Hokutosei: 16 hours on a sleeper train from Tokyo to Sapporo
With 700 flights a week, the Tokyo to Sapporo plane route is one of world's most traveled. And with a flight time of just 1.5 hours and round-trip tickets at under ¥25,000, it's certainly the most sensible option for travelling to Japan's northernmost island.
But every now and again there's something to be said for taking your time. For my trip to the Sapporo Snow Festival I was not looking for mere expediency. I decided to follow the lead of Japan's many train maniacs (trainiacs, if you will) and take the long way to Sapporo: riding on the 16-hour sleeper train.
Two train options: Hokutosei vs. Cassopeia
Japan was once buzzing with sleeper blue trains racing between major cities overnight. But over the last decade, as plane travel became cheaper, Japan Rail was forced to phase out the vast majority of these routes. With five blue trains eliminated between 2008 and 2009, only six remain, and the Hokuriku from Tokyo to Kanazawa will stop service in March 2010, leaving five.
The two sleeper trains for the Tokyo to Sapporo route -- the high-class Cassiopeia and the basic Hokutosei -- are popular enough at the moment to forstall extinction. Both provide the longest single-train trip available from Tokyo, and the second longest in Japan after the Twilight Express (Osaka to Sapporo).
For the well-heeled the Cassiopeia is the train with traction. It is sleek, extravagant, expensive, newer, with fewer rooms and offers a plush ¥44,460 per-person suite, ideal for a sexy honeymoon voyage. The Hokutosei in contrast is old-fashioned, creaky, affordable. But it does leave daily from both Sapporo and Tokyo, making it more convenient than the Cassiopeia, which only leaves each city three times a week.
The Hokutosei is also better suited for solo travelers, as it has both Solo rooms (¥25,270, all prices from Tokyo) and B-Shindai sleeper berths (same price) that are shared with up to three strangers. The Royal Suite (¥36,150), a richly-appointed solo with its own writing desk and shower room, does offer extra comfort, but these are in such demand they often sell out in seconds.
For situational, timing and budgetary reasons (traveling solo, on Thursday when Cassiopeia doesn't run, with just enough cash to ensure I don't have to hitch my way back), as well as the incurable sense many travelers have that 'we ain't doing it properly if we take the plush option', I went with the Hokutosei. Planning my trip to the Sapporo Snow Festival only a week in advance (definitely not recommended), I could not get a Solo and had to settle for the B-Shindai sleeper berth.
Hokutosei leaves from Ueno station daily at 7:03pm and arrives the next morning in Sapporo at 11:15am. The train makes 15 stops in between, mostly at small Hokkaido train stations in the morning. The journey is a little over 16 hours total -- nearly ten times longer than a flight -- so you better like trains to make this journey or you will really hate them after it.
The good news is that everyone's enthusiasm is contagious. Waiting for the Hokutosei on an obscure track below JR Ueno, the first highlight of the ride is not the train's arrival as much as the half-dozen bespectacled trainspotters who have set up tripods and long-lensed cameras to get a shot of the elusive blue sleeper. Chronicling is key to the Hokutosei experience, as everyone on the train is constantly snapping or filming everything, from walking down the hallway to ordering beef stew.
This anxious pre-boarding period also provides the best time to judge the nature of Hokutosei passengers, as most will disappear into their private rooms for the duration of the trip. On my particular voyage, there were many young families, older single travelers, a group of Chinese tourists, and many, many single Japanese men in their 20s and 30s with thin-framed glasses.
As soon as I board I hit my berth and survey my bunkmates. Despite being the lowest-class option on the train, the B-Shindai is tolerable. Each bed is two meters in length and comes supplied with sheets, pillow, a sheet-covered blanket and a yukata. With the curtain pulled, the space has a good amount of privacy.
Sharing the bottom bunk of my sleeper room was Chinese tourist Lily Su, who, after grumbling about being the only Beijinger in a tour group of Shanghaiese, told me in fluent Japanese that "I don't really get a chance to ride this kind of train in China, and I wanted a chance to see the scenery between Tokyo and Sapporo."
I had the same desire to catch a glimpse of Northwestern Japan, but unfortunately, night trains are not particularly good for this. As I ate my simple dinner of pre-bought sandwiches on a pull-down chair in front of the aisle window, the only things visible for the first hour were neon signs advertising Nitori discount furniture stores and pachinko parlors. This was the rather sad visual theme of the entire night.
First stop, lobby
After eating, I fled the sleeper area to find more action in the 'lobby' of traincar six. The Hokutosei first started service in 1988 in conjunction with the opening of the Seikan Tunnel running between Aomori and Hakodate under the Tsugaru Straight. I don't think the lobby has seen a major renovation since then. The interior decoration consists of brown speckled sofa seats and backlit yellowed photos of famous Hokkaido sites like Onuma National Park. The drink machine sells a suite of obscure juices and teas that beverage maker Sapporo does not market in Tokyo. There is also a glass telephone booth with a green pay phone just in case the train goes through a time warp and we're unable to use our mobiles.
The overall ambiance is "bring your own party," but my fellow passengers were a more sedate bunch. During my time in the lobby, two quiet individuals ate bentos while starting intently at the lack of scenery outside the windows. One family poked at sushi and left immediately after finishing. An older gentleman with scraggly long hair and bedraggled clothing enjoyed a One Cup of sake and the latest issue of gossip rag "Flash." Once in a while a bored salaryman in a Kaepa track suit or Canterbury jacket would enter, look around, take a seat, say nothing and leave five minutes later. At 7:36, the TV mysteriously came to life and started to show its first loop of the American animation "Monsters vs. Aliens." Welcome to the party that is the Hokutosei.
