Shinkansen Trip From Kyoto to Sapporo

Rinku town and Kansai Airport at night

(I wrote this one a few weeks back but didn’t post the pics until now, so here it is in its complete form!).

I’ve been here in Japan for a month and in true form haven’t provided much in the way of updates since then. Doh.

Here’s a catch-up post, with plenty of pictures and videos to keep things interesting.

Closeup of cherry blossoms along the Path of Philosophy
Closeup of cherry blossoms along the Path of Philosophy

Spring in Japan again! I was really happy to use jetlag to my advantage and wake up super early while staying in Kyoto, where I was able to walk over to a few areas that turned out to be almost empty, but were sure to get crowded later. I’ve found that this trick always works if you’re willing to wake up early enough - this also worked for Yosemite, a place as crowded as Disneyland. Except the trick there was to wake up before dawn…

Cherry blossoms along the Path of Philosophy
Cherry blossoms along the Path of Philosophy
Sparrow eating cherry blossoms at the Path of Philosophy

Anyhow, I really felt that one stroll through the fairly empty Path of Philosophy early in the morning was enough to satisfy me for the entire trip. I felt super happy, and was lucky to get some video of a fairly empty Path of Philosophy, around 7am or so.

With every passing hour it was noticeably getting more crowded, so my plan from there was to escape and head down for a walk along the Kamo river (Kamogawa), which is big enough that it never feels super crowded. It was also a good chance to revisit old favorite cafes like efish. Can’t beat Kyoto coffee culture!

Cherry blossom along the Kamogawa
Cherry blossom along the Kamogawa, with Kyoto Tower in the background
Kamogawa river near Kyoto station, with a bus in the middle of a bridge

After this I realized that I was pretty satisfied, and maybe even burnt out on crowds. I really felt like getting out if Kyoto, so I cancelled some hotels (with 100% refund, really easy to do when you book through Expedia). I realized that I got really burned out on tourists a lot sooner than I hoped. Knowing full well that I myself am a tourist of course, and that I’m contributing to the problem…

The planned crazy Shinkansen route, to fully take advantage of my JR Pass like never before

But this burnout happened to have good timing. I found out that Yuka was briefly headed to China for work, so it was a good time to activate my weeklong JR Pass and do something I’ve always wanted to do: abuse it as much as possible, traveling as far in one direction as I could. I always thought it would be fun to travel north to Hokkaido by shinkansen, and by good coincidence it turns out this wasn’t possible until the end of this March this year, when a stretch of track was just opened that went all the way to Hakodate. My eventual goal was to arrive at Sapporo by shinkansen, but that final stretch is still being constructed. But no worries, there was an express train there instead.

On the first day of my JR Pass adventure, I made an escape from Kyoto and headed northeast. I only stopped briefly in Tokyo to change shinkansen trains, then I was off again to Furukawa, a sleepy town just north of Sendai.

I’d randomly chosen to stop here before on a previous trip and enjoyed the slower pace. The town itself doesn’t really have much to offer, but that’s ok. I also knew that hotels were super cheap all around northern Japan - about 5000 yen ($45) for a decent business hotel with a good breakfast included. I could definitely stretch my money a lot further compared to more expensive and touristy places like Kyoto. I discovered a good business hotel chain there: Hotel Route Inn, which seems to serve all of northern Japan.

The next leg of the trip was from Furukawa to Hakodate, a small town in Hokkaido. Being in Hokkaido, this means the shinkansen ran out of land and would either have to go over or under the water to get to the island of Hokkaido. Disappointingly, it turned out to be under water: vast stretches of the trip that were in boring tunnels. I suppose the option to build a bridge would’ve provided a beautiful sight for passengers, at the expense of a maintenance nightmare, as this would mean repair crews would have to battle the harsh winters, exposed out on a bridge over the ocean. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the eventual Hakodate to Sapporo track will be underground for the same reason.

Hakodate manhole cover in black and white. There are more colorful versions through the city, but I didn't see them on this trip.
Hakodate streetcars at dusk

Hakodate was nice, although the touted night view from Mt. Hakodate was overcrowded with tourists. Especially Chinese tourists for some reason. I think the night view of city by the sea, with mountains in the background, is hard to beat. It’s worth seeing once though.

