It’s sometimes hard to imagine that in a small, densely-populated country like Japan, they somehow find the room to carry out large transit improvement projects. Two major projects will be opening in March of 2015, that will make transit around Japan much easier – both for the locals and for the tourists.
New Shinkansen Line Opens between Nagano and Kanazawa
On Saturday, March 14, 2015 – the Saturday in March selected next year for all Japan Railway lines to carry out an across-the-board revision of their train timetables – Japan’s flagship bullet train system, or Shinkansen, branches out with the opening of a new extension between Nagano and Kanazawa. The current Nagano Shinkansen, operating between Tokyo and Nagano, will thus extend itself and be known as the Hokuriku Shinkansen. It is the first opening of a bullet train line since 2011, when the Kyushu Shinkansen link between Fukuoka and Yatsushiro became operational.
The bullet train opening will bring with it seven new stations in Nagano, Niigata, Toyama and Ishikawa prefectures. The terminal city, Kanazawa, has preserved much of its heritage as the city was spared from World War II allied bombings. Its main attractions are Kenroku-en Garden, known as one of the Best Three Gardens in all of Japan, and Kanazawa Castle Park. Many other sites to visit in Kanazawa can be found on the official Kanazawa Tourism website.
The bullet train will also open in Toyama, a beautiful city whose prefecture is part of the Japanese Northern Alps. The new bullet train line will make the city a more important transfer point to the city of Takayama and the world heritage site of Shirakawa-go. Another station of interest to to tourists will be Kurobe-Unazukionsen. The station will connect to the private Toyama Chiho Railway for Unazuki Onsen, a small hot spring town. This town, however, is also the start of the Kurobe Gorge Railway, which winds its way around the mountains and the Kurobe Gorge, one of the deepest gorges in all of Japan, where the views of nature are stunning. It is only operational from May until November.
Currently, if you are traveling from Tokyo to Kanazawa, you have two options: Ride the Tokaido Shinkansen “Hikari” service to Maibara and change to the “Shirasagi” train for Kanazawa, or the Joetsu Shinkansen to Echigo-Yuzawa and change to the Hakutaka train. Both of these options take approximately 4 to 4 1/2 hours. However, the new bullet train on the Hokuriku Shinkansen will link Tokyo to Kanazawa in only 2 hours, 28 minutes on the fastest service! Tokyo to Toyama will only be two hours, compared to about 3 hours 20 minutes currently.
If you have the Japan Rail Pass, they have not made an official announcement about validity but I would presume that it would be valid for all trains on the new Hokuriku Shinkansen route. The route will have new trains with GranClass, a premium first class experience that is not fully covered by the Rail Pass (to experience GranClass you have to pay an additional fare, as the pass will just cover the basic fare).
And now for the train name lesson – there will be FOUR different kinds of trains operating on the route. These are:
Kagayaki (かがやき) – This is the fastest service that will make the fewest stops, primarily Tokyo, Omiya, Nagano and Toyama. Selected trains will also stop at Ueno, north of Tokyo station.
Hakutaka (はくたか) – This service will typically serve Tokyo, Ueno and Omiya then run express to Nagano. After Nagano it will make all local stops to Kanazawa. Selected trains will also make stops between Takasaki and Nagano.
Asama (あさま) – This service currently operates on the Nagano shinkansen route from Tokyo to Nagano, and will continue to operate between these two cities only making a mix of local and express stops.
Tsurugi (つるぎ) – This will be the new shinkansen shuttle service that runs throughout the day linking the cities of Toyama and Kanazawa only.
Note that when the Hokuriku Shinkansen opens, several JR lines will be changed over to new private railways, which has been a standard practice over the years. This includes the stretch between Kanazawa and Toyama. Limited Express trains from cities such as Osaka, Kyoto, Maibara and Nagoya will no longer operate between Kanazawa and Toyama, and so passengers (including Rail Pass holders) continuing to Toyama will have to change to the bullet train – primarily the Tsurugi, or whatever is available.
Also, since a few overnight trains from the Kansai region to Hokkaido will now run over private railways, Rail Pass holders will have to pay supplements for using non-JR track if using trains on these lines. Though in a few years, when the bullet train line from Tokyo is extended into Hokkaido, these overnight trains will probably cease to exist.
Ueno-Tokyo Through Line Opens
The second major development that is expected to dramatically improve transit within Tokyo is the opening of the Ueno-Tokyo Line. This line will connect local JR trains running from the northern and eastern parts of Tokyo to the Tokaido Main Line that runs south to Yokohama.
Why is this so significant? Many travelers who are traveling over these routes currently have to get off at Ueno, change to a loop line train like the Yamanote Line that goes to Tokyo, then change again to the Tokaido Line. This poses a capacity problem between Tokyo and Ueno, especially during rush hours. The opening of this line will mean no more transfers to the Yamanote Line will be necessary, meaning congestion should see a significant reduction. Ueno-Tokyo through trains will shorten travel times for passengers by a few minutes, which is important in a country where time is essential.
Many of the trains from the north and east that run into Tokyo will continue on to Shimbashi and Shinagawa. It looks like many trains will end at Shinagawa, with a few trains continuing on to Yokohama as well.
Those are some of the improvements that are coming to Japan Railways in March of 2015. Usually, all of the changes that will come with the national timetable revision will be announced by the JR rail companies in simultaneous press releases around mid-December.