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Top 3 Views of Japan (Reflections) February 28, 2012

Posted by Dru in Chugoku, Japan, Kansai, Tohoku, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Top 3 Views of Japan (Reflections)” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-LM

For those who have read my blog since the beginning, or ventured to older posts, you will know that I have visited the Top 3 Views of Japan.  This is not an easy adventure and Japan has a top 3 list for many things.  I have recently written about the Top 3 Chinatowns in Japan and feel that there has been enough time to justify a second reflection of my trips to each of the places on the Top 3 Views list.  The list in alphabetical order is Amanohashidate, Matsushima, and Miyajima.  They all have their own importance and all were chosen by the Japanese scholar, Hayashi Gaho.  The fact that he was the one who chose each of the three has a particular importance that is easily lost to foreigners, including myself, who don’t understand Japanese or to those who have not read the references to these three places.

Amanohashidate is located in Kyoto, but do not expect to be able to easily visit Amanohashidate when you are in Kyoto.  It is a long train ride that goes from Kyoto to the Sea of Japan.  Kyoto city is located in the southern area of Kyoto and Amanohashidate is located to the north.  The trip out to Amanohashidate can be very worthwhile and I remember arriving to a very small town with almost nothing to do.  There were very few restaurants and most of the shops cater to tourists.  It is a very beautiful tourist trap but still definitely worth a visit.  Amanohashidate is nothing more than a long sand bar that separates Miyazu Bay into two parts.  It has also grown over the centuries.  It was once a long bar of sand that has now grown and become populated with many pine trees.  The most famous thing to do is to head up one of the mountains flanking Amanohashidate, bend over and look at Amanohashidate through your legs.  When viewed this way, Amanohashidate is said to appear to be a stairway into heaven.  This view has inspired many writers and artists.  There are so many poems written about Amanohashidate that you can see many of the poems written on plaques all along the sand bar itself.  It is a nice place and my only regret is that I didn’t fully understand the meanings of the poems themselves.  Hopefully the next time I visit I can appreciate the area a lot more.

Matsushima is a small bay that is located near Sendai.  It is a small town that is very similar to the other Top 3 Views in Japan.  The one thing I noticed more was that the entire town, at the bottom of the bay, was heavily promoting the fact that they are part of the Top 3 Views in Japan.  When I visited Amanohashidate and Miyajima, there was little in the way of informing visitors that they were in one of the Top 3 Views of Japan.  Matsushima was a bit different in this way.  I can imagine why as the famous way to see the views are by boat.  There are several tours that head out into the bay so you can see the various islands that make up Matsushima.  Matsushima gains its status as a great view by the hundreds of islands that dot the bay.  They look like some god dropped these large rocks into the bay and then planted some pine trees on top of them.  The islands are also known for their shape.  The islands shoot straight up and the waves eat away at the rock face causing spherical voids.  It is amazing how nature naturally created these voids.  Something that was even more amazing is how Matsushima is naturally protected.  After the major tsunami in 2011, Matsushima was left relatively unharmed.  Some areas had problems but for the most part, everything was safe.  The way the islands were set in the bay created a natural wave break that protected the village.  Matsushima was very quick to declare that they were open for business after the tsunami, but I fear that they are not attracting the number of visitors they would like as most people still don’t know that the bay is safe.  It may take more time to recover from this problem but I’m sure they will.  Unfortunately, I still feel the same about the area as when I first visited Matsushima.  I doubt I would ever recommend it to anyone unless they are living in Japan or they have visited Japan many times as it was a large disappointment for me.

The last place, and in my opinion the best, is Miyajima.  I have been there twice and it is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.  The island is a good day trip from Hiroshima and very popular.  It is very much a victim of its own success.  Even on a weekday the island can be overrun with tourists.  It is a very beautiful place that has been written about often.  Most of Miyajima is off limits to all people as it is mostly parkland with very few trails.  The most famous sight is Itsukushima Jinja.  It is the focal point of the entire island and the most visited location.  Walking from the port to the shrine is a very enjoyable experience with many deer lining the path.  The shops cater to tourists as always but they promote a lot of local items such as Hiroshima oysters and Miyajima wood products such as chopsticks and rice spatulas.  One area only a few people visit is the top of the mountain.  It is popular when the cable car is running, but unfortunately it wasn’t running the second time I visited.  The top of the mountain is a very cool and fun place to hang out as it reminded me of various fight scenes between Captain Kirk and various aliens on the original Star Trek series.  I would love to visit the island again to see the peak as I fell in love with Miyajima.  If I had a chance to go again, and I didn’t have to pay, of course I would go however after visiting the island twice, it is no longer on my list of things to do again for the time being.

