For a change, we did not have to get up before dawn and rush like mad to catch an early train to get where we were going today, as our destination was the Seikan Tunnel Tour, and our train to the tunnel station did not leave Aomori until 11:56. (Arrived 12:44) This gave us time for the first leisurely sit-down breakfast since, as I recall, the first full day we arrived in Japan, as we ate at the hotel's buffet breakfast. Fortified by all the eggs, sausage, fish, rice, and pasta we could eat, we set out to look around Aomori for a couple of hours before our train trip. Warning: photos lurk behind some of the cuts in this entry.
Before pleasure, a bit of railroad reservation business was in order. The train stop at Seikan Tunnel – station name Tappi-Kaitei – is by request only, and we'd made that request when we booked our tickets for the tour back at Narita Airport two weeks ago. Examining our tickets, we realized that they did not return us to Aomori, but instead had us continuing on to Hakkodate, the first major city beyond the tunnel. Rebuilding a reservation -- particularly for a "flag stop" like Tappi-Kaitei -- seemed a bit dicey to us. Instead we decided to just book a reservation back from Hakkodate to Aomori. Our hotel is only four blocks from the station, and unlike Osaka, it's difficult to get lost in only four blocks, so we went to the station after breakfast and Lisa once again gave the reservation clerk our request in kana, which speeds up the process, we think.
Having dealt with the return trip reservation, we did what little exploring we could of the station and downtown area. We visited that ASPAM building.
At first, we thought this a pyramid, but when we got closer, we saw that it was actually a triangle. We went inside, picked up some English-language booklets about the area, stamped our books with the tourism stamps for the building – Japanese tourism tradition includes souvenir rubber stamps at many places, which you can collect to prove you've been there, along the same lines as the sticker books at Worldcon – and checked out the gift shop. Despite having at two-for-one coupon, we decided to pass on going up to the eighth-floor observation deck.
Aomori comes across as a medium-sized city that was a lot less intimidating than Osaka was and Tokyo probably will be. Discussing it with Lisa, we decided it was sort of like what Marysville would have been like if it hadn't more or less died on the vine in the 1970s.
After the ASPAM building, we took these photos of the retired ferry Hakkoda Maru that once carried people between Aomori and Hakkodate before the opening of the Seikan Tunnel made it redundant, and the splendid cable-stayed Aomori Bay Bridge.
It was getting to be close to train time, so we wandered back down to the station.
Finally we boarded our train and headed toward the tunnel. As we cleared the Aomori area, the land grew wilder and more forested. We made stops at some small rural stations and ducked in and out of several other tunnels before entering the Seikan Tunnel itself. Our train tickets had included a special endorsement to "go to car 2" and the conductor reinforced that when he checked them. Two other people in our car were heading for the tour – there were six other people (all Japanese – we were the only gaijin we saw for most of the day) who had booked today's tour. When the train stopped and we left the train, we understood why we all had to go to car 2. Tappi-Kaitei is actually one of two emergency stations for the tunnel, and it's only one car length long.
We were relieved that there were others on the tour besides us, because the guide spoke only Japanese. Lisa could follow about one word in twenty, which was much better than me. Mostly we followed along and took photos – lots of them in my case, as I find some 122 photos in my camera on this subject. No, I'm not going to inflict them all upon your, although I will put most of them up on Flickr if you want to see the raw footage.
Much of the area here looks a lot like this – lots of concrete tunnels running hither and yon.
Sometimes mystery tunnels branch off into the darkness.
Here our guide stopped and explained one of the many maps of the tunnel.
This medium-sized gallery includes many displays and photos about the building of the tunnel. As you may be able to tell from the rails embedded in the floor, this chamber was one of the access tunnels bored to transport people to the dig and to transport spoil away from it. One of the two rails has been concreted up, while the other has been left with a channel next to it to assist in drainage.
Drainage is a big problem in this tunnel, as with most such structures. Water drips from everywhere here. Tunnel documentation says that the water drains to the lowest point in the tunnel and is pumped back to the surface from there. No part of the tunnel is completely level – the approaches are 12 in 1000 (1.2%) grades, while the center section is on a 3 in 1000 (0.3%) grade.
After passing through a large airlock arrangement, we went through this gate that includes the tunnel's mascots. You could buy stuffed toys of these fellows in the gift shop, and the little one narrates one of the videos about the building of the tunnel.
