I really loved my first adventure using the Seishun 18 ticket, so I wanted to give it a try again. My aim once again was to see how far I could go using this unlimited pass – all on local trains.
This time, it was a trip up north into the heart of the tohoku region. I don’t have much experience there any farther north of Niigata, so I thought this was a perfect time to go just before autumn with the weather still being mild. I decided to try to use all of the 5 days of the pass consecutively. The Seishun pass does not require this, but I don’t like to stay away much longer than that, and I wanted to see how many kilometers I could cover kakueki style in a short time. My five day trip started on the morning of Monday, 27 August and ended on the evening of Friday, 31 August.
I did not have a really fixed itinerary on the first day. The objective was to see how far I could practically go in one day – with the limitation of arriving at a destination around 2pm so there would be enough time to see the sites at the destination before moving on the next day. I had originally planned to stop somewhere halfway up like Fukushima, but during the trip I decided to front-load the journey and go as far as I can the first day, and take the make the rest of the way back at a slower pace.
Along the way, I was doing my research using the Jorudan app looking at all of the various routes. No matter where I would go, Fukushima was one of the major hubs along the way. Useful information for now, and when I construct trips in a later date.
One of the fun things about riding the local trains is that you can choose to make stopovers along the way. I decided to take a look around Fukushima city during a one hour transit there.
Although the city was nice, I decided to continue on all the way to Akita. Fukushima would have been a nice stopping point if I were not trying to so far on the first day.
This time, I really did not spend much time in Akita because I arrived so late. One interesting diversion was a the nightlife zone – Kawabatta street. Since I arrived after dark, I took a look around there. It pretty much your standard Japanese fare – with drunk salary men walking home and from the many karaoke hostess pubs.
If you have not figured out yet, my travel style is to stay away from the big cities and focus on the relatively unexplored rural areas. In my hotel, I did some research to decide where to head to the next day, this time in a more leisurely pace.
Akita was a nice place, and I plan to come back one day. However, this time I had to keep moving.
After some time looking at the maps and schedule, I did decided to go to Oga. Not knowing much about it other than I like the location – it was on the ocean on a prominent peninsula, it was a divergence from the major train routes, and the name was interesting – the meaning of the Kanji is “male deer”. Why not? This is how I travel.
From Akikta, there is a dedicated line that goes to Oga. Like many of these destinations, departures are fairly infrequent so you have to plan well and look at the schedules before you make your way to the station.
When I saw my ride, I was ecstatic! This old one-man train was a real treat. It was only two cars and diesel powered. The inside of the car was very old, but well preserved.
Like a lot of these rides, must of the people appeared to be locals. What constantly amazes (and delights) me is how often, when I go to places like this, I’m often the only person that looks like a tourist, and most always the only foreigner. Keep in mind that this is the end of August – not peak travel season but certainly not the off-season.
The view from the slow ride along the coast of the Oga peninsula was beautiful. Primarily agriculture and fishing. Sometimes the journey is the best part.
Like many traditional tourist spots in Japan, you can see that at one time it was a popular destination, but has fallen on hard times.
This beautiful old onsen hotel looks like it has not been in operation for years. I took a look inside and it is being lived in as a residence.
Abandoned shops and empty streets are sadly a common sites in many places in rural Japan. Domestic tourism in Japan fell off sharply after the bubble era.
On the positive side, Oga is in a state of renewal with a newly updated station and a tourist complex. The Ogare complex was really beautiful and had a lot of information on the attractions on the Oga peninsula.
The Ogare complex was quite large and had an expansive parking lot. Most of the travellers where were by car and were stopping off for shopping on their way to other spots on the Peninsula.
The collection of fresh seafood and produce in Ogare was amazing, and so cheap!
At the tip of the city, there is an enormous seaside park. It was about a 15 minute walk from the station, through an industrial zone. It was not such a pleasant walk, but once I got to the park, it was worth it. It was totally deserted – I was the only person there. It was so calm and peaceful, I sat there for quite a while and took in the sea view and enjoyed some quiet contemplation.
There was a huge ferry landing strip complete with docks and waiting queues. Evidently, there had once been a vision of a grand attraction launching many ferry tours daily. I would like to know more about the vision and history, and why it failed.
Oga city is now mainly a jumping-off point to the rest of the peninsula. There is really a lot to see here, however you really need to have a car as the bus service to the major points is very thin. I was really impressed with the natural beauty here, and I plan to come back for a road trip when I eventually get my car.
After my time in Oga, I decided to leave for Aomori. It was about a five hour journey with the connections. I left around 2pm and got into Aomori around 7pm. There was no straight line way to go so I did have to backtrack a bit.
In Aomori, I stayed in the central district, just off of a large restaurant and shopping street. The next day, I got up early and started my exploration around the city.