For those deciding what to see, my own personal opinion is that Miyajima is the best followed by Amanohashidate and Matsushima.  All of them are nice and definitely beautiful.  Miyajima has become more and more overrun with tourists but it is still a special place.  Amanohashidate has grown on me over time and I remember the remoteness of the location meant that I had the place nearly to myself.  Matsushima was the dark spot but I hope it is mainly due to my experience.  In several years, I might want to re-visit Matsushima and see what it is like.  Perhaps my opinion will change and I would enjoy it a lot more.

The Top 3 Views of Japan series continues with Miyajima (Top 3 Views of Japan), Amanohashidate (Top 3 Views of Japan), Matsushima (Top 3 Views of Japan), and Miyajima Redux.

Original Posts:

Amanohashidate:  http://wp.me/piUxk-i2
Matsushima:  http://wp.me/piUxk-1I
Miyajima (Part I):  http://wp.me/siUxk-miyajima
Miyajima (Part II):  http://wp.me/piUxk-tA

Regions of Japan – Nagoya to Hokkaido June 7, 2011

Posted by Dru in Chubu, Hokkaido, Japan, Kanto, Tohoku, Tokyo, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Regions of Japan – Nagoya to Hokkaido” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-EX


Japan is a small country that happens to be very long.  From end to end, Japan is well over 1000km long.  It is larger than Germany in terms of land mass and has a very diverse ecosystem.  You have the cold snowy north and the sub-tropical south.  It is a common misconception that Japan is a small country.  I would also argue that many people feel that any country that is outside of their own region is small, especially for Americans and Canadians.  It is important to know that Japan, while small overall, is actually very long which helps create the illusion that it is small.

Japan is divided into 8 main regions with a few sub-regions.  In the north is Hokkaido.  I have written a lot about Sapporo and the various festivals there.  It is a winter wonderland and also a great summer getaway.  In the winter, people head up there for skiing and to enjoy the delicious seafood.  In the summer, the seafood is still around but people go to escape the heat and humidity of the south.  Compared to other regions in Japan, Hokkaido is a relatively stable and sparsely populated region.  It isn’t the “wild west” but it isn’t like Tokyo either.  Getting from point A to point B in Hokkaido can be very difficult due to the sheer distances between cities and towns and the lack of trains can make it a difficult task.  Renting a car is definitely recommended if you want to see the local areas such as Shiretoko but it isn’t a necessity.  The bus network between cities is pretty good and you can get from Sapporo to most cities in Hokkaido by bus.  Planes are not so popular and trains are good for the major cities.  Unfortunately the trains can take a long time to get from place to place but keeping on the main belt from Asahikawa to Sapporo, then down to Hakodate via either Chitose or Niseko is relatively easy.  Be prepared for long travel times and you will have a good time.

Tohoku is the northern section of Honshu, the main island of Japan.  The main island forms an ‘L’ shape and Tohoku is at the top of the ‘L’.  It is a region that is very similar to Hokkaido yet also very temperate in nature.  The most common starting point is Sendai.  Including Sendai, all points north are considered Tohoku.  Points below Sendai are generally Tohoku as well but places such as part of Fukushima can be considered part of the Kanto plains.  Honshu itself is a very mountainous area with mountains bisecting the entire island into the Pacific and Sea of Japan side.  This creates a very distinct feel in each city depending on which coast you are on.  On the Pacific, the winters can be cold but there isn’t a lot of snow.  The Sea of Japan side which includes Akita and Yamagata receive a lot of snow in the winter.  In the summer, this area is more pleasant but the southern regions can be pretty hot and humid.  It is literally a transition between Hokkaido and the temperate south.  There are many local delicacies such as the Aomori apples and the beef tongue of Sendai.  It isn’t a popular place for tourists as there aren’t many things to see and do compared to other regions.  Hokkaido is well known for seafood and snow, but Tohoku doesn’t have a major drawing point for tourists.

