Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Seishun 18 Kippu, the verdict and tips

For anyone with sufficient time, and an inclination to go to places off the Shinkansen lines, seishun 18 kippu is great.  To a large extent the Shinkansen lines determine where the popular tourist sites are; it doesn't always follow though that these are the most worthwhile destinations.    The seishun 18 kippu opens up places that are seriously off the beaten track relatively easily and very cheaply.   The fact a single ticket can be used by multiple people makes it very flexible, not to mention that only walking would be cheaper:  going to Odate via Niigata and returning on the shortest route would cost about 50,000 Y (around  550AUD), compared with 7,100 yen using three days of the seishun juu hachi  ticket - and I could have done it in a two day trip (4,600Y)

Caveat and tips for successful and happy seishun travel.

* it may make for a happier trip to combine a seishun pass with shinkansen / night bus / plane travel., or for an overseas visitor combining it with a JR pass, especially if time is limited.  The scenery from the train through the dormitory towns out of Tokyo tends not be inspiring.    Having said that though - the more you travel in a day, the cheaper the per km rate of travel becomes.

* know when the seishun ju hachi kippu seasons are. The JR East website has the info.
The tickets are not sold by JR for the last two weeks of the seishun period  though they can be used.  Discount ticket shops may have them though.
* reasearch the trains - some lines have only a few services a day. has a function that restricts the search to seishun eligible trains. (It's only in Japanese but the google translate function is very satisfactory - there is an English search engine but you need to manually eliminate shinkansen, private lines etc from the search - it may be a little less reliable as there are some exceptions to travelling on express lines.) See the picture for what the itinerary looks like, I printed it in Japanese but have written in the English letters for the place names.
*  have your intinery printed out.   Jorduan's itinerary builder  shows all the connections.   This also will give the destination of the train and not just the your own destination - much easier to find the right train at the station.  (It often has the platform number on it as well.) 
* a mobile ph. with internet capacity or a JR timetable will give the capacity to change the journey mid way through. (At Yamadera I got back to the station earlier than I anticipated and was able to re-search and a different route worked out to be faster).   This applies particularly when there is more than one potential route. (scribbled jottings of the best connection.)
* pack food and drink if connections are tight. 
* if you have long stops, you can use your time better if you know what may be of interest at the stop over point.
* have a calm  or stoic mind about long trips on a train.  Motivated by frugality alone, I think it would be difficult to endure. I like trains and I like the Japanese countryside so it works fine for me - it's worth having a good book though.
* Be prepared for noone to speak English. 
* unlike urban trains, they local trains in the countryside tend to have loos.
* And to restate the most important point - research and know your timetable - especially where there is more than one route option  and especially if the services are infrequent.

+  Not really a seishun 18 ticket tip, but it has lots of potential to combine it with bicycle riding.  In Japan, the powers that be benevolently allow bagged bikes to travel free. :)  But they must be bagged.  At  Yamadera the bike would have been a nuisance, but in Sakata, or Shinjo  & Akita, with a bit more time, having a bike to explore on could make for really fun travel.

If I think of others I will write them :)

If you search seishun 18 on this site, you'll come up with my seishun 18 2011 trip.

From Yamadera home

The seishun 18 kippu feels magnificent when sitting on one and two car trains that meander through far off places; it loses its shine on the well travelled track back to Tokyo.
I left Yamadera just before 3 on a Sendai bound train.  A change for Haranomachi, followed by a change for Iwaki, a change for Mito and a change at Nippori had me home at 11.30 pm - 81/2 hours. The shinkansen from Sendai takes a bit over 2 hours.  Changes were tight and there wasn't time to get anything other than chips or chocolate to munch on - after the Odate food fest arguably it was just as well.
All was going smoothly till I saw a super express train at Iwaki that was Ueno (Tokyo) bound.... Resisting temptation I perservered in my quest. And it was worth it;I would use the seishun 18  again in a flash - though two days for the last leg would have made it more relaxed and enjoyable.
Trains from Yamadera to Sendai run roughly every hour

The Yamadera-Sendai train about to return
Countryside south east of Sendai
Haranomachi station
Haranomachi train about to return to Sendai
The Iwaki bound train.
Iwaki - the train behind was the Ueno bound express....
Iwaki to Mito
Fiiiiiiiiiiiiinally the train from Mito to Ueno which thankfully became an express at Toride, an hour out of Tokyo.


Tuesday, 30 March 2010


Having come so far, when I got to Yamadera I was relieved that there was not much snow there and getting off was feasible.  I hadn't heard of Yamadera till recently,  I was looking at somewhere to stop off on the way back, and came up with it, though beyond being a temple mountain, as the name suggests, I had little idea of what was actually there.  It was well worth the stop.

Not all temples are created equal.... and actually in Japan although temples are omnipresent, they feel very closed.  Compared with a church or a Thai temple where everyone is welcome and can participate and where there is an active and defined avenue to learn more about what goes on there, I often get the feeling from Japanese temples that anyone is welcome - but only as an observer.   Yamadera was the same in this respect. There was no space inside a building set aside for people there to pray, as far as I could see there was little information about Buddhism as a religion (either in Japanese or English ), as though it was already self contained,  though there was historical information but in Japanese only. I did see a monk but he was absorbed in a book between selling entry tickets.  Yamadera seems to be a place for Buddhist ascetics, and there was an area higher up the mountain off limits to non ascetics.  There were some inaccessible little huts on the mountainside, that reminded me of the 'tree houses' at  the Santi Asok temple in Bangkok that were home to ascetic monks.   It's something I know very little about, and something I should ask Lily's friend Kazuo san; he is one of the few people I have met in Japan that has knowledge of Buddhism.

But as a historical, architectural site it was impressive. Particularly the view across the valley and up to the mountains.  For anyone with a wish to see off the beaten track Japan that is relatively accessible, this is it.
Yamadera: the steps up

A commemoration stone dedicated to someone who achieved a high rank in the armed forces during the Russo Japanese war
Kaimyo boards - when Japanese Buddhists die they typically are allocated a new name for the afterlife.
I'm struggling with the writing on this, but it fits with the ascetism of the temple.

Yamadera: Graffiti on the walls of the look out building...... multilingual graffiti


Yamadera: Beyond here is for ascetics only

Stunning scenery

Little huts are visible here, I imagine the caves also are used for ascetic practice.

Yamadera: Hiking courses nearby.... maybe in the summer...

This is a useful site  of Yamagata sight seeing places for anyone interested in going there.

The loooooong road home - to Yamadera.

In order to have 2 uses left on the ticket, I decided to travel back to Tokyo in one day.  It was a marathon.  6.28 at Odate, a short wait at Akita station, a train to Shinjo ( 新庄 ) in Yamagata, a change of train again in Uzen Chitose  (羽前千歳) and a train to Yamadera (山寺) where  there is a mountain temple on a road less traveled, where foreigners are few and far between.
When I left Odate it was snowing chira chira - fluttering gently. It continued on and off the whole way to Yamadera.  Akita and Shinjo are both Shinkansen stations - unlike most of Japan the Akita and Yamagata Shinkansen can run on ordinary guage tracks as well as the designated Shinkansen lines.  I am not sure how many passengers Shinjo gets, but the station is light and airy, usuing lots of glass and cedar wood.   It was cold, snowy and windy in Shinjo, obscuring the visibility of  the Dewa Sanzan mountains on the sea side.   I had enough time for a quick walk around and to buy some take away coffee and an onigiri.  I got onto the train wondering if a stop at Yamadera would be feasible.
outside Odate - little snow
outside odate- more snow...
snow at Akita station falling chira chira
On the way to Shinjo
Shinjo looking west
Shinjo station
South of Shinjo


Snow. Eating. Onsen.
Snow. Eating. Volleyball match.  Eating. Onsen.
Snow. Eating. Onsen.

Aside from watching Hiro's niece play volleyball. Eating, onsen and snow neatly summarise the time in Odate.

The garden out back
The shed, and pile of snow that is going to take a while to melt.
Hiro's father diligently shovels the snow each morning if it has snowed overnight.

Next time I am there I will take food photos. 
Food there is high on mountain vegies and pickles and quite different from what you'd see even in Tokyo.


The Uetsu line train from Murakami terminated at Sakata, Yamagata prefecture,  and there was a 90 min wait between trains - enough time to get out of the station and have a quick look around. What a lovely city.  Two short visits and I'd like to go back for a couple of days.  Sakata was an old port city, as I mentioned when I wrote about being here last October.  The strees are wide, the houses are well maintained, there is spit and polish to it.  Even the man holes on the ground had a fresh painted zing.  Many Japan seaside places, especially those away from the Shinkansen lines, have a worn, dilapidated feel. Not Sakata.  Even the empty shops by the station looked neat and clean, with no sense of urban decay.

The cheery zing of the painted manhole covers

My short wanderings took me by chance through a temple district that featured in the movie 'okuribito'  (Departures) which won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2009.  (Buddhist)  Temples tend to signify urban life, literacy and education. Buddhism, which came to to Japan via China has many sutras and religious text that require at least some of the population to be literate. In contrast, Shinto, the indigenous religion has no written doctrine and shrines which are connected to nature and are found randomly on mountain paths, by waterfalls and in forest clearings.   (The lack of written  doctrine helps explain how Shinto could be manipulated so much in the lead up to world war II).

Kaian - A Zen temple with pagoda near the station  
A signboard showing where part of Okuribito was filmed
Itsukushima shrine
 Itsukushima shrine

Itsukushima shrine

A house of no particular significance that I could see.

Shops to rent near the station

Around Sakata
Sakata town map (the macro setting isn't quite right)

North of Sakata it was dark.  I took the train to Akita city and changed to an all stations to Odate, arriving at 9.54pm. 
Some time in the future I would like to go back to Sakata and follow the trainline up the coast to Aomori.