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Engaru, Hokkaido – April, 2023

After making it to the northern and eastern extremities of Hokkaido back in 2019 (pre-covid!), I'd decided I wanted to do the round-trip via Abashiri. There's freight to see on the line from Asahikawa, via Engaru, to Kitami and a joyful train from Abashiri to Kushiro. Getting there would be no mean feat though!

The plan was to get to Asahikawa and then venture east. From Shin-Osaka, it would've been a 2-day trip via trains, and I'd done that last time. This time I was to cheat and fly Itami(Osaka) to Chitose(Sapporo), leaving very little time to transfer to the Limited Express trains.

Getting to Sapporo via Itami

The first leg was easy.. and this may even be the first time I've featured a plane on this blog. JAL has a Japan Explorer Pass and, even though I didn't fly JAL into Japan, any international visitor can still make use of it inside Japan, as long as you prove to have a booking reference for an international flight. You simply provide that information whilst booking. It's very similar to the Japan Rail Pass, which I was about to activate.

I'd never been to Itami Airport before, but it was an easy trip on the Hankyu Railway, with a transfer to the Osaka Monorail at Hotarugaike Station. Note that the monorail makes a huge S-bend at this station and it'd be great to photograph... when one isn't rushing to a plane. Getting to the Hankyu line involved a 5am walk through Nishinakajima-Minamigata... it was very serene.

Before long, a westbound local took me to Juso where I changed for a northbound service. It happened to be the first out of Umeda for the morning and the karaoke experts were all sleeping on the seats, just itching to get home to their warm beds.

Itami was a very non-eventful event. There was a huge queue to check in and so I tried to use the check-in kiosks. It couldn't work out my english name and, before I could press the 'call attendant' button, a staff member grabbed me and coerced me to the 'priority' desk. Hah. I felt sorry for the other passengers in the queue!

All checked in, with my bag still in hand (I had no time to wait for checked-in baggage at the other end), I headed into the airport's main terminal. It's... stunning!

I watched a lot of cargo get loaded... and other people's luggage...

And then we were off! Landing 5 minutes early.

Sapporo to Engaru

Despite being at the far northern end of Japan, the Limited Express trains in Hokkaido are still convenient and fast. Sometime in the future there'll be shinkansen, but it'll still only reach as far as Otaru, via Sapporo City. Getting further north will still require the use of zairaisen.

We arrived at Sapporo New Chitose Airport early and this meant I could make the 10:06 rapid to Sapporo. I could then take the Lilac 13 express north, arriving at Asahikawa in time for the first Taisetsu of the day! If I was a few minutes later, I'd have to take the ~2pm Lilac 17 from Sapporo and then a Rapid Kitami, getting to Engaru 2 hours later. Two more hours of daylight in my target destination was definitely a bonus! Maybe even an extra freight service.

The trip out to Sapporo was nice, being in the front behind the driver. I love being able to see the tracks ahead... but not the mountain-tops... isn't this meant to be the end of Spring?

Lucky I'd packed for winter. Sapporo Station was even still ready for winter:

Yup, those heaters were active.


Lilac 13 departed on time and we were on our way to Asahikawa. They've blocked access to the corridor which leads to the front window of these trains. It happened years ago, but it's still sad that there's no more ability to see through to the front.

Taisetsu (the name means 'heavy snow', I'd initially thought 'important') was there waiting... and the weather was dreary! It got furtherly-hilarious along the way...

But then we cleared the mountain range and the snow went from blizzard to spring.

And, before long, we were in Engaru... the first stop for freight!


This small town has a lot of railway history. The line used to extend north-east to Yubetsu, but now there's just a few relics along the old alignment. I didn't have transport, so instead loitered in town waiting for the trains to pass in and out. They don't officially pass 'through' though, as the station functions as a switch-back terminus.

It was bloody cold and there were signs of recent snow activity...

I climbed the pedestrian bridge where the incoming rails split north and south. Fortunately, there was another railfan waiting! The freight must be coming!?...

Not freight, but a darn fine KIHA40 in JNR Vermillion. Turns out all of the KIHAs up here have been painted in koku-tetsu (Old-skool JNR) liveries and that's what everyone's hanging out for. Speaking of hanging out, the freight never came... so I checked out the SL Park.

To the north-west of the station is a rock formation with a lookout up the top. The SL Park is down the bottom and there's even a public toilet. Can you just imagine how majestic the area would've been when the SLs were operational? Needing to be turned to pull the freight back out of Engaru yard? Anyway, thinking of that made me go back to the station and dawdle around... taking photos of random stuff ...

I'd arrived in time for the ~2pm freight, but that didn't happen. I then dawdled further until the ~4pm freight... but there was no sign of that either.

You can only take so many photos of Vermillion, right? Anyway, the next train wasn't until 8pm, so I went and checked into my Hotel Sun Shine.

After a quick relax... I found random combini dinner and then trotted back to the station for the evening freight. Actually, on the way to dinner I checked out the snow plow at the end of the yard.

Very cute... but I prefer a DD51 with plow carriages. Anyway, dinner.. then the station... and more KIHAs.

SO PRETTY. I then loitered...

Note that the departure boards are all fixed-lighting and they switch in the service departing from the platform. Very cool.

Then the expresses came through. They were meant to pass further south, but the northbound was delayed and the pass happened in front of me!

They both left... A KIHA was hanging around... so I photographed it...

And then the station-master came out and asked if I was waiting for the freight. I could feel the bad news coming.... He proceeded to explain that the "tama-negi" season was already over. I then asked if that's the only rail-freight on this line and he very simply said 'yes'. I was slightly astonished... they run two daily return trips to Kitami JUST for brown onions!

And just to rant... in English, "onion" is brown onion and "spring onion" is just that. In Japanese "negi" (onion) is actually spring onion and "tama-negi" (ball onion) is brown onion. Amazing how we have the single-word version backwards. Anyway, I digress... the whole bloody point of this trip was that I'd seen the paths on the timetable and thought it would be fantastical to see the freight operating. Supposedly I'd missed them by one week. Super Mario 2 had plucked the last onion around 10 days earlier and it'd already been boxed and railed.

It started snowing. I went to bed. I still wanted to complete the loop of Hokkaido and ... well ... now that there was no freight in Kitami, I could go to Hard Off :)

Oh! The pedestrian overpass did have graffiti.. I was a little surpised.

Appropriate? Maybe another tecchan also missed out.

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