Japan's Longest Train Journey

Trip Start Jan 07, 2011
Trip End Jan 31, 2011

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Flag of Japan  , Kinki,
Friday, January 14, 2011

It may have started like just another day in Furano but instead of hitting the slopes after breakfast Mum, Dad and I were farewelling our relatives, who were to stay on in Furano for another week. Dad was a bit concerned about our on time performance so we ended up arriving at Furano Station in a taxi half an hour before the train was due to depart at 10:04am. The single DMU railcar arrived quite a while prior to departure so we had a chance to settle on board and find space for our luggage. The trip down the valley was pretty much the same as the trip up, although this time we had no anxiety about where to get off and how much time we'd have since the station we needed to get off at, Takikawa, was the terminus of this service.

At Takikawa we started to get the impression that things were not running as they should. The connecting service that we were booked on, another Super Kamui train, was mentioned in platform announcements that we couldn't understand as they were in Japanese only and as time passed it became evident that the train would be late. The train before it was quite late and hours was running right behind it, making for a 10 minute delay on our service. At least the delay meant that we were able to appreciate the visual spectacle of departing and arriving trains being chased by their self-made snowstorms.

During the trip the snow became really heavy in places and by the time we arrived in Sapporo it looked as though most services were delayed by at least 10 minutes. Assuming the best of the Japanese rail system we still banked on the Twilight Express departing on time at 2:05pm, so we had just over an hour to have lunch and get to the train. After a bit of exploration we settled on a restaurant in the Paseo JR Tower mall. While we waited for our food to be delivered I did some reconnaissance work around the station to identify suitable coffee vendors for the parents and ekiben (“station bento”) vendors from which to procure dinner for our long trip ahead. Lunch didn't take long to arrive so it was a bit cold by the time I got back to eat it but my recon work proved valuable in saving us time. I showed the parents to an ekiben stall and once we had deliberated mum grabbed coffee from Starbucks while I guided Dad to a nice looking cake shop.

Loaded with supplies we found our respective places on Sapporo's platform 4 (I was in car 6 while the parents were in car 2) and waited for the train. 2:05pm came and went and thus it became clear that the Twilight Express was also to fall victim to the day's late running. Most of our fellow passengers left the platform, heading down into the warm to pass the time as they could understand the announcements that were being made. I deciphered one that I think indicated that our train would be 20 minutes late, but by this time we had already been waiting in the freezing cold for 15 minutes. Around 2:25pm the other passengers returned to the platform and the train finally materialised at 2:30pm. As it slowly pulled up at the platform people were filming, taking photos and were visually excited, much more so than for other “normal” trains. The Twilight Express was a special journey, not simply a way to get from A to B.

Boarding for me was pretty straightforward so I was soon settling in to my cramped single cabin, searching for room to put my case. Once my ticket had been checked I headed up to car 2 to see that the parents had made it on board fine, which they had. Their Royal room was easily 3 times the size of mine and had its own shower and toilet yet cost less than twice as much, making it much better value. That said, I was pretty satisfied with my little cabin – it was snug and efficient.

Clearly our late departure was affecting our on time performance – we were stopping frequently and sometimes for long periods, often being passed by other, presumably more on time, trains. I was aware that this would compound and it was likely that we would end up getting into Kyoto more than the 30 minutes that we were late on departure, but we had a long trip ahead of us so optimism seemed appropriate. Plus, we were eating the chocolate cake obtained at Sapporo Station so it was a good time. The parents and I ventured down to the “Salon du Nord” lounge car to sit on its comfortable lounge and gaze out its large windows while trying to enjoy the terrible wine that Mum and Dad received to welcome them to their Royal room. They should've chosen the whisky.

I returned to my cabin to rearrange my things and start typing some of this entry, figuring out that I could put my case on the unused upper bunk. Being a snug little room the hardest part of this manoeuvre was squeezing the case between the wall and the edge of the bunk! It was soon time to pop back up to Mum and Dad's cabin to eat the ekibens, which were tasty and fresh as expected. These were the parents' first bento experience in Japan and I'm pleased that ekibens have also made it onto the list of acceptable foods.

