A lot could be said about the planning of this trip.
In truth, I’m not even sure how to begin to describe it. Somewhere between consuming and driven to insanity I’d put it.
The focus and everything around it is about the Twilight Express, the sleeper train that travels between Sapporo and Osaka.
Its route takes it down the western side of Japan along the scenic Sea of Japan coast.
The train is being decommissioned next year (along with Hokutosei and Cassiopia) to give way to the Hokkaido Shinkansen.
The Seikan Tunnel connecting Honshu (main island) with Hokkaido is modified with higher voltage the Twilight Express will need to get new locomotives if it is to continue operation. With the sleeper trains getting old the value of any investment is uncertain.
So it’s a case of now or never.
The trip is thus an attempt to take the sleeper train before they’re all gone. I say attempt, because there’s really no guarantee of actually getting on the train. Tickets for the Twilight Express were always hard to get, and now with them being phased out they’re near impossible.
There’s 2 main ways of getting a ticket. 1 is of course getting a reservation beforehand. Ticket reservations open a month beforehand and requires calling in to the JR centres in Japan. The second is waiting for someone to cancel the day before, since JR charge a hefty fee on late cancellations.
The plan is thus as follow:
Get Visa Concierge to try and make a booking for me. (My Japanese is not good enough to talk on the phone)
Build a 2 week trip with multiple itenaries for each possible Twilight Express train during this period and play it by ear once in Japan.
Immediately I run into several problems. First being the Twilight Express schedule does not fit neatly into 2 weeks. Ideally the trip should be exactly 14 days to coincide with the 14 day JR Pass, but the Twilight Express does not run to a regular schedule, instead there are on irregular on days and off days based on holidays and maintenances. With the start of the trip fixed on a Sunday (since I’ll arrive in Taiwan on Saturday), there’ll only be 4 possible trains in 14 days, extending it to 15 will give another extra.
In my desperation, I decided to make the trip 15 days and eat the travel cost for the extra day.
All this demands certain things for the trip, namely huge number of alternative itinerary and great flexibility built into those schedules. Decisions being weighed and compromises made everywhere. I created an spreadsheet to keep tracking of itineraries and hotel bookings, it is a glorious rainbow of color coded location, hotels, dates, hotel cancel deadlines and penalties, train schedules and sightseeing spots. A maze of branching and merging, overlapping and intertwining paths that strove to maximize possibilities yet still straining to be within the bounds of controls.
If it weren’t for it being an almost mesmerizing puzzle I would have given up weeks ago.
Then to complicate things more, autumn arrived in Japan early this year so whether there’s any leaves left on the branches by the time I get there is in serious doubt. The amount of locations built into the schedule should guarantee me seeing ‘some’ leaves, if not for the most desired locations, but the dreaded already-fallen-and-not-yet-red ill timing cannot be dismissed.
As of writing while lounging in HK, I still have no idea if I’ll even get on that train, having all previous attempts being fruitless. I’m having to go to Japan and hope someone cancels the day before the train departs.