Hokkaido Travel Notice – March 22-25

H5 shinkansen
H5 series Shinkansen on a test run. By Sukhoi37, CC BY-SA 4.0

With roughly one month to go until Japan’s iconic bullet train enters the northern island of Hokkaido for the fist time, here’s an important travel advisory for potential visitors to Hokkaido.

Between March 22 and 25, train services from the Japanese mainland to Hokkaido will be shut down in order to make final preparations for bullet train services. This means that during this four-day period, the only way to travel into and out of Hokkaido is by airplane, or by ferry to one of the northernmost ports in Honshu (i.e. Aomori).

The Seikan Tunnel is the long, 33 1/2 mile tunnel connecting Hokkaido with the Japanese mainland under the Tsugaru Strait. Since 1988, passenger trains have made the journey through this tunnel on journeys to and from the southern Hokkaido city of Hakodate. Considering the amount of freight traffic that also uses the tunnel, the Seikan Tunnel is one of the country’s most vital transportation links.

During the four day period that the tunnel is closed, construction crews will make final preparations for the introduction of the new shinkansen services. One of these steps is to raise the overhead voltage into the tunnel from 20 kV to the shinkansen standard of 25 kV.

When the Seikan Tunnel opens to Shinkansen traffic on 26 March, the vital freight services will resume operation. Naturally, JR is on top of things – two years ago, it introduced a new electric locomotive, the EH800, capable of operating at both 20 kV and 25 kV. It will be the sole locomotive hauling freight through the tunnel moving forward.

The opening of the Shinkansen stands to revitalize Hakodate – and in turn, Hokkaido – with new visitors. In the meantime, if you are planning a trip to Japan in the next month, please take note of these dates when the Seikan Tunnel will be closed.

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Coming Soon – Videos!

A quick post to let everyone know that I’ve “unearthed” my videos from the September 2013 trip to Japan, and I hope to share some of these videos with you in the near future! I have more free time over the next few weeks, so hopefully I will make some progress.

My first video, hopefully (the key word), will be how to purchase Japnese bullet train tickets from a vending machine.

Japan Diary – September 14, 2013 – Hanshin Racecourse and Namba

I am re-posting my diary from my September 2013 trip to Japan. This is the report from September 14 with my girlfriend (now fiance) Jordan which recounts our visit to Hanshin Racecourse and Namba in Osaka.

Start of the 2nd race at Hanshin Racecourse. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 14, 2013
Start of the 2nd race at Hanshin Racecourse. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 14, 2013

It was an early start this morning as Jordan and I took a visit to the Hanshin Racecourse, one of Japan’s horse tracks. I was invited to the facility by representatives of the Japan Racing Association (JRA) through connections at work.

On the way to the track I noticed a lot of younger Japanese greeting older people with ‘Ohayou Gozaimasu” (Good morning) … this weekend is a holiday known as “Respect for the Aged”, so that’s probably one way it ties in.

I was surprised at the amount of people who exited the train at the stop next to the racecourse! The crowd that exited the train for the ordinary Saturday races would be typical in the US if a big race were being run… think the Belmont Stakes.

As promised, Mr. Tanaka, representative from the JRA, was waiting at the entrance and escorted us through the paddock area to the front of the grandstand.

The infield "Turf Vision" at Hanshin Racecourse. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 14, 2013
The infield “Turf Vision” at Hanshin Racecourse. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 14, 2013

The entire place was enormous, and the popularity of the sport in Japan justifies the very long grandstand. Mr. Tanaka pointed out the “Turf Vision” HD screen in the infield, then escorted us to our seats on the fourth floor, right in front of the CCTV operation.

After a few minutes, he brought us in for a tour of CCTV… there are about 20 control room operators and 20 camera operators at the track, and broadcast control was very spacious. Towards the end of our visit, Keisuke Morimoto, the CCTV producer that I met during his visit to Aqueduct earlier in the year, stopped by to say hello.

We stayed for 8 races, including the featured Hanshin Jump Stakes which we enjoyed very much.

Of course, Jordan left very happy as she had a 3,000yen ($30) winner in one of the races! And of course I was broke….

Much thanks to the JRA for accommodating us, and for leaving us with some presents prior to our departure.

After the races Jordan looked to try some Okonomiyaki again, as today was our last full day in the Kansai region. We took a detour to the southern part of Osaka city, to Namba, home of a large shopping arcade and what Jordan would refer to as “The Times Square of Japan, only much larger”

We did some shopping and one of the shopkeepers recommended we go to Fugetsu Okonomiyaki… the same chain that we visited a couple of days ago in Tempozan.

