Friday, November 13, 2015

Riding the Cassiopeia night train through Japan - 10/23-24/2015

Last month, my wife and I finally fulfilled a bucket list item in probably our last chance to do so - we rode the Cassiopeia train from Tokyo (Ueno) to Sapporo. It took us years to finally get tickets, and we had to pay through the nose for them. Above is the full video chronicle of the trip.

This train is the last scheduled service in Japan to offer a dining car, and it might be the last overnight train making regular runs between cities. (There's a budding "cruise train" industry there, but these trains don't really go anywhere... they just kinda drive around for a while.) Cassiopeia's being discontinued next year once the first part of the Hokkaido Shinkansen opens up, so it was now or never. We bought our tickets through Yahoo! Auctions - and yes, there was a bidding war.

We didn't actually get the "Deluxe Suite with View" pictured here - it's impossible. You can probably see why. This is the only room like this on the train.

And what a beautiful train it is - all shiny and silver and clean, and a perfectly matched set. It hearkens back to the days of streamliners in the United States.

I've been taking long-distance trains all my life in the States - I love it, though I never lived through those glory years. I do have some built-in expectations from that Amtrak experience. In a lot of ways, it was surprising how similar riding Cassiopeia was to riding any of Amtrak's long-haul trains. Of course, like everything else in Japan, in other ways it was a different world.

Cassiopeia's terminal stop in Ueno is really nothing special for what's reputed to be a "luxury" train. There's certainly no red carpet, and the only waiting area is a small set of plastic chairs - it looks like any commuter stop. Immediately I noticed people lining up in a certain spot, but neither I nor my wife knew why, so initially we ignored it while I took video and pics. Too bad!

Turns out the line was for the shower signup, and it was ridiculous. Once the train arrived, an attendant in car #4 started taking names for the public shower. This took forever, I mean I got in it 30 minutes before departure and I was worried we wouldn't even actually make it onto the train before it left. This is the front of the line above - we still hadn't even made it on the train at this point. Of course, by the time we got up there, shower times were all gone. All that waiting for nothing! I had also wanted to take video from our room as we left, but I had to get it while standing in line. This became a theme for the trip.

Here's our room from the outside (this was actually in Sapporo, which is why only this picture looks rainy).

The steps up to our room! We were in car 7, room 22. The train is bilevel, and luckily our room was on top. There's a little spiral staircase that takes you up there. Unlike Amtrak, Cassiopeia's rooms have a combination lock, so you can leave your valuables in there without worrying about it.

And the luxurious interior! This is a Twin, which is the best we could get. These are the standard rooms on the train, made for two people with two extra-wide chairs that convert into beds, and a private bathroom but no shower. I was curious if I'd be able to stand up in our room because the Cassiopeia is no taller than single-level trains, and the answer is no! I had to hunch over to walk around, but in practice it was no big deal because 99% of the time, we were sitting or laying down. The bathroom is in the middle of the car (to the left of this photo) where the roof is highest so I was able to fully stand in there, but walking back and forth was a little bit of a challenge. (The hallway to walk from car to car is at a normal height, so that was no problem.)

Otherwise, the room was extremely comfortable, with plenty of space to stretch out. It was laid out slightly differently but the total amount of space was easily equal to or better than an Amtrak bedroom (not the roomette). Unfortunately some of the space is wasted while you're awake since it's just there to put your feet while sleeping; one person sleeps lengthwise while the other sleeps widthwise, and your heads meet in the middle. But I still had no complaints at all about comfort or space.

My wife's become a big fan of overnight trains since meeting me. She'd never experienced one before (like most Japanese these days, she just took the shinkansen or flew everywhere), but now she loves it as much as I do. So she asked the conductor why they were discontinuing the train when there was obviously so much demand - why not just raise prices? The conductor told her the trains are actually getting old, and a lot of things are breaking down. Of course, by Amtrak standards the Cassiopeia is practically brand new, but this is Japan - 16 years old is ancient, and honestly Japanese trains aren't built to last. So it made some sense to think that maintenance might not only be a rising cost but also a problem in keeping the trains running at all. There are only four sets, so they all need to be in running condition to make the schedule.

After our conductor checked our tickets, we headed to the lounge car, which is a real observation lounge in the style of something like the old Milwaukee Road Skytop Lounges. At this point of the trip it was actually hooked to the front of the train, but interestingly enough the Cassiopeia makes several directional changes along the way, giving both passengers in the lounge and in the Deluxe Suite at the other end of the train a chance to have an unobstructed view for part of the trip. There are three engine changes, and each time they just hook the new engine to the other end of the train.

