Although I've been to Japan over 20 times I've only ever on two Japanese domestic flights and both of them were Jetstar Japan to Matsuyama. Why? First and foremost it's because one of the major reasons for visiting Japan is to ride their trains. Not just their fast bullet trains, but the local lines, the tiny DMUs. All of them if I can.
Then there's the fact that, with the passing of time, I have grown to become fearful of flying. I have no choice but to fly to Japan, but I do have a choice how to get around when I'm there.
But I've caught the trains to Sapporo a few times now, including twice last year from KIX, an over 12 hour journey, and even I am growing weary of it, let alone my wife and son travelling with me. So I relent and book flights between KIX and CTS. I should try a different airline, but I book Jetstar Japan again because 1) The times are good, 2) The prices are the cheapest, or almost so, 3) They are familiar, and when you are anxious familiar is good and 4) I can earn Qantas Frequent Flyer Points on them.
My goal is to return to Silver Status. It's a motivator to make me fly, but every status point is precious!
Rather than head into Osaka proper we've stayed the night in Izumi-Sano, on the opposite end of the bridge to the artificial island that is Kansai International Airport. Despite it being located in a bit of a dead zone we rather enjoyed the night at the Hatago Inn, a very new hotel with a hot spa and a manga library in more than one language. AvGeeks should keep in mind that the views of the airport are apparently better at the nearby Washington Hotel.
After eating the generous breakfast we were in a bit of a rush to catch the train one stop across the bridge and back to the airport. The one downside of the Hatago Inn is that it's about a ten minute unsheltered walk to the Rinku Town station and it is raining lightly.
We are a bit tight for time when the train arrives at Kansai International Airport and there is a little confusion about whether Jetstar is in the main terminal (1) or not. We hurry to the end of the terminal, fortunately on the same second floor as the train station, and arrive at the Jetstar counter with time to spare. I've checked in online, but they still need to process our checked in luggage. There's no luggage belt. Instead you take your luggage back and hand it to be screened in an adjacent queue. It's all done quickly.
Prior to immigration we make a bathroom stop and then another bathroom related stop, because Alex's eyes are glued to a video of a couple of westerners vising the Toto toilet museum. Dragging him away we pass without issue through security and make our way to the gate.
Our gate is actually below the concourse. It's a bus gate. Passengers seated at the front half of the aircraft are asked to board the buses first and that's us. I know some people like remote stands, but I find the whole process a pain. However, there are some good views of other aircraft as we drive along the tarmac, including one that I had mistaken for an Aeroflot Airbus A343 last night.
It's actually a Russian government Ilyushin IL-96! My first ever sighting!
I walk up the partly enclosed steps to our wingletted Jetstar A320 with a sense of dread. I'd rather be catching a train. It's raining, there are clouds, there's a jetstream between us and Hokkaido. More worrisome is Typhoon Kong-rei approaching from the south-west. Will we feel the effects? Or will it be a quiet flight above the clouds? My head says the latter, my stomach the former. The suspense is agonising.
As we settle in and wait for the later groups of passengers to arrive the cabin crew make an announcement in English.
"As we are expecting turbulence on this flight please use the bathrooms now before take-off."
What??? Now I am rigid with fear. I'm stuck, I can't get off this plane. All I can do is shrink into my black leather seat and hope for the best.
A small voice in my head wonders if this announcement is a ploy to keep passengers seated.
With Japanese efficiency the final passengers are boarded and the doors shut. The cabin manager introduces herself and the other crew in Japanese and decent English, then performs the safety demonstration. There are no passenger announcements from the cockpit throughout the flight, but the captain does address the crew in Japanese accented English.
As we taxi out towards the runway we pass a Finnair A350, which I point out to my wife. She is (understandably) tired of just visiting Asia (especially Japan). In a fit of determined optimism I booked Jetstar flights in the January school summer holidays back to Kansai and then booked onward flight on Finnair to Scandinavia. So next time that should be us on that flight.
There is another surprise as we taxi past the cargo section of the airport: An Antonov AN-224! This is my second sighting and I wonder if its presence is related to the IL-96.
Once at the southern end of the runway we make a quick turn and are immediately racing up towards the sky. I brace myself as we rise into the rain hazy skies, past the bridge to the main island, the landscape disappearing beneath the grey clouds.
