Up until late last year the Seikan tunnel and 23.3 kilometres long and about 100 metres below the sea between Honshu and Hokkaido was the world’s longest and deepest mainline railway tunnel. Then the Swiss beat it with the Gotthard Base Tunnel.
Also last year marked the first time that Shinkansens began using the tunnel. Not you can travel between Tokyo and Shin-Hakodate in a little over four hours.
Unfortunately, if your destination is elsewhere in Hokkaido it’s probably going to take you much longer than that.
Our journey began with a local service from Hirosaki to Shin-Aomori through the heavily snowbound countryside of apple farms and hidden rice paddies. Midway through the journey an alarm sounded and we remained stuck on the tracks for a while.
I noticed that these trains carry a high-vis wearing worker in the front, presumably to deal with snow emergencies.
Anyway, he couldn’t do anything this time, the problem seemed to resolve itself and somehow the driver made up time to deliver us on schedule.
From there we transferred to our green Hayabusa Shinkansen for an hour long ride up to the tip of Honshu, through the tunnel and across to Shin-Hakodate in Hokkaido. There were some pretty glimpses of countryside and the sea before we disappeared into the darkness. Tunnels are impressive from a construction viewpoint but are pretty boring to actually use.
We had a quick change of trains at Shin-Hakodate and the Super Hokuto for Sapporo was packed with Asian and a few Western tourists.
The initial ride out of Hakodate involved some stunning scenery looking back across the bay, passing through forests with fallen trees, perhaps due to the huge typhoon of last August, and Mount Komagatake, with it’s unusually curved peak.
The line follows the coast of Uchiura Bay. The waters were glassy, blue reflections of the sky a contrast to the brilliant white of snow in the morning sun.
Fishermen’s huts and small towns lined the coast, while on the left hills or farms, old rusting silos and sheds for the animals.
Fortunately there was a meal service on board because the connections were so tight there was no opportunity to purchase lunch along the way. Sandwiches and a bento box.
Alex became motion sick after playing on his Nintendo and had to lie down. The cabin, like most Japanese trains, was overheated and stuffy. The big Chinese woman in the seat ahead of B, demanded the blinds be shut so that she could sleep. It was a relief when she and her daughters left, along with many other compatriots, at Noboribetsu and the seats could be unreclined.
I’m sure there were uncharitable thoughts about a somewhat noisy semi-Western family as well.
At three hours forty minutes it felt like a long ride and it was good to finally arrive in Sapporo.
With a little bit of afternoon left we took a stroll towards Susukino. Along the way we detoured to Old Government House, a red brick building contrasting with the thick white snow of the grounds. There’s not actually that much to see there, but we threw a few snowballs.
Further along was a silver caravan with workers erecting a structure of ice bricks. A television crew was filming a weather report for HBC and kids were lining up with a bear mascot to answer quiz questions.
As if to rail against the dark of winter the Susukino district is full of neon and bright lights. Because we hadn’t planned well we ended up in Old Ramen Alley for a dinner of ramen and gyoza. The bar’s walls were plastered with signatures and a photo of Anthony Bourdain, so we knew it was a tourist trap and the ramen, while still tasty, was not the best I’ve tasted.
Last time we were in Sapporo I neglected to catch a tram and I was determined to rectify this. We packed aboard a tram for a long circuit. I enjoy seeing the local areas, the tiny shops still open in the evening with the silhouettes of pedestrians walking by. It was a pointless journey but at least we did something.
I think that leaves only on city in Japan with a streetcar system I haven’t yet ridden.
Hokkaido is famous for its desserts, especially of the dairy variety, and we needed a palate cleanser, so we had ice cream and custard pudding at Odori Bisse. Alex might complain about me making him catch so many trains, but he has his own obsession, namely Japanese ticket gates.
He hate rail passes because they don’t use automated ticket gates.
So we had to catch the subway one stop back to Sapporo station and our hotel.