A little more entry typing and music listening in my room rounded out my night before I changed my 2 facing single sofas into their bed mode, where they go flat and join in the middle. This was my first experience sleeping on a train parallel to the direction of travel, as there were single sleepers on both sides of the aisle in the carriage, necessitating this orientation otherwise the beds would've been too short, even for Japanese people! The quality of my sleep wasn't fantastic, although this could be more to do with the state of the track, rather than the orientation of the bed. However, a parallel bed such as mine is subject to more problems associated with rough track than a perpendicular bed, as I felt like I was going to be thrown onto the floor when we hit a rough corner.

Breakfast was at 7:30 in the “Diner Pleides” car with the parents and wasn't too bad, although a bit pricey (not unexpected in a captive market like this). On the subject of food pricing, we had decided against having the dinner offered by the train as it cost a whopping 15000 Yen (around $180 AUD) each! It wasn't hard to get up in time as when the first call was made at 7am some of my fellow passengers immediately lit up their cigarettes (yes, it's a smoking train) so the smell slowly infiltrated my cabin. Although the smoking was an inconvenience I'll hand it to the Japanese because each cabin had its own extraction fan, independent heating and control of grates to the hall and communal air conditioning, allowing one to limit the impact of smoking.

Although travel seemed to be more consistent, with less stopping and starting than the previous evening, we had an idea that we were still running late. It was not until we stopped at a station and I noticed that the platform display for our train showed that we were due there at 5:29am that I understood the severity of our delay. It was 9:19am when I read that display, indicating a delay of some 3 hours and 50 minutes. Although Japan is traditionally known as the country for fantastically on time trains it was becoming apparent that my luck of consistently delayed sleeper train services around the world had struck again. There was no way we were getting back from this delay. We were way outside of our allocated time and we were just going to have to slot in where we could, with low priority so as not to delay other services.

My time through the longer than expected daytime running was divided between stints in the parents' room and lounge car in the company of Mum and Dad as well as time in my own cabin, reclining in my bed listening to music and of course typing this entry for you to read. The lounge time was good for me because, unlike my parents' room that had a window to the aisle that corresponded with an external window, I only had my main cabin window to look out and thus missed one half of the view. The orientation of the seats in the lounge was towards the west, which happened to be the opposite side of my cabin window, which was convenient.

As we travelled the train slowly emptied of passengers. I was surprised at how many people disembarked on the west coast of Japan. Whether this was because of our delay or a lack of regular train services and direct flights making this journey a more viable and attractive option, I'm not sure. Relatively few people appeared to travel all the way down to Kansai like us.

The benefit of seeing more of Japan with the extra hours of daylight running thanks to our delay didn't fully outweigh the inconvenience of our delay as we saw our planned afternoon of sightseeing in Kyoto disappear and the on board restaurant not have food in stock to offer a lunch service, plus the on board vending machine having a limited and dwindling selection of food. All that said, the view was great and we all enjoyed the journey, even if it wasn't quite as planned. We started in the thick snow of Hokkaido, woke to more snow in north-western Japan and mainly followed the coast south until the snow was replaced with rain, then more snow and finally clear skies as we headed south-east through the mountains towards Kyoto. Fields became towns and cities and then fields again, growing larger and smaller, stretching into the distance or just filling a single backyard. Mountains came and went, as did beaches, highways, other railways and stations filled with people. We were strangers passing through a lot of a long country, made even stranger and more special by our delay. People walking and driving along parts of the line we were travelling along would look up, surprised to see this long, green, loco-hauled train making its way down the line, as if they'd never seen it before. I really hope that this kind of delay is unusual.

Mum, Dad and my journey on Japan's longest single train journey came to an end in Kyoto almost 5 hours late at 5:05pm, after having travelled for 27 hours and 35 minutes, instead of the timetabled 22 hours and 10 minutes.

Easing our delay pain was the Hotel Granvia, located inside the funky modern Kyoto Station building. This nice high-class hotel was a short walk from our arrival platform and the extremely hospitable staff have made our arrival a breeze. We've just returned from a fantastic mixed buffet dinner, which included all you can drink beverages, made to order crepes, a large selection of ice cream, a chocolate fondue fountain, clam salad, sausage and potato salad, fresh crab, sea urchins, deer consumée and great sushi. I'm looking forward to the rest of our stay here, not least because our massive 11th floor window has an outstanding view of the Kyoto Station platforms and their busy comings and goings.
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