Dotonbori Canal in Osaka. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 14, 2013
Dotonbori Canal in Osaka. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 14, 2013

After that it was a quick trip over to see Dotonbori canal and the “Glico Man”, one of the trademarks of Osaka – it is a neon advertisement of a running man that has been standing in Osaka since the 1930’s.

After some more shopping, we returned to Kyoto and called it an evening.

Tomorrow we go to Tokyo! I am starting to get a little worried since there is a hurricane heading straight for Tokyo… there will be rain tomorrow, and it looks like the heavy stuff will start hitting around Sunday night/Monday… hopefully we’ll make it in before the hard stuff hits…

ADDITIONAL COMMENTS

As you read, my first visit to a racetrack outside of the United States was phenominal. Jordan and I were both stunned, struggling to see how we could compare Hanshin to other tracks in the United States. We just could not. The atmosphere was great, and the fans were friendly and passionate.

Much as we would have loved to stay for all 12 races – which is typical of a JRA card – we had to press on with our plans.

It was nice to visit Namba and Dotonbori for the second time – Dotonbori is the area around the canal near Namba. We picked up a bag from a store in the shopping complex at Namba station for Jordan’s sister. It was the sales clerk that eventually redirected us to what winded up being another Fugetsu for another dose of okonomiyaki!

The Kansai Thru Pass ended up being a tremendous benefit for us today, as we had to do a lot of traveling to get around. Our route:
– Kyoto Subway to Karasuma
– Hankyu Kyoto Line to Juso (outside of Osaka)
– Hankyu Kobe Line to Nishinomiya-Kitaguchi
– Hankyu Imazu line to Nigawa – the station for Hanshin Racecourse
Then to Namba:
– Hankyu Imazu line to Nishinomiya-Kitaguchi, connecting to Imazu
– Hanshin Main Line to Osaka-Namba via Namba Line
When we were finished, we opted to take Kintetsu back to Kyoto
– Kintetsu Nara Line to Yamato-Saidaiji, outside of Nara
and finally
– Kintetsu Kyoto Line to get us back to Kyoto Station

Needless to say, we saved a lot of money today by using the Thru Pass for foreigners!

Since we had a little bit of extra money we opted to pay a surcharge to take Kintetsu’s premium train services back to Kyoto. A little circuitous, but it was very fast, very comfortable, and we were able to avoid the commuter train crowds during the evening hours. Oh yes, we could eat too. 🙂 I believe the surcharge was 870 yen per person to go back this way.

As you may know, the storm I was worried about at the end of the post ended up being the powerful typhoon that lashed across Japan. Let’s see how we ended up…. 🙂

Japan Diary – September 13, 2013 – Hikone and Kyoto Tower

I am re-posting my diary from my September 2013 trip to Japan. This is the report from September 13 with my girlfriend (now fiance) Jordan which recounts our visit to Hikone and Kyoto Tower.

The "tenshu" or main keep at Hikone Castle, undamaged through the centuries. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 13, 2013
The “tenshu” or main keep at Hikone Castle, undamaged through the centuries. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 13, 2013

Today we rested somewhat after spending the last two days bouncing around at a breakneck pace. This morning I walked the very short distance to (a very small) McDonalds to bring back some breakfast… a sausage McMuffin for Jordan and a sausage, egg and cheese mcgriddle for me. The noticeable difference from the US is that most McDonalds breakfast sandwiches in Japan have the same egg white/yolk one would normally find on a McMuffin.

We went to Kyoto station and departed for our trip to one of Japan’s national treasures, Hikone Castle. It was a surprise for me as the visit was wonderful. Hikone Castle is one of only 12 castles in Japan whose original keep has been undamaged and preserved through the centuries, and one of 4 castles designated as a national treasure. Jordan made a great call on visiting Hikone… the other alternative is the more famous Himeji, although Himeji is currently housed under large scaffolding for reconstruction works.

We opted to take the short ride on the bullet train from Kyoto to Maibara in both directions in order to relax… it was only a 20 minute ride between the two stations; Maibara is connected to Hikone by a 3 minute ride.

After returning to Kyoto station and partaking of some pork buns (again!), it was off to Kyoto Tower, the observation deck that is adjacent to Kyoto station. Apparently it was refurbished AGAIN, so I can now say that I have been to Kyoto Tower three times with three different scenarios: Before renovations (2004), after the first renovation (2008) and this year after the second renovation.

We then decided to go back to hotel and call it a day, but not before making seat reservations for our bullet train trip to Tokyo on Sunday.

