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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.

Information:

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

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

Sapporo February 17, 2009

Posted by Dru in Hokkaido, Japan, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Sapporo” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/s2liAm-sapporo

This is Part V 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 5 (Sapporo)

Sapporo is a beautiful city.  It’s the biggest city in Hokkaido, but it doesn’t feel like such a big city.  It’s quite similar to Vancouver.  The streets tend to be wider than average Japanese cities, and the streets are all numbered.  While the numbering is difficult to learn, it should get easier if you spend enough time in Sapporo.  In Sapporo, addresses go by the block number and compass orientation, for example, 2N 3E and so on.  It’s a little confusing at first, and since I only spent about a day in total in Sapporo,  I didn’t get used to it at all. My initial impression would be that Sapporo would be very easy to navigate, but boy was I wrong.  Going from Chitose to Sapporo wasn’t difficult.  It was navigating Sapporo itself and finding my hotel that was a pain.  I found Sapporo station relatively easily, but finding my bearings to get to my hotel itself was difficult.  I ended up finding a convenience store to get directions.  Convenience stores are my second choice for finding directions.  They are everywhere in Japan.  There was one problem.  After getting directions, I got lost again, and asked a cop for directions again when I was close to the hotel.  Once there, I parked my bike and wouldn’t touch it again for a couple days.

Getting to Sapporo is a lot easier if you are taking a train.  The train station is not the centre of the town, but it is a major centre.  Most of the city’s heart is located on the South side of the station.  I took a look at the North, but it looked similar to any other business district of Japan, so I headed south.  The first thing you will see is a nice open space with a few sculptures.  The station itself is quite beautiful.  It is very modern and suits the city’s spirit.  It is a large brown and gray building with a large blue clock in the middle.  There is shopping in every direction from the main entrance.  If you go without enough clothes, there are many shops selling warm clothing.  If you continue to look south, you will see many tree lined streets.  It’s quite beautiful, and it might be even better in the snow.  Heading south, you’ll run into the former Hokkaido Government buildings.  It’s a wonderful park to visit with lots of green trees and a couple large ponds.  I recommend taking a nice walk from Sapporo station and stopping at this site on your way to Odori Park.

By far, the most popular place to visit in Sapporo is Odori Park.  It’s the most famous park in Sapporo.  It is 1.5 km long and spans 13 blocks.  It is also the centre of Sapporo.  On one end is Sapporo TV Tower and on the other end is the Sapporo City Archive Museum.  In the February, the Yuki-matsuri (Snow Festival) is held, and in the summer, several portables are built to create a large beer garden that spans a couple blocks.  The Yuki-matsuri is the most famous event in Sapporo.  I have seen pictures and it is quite beautiful.  I will be heading there in February and will write about it in the future.  I was a little early to attend the beer gardens, but I’m sure it would be a little overpriced, but wonderful.  Each major Japanese beer label was in the process of building the gardens, so having your choice of beer wouldn’t be difficult.  It looked much better than the Tokyo beer gardens because they are all in one place, and it’s easy to choose your favourite one.  There is only one thing to know about Odori Park.  It’s very boring if there is nothing happening, unless you are a kid.  There are a few places where children can play all day and never get tired.
The final area of Sapporo that is of interest is Susukino.  It’s regarded as the Kabukicho of Sapporo, a red light district.  In this regard, it is considered a place to get sex, but in reality, it isn’t that bad.  Like Kabukicho, it’s a reputation that is hard to shake.  Being a “red light district”, it has the most restaurants in Sapporo.  There is a famous ramen street where you can get Sapporo ramen.  There are also many izakayas and countless bars.  If you are looking for someplace to get a good cheap meal, this is the place.  It is also one of the main locations for the Yuki-matsuri.  I can’t really say too much about this place as I didn’t explore too much.  If you do go, be a little more careful as things could be a little dangerous, in terms of Japanese danger.

Sapporo is a wonderful place to visit, and I definitely want to go again and again.  If you can visit Sapporo directly, I do recommend it.  If you are spending a couple weeks in Japan, and can afford the plane ticket, it’s worth it.  If you have a JR Pass, I don’t recommend it because there are no Shinkansen trains that go to Sapporo.  It takes too much time to get there by train at the moment.  Hokkaido itself is quite easy to explore by train, so if you fly to Sapporo and have a JR Hokkaido pass, you can enjoy yourself for a full week or two and still have things to do.

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

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