakfast and watch the sights. At Tsugarimabetsu (I may not be spelling that one correctly, as I couldn't see the platform signs – the platforms are short and our car hung off the end of the platform), Lisa commented, "If it wasn't for the people, I'd think I was in British Columbia." And she's right; the climate, lay of the land, and some of the architecture evoke BC to both Lisa and me.

I decided to make one more try at getting a coffee on board and headed up the train. I found the trolley, but not the attendant, who I assume was holed up in her compartment. Instead, I gave up and drank the Coke Zero I'd bought from the vending machine on the platform before we left.

The train trip to Hakkodate was smooth and quiet, and while we passed through the Seikan Tunnel again, I decided to try and get ahead a bit and write up my notes on this morning. Unlike the ambitious story I wrote last night, which I can't post until I get all of the LJ photos annotated and labeled, there's no photographs to go with this story.

We have a five-minute, cross-platform transfer at Hakkodate in a bit over fifteen minutes as I write this, so I'd better shut down and pull my stuff together so we're ready to disembark when we get to the station.
Kevin and Lisa

Day Trip to Sapporo

[From notes written on board JR Kokuto 5 and later; posted 14 September]

Our inbound train from Aomori was two minutes late, making the connection between trains only three minutes, but a significant number of people arriving from Aomori were, like us, transferring across the platform to the northbound Kokuto for Sapporo, and it was not a problem, although there was no time to buy anything from the vending machines or on-platform vendors.

One of the reasons we had to change trains in Hakkodate is because the line north of there is not electrified, so our train north was a DMU (diesel multiple unit) set. The Green Car on this train appears to be a little old, but nice enough, with large windows and seats slightly higher above rail level than regular coach. However, after the fight with the coin laundry last night and the lack of sleep overnight in Aomori, I had difficulty enjoying the view. Instead, I dozed for an hour or so as we made our way through Hokkaido, missing some of the nice seaside scenery. The trip interspersed beautiful seaside and unspoilt mountain views with some gritty industrial scenes before merging into Sapporo's suburban sprawl.

While I slept for a while, Lisa did not because she can't get comfortable sitting down, ever. Therefore, we were both tired and on edge when we got off at Sapporo, and, in my zeal to try and get out of the way of the many other people getting off the train, managed to push Lisa into the foot traffic on the platform, which got her angry at me, and a somewhat unpleasant time commenced between us.

Our guidebook suggests taking three weeks to explore Hokkaido by rail. We had three hours in Sapporo, the first of which was spent cooling down from our argument, finding a couple of lockers for our bags, and trying to get something to eat. We were both in a much better mood when we had had a big bowl of udon in one of the apparently-inevitable restaurants clustered around the train station. We then went for a walk around the station area – walking off lunch was a good idea anyway – and wondered why there were so many TV camera crews on the plaza outside the station. A little while later, a man handed us a one-sheet extra of a local newspaper, in both Japanese and English, announcing that the Japanese prime minister was resigning. The reporters appeared to be setting up to do "local reaction here in Sapporo" shots.

Sorry that I have no photos or further reaction about Sapporo. With such a short time and with Lisa and me on such short fuses, this wasn't really the best of days for either of us, and there's no way we're going to do Sapporo justice at all. I mean, we didn't go to the Sapporo Tower, or even ride the subways that run under Sapporo station, either of which (or both) we could have done in the time we had available, but did not.

After walking around the area and failing to find any of the things Lisa wanted, either in food or sundries, we made our way back to the station, for we had a sleeper train to catch.
Bullet Train

On the Night Train, Part 1

[On board the JR Cassiopeia overnight sleeper from Sapporo to Tokyo Ueno, posted 14 September]

We got back to the station and found the platform for the Cassiopeia with plenty of time to spare. Too much time in some ways. Again, we're accustomed to American practice, where you need to be there early and where it takes a long time to get anything done. In Sapporo, they don’t have time to have this train occupy valuable platform space. When we got to platform 4 about twenty minutes before our 1612 departure time, there was another train sitting there. It pulled out at 1558 and a few minutes later our train pulled into the station, spending not much more time in the platform than a Caltrain commuter train at Millbrae loading passengers before we headed off toward Hakkodate.

The train set is very clever. In order to fit compartments into the narrow rail gauge (but generous loading gauge), they are double-decker, with one compartment over each of the trucks and two stacked one over the other between the trucks. Our compartment in car 9 is number 24, meaning compartment 4, level 2. A small flight of stairs climbs up to our room while another goes down to our downstairs neighbors. We share a "landing" with compartment 23 next door. Each compartment has an individually lockable door. You lock the door when you leave by typing a four-digit number of your choice, which you need to key again to get back into your room. Compartments run down one side of the car, with the aisle running down the other. Some cars (ours is one of them) have a small vending machine and a tiny two-person lounge area. Two other cars have a shower, for which you have to make a reservation (30 minute block, six minutes hot water) and pay an extra fee. (I think it was around JPY300, but it was loaded in with other things and thus I did not pay close attention.) Lisa decided to pass on the on-board shower experience.