Noodle dinner at Yoshimura, Kyoto. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 13, 2013
Noodle dinner at Yoshimura, Kyoto. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 13, 2013

Jordan and I just came back from a noodle restaurant called Yoshimura, which is between the McDonald’s and our hotel. It is a small place but very charming. It’s a two story restaurant.. chefs prepare the noodles from scratch in an open viewing room on the first floor, and then the chefs cook them upstairs where we sat. The set meal included hot or cold soba (we went for hot), prawn and vegetable tempura, a sashimi appetizer and a drink – we went for the specialty drink known in the country as “Nihonshu”… which us Americans call SAKE. We were a bit nervous at first when ordering, but one of the waitresses had a fairly good command of English which was a big plus.

Tomorrow we forward part of our luggage to our Tokyo hotel for Sunday arrival, and then spend a good part of the day visiting the Hanshin Racecourse near Osaka.

ADDITIONAL COMMENTS

What a treat it was to seem to be away from the bustle of Kyoto and discover the charm of Hikone. Of course, Himeji is a must on the typical itinerary of a visitor to Japan. Since 2010, though, Himeji’s castle has been covered by large scaffolding for a big renovation project. Many parts of the Himeji keep were closed to visitors at the time of our visit to Japan, and it is estimated that the entire renovation will not be completed until March, 2015.

It is a bit of a hike to get from the Hikone train station to Hikone castle… but it really is a pleasant walk to get there. Hopefully videos documenting this, and many other aspects of our trip, will be shared soon 😦

If going from Kyoto to Hikone, the easier option is to just take a JR commuter train (50 minutes, 1110 yen) that will take you the entire way. We opted for an alternative: we took the bullet train a short hop to Maibara, which actually goes past Hikone station a bit, then retraced and took a JR commuter train the opposite direction and went just one stop to Hikone station.

The "shinkansen" or bullet train as seen from Kyoto Tower. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 13, 2013
The “shinkansen” or bullet train as seen from Kyoto Tower. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 13, 2013

The bullet train selected for Kyoto-Maibara was the Kodama, which is the all stations bullet train service. A good majority of the seats on the Kodama are un-reserved – and cheaper – so the un-reserved tickets let us sit in any un-reserved seat on the train. This surcharge on top of the regular 1,110 yen fare is only 950 yen – so we paid 2,060 yen each for these tickets to Maibara. Then we purchased separate tickets (180 yen each) to go from Maibara to Hikone on the regular train. This was repeated for the journey back to Kyoto.

We opted for this alternative not just for the faster speed, but for the comfortable seating – not to mention the tray tables that allowed us a quick snack while on the 20 minute bullet train trip. These were things that we would not have gotten if just sticking on a commuter train for the entire trip.

Japan Diary – September 12, 2013 – Nara and Osaka

The reserved seat tickets for our trip to Nara. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 11, 2013

I am re-posting my diary from my September 2013 trip to Japan. This is the report from September 12 with my girlfriend (now fiance) Jordan which recounts our day trip to Nara and Osaka.

This morning we boarded the “Vista Train” at Kyoto station for the quick 35 minute hop to Nara, home of Todaiji Temple, and the Great Buddha statue housed in the world’s largest wooden building. It was quite a hike from the station, and again the weather was hot and humid.

We received a brief explanation from an English-speaking assistant at the entrance about the cultural significance of the temple. One of the more interesting facts that we learned is that the hall housing the great buddha statue is the third incarnation… previous builds were about 40% larger than what currently stands. The walk around was nice, and I can recall back to the last time I visited this hall in 2004.

Jordan interacts with deer in the city of Nara. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 12, 2013
Jordan interacts with deer in the city of Nara. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 12, 2013

On the way back and forth, we ran into a signature trademark of Nara: Deer on the road. Jordan and I bought deer snacks and the animals were happy to partake in the feast

Then it was on to Tempozan near the port of Osaka, home to one of the world’s tallest ferris wheels, one of the world’s largest aquariums, and a small mall to boot. It was here that we had the Osaka staple, Okonomiyaki, for lunch. Basically a cooked cabbage pancake filled with whatever ingredients one chooses… in this case the main ingredient was beef. It was Jordan’s first crack at the meal and both of us really enjoyed it. It was also the time that I reunited with green soda, melon flavored!

After the ferris wheel it was on to Kaiyukan (the aquarium), and we spent a good deal of the afternoon making our way around the tanks. She was happy to point out the large whale sharks that were on display, and other fish that were of particular interest. My favorite moment was the dolphin feeding, which I captured on video. We arrived just in time for it and the handlers were more than happy to feed them and have them do tricks for everyone!

