Travelling between Tōkyō and Hokkaidō has never been easier, with new high-speed rail services whisking passengers from the Japanese capital to Hakodate in under four and a half hours. Today, let’s see what it’s like to zoom all the way up to the great big north on an unbroken run along two shinkansen lines: one of which is the country’s longest, and the other its newest.
Welcome aboard the Hayabusa – the fastest service on the Tōhoku and Hokkaidō Shinkansen.
Country : Japan
Railway company : JR East (Tōhoku Shinkansen) / JR Hokkaidō (Hokkaidō Shinkansen)
Railway line : Tōhoku Shinkansen (Tōkyō to Shin-Aomori, 674.9 km) and Hokkaidō Shinkansen (Shin-Aomori to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto, 148.8 km)
Service type : Shinkansen
Service name/designation : Hayabusa 1
Rolling stock : E5 Series Shinkansen, set U10
Top operating speed : 320 km/h
Travel class : Green Car
Date of journey : Monday, 02 October 2017
Origin : Tōkyō Station (dep. 06:32)
Destination : Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station (arr. 10:57)
Distance travelled : 823.7 km
Journey time : 4 hours, 25 minutes
Although the Tōkyō-Hakodate route encompasses the full length of two shinkansen lines (each under a different JR company), Hayabusa trains operate as through services that seamlessly transition from JR East’s territory into JR Hokkaidō’s. No transfers are required at Shin-Aomori Station – which marks the boundary between the two shinkansen service zones – and tickets issued for the journey will reflect a single, unbroken run.
Do note that Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station is located about 16 kilometres (as the crow flies) from downtown Hakodate. Passengers bound for the city centre must transfer from the shinkansen to a Hakodate Main Line train, the fastest of which – a rapid service known as the Hakodate Liner – can cover the distance in 15 minutes or so. I’ve written a separate post describing this simple transfer.
Incidentally, Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station is the current terminus of the new Hokkaidō Shinkansen, with the remaining stretch to Sapporo (now under construction) not expected to enter service for another decade or so. At the moment, passengers continuing on to Sapporo must change to a limited express service that will bring them to their final destination in about 3.5 hours.
Let’s have a look at the route. Bear in mind that Google Maps may generate different results – including non-rail options – depending on the settings used, so the track shown below won’t necessarily reflect the actual path taken by the train. (I can tell you right now that the version I’m seeing looks nothing like the journey I took.) It should, however, give a general idea of the direction and distance involved.
As of the date of my trip (02 October 2017), a one-way all-inclusive ticket – covering the base fare, shinkansen/express surcharge, and seat reservation fee – for the roughly 4.5-hour journey from Tōkyō Station to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station would have cost the following, depending on the preferred class of travel:
– Ordinary Car (“economy class”): JPY 22,690
– Green Car (“first class”, the best available on most JR services): JPY 30,060
– Gran Class Car (unique to a few JR shinkansen services, effectively a “class above first”): JPY 38,280
These prices have held steady as of this writing, based on a trial search done shortly before publication. Needless to say, they remain subject to change without notice.
Note that seat reservations are mandatory on all Hayabusa services, so there’s no option to book a non-reserved seat (which costs a bit less than a physically identical, but reserved, Ordinary Car seat).
Using a Japan Rail Pass
Now then, how much would this journey cost a traveller with a valid nationwide version of the Japan Rail Pass? (Not counting the initial investment in the pass itself, of course.)
If you’ve got an Ordinary-type JR Pass, you can reserve an Ordinary Car seat free of charge. The pass will fully cover the cost of your trip: the base fare, shinkansen/express surcharge, and seat reservation fee are all included. However, if you’d like to use either the Green Car or Gran Class Car, the pass will only cover the base fare – you’ll need to pay the shinkansen/express surcharge and Green or Gran Class fee up front when making a seat reservation. Bear in mind that this will add up to a rather large amount, far more than just the simple difference between a full-fare Ordinary Car ticket and its Green or Gran Class equivalents.
If you’ve got a more expensive Green-type JR Pass, you can reserve either an Ordinary Car seat or a Green Car seat free of charge, with all cost components fully covered. (Note that booking an Ordinary seat with a Green JR Pass will not entitle you to any sort of refund, whether full or partial, of the difference between a full-fare Ordinary and Green ticket.) However, if you’d like to use the Gran Class Car, even a Green-type pass will only cover the base fare – the shinkansen/express surcharge and Gran Class fee will have to be paid on booking.
