Sapporo to Kyoto by local train; a bizarre encounter in Tomakomai, the dog-eat-dog-politely world of busy Japanese trains, and a heroic last stand in Hiraizumi

Rusutsu ski resort, Hokkiado

Rusutsu ski resort in Hokkaido

Part One: A Bizarre Encounter at Tomakomai Station

“Hey. Fuck you!”

…what the? I heard this woman before I ever saw her; she’d sneaked up behind me while I was on the phone and suddenly started screaming in my free ear…

“Fuck you! Hey, fuck you!”

It quickly became apparent that her entire English vocabulary consisted of these three words (although actually it was more like “fakkuyuu” with her heavy katakana pronunciation).

Tomakomai train station

Tomakomai station; a grim little station in a bleak little town

I was standing in the concourse area of a freezing cold Tomakomai train station at 11pm in early January, having just found out my return ferry from Hokkaido to Kyoto prefecture that night was cancelled due to rough seas; I’d just spent the New Year holiday snowboarding in Hokkaido, and now I was trying to work out what to do and was on the phone to my manager, letting her know the situation just in case I didn’t make it back in time for work two days later.

Of course, she was saying just stay the night and get a flight tomorrow, and that was indeed by far the most sensible option; however it was also going to be a pretty expensive option and I didn’t really have the budget for a last-minute flight and a room at the business hotel opposite the station (if they even had any rooms available). The last train back to Sapporo (the only big city near there, where I’d just come from) had already left, so that wasn’t an option. If I stayed the night to use my ferry ticket the following night I would get back in time for work, but that would be risky as there was no guarantee the ferry would run the next night either so it didn’t seem a good idea.

Another option was the night train leaving Tomakomai at midnight going through the undersea Seikan tunnel to Aomori at the northern tip of Japan‘s main Honshu island; I was considering taking that, and then either riding the bullet train back to Kyoto from there, or riding the local trains down through the Tohoku region to Sendai then a night bus (the following night) from Sendai to Kyoto. The cheapest option (other than the ferry) would actually have been the Seishun 18 Kippu, a kind of train pass available in the holidays in Japan which gives you unlimited train travel but only on the slow local trains… it would’ve got me back to Kyoto for only 10,000 yen (around 100 US dollars), but taking the best part of two days… but in any case, when I enquired about buying one it turned out they’d stopped sales two days earlier.

And the bullet train from Aomori to Kyoto was crazy expensive, more than a flight would’ve been, so that was out. It was looking like either stay the night and fly, or take the night train, then local trains to Sendai, then a night bus to Kyoto… the former would be expensive, the latter would be a complete bastard of a journey, and I wasn’t keen on either option.

So there I was talking to my manager and asking if she had any other ideas, when this woman suddenly screamed “fuck you” in my other ear.

I jumped out of my skin the first time, and turned to see a short, middle-aged Japanese lady, dressed perfectly normally for Hokkaido in winter, but with a wild mess of tangled hair up top and an even wilder look in the eye.

“Hey you! Fuck you! FUCK YOU!! Hey, fuck you!”

Okay, okay, I get the picture… I grabbed my bags and walked down the other end of the concourse to continue my phone conversation, but 30 seconds later it started again…

“Hey, fuck you! Fuck you!! FAKKUYUUU!”

She’d followed me along the concourse! I turned and went back the other way again, and now she followed hot on my heels, fuck youing the whole way.

I apologised to my manager and said I’d call her back, and started trying to speak in Japanese to this woman screaming at me, just to say hello, okay, there’s no problem – but that only led to her hurling an absolute torrent of abuse at me in Japanese, only half of which I caught and that’s probably a good thing.

Jesus, this woman’s actually quite scary, I thought, better get away from her, and I went to seek safety in the herd by going into the waiting room.

When I said it was cold that night, I mean like minus 10 (Celsius) outside and perhaps 0 degrees on the concourse; but the waiting room was heated and nice & toasty, so there were a dozen or so passengers waiting in there for the night train. So I went in to join them, and thankfully my new friend didn’t follow me but instead went over to the ticket window and started shouting at the Japan Rail staff. Watching though the window, I got the impression that perhaps this was a regular occurrence and they were used to this woman and her outbursts.

The ticket barriers at Tomakomai station

The ticket barriers at Tomakomai station; you can see the ticket window on the left, and the waiting room is just out of shot to the right

So I sat there for a few minutes mulling over my options and thinking that maybe I should go ask for a room at the hotel and sleep on it, and if no rooms were available then I’d jump on the night train. But before I’d picked up my bags, I became aware of a change of atmosphere in the waiting room; I looked around and there she was again, now standing silently but intently in the middle of the room, turning to glare at each of the waiting passengers one by one, until we were all watching her in suspense, wondering what was about to happen.

And then, slowly and deliberately, she opened one side of her coat, and slowly and deliberately reached in with her other hand as if to draw a weapon… and we all watched with grim fascination as she slowly and deliberately pulled out a huge pair of kitchen scissors. Kitchen scissors… what the fuck?!

We all started edging away from her, backs to the walls, sidling towards the door, avoiding making eye contact with her, and no-one saying anything; she stood there, as if waiting for her cue to strike… and then all of a sudden she reached up, grabbed a fistful of her own hair, chopped it off with the scissors, and threw it at one of the passengers… and then did the same thing again to someone else, then me, and someone else again, all without saying a word. In the shocked silence we got the door open and made a pretty orderly evacuation while she stood there silently hacking handfuls of hair off and throwing them at us. It was quite the most surreal scene I think I’ve ever seen, never mind been a part of. And once we were all out we closed the door, and stood watching through the window as she continued to randomly chop her own hair off, now just scattering it willy-nilly around the room.

(I don’t mean to ridicule this woman or try to get laughs at her expense. Clearly this was a very disturbed individual, in need of help she wasn’t getting, perhaps living homeless in this brutally cold town and hanging out in this train station every night; I’m just trying to paint the surreal scene and her alarming behaviour…)

By now the station staff had come over, four of them if I remember correctly, and they went into the waiting room to talk to her. The most senior, the station manager I guess, approached her, hand held out palm-upwards, asking her to hand over the scissors; she leapt back into a fighting posture, her left hand out in front of her, cocking her right hand with the scissors up by her ear as if ready to lunge and stab with them.

I’m pretty sure everyone was now thinking “Holy shit, this is happening” and getting ready to run away or run back into the waiting room to help; yet we all stood motionless for what seemed like ages but was probably just a few seconds, waiting to see what she would do… and then, just like that, she relaxed, turned the scissors over to him handle first, sat down, and focused her attention on the TV mounted on the wall.

A collective sigh of relief went round the crowd, and I now knew how I was going to decide what to do. A couple of scenarios had run through my head – what if I get on the train, and she ends up being in the same carriage or even in the seat next to me? Given the extremely aggressive interest she’d shown towards me and her unpredictable behaviour I definitely didn’t want to be trying to sleep with her anywhere close by… on the other hand though, what if I decide to stay the night but can’t get a room at the hotel and go looking for somewhere else, and she ends up following me again?! Or I try to pass the night in the convenience store, and so does she?

All situations I wanted to avoid, so I went to the ticket window and asked if they knew if she had a ticket for the night train. They told me she definitely didn’t, and that was my decision made – I bought a one-way ticket to Aomori, and a short time later went down to the platform to wait for the soon-to-arrive train.

This particular station has the entire concourse and ticketing area built up above street level, meaning you go up the stairs into the station, and after passing through the ticket barriers you go down the stairs to the platforms. I went through the barrier and down, and she was still sitting quietly watching the TV so I thought that was that…

After a few minutes stood on the platform, shoulders hunched against the icy wind, it was a relief to see the train rolling into the station, its front end plastered with a solid 6-inch shield of ice and snow. As the doors opened I felt the inviting warmth calling from inside the carriage, but just then there was a commotion and a string of shouts from upstairs – I turned to look and there she was again, charging down the stairs, cheeks puffing, fists pumping, a look of such utter determination on her face, sprinting for the train door. She’d jumped over the damn ticket barriers and was trying to board the train! The station staff were in hot pursuit and rugby tackled her a few feet from the train door, and now she was screaming and cursing and fighting like her life depended on getting on that train; it was plain awful to see and hear, and that was the last I saw of that poor woman, struggling and kicking out against the people trying to subdue her on that freezing platform, the flurries of snow picking up and swirling around them under the bright lights as the train pulled out of the station.

