Night trains are becoming a thing of the past in Japan; but there should be a few that survive... hopefully the Twilight Express is one of them. This overnight sleeper train starts in Osaka and terminates in Sapporo, Hokkaido (and vice-versa.) The trip takes roughly 23 hours and traverses the west coast of the main island of Japan. There are two full consists of the Twilight Express to allow daily services from each end of the trip.
I'd seen the train in Japan when I was there in 2008 but hadn't even thought of travelling on it.
A ticket in hand
My next trip to Japan was to be in 2009 and I was determined to get on the train. I hadn't had many spare nights in Japan and the train had been booked out between Osaka and Sapporo on the nights I did have spare. This didn't deter me though, as the reverse trip wasn't booked out. Of course, I then had to get to Hokkaido first and I therefore took the Nihonkai (another sleeper train) to Higashi-Muroran (Hokkaido) and intercepted the Twilight Express as it returned to Osaka. I wasn't able to get all the way to Sapporo in time to meet the Twilight Express there. Higashi-Muroran was pretty cold; although it was the start of the Japanese summer, Hokkaido was still in the low teens (degrees) and I wasn't prepared.
The Nihonkai had arrived on time, giving me a 2 hour stop-over in Higashi-Muroran. There wasn't much rail traffic and so I ran to the nearest katsu curry restaurant to have my favourite dish. On returning to the station I didn't have to wait long to see those familiar blue DD51 diesels arrive. Of course, the lighting was dismal and my digital camera had no chance of catching them moving... I also had no time of getting to the front of the train to take a still shot.
Upon entering the car (I was in a B Class Sleeper) I was presented with beautiful wooden walls and very well kept rooms. As you can tell, I settled in pretty quickly... I'd also brought a few goodies on board. The conductor came in quite soon after to say hello and to apologise for not being able to speak English. Fortunately, my limited Japanese meant we could work out all the formalities: the coin-operated shower was in the Salon Du Nord car, dinner was in allocated time slots: 7pm,8pm,9pm (if I remember correctly) and finally I had to choose what 'type' of meal I wanted for dinner and breakfast? Japanese or Western... I wasn't on the train for Western food!
I then realised I wasn't alone in my cabin and started making new friends. Soon enough another conductor came and found me and offered to change me into another room (still a B Class 4-person) but with me being the only occupant. I couldn't turn down their hospitality and so obliged.
Salon Du Nord
Once settled in I decided to wander around to see what the train had to offer; The first target was the famed "Salon Du Nord". What I found was an amazing observation car beautifully fitted out with very large windows and two TVs. The channels were selectable, but of course, everyone had to agree to you changing the channel :) ... I do believe I watched the same movie 3 times whilst on my trip... but I didn't mind as I was mainly staring out the window.
The car also included the coin-shower and a vending machine. You could also go to the dining car next door and order 'from the bar'. I happened to have a very lovely couple of obaachans talk to me and ask me about my travels... it was quite difficult trying to converse in my broken Japanese and recall all the polite grammar forms; but it made the trip even more enjoyable. It made me laugh when they didn't believe that there were people from other countries taking the relaxed approach on a sleeper train because they liked trains... I was glad to change their perceptions.
I, unfortunately, did not take a full shot of the dining car, but I can assure you it is as tastefully fitted out as the rest of the train. The staff are fantastic and I even had my waiter ask where I was from and what I was up to. Then then offered drinks and the menu which had quite a lot of options. I, if I recall correctly, had a very lovely dish of Japanese Karaage (fried chicken.)
For breakfast I was greeted by the same staff and selected the Japanese breakfast option. There was no menu to choose from, as it was a set breakfast and I was asked to take a seat, admire the great view and await the meal. All of a sudden I had 5 dishes on my table and all I can say is yum!
I then bought my souvenirs; available from the dining car menu and returned to my room.
I had chosen the 'shared' cheaper B Class sleeper rooms, but you could also have a completely private A Class sleeper room. This included a 1-seater sofa/couch which folded out into a bed. The A Class carriage also included a small communal room at one end.
Twilight Express operations
Now comes the fun part of the trip. Both trains, regardless of direction, have an engine swap half way on their journeys. Actually... I lie... over the trip the train encounters a total of 4 engine swaps, but you can't get out and watch the other 3 of them.
The engine swaps are:
- Twilight Express EF81 from Osaka to Tsuruga
- Twilight Express EF81 from Tsuruga to Aomori Depot
- Unknown (I didn't get to see it) EF from Aomori Depot to Hakodate Depot
- Double Blue DD51 from Hakodate Depot to Sapporo
The reason for the swaps are very simple. Hokkaido isn't 100% electrified, so the diesels are required. They use two for on-time running more than gradient climbing. The diesels can't enter the Seikan Tunnel (Honshu to Hokkaido) and so the unknown EF (a stainless steel version) is for that section. The EF81s are then used for the rest of the trip, mainly for brand-recognition :)
Southbound engine swap: Tsuruga
So, after a sound nights sleep, we arrived in Tsuruga with a warning that we'd have to stop over for 10minutes whilst they swapped the engines. We (as they pretty much expected we were all train fanatics) were allowed out to take photos but were to return to the train as soon as the buzzer was heard.
Who could resist? I got out of the train and got to the front to see our first engine (EF81 113) already detached and heading south to the depot. I then walked further down the platform to take a shot of our train next to the Thunderbird that had just arrived. I could not believe the dirtiness of our consist; I hadn't expected an EF81 to cause that much build-up on the passenger car, but it could have been caused from the entire trip.
EF81 104 then started approaching to couple up to the train. It had been sitting in the yard ready to come up as soon as 113 had cleared the points. As soon as it 'clunked' onto the train and the air flowed the buzzer on the platform went off and everyone cleared back on to the train.
Final stations to Osaka
As we got closer and closer, more and more passengers departed at certain platforms. The train was actually scheduled to only stop at stations that passengers had designated to get off at; which is now quite obvious, as it was never going to pick any up. I had booked all the way through to Osaka, but was considering getting off at Kyoto... Unfortunately we were held up due to 'unfortuante circumstances' and I ended up just relaxing in the Salon Du Nord and getting back to Osaka an hour late.
Since this trip I've now also travelled on the Hokutosei and the Kitaguni. I still recall the Twilight Express as being the most memorable and stylish... but will endeavour next to get onto the Cassiopeia.