The first stop was to the ASPAM building. This triangular shaped building is a local icon. On the top is a lounge and it offers a panoramic view of the city. I spent some time there getting the lay of the land and learning about the local attractions.
I had read about the Hakkodamaru from the tourist information on way to Aomori. This ferry ship used to sail between Aomori and Hakodate in Hokkaido before the Shinkansen tunnel was built, and was the main form of transportation between Honshu and Hokkaido. It stopped sailing in 1988 and had been turned into a floating museum. This would be my next stop. From the ASPAM building, I walked across the bay bridge (seen on the left). It is quite walkable and has some great views along the way.
This is really an amazing exhibit. The ship is incredibly well preserved, and the tour lets your roam just about everywhere.
I was particularly fascinated with the engine room. I can imagine how hot and noisy it must of been for those who worked here. Again, it was so well preserved you could almost imagine they could start it up right there.
What is really amazing about this ship is that it was able to carry trains four abreast. In the main platform, the exhibit was full of a number of engines and cars. It was really a huge space and difficult to capture with a picture. It was really impressive.
Just next to the Hakkodamaru is the A-factory shopping center. It features local goods, a cafe, cider tasting, an American-style burger bar and fine dining restaurant. I stopped by for a short coffee break.
For my next stop, I walked to the Amori Museum of History. The location is not very good. It was about a 4km walk, starting on the bay bridge. There were really not a lot of public transport options so I took the hike. It was a rather lonely walk, but doable if the weather is nice. The museum was in a large warehouse type building. It was pretty much deserted, probably due to the relatively isolated location. The exhibits were composed of through history of the fishing industry, as well as the unique aspects of northern life.
The exhibit I really like was the collection of Taisho era shop signboards. Overall, the museum was pretty well done – it deserved more time but I was rather constrained due to the time it took to get there and the fact that I knew I would have to move on to the next destination. This is the nature of the Cook’s Tours of Kakueki life.
Since this was day three of the five-day trip (there are five travel days on the Seishun 18 pass), my goal was to get one third of the way back. I looked at a number of options, and going the way of the Pacific side was impractical due to scheduling reasons, so the most efficient was to double back on the Sea of Japan side again. I really wanted to avoid back-tracking, but given my constraints it was the most practical way. Besides, I really wanted to see more of the rustic areas along the coast of the Sea of Japan.
So, again using my typical logic, purely based on the location, distance and the name, I chose Sakata as my destination – literally “sake fields” because, well that name sounded interesting. The joys of spontaneous exploration.
When travelling to smaller towns in Japan, it can be pretty difficult to find accomodations on international websites such as hotels.com, booking.com, agoda.com, etc. In this case, all of those websites showed no availability, but I did find a very nice small hotel on the Rakuten website, however, there is no English version so you have to know some Japanese to book it.
It was quite cheap at ¥4,000 per night, without any meals included. The owner was a charming older man who spoke a very thick local dialect (tohoku-ben). We did manage to communicate, and he explained to me the house rules and gave me my key. It is unfortunate that many people will find it difficult to book a nice low cost hotel like this. I personally think that there is a huge business opportunity awaiting for the entrepreneurs that can solve this problem.
The next morning, I took a walk around the city. It started to rain, so I ducked into the Sakata Marine Center. It is a tourist oriented place and has some interesting history of Sakata port. Now it primarily a fishing port, in the past it was an important port with ships running to Osaka to carry rice and other food commodities.
It was raining pretty heavily, but I vowed not to let that ruin my day, so after a brief tour of the Marine Center, I took out my umbrella and set out to see the sights. I walked in the rain for about 15 minutes to find the Sanno club.
The Sanno Club was also originally a high-class restaurant. Named “Uhachi-ro”, the restaurant was originally designed in 1894 by Yasutaro Sato, one of Sakata’s most famous architects. The club ran from 1895 to until it was forced to close in 1941 due to the war, and was famous for its azalea garden and its Maiko and Geisha house.
After the war the restaurant was reopened and renamed the Sanno Club, where it ran for over 50 years. In 1999, the restaurant closed down again, but was donated to Sakata City and reopened in 2008 to share the unique history and culture of the port town. It is really worth your while to visit this exhibit and spend some time in the various rooms to contemplate those old times.
I have a soft spot for urban decay, and right across from the Sanno club was an old club Sirobara or “White Rose”. It was a huge, four-story complex with an exposed concrete facade. The charming signage really caught my eye. From the looks if it, it must been quite a spot in its day!
It turns out that I do have a spot for picking out landmarks. After I left, I did a search on it and found out that it was indeed a famous cabaret: https://motion-gallery.net/projects/shirobara_reborn/updates/18052
It looks as if the attempt to re-open the club was unsuccessful. I can imagine there must have been many happy nights there and it was quite the talk of the town. Seems to me it would be an excellent place to preserve, if even just for movie locations and special events. I would have loved to go inside!