Then we went through some dimly-lit exhibits showing equipment used to build the tunnel. This is an example of "shotcreting" – spraying concrete on the surfaces of the tunnels after they're dug so that they'll stay put. I should note that much of the tunnel was pretty dimly lit – not surprising – but that my camera seemed to be able to pull some images out anyway even without flash, as long as they weren't moving. If they moved, they blurred.
This little engine could pull heavy loads of gear and people through the service passages.
A length of service track branched steeply out of sight from the corridor through which we entered. Rounding a corner, we came upon this:
This cable car hauled our group up to the surface.
One of the others on our tour jumped into the front seat for the trip up, but we learned our lesson and wouldn't be caught out later. As we climbed out of the tunnel, we observed markers along the side showing our distance below sea level at 25-meter increments. The first board I noticed was -100 meters, but the base of the shaft is lower than that. We passed through the 0 marker and climbed up to the head house.
At the top of the incline, this massive door closed behind us and we climbed out to enter the Seikan Tunnel Museum, where we were on our own for a while.
We added two more stamps to our tourism books, and Kuma Bear got to get out of his backpack for a photo opportunity.
Here's what the museum buildings look like from outside. It was a nicer day than this photo might indicate, but very windy. The building on the left is actually about the winds in this area. There are numerous wind generators overlooking the area, but most of them weren't turning – presumably for reasons similar to why many of the Altamont Pass wind turbines are often out of service. At right is one of the smaller tunnel boring machines used on the excavation.
This is another display contrasting the Japanese standard rail gauge of 3'6" with the Shinkansen (and US/UK/most of Western Europe) standard 4'8 1/2" gauge. The Seikan Tunnel was built to accommodate the Shinkansen rail and loading gauge, and will thus handle the high speed trains when the line is eventually extended here, which is expected to happen in the 2010s.
Kuma Bear and I posed for a photo in front of the museum. The wind was a bit much for Lisa and Bear, who went back inside while I wandered the grounds and enjoyed the cool breeze. It's one of the first times I've been comfortable the entire time I've been here in Japan.
Here's yet another mystery tunnel, and some of the pieces of old equipment on display outside the museum.
There was an unfortunate mix-up about how long before we had to be back in the meeting room for our descent back down to the tunnel and our train – Lisa misheard the tour guide's strict admonishment to be back in the meeting room, hearing "2:30" when the guide actually said "3:30." So regrettably we did not get lunch, even the low-end lunch served in the museum's café. I was starting to fade a little bit as not only our group, but another group that had arrived after us, gathered for the return. After counting heads, our guide headed back to the cable car head-house.
"Stay at the front, behind our guide, and get your camera set to record video," I whispered to Lisa. The light bulb went on over Lisa's head, and she stuck to him as he opened the door to the cable car. This meant she was in the railfan perch looking out the front of the car, with me right behind her.
This photo, which I shot over Lisa's shoulder, does not do adequate justice to the steep descent through which this cable car drops. Lisa shot a video from station to station, and if possible, we'll upload it somewhere eventually.
Making our way back through the tunnel displays, we encountered these large air ducts, which are crucial for keeping the tunnel safely ventilated. I observed that these are the kind of person-sized ducts so well-loved by people escaping from or infiltrating evil geniuses' lairs, and that they really do exist – although I reckon you'd raise one heck of a racket trying to actually crawl through one of them.
Indeed, the entire complex seemed to have the air of a Hollywood Mad Scientist's Fortress of Evil Schemes, aside from the cheerful displays about how the place was built.
We returned to where the tour started, which led to the Money Shot: one of our fellow travelers took this photo of Lisa, Kuma Bear, and me standing at the lowest operating-and-open-to-the-public train station in the entire world, elevation approximately minus 140 meters. (The other emergency station is apparently slightly lower, but is not open at this time, on account of being used to stage tunnel-construction equipment.)
As we waited for our train to arrive, I took these shot of the inside of the rail tunnel. Unlike the Channel Tunnel, both running rails of the Seikan Tunnel are in the same chamber. The first shot is looking the way we had come, toward Honshu; the second the way we were headed, toward Hokkaido, and the third is straight across to the other platform. (Japanese practice is left-hand running in double-track territory.)