We knew already that we would need to wait to eat in the dining car until after the main dinner seating. You basically have to make a reservation when you buy tickets, and we couldn't do it while outside Japan, so they were sold out by the time we landed at Narita. After the regular dinner service they have 45 minutes of "pub time" where you can get simpler meals without a reservation. We asked our car attendant if it's necessary to line up and he recommended we do so 15 minutes ahead of time. We tripled that and got there at 9PM - and we were glad we did, because we managed to get a table for two, while not everybody behind us got in at all.

I was totally happy with my meal (beef stew with rice) while my wife only had an order of sausages because she'd already eaten some "ekiben" just in case we didn't make it in. It was really nice having a table for two in a dining car - this is not something Amtrak offers. (On the other hand, there's virtually no chance of not being able to even sit in an Amtrak dining car.) There's no way to really have a romantic meal in the dining car on an Amtrak train - every meal is a social event, with strangers at your table.

After dinner, we made our beds and tried to sleep. I have a hard time sleeping on trains because of the "surprise" bumps that inevitably happen - any time we hit a particularly strong bump or lurch to the side, I wake up. Also any time we stop. Or go slow. Pretty much anything outside of normal smooth running at high speed will wake me up. So I was in and out of consciousness all night, despite what felt like a long stretch where we were going about 10mph. I found out the next morning that they had padded the schedule with an extra two hours vs. the online schedule I found for this train - so I guess they expected it, but I thought we were late for most of the morning.

Overnight, the train goes through the Seikan Tunnel, the longest undersea tunnel in the world, and the deepest. I heard and felt it, but was dozing at the time so I didn't pay much attention. I was a little afraid of waking up, because honestly being under the actual ocean kind of freaks me out.

We lined up for breakfast in the dining car 30 minutes before it opened, and we still weren't at the head of it. Luckily we managed again to get a table for two, and breakfast was actually really tasty and filling. There's just something about eating while watching the scenery go by...

After breakfast, we hit the lounge car again one last time, both for the experience and to see the new power we'd acquired overnight. This train starts with a purpose-built EF510 electric from Ueno (usually in Cassiopeia colors, though ours was in the blue Hokutosei scheme), then an ED79 diesel-electric overnight, then a couple of DD51 diesels for the non-electrified rural sections of Hokkaido. The lounge car was fun but there was something weirdly stressful about it - it always feels like there's somebody waiting for the seats in front of the windows, and there's no real reason to be in any other seat vs. your own room. The windows are no larger.

As on Amtrak, we were actually mostly happy with being a little later than we'd originally planned. It gave us a couple of hours to simply relax in our room, which we hadn't really been able to do before. I felt quite busy on this train. It's a pretty short trip for a long haul train - about 16 hours, much of which is overnight. So with all the waiting in line and then meals, shooting video and photos in the lounge car, etc. we didn't have a lot of time to just sit and watch the scenery. And Hokkaido is when you finally get out into nature.

We arrived at Sapporo "on time" (2 hours later than the original schedule) and stayed to take some photos and watch the train leave. My wife told me she even got a little melancholy watching the train pull away, knowing it would be gone for good in just a few more months, an entire era of Japanese train travel gone with it.

Japan is a small country, and this is about as long a journey as it can have. For the Japanese, 16 hours on a train must feel like forever. For someone who's taken Amtrak across the entire USA, though, I actually felt a bit rushed on the Cassiopeia. One of my favorite things about long haul trains in the USA is the feeling of having nothing to do - being able to sit in the lounge or your own room and read for hours, getting out at fuel stops to stretch your legs for a while, and seeing the vast stretches of the United States that are empty, punctuated only by natural wonders and the animal inhabitants that call it all home. There's a feeling of quiet and serenity that you get on an American train that was missing on the Cassiopeia.

But that's not the train's fault, it's just the nature of the country. There's a lot to do and not much to see after leaving Ueno until you get to Hokkaido the next morning, and by then you're almost at your destination. It's a little funny complaining that 16 hours is not long enough to really appreciate a train like this, but it's true. (I wonder if people said the same about the 20th Century Limited back in the day.)

A little writeup on our day in Sapporo is next up!

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About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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