Kanto is the centre of Japan.  It is a small section of Japan that includes Tokyo and located at the bend of the ‘L’ of Honshu.  It is where almost everyone goes when they visit Japan and it is a pretty small area.  The entire Kanto region can be considered as Greater Tokyo as many people do commute from the edges of Kanto to get into Tokyo.  Some would argue that there are major cities and industries as well such as Yokohama but the shear size of Tokyo makes Yokohama feel like a twin city similar to the twin cities in Minnesota.  Of course this is not the same however the idea that both cities can be considered the same city, rather twin cities, is true.  There isn’t really much to say or add to this region as most people know about the Kanto region already.  It is the heart of Japan.  Most companies and most people live in this area.  There are not a lot of historical places to visit anymore but places such as Nikko, Kamakura, and Hakone are excellent places with their own unique feel.

Chubu is a very complex region.  There are several sub-regions to Chubu due to its geography.  It is a region that is bound by Mt. Fuji, bordering the north-western area of Kanto and extending west to Kyoto.  It is also one of the most “visited” regions in Japan yet most people never stop to enjoy the region.  I am also a victim of just passing through the region more times than not.  Most people will go up to Mt. Fuji or pass through on their way to Kyoto.  The few people who do go to the Chubu region will usually head off to Niigata and Nagano or do a little business in Nagoya.  Due to the geography of the area is further subdivided into 3 regions.  The lesser known is the Koshinetsu region that encompasses Nagano, Niigata, and Yamanashi.  This area is well known for its snow and excellent onsen however the use of the name Koshinetsu is not popular.  They are more commonly known by their own respective prefectures.  The Hokuriku region is an area on the Sea of Japan side that is bordered by Niigata and Kyoto.  It is considered a northern path to reach Kansai but it is often overlooked by people.  It is still a somewhat remote area that is easily accessible by plane.  Trains do travel to the region but the new Hokuriku Shinkansen isn’t expected to be finished for a long time.  The main sections allowing access from Tokyo to the heart of Hokuriku will be complete in 2014 but the final section to Osaka has yet to be finalized.  As it stands, this area is often overlooked due to its remoteness.  The Tokai region is the most famous region as it is the main route for the Tokaido Shinkansen that links Tokyo to Osaka.  Shizuoka is one of the biggest prefectures in Japan yet very few people will visit it.  The most famous area is Nagoya where you can enjoy many delicacies.  Nagoya is not a particularly interesting for those visiting other cities but it is famous for its castle, local deep fried delicacies, chicken wings, and Toyota.  Toyota has their main factories located just outside Nagoya with a large museum as well.  Nagoya is also one of the most popular cities for people wishing to see races at the nearby Suzuka Circuit, but the circuit is located in Kansai, not Chubu.

Note:  Due to the amount of information available, this is only part 1 of 2.  Part 2 will be posted next week.

Regions of Japan Information:

Japan:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_regions_of_Japan
Hokkaido:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hokkaid%C5%8D_Prefecture
Tohoku:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T%C5%8Dhoku_region
Kanto:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kant%C5%8D_region
Chubu:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ch%C5%ABbu_region
Hokuriku:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hokuriku_region
Koshinetsu:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C5%8Dshin%27etsu_region
Tokai:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T%C5%8Dkai_region

Japan Guide:  http://www.japan-guide.com/list/e1001.html


The Great 2011 (Higashi-Nihon) East Japan Earthquake March 13, 2011

Posted by Dru in Japan, Kanto, Tohoku, Tokyo.
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Author’s  Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple. Please venture on over there to read “The Great 2011 (Higashi-Nihon) East Japan Earthquake” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-DH