Crashing the dining car: Pub time
While we all staved off boredom in the lobby, the train's tonier passengers spent the first few hours of the voyage in the dining car Grand Chariot. Hokutosei offers a full-course dinner of French cuisine for ¥7,800 and a special Japanese bento for ¥5,500. Both must be reserved in advance.
After 9:15pm, however, the dining car opens to the train's plebeians for what it calls "Pub Time." I made a fashionably late entrance at 9:16pm and managed to snag a single table by the window. The dining car is charming, with personal lamps at each table and a slight aeshetic nod to the Orient Express. By 9:20, the dining car was completely filled with single men, most on the otaku side of the fashion spectrum. The car eventually got so packed that the single men had to sit together at the larger tables. Such close proximity, however, didn't engender conversation and comraderie, as the trainiacs were too busy taking photos of every food item that came to the table.
Although dinners like beef stew (¥2,500) and beef curry (¥1,200) were available, I just went for the draft beer: a very tasty Sapporo Classic (¥600), only available in Hokkaido. With the scenery being pitch black beyond the occasional puff of white industrial smoke or glow of a Family Mart sign, drinking the night away may be the Hokutosei's only way to kill time in a semi-social manner.
By 10:15pm, the pub started clearing out, so I headed back to my berth. First, however, I made an appointment for a morning shower at 8am. I was not about to leave the Hokutosei without experiencing the act of showering on a moving train.
Sleeping in a sleeper car: Not so easy
The first thing to understand about the Hokutosei is that it totally rocks. Literally. Those used to the Shinkansei's high-speed soothing vibrations may not be prepared for rickety sleeper trains. The slow speed produces lots of little bumps and jolts over the course of 16 hours. Perhaps I was not in my finest form with a mild head cold, but the train's chaotic movement became a very serious barrier to actual slumber.
I cannot blame the berth, however, which was very comfortable. Outfitted in my cotton JR-pattern yukata, I pulled the curtain around my bed around 10:30 pm. With the lights out, the space was nearly pitch black. The only reminder of other passengers was the cigarette smoke that often wafted through the compartment when someone three doors down lit up.
After a shallow few hours of sleep, the train awoke again as passengers rushed to the dining car at 6am to eat breakfast before the 6:45am Hakodate stop. In case the passenger shuffle was not an adequate alarm, a 6:15am announcement informed us the train would be seven minutes late.
When you wake on the Hokutosei, you will be in Hokkaido. With the sunlight of a new day, the environment is visible from the giant train windows, but alas, if it's winter, it will all be completely covered in snow. For those who like snowy landscapes, all's well. But it won't be so much Hokkaido life as it is Hokkaido life under a blanket of snow.
After my Chinese traveling companions disappeared into Hakodate, I took over their bottom bunk sleeper to enjoy the scenery while eating breakfast. A tip when ticketing: The top bunk affords better privacy, but the bottom bunk wins on views. The bottom bunk also lets you lounge while looking at the window.
Mastering the shower
Sleeper trains may be an easy way to combine lodging and travel into a single fee, but you don't want to arrive in Sapporo smelling like you slept on a train. This is why Hokutosei provides showers.
At 7:58am, I wandered in my inadequately long yukata over to the lobby to hop in the shower room. For ¥300, you receive a 30-minute block of time to use either Shower A or B, but careful, you only receive six minutes of hot water. The ample sized changing room, however, makes the entire shower process an easy operation.
A few tips: Bring your own towel and soap as they are not provided. Also, after entering and locking the door to the shower room, do not open it again as the hot water will completely shut off for good. Make sure to have everything you need once you lock the door.
The final hours and final verdict
The hours between breakfast and arrival are the best time to enjoy scenery on the Hokutosei. Yes, there was lots of white, but there are still dramatic scenes of lush pine forests and little rural villages. Cows and horses will sometimes appear, and once in a while, large deer can be seen walking around. The other highlight is Hokkaido's brightly colored houses, which come in bright yellow, deep purple and carrot -- orange with a green roof.
With most of the scenery buried under night time darkness, however, the view should not be the primary reason for riding on the Hokutosei. So if you are not a trainiac obsessed with the train itself, what is the appeal? I asked a fellow B-Shindai passenger, Sachie Murotani, a TV producer from Tokyo.
"I had to go to Sapporo on business on short notice, and this was ¥3,000 cheaper than a plane. I'll go home on a plane, but I feel like it's not a real trip if it doesn't take a long time to get there."
This gets to the heart of the matter: The Hokutosei sleeper train is a great way to get to Sapporo for those who want to savor the voyage. Solo travelers have lots of time to read, sleep and think, while couples and families can enjoy their time together without the normal host of modern distractions. The train is not the most affordable nor practical way to get from Tokyo to Sapporo but can offer a powerful nostalgic romanticism long stripped from other modes of transportation. The Hokutosei has its bumps for sure but the ride is one-of-a-kind.
To read about my trip back to Tokyo from Sapporo on the 18-hour Sunflower Furano sleeper ferry, click here.
fees and ticketing
Although tickets can be procured from JR Hokkaido, the easiest way to buy tickets for the Hokutosei is at the Midori no Madoguchi (green window) areas in major JR stations. Royal suites are ¥36,150, Twin Deluxe rooms are ¥32,230 per person, Solo, Duet and B-Shindai sleeper berths are ¥25,270 per person.
Those holding JR Rail Passes can ride on the Hokutosei for an additional ¥6,300 (or ¥27,000 for the Royal and Twin Deluxe rooms).
There is a Hokutosei back from Sapporo to Tokyo that leaves daily at 5:12pm.
Here are a few pages with pictures of every car in the Hokutosei train: