a whole day of trains

2016-07-16 SAPPORO, JAPAN -- Noriko and I spent a whole day on trains near the Sapporo area.

A one-day pass lets us ride all local trains within a designated area. The rail lines and noteworthy stations we traveled through are, in order of time of departure or arrival: (1) Sassho line -- Sapporo 06:39, Ishikari-Tobetsu 07:45, Shin-Totsukawa 09:28, (2) Hakodate line -- Sunagawa 11:44, Iwamizawa 12:52, Oiwake 13:38, (3) Sekisho line -- Oiwake 15:18, Shin-Yubari 15:56, Yubari 16:23, back to Shin-Yubari 17:10, Oiwake 17:54, Minami-Chitose 18:22, and (4) Chitose line -- Minami-Chitose 19:18, Sapporo 19:52.

The photos below show segment (1), the Sassho line between Sapporo and Shin-Totsukawa.

The morning summer sun was blazing at Ishikari-Tobetsu, where they have a beautiful park with a pond full of tadpoles. What a great start of the day!

A single-car diesel-electric waits at Ishikari-Tobetsu track 1. Because many stations on the Sassho line are unmanned, passengers buy tickets from the engineer just like you pay a bus driver.

The Sassho line is single track. At Ishikari-Tsukigata our train waited 22 minutes for 1 of the 7 daily trains coming from the opposite direction.

The station platform is graded at the end. In the old days the slope eased wheeled carts to carry cargo on and off the platform, and these days would seem to assist wheelchairs and strollers. Alas in modern stations overpasses and staircases are prevalent.

Inside the station house, we found furniture of yesteryear, with tatami-clad benches. A kerosene stove heats the waiting room in winter.

The northern segment of the Sassho line will soon be abolished. The impending end means nobody cares about maintaining the facilities.

The Hokkaido Railway Company (nicknamed JR Hokkaido) has steadily shed rail lines since becoming a private company in 1987. JR Hokkaido is a distressing corporation. 2 of their CEOs committed suicide (respectively in 2011 and 2014) due to poor financial performance (the firm has never been profitable), hazardous operational practices (at least 1 train caught fire due to poor maintenance, and at least 1 dropped pieces of equipment while underway), and wanton lack of ethics (1 worker sabotaged the tracks to avoid coming to work, and 1 engineer destroyed a safety system because the warning signals were annoying him). The public was outraged when dangerous workers were allowed to return to duty instead of having their licenses pulled. Customers were doubly stunned when JR Hokkaido management wondered aloud what was the problem with that? 2 CEOs killed themselves in shame.

Some station houses are converted railway freight cars. That by itself is not a bad idea. Add windows and furniture at the maintenance yard, bring the car to the station, take off the wheels and presto! Station house at any remote location. Too bad the station houses are being neglected.

Although I have not found reliable historical records on the Sassho line, it seems that even during the best of times the northern segment of the Sassho line was never used to haul coal or fish (both major exports of Hokkaido island until the 1950s) or carry passengers (the line runs through forests and farmland). I read that a local politician campaigned to have the rail line built, perhaps to appease his voters.

Shin-Totsukawa is the end of the line. The Sassho line used to extend further north from here to Ishikari-Numata, but that segment was decommissioned in 1972. Shin-Totsukawa has no rail or bus connection. Apart from several houses, nothing is near the station. Nobody depends on or supports the rail line.

A group of kindergarten kids and their teachers welcomed us with drums and dancing. The northernmost section of the Sassho line has exactly 1 train per day. The railcar we rode was the first and last to arrive, and the first and last to depart. After arriving at 09:28, it reverses direction and leaves the station at 09:40, and has the distinction of being the earliest last train in the entire nation.

We took a taxi to Sunagawa station. We could have easily walked the 8 km distance but we needed to catch a train. Before the train we enjoyed brunch at one of the many confectionary shops in Sunagawa.

Our former graduate student was stationed at an elementary school in Sunagawa. She told us about the apple pies and tanuki (badger-dog) cakes.

We spent some money on delicious cakes.

Kerochan and Noriko were quite happy with cakes and free coffee (rare in Japan).

radio program

2016-06-22 (UPDATED FROM 2016-05-23) SAPPORO, JAPAN -- Update: on 2016-06-22 the transcript of the radio program came online, along with an audio recording.

My friends Akio Ohnishi, Hiroya Tanaka and I appeared on a local radio program on
station Air-G (FM 80.4 MHz facebook twitter). This was the first time I appeared on commercial radio.

I've been on the air on amateur radio and aviation radio. Commercial radio is quite a different experience, mostly because it is broadcast on a schedule as opposed to being a two-way conversation that can continue as long as desired.

The program we appeared in is a 10-to-15-minute segment called "School strike" (
website twitter) contained within a 105-minute live show called "GTR" (website). "School strike" sounds like teachers demanding better working conditions (which I would agree with for my colleagues' sakes) but the radio station means "strike zone" or "dead center" of topics related to education in the Sapporo area. Most listeners are middle school and high school kids, their parents, and their teachers. They are eager to learn what tertiary education offers them.