For anyone who has been following me, I have written a lot about my adventures around Japan.  I have been through countless earthquakes, and several typhoons.  There are so many earthquakes in Japan that it doesn’t even phase me anymore.  At 2:50pm on March 11, 2011, I was leisurely working at my desk at school when I felt a small rumble.  It was akin to having the base turned up on a theatre system, but without the sound.  It isn’t an uncommon feeling as my school is located above a theatre.  Sometimes there are small rumblings that I figure to be the movie down below.  You can also liken it to the vibration of a mobile phone, but not directly touching you.  After 10-20 seconds, at least that’s how it felt, the rumbling shifted and got noticeably larger.  I knew it was an earthquake but as I was conditioned on how earthquakes feel, I didn’t think twice about it.  Another 10 seconds or so passed with the second level of rumbling when things suddenly started to accelerate.  The rumbling started turning into a jumping.  There are two types of earthquakes, the type that sways “left and right” and the others that bounce up and down.  This was a bouncing type.  I didn’t really notice what was happening.  I stood up quickly, and calmly, wondering what we should do.  Another teacher/friend also got up and he was just about to head under his desk.  I didn’t know if I should follow or not but within half a minute, my manager made the executive decision to clear the school.  There were about 3 students at that time and we all made our way down the stairwell and onto the street.

Heading into the street was one of the hardest things to do.  I was amazed that people in the theatre were asking the theatre staff if they should evacuate or not while in the stairwell.  It seemed unnatural to me.  I was also surprised to see so many people mulling about in a small lobby inside the building.  My only thought was, “let me out of the building and onto the street!” but it was hard to clear out.  When I did get out, after about a minute from my school on the 5th floor to the street, I could see hundreds of people on the street.  Traffic was moving by this time but the street was filled with people.  You could still walk around and get by as the odd car did, but it wasn’t easy.  I could see all of wires moving a bit and a mass of confusion as to what to do next.  Since I’m just a lowly teacher, I had no power as to what to do, but everyone wanted information.  The amazing part was to see what people grabbed as they left.  Some people grabbed their purses and others grabbed everything.  The old adage of leave everything and just get out is good in practice but doesn’t work in reality.  You really never know what you will do until it actually happens.

After what felt like 10-15 minutes outside, I wasn’t keeping track of time at all, we finally made our way back in.  The strange part was that the theatre told their patrons to head to a nearby park while my school told us to go back.  The building looked safe so I figured it was fine.  At about 3:30pm, we were starting to get settled in.  People were checking the internet and I was sending messages to my friends and family via e-mail and Facebook.  That’s when a second quake hit.  It was a major aftershock and it sent us piling out into the street again.  It wasn’t as long, nor as bad but it was bad enough to make the walls squeak.  It’s nearly impossible to explain the sound and feeling together but whenever you watch a horror movie and hear the squeaking of the house shaking as a ghost haunts the house, it’s similar to that.  Of course, we cleared out of the school and piled into the street again.  It was starting to feel repetitive.  On the street, there was one one way to break the tension and that was to make jokes.  There was no other way to make light of the situation.  We knew it was bad and we understood the severity, but it was either make jokes or have a mental breakdown.

Once we made our way back into the school, my school decided to stay open for a couple hours before closing at dinner time.  I then faced the hardship of how to get home.  For those who read my other blog, “A Sox Life”, you know that I now have a small Shiba Inu.  He was at home and I was at work, so needless to say, I was worried.  Thankfully my building manager checked on my place to shut off the water but he didn’t really check on anything else.  I rushed home with everyone else in Tokyo.  All of the train lines had stopped for obvious reasons.  It was dangerous and foolish to run trains without inspecting the tracks and tunnels.  Trains themselves had to be inspected to ensure they were safe for transport.  I never even bothered to check and see if the trains would run or not and decided to join the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people walking home.  From my school’s branch itself, some had to walk as far as 5 hours, or even more.  As another teacher said very recently, “I can’t imagine what people did when their regular commute is 2 hours by train”.  Thankfully, from my school to my home, it’s only about 10km, so I only had a 1 hour walk to get home.  It was tough to get home as everyone was on the street and walking as fast as they could.  Due to the sheer number of people, it was difficult to just get going at a good pace.  I took side streets whenever I could but overall, it was slow going.  The first biggest shock came when I passed a few old buildings and saw the cracked or broken glass.  The second big shock came when I was crossing over the Sumida River and saw the pathway where I run all the time was flooded by a small tsunami.  Tokyo is well protected, both naturally and by dykes so that most tsunami are nothing to worry about.  While dozens of people stopped to take a quick picture with their camera phones, I kept going thinking about my Sox.  I did think about the homeless people who do live along the river and I truly worry about them.  I hope they climbed to higher ground which was pretty close, or that an official went by to warn them.  I’m not sure but there is nothing I can do about it now.

