We are excited to introduce our new summer blog series, Travel Tuesdays! The Morikami staff have collectively traveled all over Japan, and it is our pleasure to share those experiences—along with tips, pictures, videos, and more—with our followers and supporters! So whether you’re a seasoned globe-trotter, familiar with the ins and outs of Japanese travel, or a Japan travel newbie about to embark on your first voyage, we hope you’ll enjoy!
by Hayleigh Kanno, Education Programs Coordinator
Excitement is by no means an understatement. My husband and I were in Japan in April, less than a month after the March 26th grand opening and the JR train stations were buzzing with Hokkaido Shinkansen fever. Everywhere was green-and-purple or pink, sometimes to the point of delirium, and somehow almost any conceivable object could be made into the shape of a bullet train. There were bullet train-shaped stationary, bottles, wallets, shoes, hats, backpacks, you name it. And if, by some lack of creativity, something could not be shaped into the Hokkaido Shinkansen, you could bet that it was covered with images of it or be a mix of green and purple or pink. These perky colors represent the lupine, lavender, and lilac flowers of Hokkaido. The snowball mascot of the train, Yuki-chan, was also popular though personally I didn’t think he was so cute. He kind of looks like the train was caught in a smiling avalanche. But I digress. What I’d like to share with you is how to enjoy the Hokkaido Shinkansen from getting tickets to your arrival in the north, so let’s get started!
First things first, for those going to Japan on a tourist visa who plan on doing a lot of traveling, one of the best options is the Japan Rail Pass. The JR Pass allows unlimited rides on most trains, including select bullet trains, in the Japan Rail-owned vast network within the pass duration. There’s the option of a one, two, or three-week pass. My husband and I chose the one-week pass for our two-week vacation as one week was spent locally with family and friends and the other for travel. It’s good to map out how you want to spend your trip to determine which pass you want to purchase as there’s about a $150 difference between passes. With one trip via bullet train, the pass essentially pays for itself. Without it, during the week we would have paid more than $1,000 on train travel alone.
It’s important to know that the pass can only be bought from abroad and by those who are not residents of Japan. If you’re a Japanese national like my husband, be prepared to bring multiple proofs of non-Japanese residency. The JR Pass is associated with foreign tourists so the whole week we used the pass my husband was given English-language guides and painfully slow directions in Japanese, even when he spoke to people in his fluent native tongue. Even Chinese tourists would ask him for help in Chinese when they saw the pass in his hand. I think I got more of a kick out of it than he did. For more relevant and less anecdotal information about the JR Pass, check out the website.
So you’ve got your JR Pass and you’ve made your way to Japan with the mission of riding the Hokkaido Shinkansen to Hokkaido to eat squid, look out for bears, climb mountains, go skiing, or just say you’ve conquered Japan’s last frontier. Now you’re at the train station, a Yuki-chan scarf wrapped around your neck and you’re feeling confident as you breeze through the turnstiles, flashing your JR Pass like a member’s only card as the station attendant gives you a nod, stating “Go right through” with a smile and a swooping wave of a white-gloved hand. The train doors open for you as you reach the platform and you hop on, prop up your feet, and order a special edition Hokkaido Shinkansen Sapporo beer—not quite. Now I’m not saying it won’t go exactly like that, but there is one catch. In order to ride the Hokkaido Shinkansen you have to get reservations. Even if there are standing-only tickets available, the trip is four hours so just bear that in mind. Our JR Passes were printed before the Hokkaido Shinkansen was up and running so while it makes a tiny mention that some trains require reservations to ride, we had no idea that the Hokkaido Shinkansen would be any different than the bullet train to Osaka or Kyoto where we were able to ride without reservations. As a side note, read the small print in your JR Pass. It’s not enough to just show the pass to the ticket checker once you’re on the train. You’ll need to go to the JR ticket counter “Midori no Mado Guchi” and make a free reservation. The attendant will give you a ticket with your start and end station (in my case I left from Ueno Station in Tokyo to arrive at Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station) and your train car and seat number. Get tickets as early as possible to increase the chances of getting the departure and seats you want. My husband and I learned this the hard way and had to wait three hours for the next available train because we didn’t have a reservation (T___T). Needless to say, going back, we reserved a full day in advance.