The skies were dark as we left…. my feet were numb from standing in the commuter train as we got back to Kyoto. The day finished with dinner that Jordan was looking forward to partaking since we arrived, when she noticed a store selling large pork buns! Very delicious and professionally made, we might try this one more time before heading to Tokyo on Sunday.

Tomorrow’s plans…. not decided yet. We’ll rest and see what we decide to do.

ADDITIONAL COMMENTS

Okonomiyaki served at the Fugetsu restaurant at Tempozan Marketplace, Osaka. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 12, 2013
Okonomiyaki served at the Fugetsu restaurant at Tempozan Marketplace, Osaka. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 12, 2013

I am pretty sure that on my last trip to Japan in 2008, an old friend of mine – Sachiko – introduced me to Okonomiyaki. It’s been a few years… and I never realized how delicious it can be! It was a bit of an interesting experience the first time, with our lackluster (at best) command of the language… though after this visit we’d go back for Okonomiyaki in Kansai and Tokyo a few times before our flight back to New York. Jordan and I have yet to figure out what New York restaurants offer good Okonomiyaki 🙂

I should also mention that the routes we used for a majority of this day’s trip were fully covered by the Kansai Rail Pass. This included the Kintetsu from Kyoto to Nara, and again from Nara to Tempozan/Kaiyukan in Osaka. Many of the urban and suburban transit systems in Japan will often run on to other train lines. Case in point – from Nara we took the Kintetsu to an intermediate station, Ikoma – in the suburbs – where we switched to the Kintetsu Keihanna Line. 10 km and 4 stations west of Ikoma, the same train that we were on continued on to the Chuo Line of the Osaka Subway. This took us directly to Osaka-ko, the station for Tempozan and Kaiyukan, and eliminated the need to change between lines in the middle of Osaka. If you do your research, you can find alternates like this that will make your travel a little easier.

It got pretty late for us this day, so we opted paying for the faster (and as it so happened, crowded) JR line to go back to Kyoto.

Japan Diary – September 11, 2013 – Kyoto

Jose posing in front of Kinkakuji in Kyoto, September 11, 2013. Photo by Jordan Martin
Jose posing in front of Kinkakuji in Kyoto, September 11, 2013. Photo by Jordan Martin

I am re-posting my diary from my September 2013 trip to Japan. This is the report from September 11 while staying in Kyoto with my girlfriend (now fiance) Jordan.

Today was a whirlwind day of sightseeing that left us tired at the hotel when everything was all said and done.

First order of business was to go to Kyoto Station to purchase the three-day Kansai Thru Pass. This is an economical pass that allows unlimited travel on private railways in the Kansai region for 2 or 3 days, and it is only available to foreign tourists. With that done, we were on our way to the first destination, Kinkakuji Temple. We could have joined the long lines for the city bus at Kyoto Station, but instead we opted to take the subway, then take the bus. I can see why this method of travel is recommended… Hassle-free and room to sit (on a weekday morning, granted) and the trip was actually quicker.

Kinkakuji was a wonderful place – a first for me as I’ve never been there. The gold leaf plating was a sight to behold… of course, so impressive that we were not allowed within a good 20 feet of it…

Next stop was Ryoanji, which was a pretty quick trip on the then crowded bus. Ryoanji was our first stop in which our shoes had to be removed before entering.

The rock garden was beautiful… there are a total of 15 stones in the garden and it’s said that when viewing the garden from the angles provided, one rock is always hidden from view. Ryoanji was actually quite a small place otherwise. One thing I did notice was that there was a row of about 15 red water buckets lined up along the side of the main temple…. fire buckets in case the worst should happen.

Monkeys at Iwatayama Monkey Park in Kyoto - September 11, 2013. Photo by Jordan Martin
Monkeys at Iwatayama Monkey Park in Kyoto, September 11, 2013.
Photo by Jordan Martin

From there we walked to the tram for the trip to Arashiyama. After having a delicious curry lunch next to the station, we went to the Monkey Park. A long, looong uphill climb (for me at least… Jordan was fine) – but we were rewarded with monkeys and an impressive view of Kyoto City and the surrounding mountains from a height of approx. 520 feet above sea level.

We returned on the Hankyu Railway which zipped us back to the subway for the ride to the hotel.

This evening we went to Kyoto Station again for dinner at a rotating sushi restaurant, which was fun for the both of us – this is a place that I’ve been to now in each of the three trips I’ve made here, but the first time I’ve seen all of their menu items translated to English.

After the sushi we went to the Kintetsu Railway station to purchase our “Vista Car” limited express tickets for tomorrow’s journey to Nara, and called it a day.