At 20:30 local time we were shown to a spacious recording studio. The announcer D J Ryota asked us questions and we took turns answering to the best of our ability. We adjourned at 20:47. Tonight's segment lasted a few minutes longer than usual, I believe.

The following 2 pictures are screenshots of the radio station's tweets.

Right to left: D J Ryota (wearing a white cap), Akio Ohnishi (founder and CEO of Version2, Inc
website facebook), Hiroya Tanaka (professor of English language at Hokkai Gakuen University website), and me. Hidden behind the orange artificial flower on the desk is Sirokuro Puppy (the mascot of my online learning courseware).

After our segment the program went to music and the microphones in the recording studio were turned off. We took souvenir pictures. Mine features Sirokuro Puppy and the uniform for Paddy (website twitter), the ultimate frisbee men's and women's teams that I am the faculty advisor for at Hokkaido University. One man and two women from our teams were chosen to represent Japan in the world championships! Only 24 for each gender are selected.


2016-06-17 SAPPORO, JAPAN -- Birthday!

Today marks the 2-year anniversary of my trumpet playing. Hmm, progress is slow!

Noriko and Kero gave me a trumpet keychain.

yosakoi soran matsuri

2016-06-12 SAPPORO, JAPAN -- The Yosakoi Soran Matsuri takes place every June. Young adults, including many of our students, perform choreographed dances in groups averaging 100 people each.

Modernized Japanese attire is the norm. Hairstyle for women is often a pineapple bun. Maybe it is easier to dance.

Grandstands line the streets. Some are free, others not. Friends and families of each team walk with their dancers across town.

The weather was clear, and to use aviation terms, ceiling unlimited, winds 090 at 20 gusting to 50 (blowing from the east at 10 to 25 meters per second). We were almost swept off our feet. Yet the dancers were steaming with sweat.

This year 280 teams participated, some coming from far away. Each team performs numerous times at 20 venues downtown.


2016-06-02 AMANOHASHIDATE, JAPAN -- Noriko and I visited Amanohasidate located on the Sea of Japan side of Kyoto.

Amanohashidate means "ladder to heaven". In local mythology, the heavenly gods climbed up and down to create the islands of Japan. But one day the ladder toppled. They must have had an earthquake!

Amanohashidate is a spit about 4 km long. It is a pine-covered sandbar that traverses a bay. Medieval paintings show that the spit did not stretch across to the other side. An extending ladder?

We crossed the spit twice. It's a pleasant, flat, shady walk.

We took the boat once. See its white wake alongside the spit.

From the hilltop we saw the numerous bays and peninsulas that characterize the complex coastline.

One of the bays yonder is Maizuru, home port of one of the fleets of the Japanese navy.

We gave offerings at Nariaiji, a buddhist temple known for a benevolent holy statue who fed its wooden leg to a starving priest. The priest wasn't supposed to eat flesh or wood. But all was forgiven.

Most worshippers crave a look of the dragon carved by Hidari Jingoro, a sculptor from the Edo period, about 300 years ago.

But we came for the eggplant charm, with a screw-off cap that reveals a golden frog within. Naturally we purchased a pair.

The stairs deterred most tourists.

The climb was steep, but worth the view!

Poor Noriko! The sole of her shoe came off without warning! We taped the shoe back together.

Noriko quickly got a new pair of hiking shoes.


2016-05-30 TAKENO, JAPAN -- Noriko and I stayed at Takeno, a seaside town on the Sea of Japan near the Kyoto-Hyogo prefectural border.

The geography is complex. The shoreline is heavily serrated, with numerous inlets and promontories.

This naturally protected bay is a popular snorkeling and scuba diving spot.

This sandy beach is a summer destination for people living in downtown Kyoto.

Parts of the coastline geography are similar to Oregon.

We soaked in the hot springs and enjoyed a traditional Japanese dinner.

ferry from tomakomai to nagoya

2016-05-27 NAGOYA, JAPAN -- Noriko and I took a 40-hour ferry trip from Tomakomai (east of Sapporo) to Nagoya.

Ishikari was launched in 2011. She has won the ferry of the year award each year since. The Tohoku tsunami occurred during her maiden voyage. The Ishikari weighs slightly less than 16,000 gross tons, is just under 200 meters long, and is 27 meters wide.

Cabins come in 12 different types. We stayed in a room with a window, sofa, 2 beds, restroom and full bath. The room has a refrigerator and hot water maker. The TV shows the view from the bridge.

The ship's course hugs the eastern coastline of Honshu island. WIMAX (wireless internet) and cellphone coverage is fairly consistent, at least on the shore side of the ship.

The ship sails early evening and arrives on the 2nd morning. We enjoyed sunset dinners.

Weather was perfect. The ship travels at 26.5 knots (40 kilometers per hour ). On a calm day, that is the speed of the wind blowing across the deck.

I blew my trumpet behind the funnel looking over the stern.