When I got home, I was extremely relieved and nervous at the same time.  I had no idea what I would be returning to.  I thought twice about using the elevator and decided to walk up the steps.  All throughout the stair well there were broken tiles and grout.  In Japan, most stair wells in apartment buildings are outdoors and my apartment is no exception.  I got to my door to find a light on inside.  I was hoping my girlfriend would already be home, but my building manager just left the light on.  I don’t really remember what I did first, but I think I headed into my bedroom.  My hallway has nothing in it so there was nothing to look for.  I opened my bedroom door so I could throw my stuff down and take off my jacket.  I opened the door to be greeted by the first mess.  I Have two TVs and one had fallen and broken onto the floor.  A few drawers were also opened by the force.  I checked on the bathroom and found a mess in my sink.  The main reason I checked the bathroom was to make sure the laundry machine was somewhat okay.  My building manager said it was spraying water all over or broken so I just wanted to make sure it was safe.  I finally opened the door to kitchen/living room to greet a scared and happy dog.  He rushed to my legs and wouldn’t leave me at all.  I tried to turn on the kitchen light but nothing happened.  I thought maybe it was broken and turned on the other kitchen light.  I know it’s a little vague to describe, but there are two kitchen lights.  Once the light came on, I was neither shocked nor surprised.  I was more annoyed.  I have a large bookshelf that toppled over leaving books all over the kitchen.  I also saw broken dishes, glasses that had fallen from a cupboard above the sink, and some alcohol bottles on the counter.  It was a complete mess and I knew my night was just beginning.

After assessing the damage, I started to clear some of the stuff.  I moved some books away and started to put some of the big pieces of glass into a bag.  After a bit of time, I finally decided to change.  I got back to cleaning the kitchen and just a few small things around the apartment.  This was mostly so that I could access everything somewhat easily.  Clearing an area for my bathroom sink was important as it was full of toiletries and it was the only one I could think about using.  The main point was trying to clear the bookshelf so I could right it.  With glass all over the floor from a broken vodka bottle, it was very slow going.  I had to clear the area inch by inch.  When I finally had enough space to crawl under the bookshelf, I did just a little cleaning before taking my dog for a walk.  It was really short but necessary.  Unfortunately he had already peed all over a pillow, which will be in the garbage shortly.  After the short walk, I returned to cleaning.  I spend a total of 3 hours before my girlfriend had arrived home.  By then, all of the major things were cleaned up.  The only things left to do were to clean up the drawers and dishes that had fallen down.  We also had to put things back to where they should be, or where they will be in the future.  Some things may be moved for safety purposes.  I was at that point finally able to go and get dinner.  I had eaten lunch around 8 hours earlier and I was starving.

On my walk home from school, I passed a couple of convenience stores.  From reports from my co-workers, almost all of the convenience stores were cleared out by 4pm.  It wasn’t a big surprise but it was annoying when I needed to get dinner.  There wasn’t really any foods in my house to eat so I headed out to the nearby supermarket without any idea as to what I would find.  I found barely anything left.  There were a few “corn doughnuts”, some frozen food, and a few pickled vegetables.  I never checked the vegetable area as I just wanted a quick dinner which I could eat and get back to cleaning.  When I entered the supermarket, I almost immediately headed to the pre-made frozen food section as I could clearly see the prepared food section was nearly empty.  I was lucky to grab the very last bag of frozen pasta.  It wasn’t much but enough to settle my stomach for the night.  I returned home to eat and finish cleaning.  I spent another 2-3 hours cleaning and finished sometime after 1am.  Probably closer to 2am.  I would have continued for another hour or two but it was late and I hadn’t really contacted my friends and family since I started cleaning.  During the entire time, I was communicated with friends and family via Facebook and e-mails at work.  Once I got home, I only replied to messages a couple times.  Twitter and blogging are not a priority as friends and family are the true priority.  After, internet social networks are important.  I spend another hour and a half doing that, finally heading to bed at 3:30am.

