The quest for the ticket gate: Hakodate to Tokyo

It is time to leave Hokkaido. With a big city awaiting we motivate ourselves to wake early and head down to Hakodate’s train station. Nothing much is open, so breakfast, such that it is, is purchased from the kiosk and we board the connecting train to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto, the gateway to the Shinkansen.

The cloud has passed and it is a fine morning outside as we head out of the city to this isolated new station. Then we make our way up and across to the Shinkansen tracks. The sleek metallic green and pink Hayabusa E5 (or H5) Shinkansen pulls into the station from the storage yard and we get on board.

This is another route I have travelled a lot on lately. The train is fast, very fast, travelling at up to 320 km/h on some stretches. There are many tunnels including a previous world record holder, the Seikan, connecting Hokkaido with the main island of Honshu. As a consequence, the free wifi internet is flaky.

Racing along I begin to feel sad. Today’s trip marks the end of the “adventurous” part of our travel and a return to big cities, shops and crowds. Now we are passing by towns and cities with their own local railway lines and places to explore. Places I’ve never been. I want to stop and wander, not head towards the inevitable conclusion of this trip.

The other two are looking forward to Tokyo. There is also sadness that my dreams are not confluent with theirs.

Though our tickets are all the way through to the terminus at Tokyo Station, we depart the train at Omiya, in Saitama Prefecture to the north of the city. It is faster to catch a train to Shinjuku from here, but we are going to take advantage of the location for another diversion first.

On our previous trip to Japan we visited both the Nagoya and Kyoto train museums. Both were fascinating (for me) in their own rights, but Alex has a peculiar obsession with Japanese ticket gates. Each museum had an automated gate on display and the ability to print out tickets for them from a machine. He went round and round through them, over thirty times.

He wanted to do the same this trip. When he asked when his part of the trip would start, this is what he was referring to.

There is another very large railway museum for JR East one stop on the non-JR, non-train, Saitama New Shuttle. As we lock our luggage away in the Omiya station lockers and catch the rubber wheeled guided shuttle we are taking a risk. I have been unable to confirm that this museum houses a ticket gate display. If it doesn’t then we will need to visit one of those other museums in addition.

It starts well, with the entry tickets in the form of an IC card that you must tap on the railway style automated gates into the museum. But only tap once.

The museum is very big, very modern, but with a lot of history on display. First things first though and that’s to eat. There is a cafeteria on the fourth floor which serves standard Japanese food, perfectly okay without being special.

Recharged, it is time to explore. On the level below, a path showing the development of the railways and stations in Japan, including recreations of ticket gates (non-automatic) and the computers that first printed tickets. This isn’t enough.

Down further we find a gate on display, but it is locked, with a sign that there will be a show at three-thirty. Will it let Alex do his stuff? We can only hope.

The rest of the museum takes you through the history and future of JR East. Each of the railway museums is different enough to warrant a visit, though they all share static displays. This has the opulent Imperial carriages on display behind glass, some very old electric trains that make me think of Ghibli animations, and E4 Shinkansen where you can experience green car luxury and a Type 0 Shinkansen, the first, with a fascinating history of the politics and development of high speed rail in Japan.

There are also simulators, including a Shinkansen and a steam engine, but you need tickets for them and the allocation is completed for the day.

There is a huge HO scale layout that sets Alex off demanding that we build our n-scale layouts at home further.

Finally, it is time for the ticket gate display. The ticket dispensing machines are switched on, one for seat reservations, one for the fare ticket, and the gate is opened.

Alex goes round and round and round. Printing tickets, inserting them in the slot, going through the gate and collecting them on the other side. He’s not the only one, but we do wonder if they will get upset with him doing it over and over again.

Finally we drag him away and the gates are closed.

We head down to the shops, which have an extensive range of rail memorabilia, toys and model trains. B wants to leave and go to shopping in Shinjuku, but there are still more things to do.

The museum features a number of rides. There’s a tiny loop where you can ride on the back of the carriages, recalling my childhood in Melbourne when we’d head up to Tullamarine for weekend rides like that. A larger, “mini-Shinkansen” Teppaku line shuttles back and forth along a straight track parallel to the main line outside the fence. We sit in the carriage with the driver.

Nearby is a loop with mini trains that the kids can control. It’s got signals and points, but our tickets are not for another hour. Trying to find B, Alex and I head up to the very top of the building, from where you can see the commuter and freight trains head past on one side and the New Shuttle and Shinkansens pass on the elevated tracks on the other side of the museum. It’s late in the day and the greying sky and golden sun cast the scene in a beautiful light.

The mini-train is a little bit of a disappointment, a single loop without any real signals or need to stop at the stations. But it marks the end of our half-day visit to the museum. It is time to collect our bags and head to the hotel.

On the way we stop by a railway memorabilia shop at Omiya Station and Alex purchases himself a JR mug that he saw on the way out. There’s so much more I could have bought too.

The Shinjuku Prince Hotel is our second home in Japan, but our room has had a makeover. I’m in two minds whether I like the removal of the dark theme and its pale replacement. On one hand the room feels bigger and the carpet software, but I had grown to love the old scheme. It still oozes quality and the views out of the window are fantastic.

B decides she wants a long awaited haircut. She’s found one hairdresser recommended on the Internet and it turns out that it’s right opposite the hotel. First, at Alex’s insistence, we have sushi at Sakura Sushi, right below the hairdressers. Though not fancy, it’s another favourite. I’m not sure if the owners recognise us, but we certainly remember them from thirteen years of visits.

While B has her hair cut, Alex and I go shopping for our stuff in West Shinjuku. I want to get a replacement Vaio laptop from Yodobashi, but decide to wait for the next trip. Another Yodobashi store sells hobby stuff and we purchase some model railway parts. Then back to East Shinjuku and Tower Records, where I find a Limited Edition copy of John Williams’ soundtrack to Stanley and Iris.

Then its time to return to the hotel, to admire the lights of Shinjuku from above and to ponder the clear banana flavoured water that I had purchased from the kombini.

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