The compartments are considered "A," but not the highest level of "A" which is the special A class cars up in cars 1 and 2. Our compartment is roughly equivalent in size and configuration to an oversize version of an Amtrak roomette, although we do have an integral toilet/sink compartment. The cars have a video display showing our progress over the line one channel. Other channels show Japanese TV programs or play Japanese music, but this does not interest us much. There are volume controls for the on-board announcements (which you can silence completely if you like), and set the lights at high, low, off, or floor lights only, which means we can look out into the night if we like, and we do.

In many ways, these sleepers are as spacious as the ScotRail sleeper that Lisa and I took from Glasgow to London two years ago, despite the Japanese trains running on narrow gauge tracks. One way in which the compartment matches that I wish it did not is that it is stiflingly hot, and we cannot figure any way to set the controls to make it significantly cooler in here. We can at least get air to flow through a vent, but it's never very cool, and Lisa hasn't been able to puzzle any meaning out of the Japanese controls. Oh, what I'd give for a hopper window to let the cooler outside air into this car!
Kevin and Lisa

On the Night Train, Part 2

[On board the JR Cassiopeia overnight sleeper from Sapporo to Tokyo Ueno, posted 14 September]

1830: We headed to the dining car for our scheduled dinner seating for which we'd paid JPY5500 each when we booked this sleeper. That was for the "Japanese" meal, not the more expensive "French" one, and I'm glad we took the Japanese meal. This elegantly-packaged meal of rice and various bits of fish, meat, and artfully-sculpted vegetables was served in stacked lacquered boxes. It was a treat, albeit an expensive one. I'm glad we did it, but I'm unsure of it being good value.

After dinner, I bought my shower reservation and we bought some souvenirs. Then we went exploring forward of the diner, where the really nice sleeping compartments are. Now these would have been even more expensive than the roughly JPY16K/person we paid for the smaller compartment. The super A compartments are two-level, with the twin bed downstairs and a sitting room and shower compartment upstairs. We were a bit annoyed to find that there was one vacant (although it's possible someone had claimed it out of Hakkodate), because we'd told the agent we'd take the best compartment available. But then we realized that this was car 2, which is a smoking car, and we'd told the agent that we wanted a non-smoking car. I don’t know whether having the nicer car would have been enough to put up with the room having been smoked in and with smokers in the other compartments. Well, we should look at the glass being half full, I guess.
Wig Wag

On the Night Train, Part 3

[On board the JR Cassiopeia overnight sleeper from Sapporo to Tokyo Ueno, posted 14 September]

We arrived in Hakkodate about 2100. We're almost getting accustomed to this platform, having been through the station twice in the past two days. We were able to get off the train (briefly escaping our overheated compartment) and run up to what had been the trailing end of the train, where we saw them attach an electric locomotive. They cut off the diesels on the previously leading end of the train and we pulled out of Hakkodate about five minutes after we arrived. Once again, I'm impressed by JR's efficiency. This sort of maneuver would have taken much longer on Amtrak.

The mystery of the missing observation car is sort of solved, or at least clarified. Where the observation car should be is instead a generator-train service car. The train must carry its own "hotel power" with it rather than draw it from the locomotives. Lisa and I speculate that the observation-lounge car has on-board generators, but with it out of service, they had to substitute a generator car in its place.

A new mystery was unveiled as we pulled out of Hakkodate. This train set is fixed formation, and the diagram of the set says that the observation end of the train always points toward Sapporo and sleeping car 1, including the end-cap "royal" room, always points toward Tokyo. But because Hakkodate is a stub-end station, we seem to have changed directions here and have the ends reversed. If the train stopped at Aomori as well, this would be okay, because they could do another engine swap and change ends again. But this train does not have a published passenger stop at Aomori. We'll know more by morning.

While heading toward the Seikan Tunnel, Lisa tracked down the conductor, who assured us that we had the room air controls set to as high a fan and as cold a temperature as they can provide. The room still feels like a steam bath to us. It's not that the Japanese are incapable of doing air conditioning; some of the trains we rode and restaurants we visited were very nice, and one of the hotels managed to get it so cold that we had to raise the temperature above the low end of their scale. But most of the time, we're always too warm, and it makes Lisa and me both cranky.

After a while, we traversed the Seikan Tunnel for the fourth time this trip, but this time we were able to do so from a completely darkened compartment, allowing us to examine the tunnel from the inside. We spotted both emergency stations, including Tappi-Kaitei, as we passed.

Lisa put on the provided robe and went to sit in the lower level mini-lounge on this car, because at least it's slightly cooler there. I will soon shut down the computer and we'll try to make out the beds in this room and try to get some sleep, because that was part of the point of this trip, after all.