The next morning, I had to wake up and head into work.  My school was opening late, but still opening.  I grabbed a quick breakfast and checked the news a little.  Replied to many messages and rushed out the door as the trains were not running smoothly.  The subways, by reports, were running smoothly, but I take the JR lines.  The area around my home was fine and nothing looked too bad other than some damaged facades.  No glass, which was good.  At the station, there was no information on when the next train would come.  I gambled on one and thankfully it was the first to come and leave.  I have an option of two trains which take roughly the same amount of time.  Unfortunately it took over 15 minutes for my train to come and when it did, it was packed.  I changed in Akihabara to find that the Yamanote line had stopped going to Tokyo.  The other direction was fine.  The only other option was a train on the opposing platform.  I joined the ranks in a morning rush hour like train and eventually made it to my work station.  I popped into a bakery I always go to for lunch and bought a few pieces of bread, sweet ones only as everything else was sold out, and headed to work.  At work, everything looked normal and most teachers made it in.  The first few lessons had very few students, but as the afternoon went on, there were a few more students.  Some people even decided to go to school to study as they had enough of being home alone, or they just needed something to do.  Most places were closed at that time, including most department stores.  The only places that were open were a few shops and many restaurants.  These are things a lot of people will need as it can be difficult to cook when your place is a mess.  Unfortunately, it was difficult for me to work all day.  Ever since the initial quake, there were aftershocks almost every hour, if not less.  In fact, I had to teach less than 3 hours after the big quake and felt about 5 different aftershocks.  The day after the quake, I had a different experience.  Most of my students had canceled but I was teaching almost every second lesson.  There were still tremors almost every hour or less and it was extremely distracting.  It is very hard emotionally to be barraged with aftershocks no matter how big or small.  It had been a trying day but in the end, it was over and I got to go home.

It is hard to pretend that things are normal.  Every TV station has been showing earthquake footage over and over again.  You can watch it for about an hour and get the same information.  Sometimes there is new information but most of it is all the same.  Most people around the world have seen the same information.  There is a lot of bad information and a lot of rumours being spread.  It’s hard to weed out what is true and what isn’t.  The only truth is that the world in Japan has changed again.  People try to grasp at something that is “normal” to keep some semblance of sanity.  Others pray and others cry.  Writing this post hasn’t been easy.  I try to recount everything that happened to me and what I observed around me.  I have been feeling several aftershocks as I write this and had no chance to really feel “safe”.  My own story definitely pales in comparison to those up north as well.  Unfortunately there is nothing I can directly do for them at the moment.  I hope and pray they are alright, but for now, life moves on.

Please Note:  I will not be posting regularly for the next couple weeks.  While I feel things should go back to normal, I don’t think they can for the moment.  I need a little break to regroup.  I hope you will understand and I will return.

Also note:  Due to the timely nature of this post, I had no time to properly edit it.  Pictures were mostly taken with my Xperia X10, so the quality isn’t always good.

The Great 2011 (Higahi-Nihon) East Japan Earthquake was the first in a series of posts following the earthquake in Japan.  Please continue reading the following posts in this series:


Shinkansen – North Routes March 2, 2010

Posted by Dru in Hokkaido, Japan, Kanto, Tohoku.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Shinkansen – North Routes” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-kJ

Heading north, rather than south, provides a very different experience using the Shinkansen.  Unlike the Tokaido/Sanyo/Kyushu Shinkansen, the lines heading north share a main trunk and branch off at various points.  There are three main lines, and two “mini-shinkansen” that start from Tokyo Station.  The longest line is the Tohoku line.  This line started at the same time as the Joetsu line, but the Tohoku line will become more important in the near future.  The Tohoku line currently runs from Tokyo all the way to Hachinohe.  By the end of 2010, this service will be extended to Aomori, which is the larger than Hachinohe.  Ultimately, the line will be extended further from Aomori to Hakodate, and then Sapporo.  Unfortunately, Hakodate won’t be open until 2015, projected, and Sapporo may not open until 2020.  It will be a long time, but when finished, it will cut the time from roughly 12 hours, to just under 4 hours for the most direct services.  This will severely affect air travel as it currently takes 3 hours for most people to reach Sapporo from Tokyo.

