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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。

Shinkansen – South Routes February 23, 2010

Posted by Dru in Chubu, Chugoku, Japan, Kansai, Kanto, Kyushu.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Shinkansen – South Routes” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-kH

Travelling by train in Japan is one of the easiest, yet most complex things to do.  It is a must for anyone who visits Japan. Going to Tokyo, or even Osaka, you are generally better off using the trains.  Travelling by car can take a lot more time.  While the most used trains are in Tokyo, the most famous train line is the Shinkansen.  This is Japan’s high speed rail line, which happens to also be the first high speed rail line in the world.  It was opened before the Tokyo Olympics, and has been expanding ever since.  The most famous image of the Shinkansen has to be that of the 0 series.  These were the original trains that have only recently been retired.  As of December 2008, these trains were taken out of service.  All of the other trains have remained, but each year, several of the older trains have been retired.

The first Shinkansen line was the Tokaido line.  This is the most famous line as it helps tourists head from Tokyo all the way to Kyoto, and for business travellers as it connects Tokyo with Nagoya and Osaka.  While all of the trains are called “Super Express”, this moniker can be confusing.  The Shinkansen is a super express, relative to regular train services.  When taking the Shinkansen, it’s very important to know which train you are taking.  A Nozomi, Hikari, and Kodama are all very different.  When using the JR Pass, the Nozomi is off limits.  If you do take this train, you might end up paying for the full fare regardless.  This is due to the sheer numbers of people using these trains.  Thankfully, the Hikari is still pretty quick with only a few extra stops, compared to the Nozomi.  The only downside is that travelling to Hiroshima and Hakata, in Fukuoka, is a little difficult.

The second Shinkansen line is the Sanyo line.  This is essentially an extension of the Tokaido line.  This allowed the line to connect Fukuoka, in Kyushu, to Tokyo.  Unfortunately, the trains can take around 8 hours to connect both cities making it impractical for most travellers.  Flying is still the best, but Hiroshima can be better than flying, due to airport locations.  When travelling along the Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen, there are several trains you could use.  The oldest currently being used is the 100 series.  This is styled like the 0 series.  These trains only travel along the Sanyo portion for Kodama (local) services.  It stops at every station, so the chance of riding this is pretty low for the average traveller.  The 300 series is the next oldest of the trains.  This series was fairly popular, but as I am writing this, they are slowly being phased out.  Currently, they are used for Kodama and Hikari services, with an occasional Nozomi.  This was the first Shinkansen that utilized a wedge style nose, rather than a “bullet” style nose.

In Japan, one of the most famous Shinkansen has to be the 500 series.  It is the most unique Shinkansen for its styling.  These trains have a sharp pointed nose, grey and purple colouring, and resemble a fighter jet, rather than an airplane or train.  Prior Shinkansen were made to resemble airliners.  The 500, while striking, was not very popular with customers.  It was very fast, but it was like a Ferrari.  It was relatively small inside, due to the tube like shape of the body.  The windows were smaller, it was darker inside, and a little noisy as each car had its own engine.  Few of these trains were made, but it’s still a popular train for train spotters.  The recent designs along these lines are the 700 series.  The 700 was the first duckbill styled Shinkansen.  The N700 is an evolution of the 700 series with more emphasis on comfort.  The N700 is also the first Shinkansen to be all non-smoking.  They do have smoking rooms.  In the older trains, there are smoking cars.  Entry into these cars is only for smokers.  Anyone else would be forced to leave, not by the train staff, but by the amount of smoke inside the car.  You can literally see a thick haze of smoke, and you can smell it in the adjacent car.  The N700 is quickly entering service and will be the main workhorse of these lines.  While the windows are a bit smaller than the 700, there is wifi access, for a fee, and two prong outlets in each row.  They are definitely thinking about their businessmen.

Connecting to the Sanyo Shinkansen is the Kyushu Shinkansen.  Currently, this Shinkansen line is under construction, with the southern portion complete.  This will link Hakata with Kagoshima, a city in the south of Kyushu.  At this moment, the line is running from Kagoshima to a point roughly half way to Hakata, the end of the line.  By the spring of 2011, this line is expected to be completed with through service to Osaka starting.  This line uses the 800 series of trains, which abandoned the duckbill style of the 700 series.  These trains have a more European styling, and the interior is said to be nicer than other Shinkansen trains.  When the line is completed, N700 trains will be used as well.  This will make it very easy to reach Kagoshima for most travellers.