Part Two: Hokkaido to Kyoto Overland, mostly by Local Train; Two Brutal Days, Two Legendary Heroes

The green Hayabusa train used on the Hokkaido shinkansen

These sleek green trains (named Hayabusa or Hayate) cover the Aomori and Hokkaido stretches of the shinkansen system

Night train to Aomori, bullet train to Morioka

In 2015 the shinkansen was finally extended through the Seikan Tunnel from Aomori to Hakodate in southern Hokkaido, connecting Hokkaido directly to Tokyo by bullet train; as a result, these days there are no more night trains running through the tunnel.

However, at the time of my journey the bullet train didn’t yet reach Hokkaido and standard trains did the 6-hour run from Sapporo to Aomori several times a day each way, including the midnight train I was on. This was basically, in a nutshell, a total bitch; though it was a night train, it most certainly wasn’t a sleeper train. The seats barely reclined and the lights stayed fully on all night, and the train was more or less at capacity so I had an occupied seat next to me; the one slight saving grace was that at least I had the window seat, making it a little easier to sleep a bit. Only a bit though!

To say I arrived in Aomori bleary-eyed would be an understatement; I was probably looking full zombie as I lurched through the station on auto-pilot, searching for coffee. A short while later with caffeine taken care of I went to buy a local train ticket to Sendai, only to be told the line was blocked due to heavy snowfall overnight. The shinkansen was still running, so it was either a very long way round on a different local train, or a pricey bullet train ticket. As money was tight, I bought a shinkansen ticket only as far as Morioka, beyond which the local lines were operating as usual, and a local ticket from Morioka to Sendai. I have to say it was quite nice to be blasting along in that sleek green bullet train on that sunny winter morning after trundling along in the red-eye night train, and I didn’t want to get off; I realised later that I actually should’ve just got the shinkansen right to Sendai as switching to the local train in Morioka only saved me about 20 dollars… absolutely not worth it! But get off I did, and had an hour to kill in Morioka while waiting for the connection.

This gave me time to potter around the station, grab a sandwich, and top the caffeine level back up – this was a running theme over the course of the 2-day slog to Kyoto; occupying myself with where the next coffee was coming from was in its own stressful way a way of dealing with the stress of the journey. Morioka looked like a nice enough place, not that I saw much of it; one of the textbooks I was using in my English-teaching job in Kyoto had a couple of lessons about Iwate prefecture, of which Morioka is the capital. A town famous for its ironware, I recalled; cast-iron teapots in particular. But no time to check the place out; it was time to get on the local train, or rather, hell on wheels (if Hell is indeed other people).

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The dog-eat-dog-politely world of busy trains in Japan

As I mentioned above, at Tomakomai station the night before I’d asked about buying a Seishun 18 Kippu, a holiday-season ticket that gives you 5 days of unlimited local train travel throughout Japan; it’s a popular and affordable way to cover a lot of ground, if you don’t mind doing it slowly. I hadn’t been able to buy one as the sales date had passed already; however, the validity date had not yet passed and a whole shitload of people had those tickets and were riding long-distance on the local trains that day. It was the last day of the New Year holiday, and Japan was on the move, heading home en masse. I lugged my bags down to the platform (I had all my snowboard gear with me) to find everyone already on the train, waiting for it to depart. Absolute sardines it was, and I just about squeezed in with all my stuff.

Now the way these local trains work is they run along a given section of a line, perhaps two hours, before going back the other way. The station where they turn back is the start of the next section of the line, with another train doing that run, and so on; so although that line extends all the way from Aomori to Tokyo, any given local train on it just does a short section, back and forth, serving every station (as opposed to the express trains which go long-distance and cruise through the minor stations, while the shinkansen boosts along on its own dedicated elevated lines).

What this means for long-distance local train travel is you ride a train for two hours to its switchback station, and get off there to board the next train continuing in the same direction. After two hours on that train, you do the same thing again, and again, until you reach your destination; going this way from Morioka to Sendai is a 4-hour job with two changes of train.