The Tohoku line is also connected to the Yamagata and Akita Shinkansen lines.  These services are slightly different compared to regular Shinkansen.  These lines use special trains that are narrower, and run at grade with various level crossings.  They are usually coupled with regular Tohoku trains, but branch out at their respective start points.  For this reason, it’s very important to know which train you are boarding.  It’s very easy to be on the wrong train from Tokyo Station, but the signs are usually clearly marked, and train staffs usually check tickets while the train is between stations.

The Joetsu Shinkansen is far simpler as there is only one line with no connections.  The complex part is that it shares the tracks with the Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo to Omiya.  This is due to costs.  It’s very easy to see trains along the Tokyo portion of the line due to the volume of trains passing.  Recently, it has also become popular for hotels to create “train” suites.  These are rooms with views of the train tracks.  This is popular for “te-chans”, slang for train spotters in Japan.  You could also make it derogatory by saying “densha-otaku”, but that’s a different story.  It has also proved popular for young families with boys who love trains.  What better way to “take a trip” and not spend too much money.  As always, kids love boxes more than the toys that are inside them.  The Joetsu Shinkansen itself was built to service Niigata, but it also serves a small ski resort called Gala-Yuzawa.

A relatively less used, yet equally important Shinkansen line is the Nagano line.  This was built in time for the Nagano Olympics.  Currently, it shares over half of its line with both the Tohoku and Joetsu Shinkansen lines.  There are relatively few trains that travel this section due to the limited service range.  It basically follows the Joetsu route from Tokyo to Takasaki, where it branches off on its own to Nagano.  There is a planned extension from Nagano to Kanazawa by 2015.  By this time, the line should be renamed to the Hokuriku Shinkansen, further extensions to Tsuruga Station has been planned and will be built.  The line will ultimately link up with Osaka someday in the future.  The main purpose of this line is to connect the major cities on the Sea of Japan side of Japan to the main cities of Japan.  Whether it will prove popular or profitable will remain to be seen.

All three main lines utilize the same trains, while the Yamagata and Akita Shinkansen use their own specialized trains, for reasons mentioned above.  The trains have a similar styling to the southern route trains.  They used to use similar naming methods as their southern route cousins, but now they use the prefix E before their designation.  Due to this naming convention, you can still ride the 200 series train, which is very similar to the 0 and 100 mentioned in my previous post.  The first “modern” train you can travel on is the E1, a wedge nosed, bi-level, Shinkansen.  In 1997, the E2, E3, and E4 were introduced.  The E2 is similar to a duck billed train, but it isn’t as strongly pronounced.  It’s also one of only two trains that have been exported, the other being the 700 series.  The E2 was exported to China for use on their high speed railway.  The E4 is a bi-level train, like the E1, but with a duck bill nose.  The E3 looks like most European high speed trains, but used only for the Yamagata and Akita lines.  By 2011, there will be a new rain, the E5 entering service.  This is expected to take the system into Sapporo when that line opens.  It will be the fastest train in the entire Shinkansen fleet.

The final impression of this fleet is that it’s great!  Coming from Canada where high speed rail is non-existent, this would go a long way to connecting any country.  Countries such as China have begun their own high speed networks.  President Obama has also pledged to start thinking, and possibly building it soon.  If done right, it can earn money and save a lot of fuel.  Connecting Vancouver to San Diego is a viable option, so is Toronto to Miami.  While we must never forget how we get the electricity to power trains, it’s still probably cleaner overall compared to planes.  Can they replace planes completely?  Conventionally, they cannot replace planes at the moment.  We’ll have to wait for maglev trains before that could happen, but even then we are limited to specific ranges.  If you do travel to Japan, do try to use the Shinkansen.  It’s a fun, if expensive, way to travel.  Be sure to buy a JR Pass if you are only visiting.  It’s worth the cost if you head from Tokyo to Kyoto, even for just a day.

