4 days train’ng around Eastern Japan

Over the past months my passport has taken a slight beating, which on the whole is a dream come true. However, in true cliché fashion, the reality of my dream to travel with work has come with a few variations from the initial plan: Short nights, plenty of time between the airport, the taxi, the hotel and office – with far less time in the local homes, up the mountains or down that interesting looking street over there. Do I regret it? Absolutely not. Have I become slightly wiser? I like to think so. I’ll list the broad summary of this at the end of the post, but let’s first get to the post itself ^^

At the start of this year I promised myself I would set foot in Japan again in 2016. While reasonable in theory, there quickly came a time when I could count the amount of free weekend left on my finger tips. So, the last leave days were scrapped together and a plan was made. Or rather, flights, a visa and a JR pass (East + South Hokkaido) were obtained and the rest was left for later. Don’t want to know what happened? Then stop reading ^^ For the rest, here’s a summary and some lessons of my short endeavor through snow and sleet:

The context:

  • Thursday 8am arrival at Narita, Tokyo
  • First night in Sendai
  • Second night in Sapporo
  • Third night back in Sendai
  • Fourth night in Tokyo
  • Monday morning 8:35am departure from Narita, Tokyo

It was quick, not the most efficient on cash, included plenty of train’ng-time and didn’t allow me to laze around outside too much. It was also fun, allowed me to see a part and seasonal view of Japan I haven’t before and let me meet plenty of new people.

The highlights:

  • Zao Fox Village

The village wasn’t quite what I expected (Nara, minus deer, plus foxes) but seeing so many foxes up close is still lovely all said. I’m not a fan of zoo environments though, so it’s a tricky one to reconcile.

Sharing a taxi from Shiroishizao station was a great boon, and the new friends we made at the village who gave us a ride back in their car to Sendai deserved more hugs than they would accept. On the return journey we didn’t take breaks at any good photo locations, but autumn was still in strong attendance around the area and it looked majestic.

  • Izakaya magic

Not sure where to spend some free time out of the weather? Lonely and looking for some company? Hungry or thirsty? Bored or in need of some surprises in life? I do so love the bar seating and eventually conversation it almost guarantees.

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Sitting down with no understanding of the menu and trouble pointing at what others are having seemed no problem for the staff at this place. In minutes we had incorrectly ordered both food and drink and it wasn’t long after that we were blessed with some great company, who spoke no English but was all too happy to let us struggle along with garbage Japanese and the occasional translation.

  • Weather and seasons

The Japanese weather was most definitely on our side during these 4/5 days. At arrival our metal bird raced snowflakes down to the tarmac. Outside the city, on the train to Shiroishizao station, we went through a landscape that Snowpiercer would  have been proud of.

After that, closer to Sendai, we were suddenly back in autumn, with many trees still sporting the last yellow halos of the season.

In Sapporo, the temperature dropped and darkness set in early, making the iced streets a little tricky for those not used to it. Snow wasn’t a feature though, leaving the air crisp and clear during the fewer hours of daylight.

  • Onsens

The first onsen we visited was in Jozankei, a onsen town 40+ minutes outside of Sapporo central. The town offers a direct bus package from Sapporo station, which is great as you get to choose which onsen you wish to enter and have no worry on transport. Our choice was Jozankei View Hotel, which turned out to be a 16-story spa resort. It has some really nice pools in the basement levels (built above the river on an incline) but is a little ‘big’ for my taste. I was also a bit sick this day, worried about being late for my train and unsuccessfully trying to hitchhike at one point (inclusive of the classic water-splash from a passing car, which at that temperature was mostly iced sludge).

Onsen number two was in Sakunami, a onsen town 40+ minutes outside of Sendai (via train this time). At the station you can wait for different hotels’ shuttles, which come past after every train arrival and deposit you minutes later at the door of your selected establishment. My choice was Ichinobu Hotel (the bus is yellow ^^ come on). The hotel is lovely, the pools even more so. Due to the limbo-time of year we missed out on the good views of the forested hills, but the feeling of departure from high-traffic areas really made the atmosphere.

  • Couchsurfing and friends

Japan was the first country I ever tried couchsurfing in and, just as back then, the experience was great! Between Sendai, Sapporo and Tokyo (I owe you Motoki ;)) we were warmly welcomed into equally warm homes, making new friends and sharing old and new stories.

Between mr Cub, sukiyaki, nabe, Coco, Grandma’s Izakaya and other memories, I can say it was a blessing to meet such lovely people (: Couchsurfing always holds that special perspective of a life lived locally.

Apart from the new friends I was hoping to bump into a few familiar faces also. It is a good feeling when you recognize someone in the crowd, bonus points to anyone gunning for a hug. In this connected world it still holds such value when you finally get to sit down together in person.

  • Train tracks

So, as you may have deduced, to cover such distances in 4/5 days requires a certain amount of time in transit. Good think we are in Japan. The trains are clean, well-timed, they run quite smooth (especially bullet trains) and if you have a ticket/pass you can simply walk through the gates and onto the train from the platform. You aren’t technically allowed to make cup ramen on them it turns out, but you may bring most other food and drink onto the train or purchase what you want from the service provided.

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At this point then please let me emphasise the magic of a JR pass. Shinkansens are expensive, very expensive in fact. If you plan to visit Japan and move any large distance at ‘bullet-speed’, it’s worth making a quick calculation about your options. Here’s an example using my trip:

  • Narita – Tokyo (express) = ~3’000yen
  • Tokyo – Shiroishizao (Shinkansen) = ~10’000yen
  • Sendai – Sapporo (Shinkansen + local express) x2 = ~42’000yen
  • Sendai – Tokyo (Shinkansen) = ~11’000yen
  • Tokyo – Narita (skyliner) = Not Covered
  • Total: ~66’000yen
  • Cost of my JR Pass: ~28’000yen
  • What I saved: ~38’000yen

I’ll leave the rest of the detail on how they work to you, but please do take advantage of this if it fits your plans (or lack thereof).

The aftermath:

And just as suddenly we are back at our desk at home, staring down the slippery slope of pre-xmas days. A short while of smiling like an idiot already starting to get hazy, so it’s good I have so many photos of this. How funny our memories work in molding overall perceptions of any period of time though.

This then closes the book for 2016 on the blog. Not our cleanest post, but one that was overdue to round off the last quarter of this year. Looking at 2017 there is bound to be plenty of new adventures in and around Asia again. Currently high priorities include Nepal and Vietnam, two countries I’m very excited to spend extended periods in.


As promised, a look at where the passport pages have gone since Mid-September:

  • Indonesia (4)
  • Malaysia (2)
  • Thailand
  • Myanmar
  • Taiwan
  • India
  • China
  • Japan

ƒ

What’s playing: Joe Hisaishi – Summer
Where to next: family xmas in SA ❤
What’s news: JLPT N4 is over, culture-balance may resume

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