There were a few bumps associated with the cloud and maybe the landscape below, but really they were pretty minor. And so it stayed as we cruised along through the grey skies, no blue to be seen.
After around half an hour we emerge above the main body of the cloud and the seatbelt lights are switched off.
Okay, I feel a bit vindicated here. My reading of the sky wasn't too bad and the turbulence warning feels more like a ploy to keep people in their seats than a real concern. When you fly Qantas and Jetstar Australia if you see the seatbelt lights switched in flight on then you know that the pilots are generally concerned about turbulence and things can get very bumpy. I've noticed that Asian airlines tend to switch them on at the mere sight of high cloud. Perhaps that's what happened here, or there was fear that the demographics of Japan could mean the rapid onset of incontinence when it would be better for passengers to stay seated.
I finally look around the cabin. It's the same as in Jetstar Australia, except for the printed material.
The crew come through with cabin service. I've purchased the Plus Package for all of us and this includes a 500 Yen meal credit for each. We aren't hungry and Alex is fast asleep with B only stirring when the cart arrives. I spend the credit on a couple of apple juices, a can of Pringles and two Jetstar dorayaki, pancakes with a red bean filling and the Jetstar mascot, Jetta the red panda, printed on top.
The mascot seems new since our last flight, but everyone needs a mascot in Japan. I like red pandas, especially since we held one in China.
We emerge from the high cloud and there are contrails running alongside us, giving me much more confidence about the state of the air.
The lack of a flight map and cloud means that I'm thoroughly disoriented with regards to our location, but as it thins I catch glimpses of coastline to our right, meaning that we are tracking up the west coast of Honshu.
Then the cloud returns and I am briefly lost once more.
It clears again and we find ourselves over the city of Akita. In the distance is Lake Tazawa and the mountains of the Hachimantai Plateau. I've traversed this area both inland on the private Akita Nairiku Line and along the coast on the Gono Line. That's where I'd love to be now, on a little train through rural Japan.
The locations are all things I find out later. Right now I'm not even certain if we are over Hokkaido or not (not, it's still Honshu). It's time to begin our descent and we turn towards the northeast in preparation.
We pass over Aomori and Mutsu Bay, leaving Honshu with Cape Shiriyazaki on our right.
Then it's over the ocean before swinging back towards Tomakomai on the Hokkaido coast.
Landing video 1
Landing video 2
And there you go, we landed at New Chitose Airport under beautiful blue skies after a pretty smooth flight!
I had seen the airport plenty of times out of the train window, but this was my first time landing here. For some reason the rounded terminal reminded me of Melbourne's Tullamarine Airport.
We parked next to a couple of Skymark Airlines' Boeing 737-800s.
It was a good flight, despite my concerns. Jetstar was Jetstar. I knew what to expect and I had no complaints at all. But there's no time to dawdle and think about it further, because I have a goal. After we collect our bags we have four minutes to catch the train from the airport. Thankfully, this is Japan and it's smooth.
I'm going to give you a summary of our trip below. If you want more details then please visit my blog.
My wife's mission in Hokkaido is to eat seafood. My son's mission isn't in Hokkaido, it's to visit train museums with ticket gates. My mission is to catch trains while I still can. In many ways our first destination serves as a good example of why I am in a hurry.
Yubari was a coal mining city with a population once numbering around 120,000. Today it's around 10,000 and declining while the average age of those who remain increases. There are no more coal mines in Japan, a symbol of what must happen everywhere. As populations and demographics change JR Hokkaido can no longer afford to maintain its railway network. The next line scheduled to close is the Yubari branch on March 31, 2019.
Last year I caught trains to the extremities of Hokkaido and Japan as well from Sapporo to Oshamambe via Niseko. Now I want to fill in the missing pieces.
I am guided by a poem I wrote a few years ago.
Lonely train through a quiet place
Take your time, no need to race!
Wind whispering through the reeds
Bending to its silent needs
Along the fields made of dust
Past the towns becoming rust
Platforms devoid of people now
Nobody around to tell you how
The trains came to take them away
Children left to elsewhere play
To cities tall and full of light
Never knowing the stars at night
Nor hearing peace amongst the noise
So busy playing with their toys
Yet here I am in their wake
The slow path I choose to take
Wandering this decaying land
I hear myself and understand.
