Happy New Year, and welcome to the first post on myjapantips.com in 2016!
In a few months, Japan’s iconic bullet train system will be extended to the northern island of Hokkaido for the very first time. The shinkansen has been running there for the past few months on test runs, but it officially opens to the public on March 26.
Plans for a bullet train line in Hokkaido were laid out over four decades ago, with proposals for several routes on Hokkaido itself. The 33 1/2 mile Seikan Tunnel linked Hokkaido to the Japanese mainland in 1988, and with the 17-year construction project came provisions to eventually add the bullet train.
The new bullet train line extends a distance of 92 1/2 miles from the northernmost terminal at Shin-Aomori, through the Seikan Tunnel to a bullet train station outside of Hakodate, called Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto. From here, a shuttle train called the “Hakodate Liner” makes the 11 mile trip south to Hakodate station in the center of the city.
It will also be possible to hook up to the Hokuto limited express service for the journey north to Sapporo. You can enjoy the scenic trip up to Sapporo on the limited express, as the bullet train probably won’t reach Sapporo for another 15 years or so.
Here are some additional details on the new services to Hakodate, which will extend as far south as Tokyo itself.
Up until the start of services on March 26, 2016: Train travelers from Tokyo heading north to Hokkaido have to change in Aomori for conventional express trains that run under the Seikan Tunnel to Hakodate. The fastest journey from Tokyo to Hakodate is 5 hours 22 minutes. From Tokyo to Sapporo (with an additional change of trains) the fastest journey time is just over 9 hours.
When the bullet train opens on March 26, 2016: Travel times from Tokyo to Hakodate will be cut by almost an hour, to 4 1/2 hours on the fastest services. With just one transfer at Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto to an express, Tokyo to Sapporo journey times will be reduced to 7 hours, 44 minutes on the fastest services.
You may ask… if the bullet train is supposed to be fast, why can’t trains reach Hakodate faster? That’s because when the bullet train opens through the Seikan Tunnel, it will be sharing space with freight train traffic. Freight by rail is big in Japan, and more so to and from the island of Hokkaido with around 50 freight train trips through the tunnel every day. For the time being, bullet trains will have to reduce their speed from around 160 mph on the approach to the tunnel all the way down to 87 mph. Any faster than this, and the shock-waves of air generated by the train in the tunnel will cause the freight cars to fly off the tracks. There are some plans being discussed to offer faster trips, such as maintaining a 160 mph speed through the tunnel and then automatically slowing down when passing freight trains, or scheduling one return trip per day when freight trains are not using the tunnel. Such plans, though, are years off.
There will be ten daily round-trips on the Hokkaido Shinkansen from Tokyo to Hokkaido, and one each from the cities of Sendai, Morioka and Aomori. Services will use the E5 and new H5 shinkansen trains. All cars require a seat reservation: there are eight standard class cars, one green car (first class) and one GranClass car (premium first class).
The Japan Rail Pass will be valid on all of the new bullet train extensions. The exception is GranClass, which Rail Pass users will not be able to use unless supplement charges are paid. Green Car Rail Pass holders can still use the regular Green Car on these services, though.
JR East and JR Hokkaido are offering a new rail pass for foreign tourists who plan to only travel between Tokyo and Hokkaido, and it costs slightly less than a 7 day Japan Rail Pass. It’s called the JR East-South Hokkaido Rail Pass, and it costs 26,000 yen if purchased overseas (27,000 yen if purchased inside the country).
To be used on any six days within a 14 day period, the new pass covers all JR lines in Tokyo, and north of Tokyo through the Tohoku region and into Hokkaido, as far as Sapporo. You can use the shinkansen from Tokyo to Hakodate, as well as portions of several other JR East bullet train lines. A large number of conventional JR routes can also be used, and seat reservations on bullet trains and limited express trains can be made for free. You can use the Narita Express, the Tokyo Monorail to Haneda Airport, the Sendai Airport rail link, the JR rail line to Sapporo’s airport, and also access Nikko and the Izu peninsula. It’s a fantastic deal, considering that the pass is flexible, and does not need to be used on consecutive days…. you CAN use it on consecutive days if you wish, but it is not required. The pass is only good for standard class… it cannot be used for the Green Car or for GranClass.
Hakodate city was named Japan’s most attractive city of 2015 in a recent survey. Attractions from the famous morning market and the night view at the top of Mount Hakodate to a ride on one of the city’s old streetcars will be easier to access with the opening of the bullet train into Hokkaido in March. While you’re at it, why not continue your rail journey towards Sapporo, known for its annual snow festival, craft beers, and museums dedicated to the preservation of the Ainu culture.
As usual, your questions and comments are welcome. I am glad to offer advice whenever I am able, subject to the blog disclaimer.