This might not sound so bad, and indeed usually wouldn’t be outside the peak holiday travel periods; but imagine a 3-carriage train, completely stuffed to the gills, pulling in at a train station platform with a mostly empty train waiting on the far platform; and everyone on the packed train is getting on the waiting train, and everyone wants to get a seat on that waiting train, and there are several people for every seat. Competition is fierce, and the competitors ruthless. Encumbered as I was with all my gear, I had no chance…

As the train pulls into the station, everyone’s already on their feet, bags at the ready, jostling for position at the doors. Some of those who’ve been standing for two hours have been canny enough to do so at the doors – if they know the correct side, or anyway had a lucky guess – and are in pole position. Others have been too slow on the uptake and are now anxiously trying to ferret through towards the doors, others are on the wrong side of the train and know they’re in trouble; toes are stepped on, backs are elbowed; and no-one says a word. Japan is famous for its polite society, and not falsely so; but in certain situations, like the one at hand, you see that sometimes the politeness is merely a matter of etiquette being rigidly followed, and that beneath that veneer of politeness some people can still be cold, ruthless, inconsiderate, selfish assholes. The doors open, the starting gun is sounded; the crowd surges out of the train and runs along the platform, up the stairs and onto the footbridge over the tracks, down the stairs to the far platform and onto the waiting train. Those at the end of the train nearest the stairs are in the know, or in luck; those at the wrong end are desperate, and shit out of luck. Shins are kicked, people ‘accidentally’ knocked aside by swinging bags, the crowd huffing and puffing and shoving its way across; and still no-one says a word, no-one remonstrates or becomes angry, and the polite veneer is maintained. Those who get seats do not celebrate their victory; those who do not, accept it, casually returning to their smartphone screens as though they never wanted a seat anyway thank you very much, you’re welcome to it. The last available seat is a photo finish, two middle-aged men dashing for it and executing spinning lunging butt-dives into it at the same time; they collide, the bigger guy lands with more of his butt on more of the seat, the other momentarily in his lap; the loser quickly stands and walks away, pushes through the crowd to go stand at the far end of the car. At no point during or after their head-to-head do they ever make eye contact, or speak, or acknowledge the competition they just took part in. And this is how decorum is maintained; the pandemonium quickly settles down and everyone gets on with quietly occupying whatever seat or standing position they’ve ended up in and ignoring the world around them. Although it’s polite, in its way, it’s not very pleasant; but it works. Everyone’s on the train, no-one’s injured, no-one’s (visibly) angry; we’re all getting where we’re going. As for me, I already knew I’d be standing and watched the battle from the platform, taking the time to drink a can of coffee from the vending machine, and grab another for the road. At least being the last one on means you’re right in the door and can watch the scenery go by, which is some recompense (or so I told myself, as I looked out at Mt Iwate in the distance).

Mt Iwate, snow covered in winter

Mt Iwate

It was a tough little bit of travel, for sure; but there was a silver lining to be found – not the minor consolation of being able to see the scenery, but a genuine bonus – as I ended up visiting the UNESCO-listed town of Hiraizumi. Somewhere south of Morioka, the conductor announced the next station (as per usual), and I caught the name Hiraizumi… that rings a bell, where’ve I heard that before? Ah yes, of course – the same ESL textbook that told me about the ironware in Morioka. I remembered that Hiraizumi was some sort of historical area with a golden temple hall (the Konjiki-do, a beautiful building – photography is prohibited and pictures of it are hard to come by, but the temple’s homepage has one), and as it was around lunchtime I bailed out of that god-awful train at Hiraizumi station; local trains on that particular bit of line are roughly hourly, so I figured I’d eat something, do a quick whip around the temple district, and get back on the train an hour or two later. I didn’t know it yet, but Hiraizumi is one of the key locations in what came to be my favourite tale of Japanese history / folklore.

Hiraizumi and the last stand of Yoshitsune & Benkei

If you read around my Japan posts a bit, sooner or later you’ll find me talking about the legendary heroes Yoshitsune and Benkei; Yoshitsune is Japan’s most beloved tragic hero, Benkei his loyal retainer. Like a Japanese Robin Hood and Little John, the two first met in single combat; and just like Robin Hood and Little John, the smaller but faster and smarter Yoshitsune outwitted and defeated the man-mountain Benkei.

Painting of the duel between Yoshitsune and Benkei

Classical painting of the duel between Yoshitsune and Benkei on Gojo Bridge in Kyoto

They were inseparable ever-after, Yoshitsune becoming a great general in his half-brother’s army as they won the Genpei War and avenged their father’s death at the hands of the Taira clan. But unlike Robin Hood and Little John, these noble warriors then met a violent and early death; betrayed by his jealous half-brother, Yoshitsune fled to the north, Benkei with him all the way to the bitter end. They made their last stand in Hiraizumi, where, realising his defeat was inevitable, Yoshitsune committed the ritual suicide that allowed him to die with his honour; buying him the time to complete the act, Benkei went out on to the castle bridge and single-handedly held the entire enemy army at bay. Every soldier who approached was summarily dispatched, so they stood back and rained volleys of arrows down on him; but this man was such a beast, was so utterly determined, that he died standing right up on his feet, stuck full of arrows but never going down. By the time his opponents realised he was already dead and they could safely pass, Yoshitsune had completed his honourable death within the keep.