This is the second part of two in the Shinkansen series.  To read more, continue to the Shinkansen – South Routes.


Wikipedia:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shinkansen
Japan Guide (Great page for a snapshot of major services): http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2018.html
Japan Railways (Lots of information on what to do in Japan):  http://www.japanrail.com/
Japan Railways (Shinkansen Page):  http://www.japanrail.com/index.php?page=JR-Shinkansen-bullet-train
JR East:  http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/routemaps/shinkansen.html


Motorcycle Adventure March 3, 2009

Posted by Dru in Hokkaido, Japan, Kanto, Tohoku, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Motorcycle Adventure” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-7H

This is Part VII, the final part, of a multi-part series chronicling my motorcycle adventure from Tokyo to Sapporo and back again.

Background:  In 2007, I had finally gotten my Japanese driver’s license and a motorcycle.  I had been an avid motorcycle rider in Canada before I came to Japan, so after 2 years of no riding, I finally bought a motorcycle and decided to go on a big adventure.  I went from Tokyo to Sapporo by motorcycle and ferry.  It was an adventure to say the least.

Leg 7 (Return home)

My last day of the trip was fairly uneventful.  I woke up early to the stress of a cold damp morning.  It was misting outside, but not too bad.  I thought I’d be okay.  I spent the better part of an hour looking for a bank in the morning before giving up and looking for a gas station that I could use.  In Tokyo, getting gas is very easy.  It’s almost always full service, however, when you are out in small towns, it’s very hard to find.  Using a self serve gas station in Japan is actually quite difficult.  You have to be able to read Japanese, and even then, you might have trouble understanding the instructions.  Unlike Canadian gas stations where you either pay with a credit card, or go inside to pay first, I have no idea how it works in Japan.  Sometimes they give you a card which is essentially a member’s card.  You use it to “login” to the pump and after you pay at the pump, you take the card to a money machine to get your change.  I’m not too sure if this is the same at every station, but it’s very confusing and hard to understand, at least for me and my limited Japanese.  Either way, I ended up taking a chance and jumping onto the Expressway.

On my return trip, I had nothing to do except “race” back home.  It started off with me wearing a long sleeve cotton shirt, a T-shirt, my jacket, and a neck warmer.  Every two hours, I had to take off at least one layer of clothing.  By the time I reached the Tokyo area, I was starting to sweat, so I changed from a cotton T-shirt to a sports shirt.  I couldn’t believe how different things can be, and how fast you can experience is on a motorcycle.  If I was in a car, I wouldn’t notice anything until I stopped and got out to rest.  I also noticed a noticeable jump in traffic as I got closer and closer to Tokyo.  Every hour or so, the number of cars would at least double.  In Hachinohe, I saw maybe one or two cars on the road with me.  By the time I reached Tokyo, it was bumper to bumper traffic and 6 lanes wide.  This day, I still got a little lost, but not too much.  I kept thinking my final turn would be much earlier, but I kept going and sooner or later I reached my destination.  Traffic was very heavy when I reached Tokyo and going between the cars saved me at least one hour.

My final impression of this visit is to never do it again, or at least be better prepared.  I truly enjoyed many aspects of this trip, but there were many other points that I hated.  It’s something that I had to do, and something that I recommend people to try.  Maybe not doing the same distances that I did, but to enjoy the open roads of Japan.  Getting to the back country is something that many people never see.  It’s a different way of life, and getting lost is a scary event, but it can make you stronger.  If you can understand Japanese, especially location kanji, you can always rent a navigator system, or bring your own from home.  It’s very useful, and a necessary thing for traveling by road in Japan.  I do recommend renting a car with navigation as they may provide the best one for you.  Knowing which lane to be in is very important as you could get into trouble if you don’t.  Just be safe and have fun.


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