No journey to Japan would be complete without taking a trip on their world famous Shinkansen (or bullet) trains. In operation since 1964, these high speed trains were developed as a means to boost economic growth by connecting Tokyo to various regions on the main island of Honshu.
As a regular visitor to Hokkaido, I was looking forward to making a long journey across Japan to see more of this beautiful country. As of 2016 it has been possible to make the undersea journey via high speed rail from Honshu to the northern island of Hokkaido, and the city of Hakodate. Travelling further north than Hakodate still requires use of the regular speed regional train network. The Shinkansen is scheduled to operate all the way to Sapporo by 2031.
After flying in to Haneda Airport (close to Tokyo), I headed to Tokyo station from Terminal 1 on the Monorail Haneda Express (¥650 with a transfer at Hamamatsuchō station). Flying in to Narita Airport would also require you transfer to Tokyo station, which is made easy via the NEX: Narita express train service.
Even though the Japanese train network is vast, with multiple operators, you’ll find all stations well signposted in English, making navigating your way to each railway station (or ‘eki’) fairly easy.
The Shinkansen ticket booth was easy to locate and a ticket travelling from Tokyo station to Hakodate was ¥22,650 (as of December 2017), taking just over 4hrs.
My journey was on the Shinkansen Hayabusa series, a train with a top speed of 320km/hr. This really makes the journey feel like a time warp as you view the late spring vistas around Tokyo turn into the depths of winter as you head north. There is no in seat entertainment system on the Shinkansen, but there were usb chargers and a cart with snacks and drinks for sale which laps the carriages every hour.
One thing to note on Japanese trains: there is not an abundance of space for luggage. Many of the older Shinkansen trains which operate on the main island will only have overhead racks, which are not quite wide enough to trust your suitcase on. The Shinkansen to Hokkaido, being fairly modern did have certain small areas for bag storage. I would imagine these would fill up very quickly in peak winter months though.
A great way to avoid lugging your baggage around is to do what the Japanese do – have your baggage sent via courier, using the trusty TA-Q-BIN service. Also known as Yamato Transport or ‘Black Cat’, I had two 23kg bags sent from Tokyo Haneda airport to Niseko for ¥4,600 arriving two days later – worth every penny when you have ski/board gear with you.
Soon enough you’ll find yourself disappearing into the Seikan Tunnel (53km) which links Honshu and Hokkaido, and is the world’s longest tunnel with an undersea segment. Once you emerge it’s not far to Hakodate, the third largest city in Hokkaido home to around 280 000 people and an abundance of great seafood!
The Shinkansen terminates at Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto station which is just north of the city. Hakodate is a great place to break up your trip, with plenty of great eateries and scenic locations to visit if you have the time. I chose to stay overnight so I could visit an izakaya, meet some locals, and explore the city quickly before continuing north the next day. A short train trip takes you south to the centre of Hakodate.
After a fun night exploring and a morning walk through the fish market, the journey continues north toward Niseko. From this point you’ll be taking standard speed trains again, as the Shinkansen infrastructure is still being constructed across Hokkaido. Hakodate station has english speaking staff walking around who will help you sort out tickets for your onward journey which makes things simple.
After leaving Hakodate (departing 10.58am), one final transfer at Oshamambe station is needed to reach Niseko. I chose Kutchan for my final stop (arriving 14:49pm), for a total cost ~ ¥5,500. It’s at this point you do appreciate how much distance you covered quickly from Tokyo while riding the Shinkansen, but with great scenery on offer I was in no hurry.
The final stretch towards Niseko was a great experience, with a good foot of snow across the tracks, the little regional train was charging it’s way though leaving huge plumes of dry Hokkaido pow in it’s wake! I figured this was a good omen for the winter ahead, stoked that I’d managed to make a few turns in pow without leaving the train. As it turns out, the 2017/18 season was absolutely huge, so I’m tempted to do the same journey again next winter!
While taking the train from Tokyo to Hokkaido is more expensive than flying with a cheap airline, the experience is definitely one to remember. The speed at which you cover ground while on the Shinkansen makes for a fascinating ride, you’ll see parts of Japan you’d never see another way, and bursting up into the Hokkaido winter makes for a stunning contrast from your mainland journey. Highly recommended!