Do bear in mind that depending on the details of your itinerary, one of the various regional rail passes offered by JR East might be more cost-effective than a nationwide JR Pass – although only one of these covers the entire journey described in this post. Alternatively, using no rail pass at all (i.e., simply buying tickets as needed) may work best for some travellers, both in terms of price and flexibility. As always, it pays to do some careful research (HyperDia is a great tool for assessing route options and costs) before choosing whether or not to use a rail pass.
I’ll edit this section in due course (to add more detail) – for the moment, you can look up the various options for purchasing tickets and reserving seats on this JR East page.
Unfortunately, I didn’t take a lot of pictures during the actual journey reviewed here. For this section (re: the rolling stock) and the one following (re: the interiors), I’ve expanded the gallery with snapshots of a different trainset – but of exactly the same model/type – that I rode in on a southbound trip (done on 05 October).
Now then, let’s have a look at the beast that will take us to Japan’s far north: an E5 Series Shinkansen train. I’m quite familiar with the rolling stock, having taken Tōhoku Shinkansen services countless times in recent years (regularly in E5s), but today’s was by far the longest ride I’ve experienced on this model.
The specific unit I rode on the northbound run was U10, constructed by Hitachi and delivered on 30 January 2012.
E5s operated as Hayabusa services are regularly coupled with E6 Series Shinkansen trains working under the Komachi brand. The two sets travel as a single train along the Tōhoku Shinkansen as far north as Morioka, where they separate, and the Komachi E6 then swings westwards towards Akita on the Akita Shinkansen line. About a minute later, the Hayabusa E5 resumes its northwards march to complete the Tōhoku Shinkansen run up to Shin-Aomori, and then further on to Hakodate on the Hokkaidō Shinkansen. Here’s the link between the two trains…
…and a shot of the E6 travelling with my E5. This sleek red sprinter is unit Z5, assembled by Hitachi and delivered on 14 February 2013.
I won’t say more about the E6 here, but you’ll find more images of that train type in this previous post.
Now then, let’s swing the spotlight back onto the E5 series. The set shown below is U19, built by Kawasaki and delivered on 12 October 2012, which I rode three days after my journey on its identical sister U10.
Right, let’s get ourselves on board.
INTERIORS AND SEATING
JR East’s E5 trains are operated in 10-car formations, numbered 1 through 10 (with Car 1 at the end facing towards Tōkyō terminal). Cars 1 through 8 are Ordinary compartments fitted with a total of 658 seats, arranged 3+2 abreast. Car 10 is equipped with 18 Gran Class seats, installed in a far more comfortable 2+1 arrangement.
Car 9, which I used on this journey, is a Green Car equipped with a total of 55 seats, 2+2 abreast. Green Cars are the equivalent of First Class on most limited express and shinkansen services run by the JR Group, and are usually the highest class of service available. The recent introduction of Gran Class on E5 and H5 trains on the Tōhoku and Hokkaidō Shinkansen, as well as E7 and W7 trains on the Hokuriku Shinkansen, effectively created a “class above first”, akin to the super-premium cabins or enclosed “suites” offered by some full-service airlines.
Unfortunately, access to that premium cabin requires paying a premium price, and not even my Green JR Pass will cover anything beyond the base fare. No matter – the “regular” first class comfort offered by the Green Car should more than suffice for even the longest journeys.
To reiterate, the images shown in this section were snapped on E5 set U19 (which I travelled in on 05 October), not U10 (the train I used for the 01 October journey reviewed in this post). That said, the interiors of E5s are pretty much identical across the fleet: you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
The E5 (and related H5) Green Car seats are amongst the most comfortable I’ve used on the JR Group’s vast shinkansen network. The leg rests are of sufficient length to provide adequate support (for not-particularly-tall folk anyway) – unlike, say, the laughably short ones on the E6, which left my lower limbs feeling a bit less than cosy after a while. Combined with the right amount of recline, a perfectly adjusted E5/H5 Green Car seat has allowed me to relax quite well on many a long shinkansen journey … indeed, almost to the point where I couldn’t relax for fear of falling fast asleep and missing my stop.
