Sapporo, capital of Japan’s Hokkaido island/prefecture and also Japan’s 4th largest city by population, is a popular destination especially during the Japanese summer. In the summer months Tokyo and its surrounds are teleported to the tropics, with soaring temperatures and humidity that can rival Manila or Bangkok. Sapporo on the other hand, enjoys mild summers owing to its higher latitude.
Sapporo can be reached from Tokyo by a combination of shinkansen (a.k.a. bullet train) and “limited express” trains, which costs around JPY 14,000 (PHP 6,300) one-way, taking around 10 hours. A plane ride is a bit more expensive, but will take you there in a fraction of the time (90m). Those with a limited budget and an unlimited sense of adventure can opt for the seasonal discount ticket Hokkaido – Higashi Nihon Kippu (Hokkaido – East Japan Ticket). During student vacation periods (spring, summer, winter breaks), for JPY 10,000 (PHP 4,500), the ticket offers unlimited rail travel for 5 days in the Japan Railways (JR) Hokkaido and East Japan train network EXCEPT limited express and shinkansen trains. Yes, that means hopping from one local train to the next and stopping at all stations, even those in the middle of nowhere.
The Epic Train Ride(s)
Back in August 2009, I and nine of my colleagues in Tokyo embarked on this epic local train ride to Hokkaido. On the 9th, we groggily left our place in suburban Tokyo to catch train #1 a few minutes before 5 a.m. Four hours and five trains later in rural Fukushima, we had a close disaster when we realized the train we were in was splitting and was leaving half of the train in some station. Luckily we were able to move to the forward cars and no one was left stranded in the Fukushima countryside.
After two more trains, we had lunch in Sendai, capital of Miyagi prefecture (and one of the hardest hit by the March 2011 quake). I originally planned on taking my colleagues to a Sendai specialty: gyutan (ox tongue), having had gyutan also in Sendai a few months prior. Seeing the queues however, we settled with ever-reliable McDonald’s. Lunch on our return trip 5 days later was a tad better, we had reimen, a Morioka-specialty cold noodle soup with slices of cucumber, watermelon(!), and hard-boiled egg.
Train #12 from Morioka was uneventful at first. This was the penultimate leg, we were supposed to catch the Express Hamanasu in Aomori at 10:42 p.m. for the night journey to Sapporo. However, train #12 bogged down in the middle of nowhere. The train driver made announcements in Japanese, we were clueless as to what he was saying, and after what seemed to be forever the train started moving (or should I say, crawling). At this rate, we were not going to catch the Express Hamanasu! It now became apparent that almost everyone on the train was trying to get to Sapporo that evening. Everyone became uneasy, other passengers were flipping through their bulky train timetables to know how to get to Aomori on time. Finally, the train stopped at some station, and almost all locals rushed out of the train. Of course, we followed suit. It turned out that a “limited express” train to Aomori was leaving in a few minutes, but we had to shell out a couple of thousand Yen to take the train.
Aomori, finally. The Express Hamanasu was waiting at the platform 3 when the limited express we were riding came to a stop. We were boxed out by the locals in getting seats on the train. We settled for the floor while the some of us in the group scored the few remaining seats. Luckily some passengers later got off at Hakodate, the first stop on Hokkaido island, and we were finally able to rest our buttocks on soft train seats.
At 6:07 a.m. on August 10, the Express Hamanasu rolled into Sapporo station. At last, after 25 hours, 13 trains, 1,229 kilometers on the rails, we arrived at our destination in one piece.
Three days later, we retraced our railroad journey backwards from Sapporo to Tokyo. (slumps onto futon at the end of journey). The end.
- For short term visitors to Japan (those with “temporary visitor” stamps on their passports), consider the Japan Rail Pass. The pass allows for unlimited train travel in entire Japan including the shinkansen (with some minor exceptions, such as the fastest shinkansen class) for JPY 28,300.
- A hard copy of train schedules you need to catch is essential, along with a plan B, C, and D in case some delays occur. This is important since trains in rural areas may be very infrequent (once per hour, sometimes less). The ultimate reference for train schedules in Japan is Hyperdia.
- Take note of the platform numbers for transfers in bigger cities.
- Shinkansen lines usually mirror local train lines. In case of delays, be prepared to shell out money to take the shinkansen and catch up with your schedule.
- Lastly, have fun! Local train travel allows one to witness the slower-paced way of life outside the major cities.