It was while shooting this that I realized why we weren't issued a reservation back to Aomori. They bring us back to the same platform from which we left, and there's no easy way over to the other platform. Therefore, if you come for the tour, you must start in Aomori (or other points south of the tunnel) and end in Hakkodate (or other points north of the tunnel).
The guide must have known there was something extra for us to see. While he was working up to his conclusion, we could hear the sound of a train approaching. He finished, and as if on cue, an electric freight heading south toward Honshu barreled by on the opposite track. I just barely caught it on this shot.
Soon afterwards, our train arrived and our two groups – the one with which we had come and the later one – boarded the Hakucho for Hakkodate. The passengers already on board seemed a bit puzzled at so many people joining the train at this tiny concrete bunker, more like a small subway station than that of an intercity railroad.
We got to Hakkodate, the transfer point for Sapporo, a bit over an hour later, and had nearly an hour to wait before the train headed back to Aomori. We were already familiar with the train, as it was the same equipment on which we had arrived from the tunnel, and in fact our seats were in the same car, although they were in a different row.
(Digression about train seats: Most of the equipment on which we've been traveling has reversible seats. This means that you push down on a lever and can turn the seat around to face the opposite direction. This is useful when the train reverses direction, and also useful when groups of four are traveling together and want to face each other. Some US trains and streetcars do this as well, but it appears that liability fears keep others from doing this. Caltrain's older equipment, for instance, had such seats, but the reversing levers are locked in place, apparently after someone hurt himself on the lever.)
After grabbing some dinner in one of the station restaurants – I felt much better after a plate of pork cutlet curry rice – we went out to spend 30 minutes or so exploring the station area. Mainly this meant looking for the streetcar line we had seen on the local map.
Despite the deepening twilight, Lisa did manage to get a few photos of Hakkodate's streetcars. The other photos she took – alas, they did not turn out due to the low light -- were of some of the local schoolgirls, because she (and I) thought they had nicer-looking uniforms than many of the others we've seen around Japan on this trip and she thought it might make good reference material for a future costume. She said to me, "They look a lot more like the characters we see in anime than I thought they would (excepting the big eyes, of course)."
Then it was back to the station and onto our return train, taking about two hours back to Aomori. The trip passed uneventfully. I think we spotted Tappi-Kaitei station again as we passed back south through the tunnel, but it really is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it location.
This line north of Aomori is not a high-speed rail track by Japanese standards. The schedule from Aomori to Hakkodate runs about 80 kph (50 mph) including stops, and we did not get back to Aomori until nearly 9 PM.
On the return trip, we pored over train schedules for our trip tomorrow on the Cassiopeia sleeper train. Because it leaves Sapporo at 16:14 and the trip from Aomori is not the quickest, and because you have to change trains in Hakkodate (a five-minute cross-platform job, not a wander through a maze like Tokyo), we unfortunately have to be on a 7:30 AM train out of Aomori in order to get us to Sapporo with a little time to spare and look around the city briefly before we hop on to the sleeper.
The observant ones amongst you will have noticed that it probably would have been better if we had checked out of Aomori today, taken our bags with us, and stayed in Hakkodate or Sapporo tonight. This is true; however, the original hotel plans assumed that we wouldn't be able to get the high-end sleeper from Sapporo and instead would be taking the lower-end one from Aomori on Wednesday. Indeed, the entire Aomori stay was a near-last-minute plan caused by the suspension of the Twilight Express from Osaka due to the earthquake a few weeks back. So, when the JR agent at Narita Airport offered us the chance to get on the Cassiopeia, we took it without working out all of the permutations about how it would affect our hotel stays, other than shortening our Aomori stay by one night. Besides, we didn't figure out that the Tunnel Tour has an unavoidable three-hour additional delay built into it on account of having to go back and forth to Hakkodate in order to return to Aomori. Some things aren't documented in travel guides. Lisa said, "Don't think of this as a delay, but of additional value squeezed out of our JR rail passes."
We should be in bed already, but this was the night we had scheduled for doing laundry in the 24-hour coin laundry in the Hotel Sunroute. I've been composing this message off-line and working on setting up photos while Lisa worked on the laundry. Unfortunately for us, the driers here don't work that well, and we've been at it for almost three hours. Had we known this, we might have bit the bullet and did some laundry last night, I guess. No telling when we'll actually get to bed, but I get the impression that getting to sleep on the train tomorrow night will not be a problem.