I’ve got my ticket! Now what?
Now you wait, in single file at the platform for your train to arrive if it hasn’t yet. Your reserved ticket will tell you which car you’re in. Signs above the platform will indicate where your car will arrive. When the train arrives you’ll know it’s yours because it will be green-and-purple or green-and-pink, and if you made it this far into the bowels of the station, you’ve been brainwashed to know that these colors mean Hokkaido Shinkansen. Good luck getting that out of your head when you return back home. You may notice that directly connected to the back of the Hokkaido Shinkansen is a pink-and-white bullet train similar in design. This is the Tohoku Shinkansen and it literally hitches a ride on the back of the Hokkaido Shinkansen until Morioka Station before detaching and going in a different direction. Don’t accidentally get in the wrong train. A bilingual announcement will remind you to “please make sure you are in the correct train car” a few times before reaching the station.
Once you’ve boarded and found your seat you’re free to make yourself comfortable. Heads up, if you’re traveling with friends and were separated during the reservation process, be careful about moving to empty seats to join them. It’s possible that, though empty for one leg of the trip, the reserved passenger may arrive at the next station. So yes, you may have to tolerate the snoring salaryman sleeping against the window for one hour… or four. Now would be a good time to order that drink you’ve been waiting for. Like on an airplane, an attendant will come by with a cart offering an array of snacks, drinks, and small meals at reasonable prices. You can even get a bento box shaped like the Hokkaido Shinkansen or a green-and-purple box of chocolates if so inclined. Also like on an airplane, your “comfort” options vary with what class car you’re in. The most basic JR Pass is only good for the “Ordinary” car (yes, it’s really called ordinary) but if you want to travel in style you could always drop a couple hundred for an upgrade to the First Class car or the top of the line Gran Car (not grand, I promise that’s not a typo) with plush leather seats and smooth reclining options. While there’s no “in flight” entertainment, each seat is equipped with an outlet for you to charge your phone or use a laptop. The notice on the back of your tray table asks passengers to refrain from typing too loud if using a laptop, so try not to get too excited updating your travel blog.
If you were lucky enough to get a window seat you’ll be able to enjoy the transition of the compactness of Tokyo into the sprawling mountains and countryside on your journey north. I realized on this trip that one of the best ways to appreciate the vast and varied landscape of Japan is at 160 mph. The trip is smooth and quiet and if you like to zone out while looking out train windows while listening to Radiohead and contemplating the meaning of life like I do, the experience is one-of-a-kind.
The light at the end of the twenty-minute long stretch of darkness is a welcome sight once you’ve made your way through the world’s longest underwater tunnel connecting the mainland to Hokkaido. From this point on it’s pretty much countryside, and countryside, and trees, and mountains, and countryside, and there’s basically no doubt that you’re not in Tokyo anymore. The Hokkaido Shinkansen terminates at the new and shiny Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station. It’s a mouthful, but the station is beautifully designed with large beams of wood from natural Hokkaido cedar trees. The Hokkaido Shinkansen and the new station to accommodate it is part an effort to make tourism to Hokkaido more convenient and desirable and friendly bilingual assistance is definitely working in their favor.
Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station is practically in the middle of nowhere so to get to the city you can hop on the equally new and shiny Hakodate Liner which will take to you to the JR Hakodate Station, about a twenty-minute trip. Arriving at the station is the end of one journey and the beginning of another. Adventure awaits!
Parting advice: Though, from my experience, very few station attendants actually checked the dates on the JR Pass, make sure it’s still valid as you’re traveling. Unexpected travel expenses can put a damper on any adventure. Travel smart, travel safe, and have fun!
To learn more about the Hokkaido Shinkansen, please check out the website. http://www2.jrhokkaido.co.jp/global/english/shinkansen/
Coming up on Travel Tuesdays…
Food glorious food! Check out what Hakodate City has to offer in terms of its delicious cuisine which includes crab, squid, and a regionally famous Chinese chicken burger! We’ll also introduce some fun sightseeing spots and mini adventures to be had, including mountain climbing and a microbrewery built from an old warehouse. See you next time!