Generous legroom, but no footrests. Folding cup holders next to the seat pockets, which contain a small selection of reading material (usually one or two magazines, a retail catalogue, and a buy-on-board menu). The folding tray table is of the standard shinkansen/aeroplane type, and the surface can slide back or forwards a few inches.
The seat controls – reading light, leg rest, and back recline – are built into the centre armrest, which is also equipped with two power outlets (AC 100V/2A/50HZ) designed to accommodate standard Japanese plugs (a pair of flat pins).
Here’s one of the lobby areas between compartments. There’s a fully-equipped toilet with button-operated door for those with special needs, as well as a normal facility for everyone else. Outside the toilet booths, there’s a washbasin with built-in soap dispenser, faucet, and hand dryer (all automated).
I think we’re all set for the journey as far as the hardware is concerned. Now then, let’s have a look at the…
Once upon a time, Green Car passengers travelling on the Tōhoku Shinkansen could look forward to a complimentary beverage. Those days are long gone – well, not all that long, I experienced it myself just a few years back – and the only free perks now offered on the Hayabusa are reserved for the Gran Class passengers up front.
That said, the usual cart loaded with food, beverages, and other merchandise did roll past a few times during the journey. As I often do on shinkansen trips, I purchased a small tub of my favourite vanilla ice cream (JPY 290) to complete the ekiben breakfast I’d just enjoyed.
Speaking of which … let’s grab a bite to eat. (^_^)
Ekiben are perhaps one of the most enjoyable perks of a long-distance rail journey in Japan. All major stations – particularly shinkansen stops – will have one or more shops stocked with these delicious, beautifully presented packed lunches, even if it’s just a trackside kiosk or (in some cases) a folding stall set up to hawk local specialities. My starting point, Tōkyō Station, has an enormous selection available across scores of retail outlets (Ekiben-ya Matsuri is particularly large); far too varied are the options for me to even begin describing them here. There’s also the onboard cart as a last resort, though the selection will be quite limited compared to the range available at a station.
So, to cut the long story short, here are my provisions for the long trip up north. Two bentō on this occasion: a hearty meat-heavy one for breakfast, plus a lighter veg-based meal to serve as an early lunch. Unfortunately, I can’t recall the prices I paid for each, but the first definitely cost a lot more than the second.
Which should come as no surprise, considering that it’s filled with Yonezawa beef (one of the most highly regarded variants of wagyū) done three ways: sliced grilled steak, hamburger patty, and diced steak.
Aaaargh. I wish I could reach into my computer monitor, pull out that box, and enjoy its delicious contents all over again.
Much later into the journey, I enjoyed a simple vegetarian meal packed within a rather nice-looking box (just foam, but made to look like bamboo).
Not quite as fancy as the Yonezawa beef breakfast, but scrumptious in its own way. Moreover, this particular meal acquired a special significance as our train crossed from Honshū to Hokkaidō through the Seikan Tunnel, hundreds of feet below the waters of the Tsugaru Strait. With a few morsels remaining that I’d saved specifically for the occasion, I tucked into the very first undersea meal of my entire life. (^_^)
As for the ride quality – hmm, not much I can say on that score, really. But that’s a good thing, because I felt very little that would require remarking upon. The ride was silky smooth as per shinkansen standards, with any lateral pitching kept well under control. Acceleration out of stations, and deceleration towards them, was likewise deftly managed, with jerking and shudder adeptly minimised.
Whilst not my longest continuous rail journey – that honour belongs to my overnight trip on the Sunrise Izumo – this was the longest uninterrupted shinkansen run I’d taken up to that point. A train ride of nearly 4.5 hours might seem like a daunting prospect, but this was something I actually found myself looking forward to, given the well-deserved reputation of Japan’s shinkansen network for safety, reliability, convenience, and comfort. I’m pleased to report that my experience on this particular journey was all but faultless, and I shall gladly make use of the same service on future travels along this route.
Do bear in mind that, as I’ve mentioned earlier, the city centre of Hakodate is quite some distance away from Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station, so a change of trains is needed if you’re heading downtown. Click here to read my next post, which sets out further details on how to make this easy transfer.