I set myself a mission: to travel by train from Wakkanai, in Hokkaido, the northernmost city in Japan, to Kagoshima at the tip of Kyushu in the south, within 24 hours. Train schedules were one thing; but the only way to find out whether it was doable was to make the attempt.
I found out it was possible to make the trip using Japan Railways on Sept. 23 of last year. Initially, it should have been on March 12, when bullet train services on the full Kyushu Shinkansen line opened. But the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11 disrupted the Tohoku Shinkansen's timetable.
The one-day trip has been a hot topic among rail enthusiasts, so I gave it a shot this winter. Checking the train schedules, I found that I would have to depart from Wakkanai Station in the afternoon.
According to JR, the 3,069.5-kilometer journey takes 23 hours and 57 minutes--if nothing goes wrong, that is. There is only limited time to make the six transfers, the longest one being 19 minutes. Most have to be done in 10 minutes or less.
I headed to Wakkanai Station with a sense of trepidation.
AN UNTIMELY ACCIDENT
In Wakkanai, the day's high was minus 7 degrees. Train schedules were thrown into disarray by heavy snowfall in Hokkaido.
Snow fell relentlessly as my 4:51 p.m. departure approached. As I boarded the Super Soya limited express heading for Sapporo Station, I could hear the voice of a station attendant behind me: "We occasionally have passengers trying to cross the country. (If you're one of them), please make sure to have a safe trip."
My fears of running behind schedule became reality just 90 minutes after our departure. The train stopped at a station not on its normal schedule. An announcement in the cabin said, "An outbound local train has hit a deer."
We had to wait for the local train to pass because we were traveling on a one-track section of the line. We were scheduled to arrive at Sapporo Station at 9:50 p.m., with only 10 minutes to transfer to the Hamanasu overnight express. Our train started moving 21 minutes later. No matter how many times I pestered the conductor about when we would arrive, the reply was always the same: "I'll tell you when I know."
Some four hours later when we pulled in to Sapporo Station 25 minutes late, I saw the Hamanasu.
The train had waited out of consideration for the schedule disruptions caused by the snow in the northern part of the country. Inside the carriage, the walls and curtains seemed to have been in use for some time. I boarded the sleeper car quietly so as not to wake the other passengers already in bed.
A MAD DASH ON THE SHINKANSEN
At daybreak, I transferred to the limited express at Aomori Station. I then boarded the Hayabusa bullet train at Shin-Aomori Station. Although our departure was slightly delayed, I was now hurrying westward.
Although the bullet train runs at high speed, it also boasts excellent on-time performance. The average delay for bullet trains operated by East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) was .3 minute in 2010.
Norio Tomii, a professor at the Chiba Institute of Technology who specializes in railways operations, says this is due to "the system's simplicity."
Bullet trains run on their own tracks, which have no crossings. Formulating timetables is easy because no other trains run on the same line.
Tomii has nothing but praise for conductors on bullet trains, saying they are highly skilled and are very professional.
"One late train affects the entire country. Their mind-set is to not allow any bullet train delays."
His words were backed up when I arrived at Hakata Station at 3:06 p.m.--bang on schedule.
I changed to the Sakura bullet train on the Kyushu Shinkansen.
Announcements, also made in Korean and Chinese, heralded our approach to Kagoshima. We pulled in to Kagoshima-Chuo Station at 4:48 p.m. as scheduled. I had read more than 700 pages of pocket readers during my 23 hours and 7 minutes riding inside trains.
The base fare was 28,350 yen ($365), with additional limited express fares and such costing 30,550 yen.
A SNEAKY TRICK TO GET IN THE RECORD BOOKS
According to Guinness World Records, the current record for distance traveled on a train within a 24-hour period was set by an American living in Tokyo in 2009. The individual traveled 2,969.5 kilometers.
The route ran from Teshio-Nakagawa Station, a stop somewhat south of Wakkanai Station, down to Kagoshima-Chuo Station.
Travel writer Jun Shirakawa, 47, recently applied for recognition by the Guinness World Records for taking the same trip as I took last September. He traveled 3,072.4 kilometers: around 3 more than me. When I asked him how he had managed that, even though he took the same route, Shirakawa revealed how.
He purposely took a regular limited express train from Hakata Station to Shin-Tosu Station via Tosu Station in Saga Prefecture. There, he transferred to the bullet train, thus setting a new distance record.
According to Shirakawa, the record for the longest distance traveled by train in 24 hours has been set and broken in Japan because the country has built high-speed rail networks with timely performance.
JR sets the valid period of a ticket according to the journey's length. The ticket from Wakkanai to Kagoshima-Chuo is valid for 17 days.
Shirakawa told me, "For a real trip, you have to give yourself some time. To do it right you should use the whole 17 days and see a lot of places."
Before I knew it, I was nodding in agreement.
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