Hakodate beautiful sunset behind mountains, almost looks like a Hawaiian sunset
The famed Hakodate night view
What it's really like trying to get a picture of the Hakodate night view. Way too many people for comfort.

The last leg of the journey was from Hakodate to Sapporo on an express train. Not quite a shinkansen, so the trip covered comparatively little ground, but the train was nice and was setup nicely inside with assigned seats, tray tables for food, nice storage areas. It was an express train trying its hardest to be a shinkansen.

I didn’t mind the comparative slowness of this express train actually: the countryside here was probably the most beautiful part of the trainride, with ocean views and interesting forests and mountains with interesting shapes in the distance.

One thing that did surprise me about this stretch was that although the view of the ocean water very near the track was beautiful, there were vast stretches where pieces of trash had washed up on shore. There must’ve been thousands of fishing baubles and other random debris washed up there. I wondered to myself if it had always been like that, or if it was lingering trash from the tsunami five years before? Maybe no one cared about cleaning it up because these towns were out in the middle of nowhere. It is a shame though, since so much trash could be seen from the train. I would think even JR (the train company) might have an incentive to sponsor a beachside cleanup, to beautify the view for its passengers along this stretch?

I finally made it to Sapporo and stayed for two nights. It’s a big city but doesn’t feel overcrowded like other Japanese cities. Maybe because it was freezing outside - literally. There was sleet and snow while I was walking around - very strong bursts at times. I didn’t plan well for this - all I had packed that would help against this was a windbreaker.

It became too cold and soon it became clear I needed to take a building-by-building strategy, from heated building to another heated building.

Canon photo gallery? Ok why not, I like Canon. And it’s warm. When I eventually left, I made it a block or two until I got too cold, and saw the next building to go into.

A bookstore? Oh sure, I like books. And it’s warm. Oh, I forget that I’m illiterate here. English books are hard to find…

Ok, exit and walk another block through the sleet. 7-11? Hmm sure, I’m sure I could buy some random junkfood or something there. And it’s warm there.

A Sapporo 7-11 while it started snowing. I definitely stepped into this 7-11 for some warm comfort.

Walk a little further and see a Tully’s Coffee. Ok why not, I like coffee. And it’s warm.

Eventually I realized that having some insulation would be nice, if even for the day or two I was up there. I found some department stores, but the clothes were either too strange and peculiarly Japanese (and too small), or too foreign and therefore expensive. $700 jacket from Henry Cottens Italy? No thanks, that’s more than I’m paying for rent here in Osaka (my rent is 50000 yen, less than $500).

I settled for some long underwear and undershirt from Uniqlo, then put them on in a bathroom. Now I could go out and take pictures in the snow!

But unfortunately I kind of squandered my opportunity to take interesting snowy city pictures of Sapporo. I was walking around all day with my 24mm lens, which is a difficult focal length to work with. Should’ve probably stuck with my trusty 50mm.

Delicious Sapporo ramen

On this trip I also learned to pack a bit smarter. On previous trips I’d brought a massive suitcase and packed way too much stuff. I remember one longterm trip where I’d packed a flatbed photo scanner, just because I could really. And I thought I needed it, to scan forms that I needed to sign or something. I’m still not entirely sure what I was thinking.

I guess way back then I learned that packing a massive suitcase was somewhat doable but a real hassle, especially when transporting it from place to place. For instance, when traveling on the shinkansen you can only hope that there’s space at the back of the traincar to store the suitcase. There’s some limited space there, and it turns out not to be an issue, but it’s far more convenient to have multiple bags which can be broken down and stored in the overhead compartment (kinda like an airplane, but uncovered), which is what I did this trip.

Another hassle of super large bags is that they can only be stored in super large coin lockers, which are hard to find and more limited. Also, good luck trying to find one during this time of year, which is the most popular time to visit…

Anyhow, the moral of the story is that on this trip I traveled smarter. Of course the less the better, so I think I could definitely improve it still.