The grave of Benkei in Hiraizumi

Benkei’s final resting place in Hiraizumi

A cracking little story that, in my opinion; but I didn’t actually know it yet at the time I went to Hiraizumi! I’d just got off the train to eat some noodles and see the Konjiki-do, but wandering around the various other temples and historical sites, I also happened to visit the grave of Benkei (it’s next to the main road between the station and the main Chuson-ji temple area – alas, I missed the grave of Yoshitsune which is nearby but set a little away from the main road). Later, back in Kyoto, I learned the full story of Yoshitsune and Benkei – the two men had both had their formative years in the mountains around Kyoto, leading up to their fateful meeting and the duel on Gojo Bridge.

Painting of Yoshitsune training with the tengu in Kurama

Classical painting of Yoshitsune training with the tengu in Kurama

While the young exile Yoshitsune was learning his unsurpassed swordsmanship and military skills from the tengu forest spirits of Mt Kurama in order to one day avenge his father, the warrior monk Benkei (then of Enryaku-ji temple on Mt Hiei) went around Kyoto generally fucking shit up, stealing giant bells from rival temples and booting them around the mountains and making them cry, and beating up 999 swordsmen and keeping their swords – Yoshitsune was the thousandth to face him, and the first to ever defeat him, leading to the oath of loyalty.

Painting of Benkei dragging away the Miidera bell

Classical painting of Benkei stealing the bell from Miidera temple by Lake Biwa

Another historical figure closely associated with Hiraizumi is the great poet Matsuo Basho; Hiraizumi was the northernmost point he reached on his famous 1689 journey immortalised in The Narrow Road to the Deep North, where he contemplated the tragic ends of Yoshitsune and Benkei 500 years earlier and penned one of his most famous haiku:



Summer grass,
The only remains
of warriors’ dreams

So, after later learning the story of Yoshitsune and Benkei and getting into my Basho, I was retroactively stoked that I’d already accidentally ended up visiting Hiraizumi on that 2-day mission from Hokkaido to Kyoto. And that was the silver lining of an otherwise totally unpleasant journey, even though I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time.

Finally, a view of Mt Fuji

As for the rest of the journey, it sucked. Upon arriving in Sendai, I found the night buses to Kyoto were all full; the best I could do was a night bus to Tokyo, so that was another 6-hour leg of night transportation with only a few hours of sleep, and then another full day of long-distance local train travel from Tokyo to Kyoto. That’s actually a 9-hour job, with 6 changes of train; but thankfully, it was the first day back at work for most of the country, and the brutal crowds of the previous day were gone. I got a seat on every train, and even got a picture of the usually coy Mt Fuji (on my crappy old camera phone):

Mt Fuji

I’ve ridden the train past Mt Fuji a whole bunch of times, and that was the only time I ever actually saw it from the train – in fact that was the first time I’d ever clearly seen the whole mountain, despite the fact I’d actually climbed Fuji the previous summer! (we could hardly see it even while standing on it)

So I arrived back in Kyoto on the Monday evening having left Sapporo on the Saturday evening, having had perhaps 5 hours of sleep and an absurd amount of coffee; I ate and showered and collapsed onto my futon, and got up for work in the morning. That 2-day journey really wasn’t fun, not fun at all, and work the next day was pretty tough; but at least I finally got to see Mt Fuji properly, and I came to be glad I’d ended up visiting Hiraizumi. As for the lady in Tomakomai station, who knows what became of her; I hope she’s okay, and spending her nights somewhere better than Tomakomai station.

Photo Credits

Don’t really have many photos from this journey unfortunately. Credit for pics above as follows:

Three classical paintings: public domain

Shinkansen, Mt Fuji: Simon Norton, all rights reserved

Tomakomai station exterior: screenshot from Google Maps

Tomakomai station interior: Konstantin Leonov, Flickr

Mt Iwate: yisris, Flickr

Benkei’s grave: Yoshihide Urushihara, Flickr

The images from Flickr are used under Creative Commons Licence.

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