Sakata’s main attraction is the rice storehouses – Sankyo Soko. These buildings played an essential role in the local economy, as Sakata was a major rice shipping port during the 19th century. The warehouses were designed to keep the rice cool and dry, using double roofing for insulation and the surrounding shade trees. Rice that was stored was brought down to the river for transport to the port area and shipment.
At the end of the row of 10 storehouses is a museum that explains the history of rice growing in Sakata and Japan. It is a small but worthwhile exhibit if you are interested in the topic.
After Sankyo Soko, I took walk around town, down the main street. It had once been a lively shopping street, with a fairly recent attempt to revitalize it with some upgrades like making it foot traffic only, and the addition of some colorful orange awnings. Sadly, it did not look like it was enough to change the economic conditions as like many shopping streets in Japan, these place was pretty much deserted and most of the businesses shuttered. Only a few people were seen on the streets, and I was perhaps the sole tourist.
Unlike cities in other countries that have seen better days, in Japan, even though cities are deserted, I never get the feeling of poverty, danger, or even desperateness. These areas have experienced decline as a result of a aging population, with the younger people choosing the bigger cities. Domestic tourism has also been experience a long, downward slide, and while international tourism is booming, foreigners either just don’t know about places like this, or find them relatively inaccessible.
For me, that is just fine. When I travel, it sometimes feels like I have the whole place to myself. If you love crowds and noise, you might not like this, but for someone like myself that likes to get away from that, Japan is truly a travel paradise.
Along the main street, I did manage to find a very nice cafe called “The Mill Spice Restaurant”. They featured curries, but since I was in Sakata, I really wanted some local seafood, so I ordered these huge prawns. They were incredible, for ¥1,200 including a soup and salad bar. After a long day of walking, these really hit the spot.
It was getting late at 3pm and time to head south again. A typhoon that had been confined to Western Japan was starting to have its impact here up north and some of my connections were becoming interrupted. I had originally planned to work my way more inland, but due to the thin connections the best route was to continue along the coast to Niigata as the overnight destination. Although I had already been there, it was a good place to stay overnight as there are a lot of hotels and dining options.
The trip along the coast was breathtaking. I was really taken by the rugged coastline that was intersperced with rice farms. It was a slow ride, but I enjoyed every moment of it.
Along the way, I was searching for accomodation in Niigata on my phone. For some reason, hotel rates were way up that night. Even one place I had stayed at before as 3 times the rate it was when I stayed there last February, and many where just not available. I was at first regretting my decision to stop again in Niigata, but I kept on searching, sometimes multiple times at the same property As if by miracle, there was a room available at the Ramada which is right at the station. I had stayed there last time and it was really good. I had checked several times early in the day, and it showed as sold out, so I wasted to time and booked this room for ¥5,000 a night. After that, rooms where again unavailable. I had got really lucky this time!
It was a rainy night in Niigata, and since I had already seen most of the city, I decided to have a bite and go back to my room early. Around the station are quite a lot of nice restaurants and bars, so I chose a karage (fried chicken) place – Gaburi Chicken. Yea, its a chain but always a good value and a younger, cheery audience. I got this huge serving of six assorted pieces and a couple of highballs to wash it down. I normally eat pretty light and do some intermittent fasting when I travel, but this was certainly a high calorie exception after a few days of very light eating.
The next morning was the final leg of the five day trip. The trip back to Tokyo would be fairly easy, but due to the unstable typhoon weather, anything could happen, so I decided to leave earlier rather than later, and departed at 11:00 am.
The connections along the way were pretty tight, so I was making good time. The exception being Nagaoka in Gunma prefecture were I would have a 70 minute connection. No problem, this is just the right amount of time to get our for nice walk and see the city.
Nagaoka was a fairly nice place. What was most impressive was the very modern town hall complex. It looked as if it had been just completed. It featured a beautiful open area. There as an event going on – Niigata and Gunma related tourism. It seemed to be more industry than consumer targeted, but it was a good way to learn about some of the key attractions in the region.
I arrived in Shinjuku around 7:20pm. It was very crowded as there were numerous train delays just as a typhoon was arriving. My timing throughout the trip was pretty good – although I had a couple of rainy days that I had to slog through, I very luckily avoided a lot of the bad weather that came up north later. The platform for my train to take me back home was rapidly filling up and a queue was developing down to the entrance. If I had been 30 minutes later, I might have likely been stuck for another hour!
Overall, it was a very successful trip. I think I did manage to max-out what you could practically do with a Seishun 18 ticket. I was travelling about 5 to 7 hours a day – any more and you would not see anything at your destinations. As it was, I was moving through the sights pretty fast. However, also consider when you are travelling through these rural areas, half of the fun is the journey. Just watching the people get on an off along the way, you can really get a feel for the lives of the people that live in these quite places. As well, the views along the way are always stunning.