We start at Yubari, which drives Alex and B crazy with boredom. I enjoyed the dying town with its interesting coal mining museum and movie poster buildings.
While B and Alex catch a train to Furano via Asahikawa I take a detour, riding the only daily train to the end of the Sassho Line at Shin-Totsukawa, another line facing closure soon.
Kids from the hospital day care centre pass out hand coloured postcards, as they have for the past seven years.
While a dog dressed in a stationmaster's costume sits in the arms of a man with a "Save Shin-Totsukawa shirt".
From Shin-Totsukawa I walk about three and a half kilometres across the river to Takikawa on the main line. Takikawa is home to a gliding aerodrome by the river.
It's then a short ride up to Fukagawa, where I change trains to the Rumoi Line. The line has already been truncated at that city, once going all the way to Mashike. At Rumoi I eat ramen at the small Michelin Bib Gourmand awarded restaurant Ekimae Kaiei.
It's an excuse, as if I needed one. I also visit a tourist information shop and discover that the local mascot, Kazumo, is a bunch of fish eggs and a hatchling. Weird!
Then back on the train to Fukagawa.
I return to Takikawa and catch the Nemuro Line. This line used to run all the way to Nemuro in the southeast (visited last year) but typhoon rains a couple of years ago washed away the tracks past Higashi-Shikagoe and there is doubt it will ever be repaired. The line actually takes me past Furano, where B and Alex are waiting, but I catch it all the way to the end before returning. Twelve hours of train travel!
Shabu-shabu for dinner
The following day we ride the Furano Line, the last untravelled major stretch up towards Asahikawa. There's beautiful autumn foliage along the way and we stop at Biei, where we visit a flower farm.
From Asahikawa we head to Abashiri, where we have a nice dinner of seafood.
The original plan had us hiring a car at Abashiri for a day trip to the Shiretoko Peninsula. But the remnants of Typhoon Kong-rei had finally struck and it was wet, windy and there were lots of warnings. So initially we just drove to the Abashiri Prison Museum and the Okhotsk Ryu-hyo (Drift ice) Museum. Both were worth a visit, the latter for the cute little clione sea snails!
We still had time so we decided to drive to our next destination, Kawayu Onsen, drop off our bags and then I'd take the car back and return by train. This was my first drive overseas! I'd wanted to visit Kawayu Onsen after passing it in the train last year. Glad I did because the sulphur volcano Mount Io was probably the highlight of the trip. Along the way we stopped at Mokotoyama Observatory overlooking Lake Akan, where the crater from the anime movie Your Name was modelled off.
The next day we catch a bus up to an observatory overlooking Lake Mashu, but it's too cloudy to see the lake, so after warming our feet at the footbath outside JR Mashu station, we ride the train to Kushiro.
Again our plans change. I was going to take Alex and B to eat fresh seafood to Nemuro, but now they can't be bothered, so we stay in Kushiro and visit the Children's Museum instead for some science fun.
The seafood was had at the Kushiro Washo Markets.
After a morning exploring the port area, we caught the train back towards Chitose, thus completing a loop around the island.
Claw machine to catch clawed creatures...
The recent earthquake messed up the train schedules so we were stuck in Minami-Chitose, opposite the airport, for a while. There's an outlet centre and the station had a hot food vending machine. Then we caught the train down to Hakodate for the night.
So that completed our Hokkaido adventure. We then caught the Shinkansen down to Tokyo where we stayed a couple of nights in Shinjuku, visiting the railway museum at Omiya, a Kawasaki robot shopfront and Sega Joypolis at Odaiba. We also experienced the Life Safety Centre, learning to use fire extinguishers, escapeing smoke filled rooms and a simulated earthquake.
The others were delighted to return to "civilisation" with bright lights, crowds and shops. I was miserable, missing my adventures in rural Japan with its lonely streets and peace and quiet. But I was glad to have "finished" Hokkaido. Don't get me wrong, I'd love to visit again, but now I can do so on my own terms and focus on some other regions of Japan, such as more of Tohoku, of Kyushu and to revisit my favourite area, Chugoku in the south of Honshu (not to be confused with China).
From Tokyo we returned by Shinkansen to Osaka for a night. On our final day we visited the bowing deer and temples of Nara.
Please see for more details and a larger set of photos.
In the final instalment we fly back to Sydney with Qantas.