Japan Opens First Bullet-Train Service To Hokkaido

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Tokyo: Japan on Saturday opened its first bullet-train service to the northern island of Hokkaido, part of an extension of high-speed rail to more corners of the country frequented by tourists.

The trains will travel through the Seikan Tunnel, one of the world’s longest, and connect Tokyo with some ski areas in Hokkaido as well as the port city of Hakodate. The new service follows the opening last year of Shinkansen, or bullet-train service, to Kanazawa, a city on the Japan Sea coast known for its feudal castle and gardens.

Japan drew nearly 20 million foreign tourists last year, a record, and visitor numbers in the first two months of this year are showing further gains.

Hokkaido Gov. Harumi Takahashi said she hoped visitors would use the line to view cherry blossoms in the region later this spring. “The prefecture will enter its tourism season soon, so I hope tourists will take the new Shinkansen trains here,” she said.

The new line, however, has drawbacks compared with airlines, including price and time of travel. A trip on the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Shin-Hakodate Hokuto station, currently the final stop, will cost 22,690 yen ($200), which is costlier than some discounted airline tickets. Travel time is slightly more than four hours, while a flight from Tokyo to the area takes only about 90 minutes.

“The bullet trains aren’t a strong option when compared to airplanes as an efficient method of transportation,” said Motoo Kushibiki, an associate professor at Aomori University who specializes in studying the trains. But he said the Shinkansen offers easier access between Hokkaido and the Tohoku region in northeastern Japan and may bring more travelers over the longer term.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has been marketing Japanese high-speed rail technology overseas. The country lost out to China last year in a bid to build a rail line in Indonesia, but it has been vying for chances to join fast-train projects in the U.S., including a route between New York and Washington.

The Shinkansen already runs nearly to the northern tip of Japan’s main island. The new section is approximately 92 miles long, and trains will travel over it at a maximum speed of about 162 miles an hour.

Plans to construct bullet train lines between mainland Japan and Hokkaido started in 1973, nine years after the fast-train system made its debut between Tokyo and Osaka. Construction of the section that opened on Saturday cost approximately $5 billion, according to the Hokkaido government. Plans are in place to extend the line to Sapporo, the biggest city in Hokkaido, by 2030.

Wall Street Journal