This is the first part of two in the Shinkansen Series.  Please continue on to read more about the Shinkansen – North 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 Central (Note:  Lots of information on operations and reliability):  http://english.jr-central.co.jp/about/index.html
JR West (Note: This page is not very interesting):  http://www.westjr.co.jp/english/travel/
JR Kyushu (Note:  Great pictures of their trains):  http://www.jrkyushu.co.jp/english/tsubame_top.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。

Tokyo (Asakusa – Part II) January 19, 2010

Posted by Dru in Japan, Kanto, Tokyo, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Tokyo (Asakusa – Part II)” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-kg

The main attraction has to be Sensoji.  This is a widely used word for an entire complex that stretches from Kaminarimon all the way to several temples and shrines located at the end of the Nakamise Shopping Arcade.  Just before you enter, next to the gate at the end of the shopping arcade, there is the Denpoin temple.  It doesn’t look very interesting, but from some reports, there is a nice garden located within that temple’s grounds.  It is now closed to the public.  The first thing you will notice is the grand roof of Sensoji.  It towers above the building itself, but it’s someone hidden by two rows of smaller buildings; these buildings, just before Sensoji itself, is where you can buy various charms and fortunes.  This temple is one of the few where you can buy fortunes that also come in English and a few other languages.  The temple also has one of the most beautiful purification fountains in Tokyo with a very intricately designed dragon.  When inside the temple, you’ll be able to purchase more charms, make donations, and pray.  Immediately next to Sensoji is the Asakusa Shrine.  This shrine is very popular as they have the sanja festival.  It’s one of the great festivals of Tokyo and well worth a look if you have a chance.

Among the other things to do in Asakusa is to head to the Sumida River.  This river is one of the most famous in Tokyo.  Near the station, you can enjoy a view of Asahi Brewery’s headquarters.  It’s very distinct building is designed to look like a tall glass of beer, while just below it is the Asahi Super Dry Hall.  Atop the black box hall is a golden flame, which in reality looks like a big lump of poo.  From here, you can head down to a small pedestrian path/park along the Sumida River.  It’s popular for runners, as well as homeless people.   Located within the same general area is the Tokyo Cruise terminal.  From here, you can catch a river boat that takes you along the Sumida River out towards Odaiba.  From what I’ve heard, this is a very beautiful cruise and worth the costs.  Do be aware that the boats run every 30 minutes to an hour.  If cruising isn’t your thing, you can also head over to the department store, Matsuya.  If you are looking for a little fun, there is a small amusement park located behind Sensoji.  This also provides good access to Kappabashi Street.  This street is famous for selling restaurant related goods.  You can get everything you need to open your own restaurant, but the main focus is on knives.  Many people come here to buy top quality Japanese knives.  While you can buy them at various department stores, this is the heart where you can get everything.

Overall, Asakusa is an essential place to visit when coming to Tokyo.  You will see one of the most famous temples in Tokyo, be able to get all of your souvenirs in one place, and experience a rickshaw tour.  There are also several ways out of Asakusa, so you can enjoy a nice cruise on the river, or even get out of the city and head to Nikko for a temple getaway.  Asakusa is also very important as a place for budget travellers.  This is where most of the youth hostels and Japanese style inns are located.  While it’s not the most centrally located area of Tokyo, it can be the cheapest.  While the accommodations can be cheap, do be aware that you may end up spending more money on transportation to go places, especially if you are trying to make use of your JR Pass.  Asakusa is only serviced by the subways and private companies, so the JR Pass is almost useless here.  However, it’s still a very fun place.

This is Part II of a II part series.  For more information on Asakusa, please read Part I.

Asakusa Information:

Asakusa (Japan Guide):  http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3004.html
Asakusa (Wikipedia):  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asakusa
Asakusa (Wikitravel):  http://wikitravel.org/en/Tokyo/Asakusa
Asakusa (English):  http://www.asakusa-e.com/index_e.html
Asakusa (Japanese):  http://www.asakusa-e.com/index.html
Kaminarimon (Wikipedia):  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaminarimon
Kappabashi (English):  http://www.kappabashi.or.jp/en/index.html
Kappabashi (Japanese):  http://www.kappabashi.or.jp/
Kappabashi (Bento.com):  http://www.bento.com/phgal-kappabashi.html
Tokyo Cruise (Japanese – Note:  There is a little English in the menus): http://www.suijobus.co.jp/index.html
Asakusa Hanashiki Amusement Park (English):  http://www.hanayashiki.net/e/index.html
Asakusa Hanashiki Amusement Park (Japanese):  http://www.hanayashiki.net/

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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