The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

There, and back again?!?

I did it, I took the longest, cheapest rail journey it is possible to do in Japan by using one ticket of my JR five day Seishun Juhachi Kippu pass (18kip) (2,300 Yen then as the whole ticket is only 11,500 Yen) and went all the way to Nagasaki.Here`s the rub though, you can only use local trains so those slinky, shiny Shinkansens are out.  To tell the truth it is actually impossible to go to Nagasaki on one ticket, in 24 hours yes but using 2 tickets! So I had to take a train to Odawara at a cost of nearly 1,000 yen, plus the seat reservation for this night train of 510 yen. I started using the 18kippu ticket at midnight which is about 30 minutes after I got on the train and then, twenty-four long, long, long hours and ten trains later, I could only get as far as Haiki in Nagasaki prefecture. It is then about an hour and a half or two into Nagasaki City proper, but nothing runs at that time of night and my ticket`s 24 hour validity had run out so I stayed in nearby Sasebo and slept like I have never slept before after having been awake for around 42 hours. I`ll write about this in full sometime soon and try and pitch it to some magazines as an alternative to the Japan Rail pass. For us that live in Japan, and cannot get the rail pass anyways, it is an alternative well worth doing.

Of course you don`t have to do this journey, I just wanted to because it is (I thought anyways) a fun, slightly stupid, thing to do. This route is special, it is the stuff of legend and myth for trainy types, the JR marathon; it is not easy, indeed it is at times downright dull especially when it is dark and there is nothing to look at out the windows. It is hard to keep motivated sometimes, but there is drama too: some connections are two only minutes apart so every little delay has you working out the snowball implications further down the line. Luckily every train I took arrived and left bang on time (just imagine trying to do the same sort of trip in the UK or another Asian country!). Even the first one where we had to wait in Odawara for half an hour for a snow-delayed bullet train to go ahead of us didn`t delay our arrival in Ogaki at 5:55am exactly. Still can`t work out how.

It was a truly amazing journey, crawling and bouncing across half the length of Japan to a new city I`d never been to before; seeing parts of Japan at a much slower and bouncier pace than most travellers do. And looking out on a countryside that bounced past from icy ski towns to wintery brown rice fields empty of life. There was a sunrise and a sunset, two nights passing, a full day in between, coast to mountain and back again, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, to name just three cities of culture and history. I saw urban scenes and rural ones, suburbs and seasides. There were castles and factories, mines and forests, farms and ports, nuclear power stations and windmills. Everything about this country, it`s whole diversity went bouncing past.

You may have noticed that I`ve written about bouncing a lot, the reason being that, certainly from Itozaki onwards, the lines were not exactly smooth. So if you`ll forgive the lack of good photos in this post and any subsequent articles I can manage to bash out, please understand that it is difficult to take pics on a moving train, especially one that is rapidly moving up and down as it winds slowly westwards.

It was a great trip though I counted the hours towards the end at times and sat worried, as we slowed into station, that I`d find the connection in time. I starved finding nothing open for breakfast in Ogaki (5:55am) and nothing, nothing anywhere in Itozaki for lunch (13:07 and a full 39 minutes of connection time but not a cafe, restaurant or anything in this farming town).  I recommend taking lots of food. Drink on the other hand be careful, some local trains don`t have toilets and with 2 and 5 minute connections there is lettle time to do much else than find the next platform so you had better stay just the wrong side of dehydrated in my opinion.

I met some, not many it had to be said his early in the year, other travellers, 18kipping there way across the country. I was the only one though, I think, that went all the way to Nagasaki from Tokyo yesterday and of that fact I am idiotically proud. How on earth I`m going to get back, I don`t know yet. I`ve done the trip now, I am in no rush to repeat the experience!.

Just a quick note of thanks to my wife who managed to check out all the connections, indeed after getting completely confused on my own research as to the itinerary I should use: with different websites saying this and that and not quite being able to get one solid answer to whether the route was possible or not, she managed to find a pretty good collection of stations and trains for me. All so I could go off on my own, without her, and do some travelling thus completely neglecting my duties as husband and father. Pretty good wife don`t you think?

Got to work on the pics now.

Later Damon


4 responses

  1. Andy

    So yuo finally made the trip. Nice one. How much time did you have in Nagasaki before returning. You may need to go back again!

    January 6, 2010 at 8:36 pm

  2. That’s an epic JR journey, you are a man of great patience. I am sure you could pitch it to some mags as a good low budget travel option for those who dwell here and have some time on their hands.

    January 7, 2010 at 12:12 am

  3. Absolute genius brother…..
    what a great and insane idea. Can’t wait to meet up with you and hear more about it.

    oh and happy new year 😉

    January 7, 2010 at 1:30 pm

  4. got randomly linked to this entry. great read. i havent done anything like your marathon, but i did enjoy taking the local trains in Japan that trundled along in a sedate manner. gave you more time to reflect on life and look out the window.

    September 19, 2010 at 8:05 am

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