When everyone was heading south waiting for the sakura to bloom, I decided to travel north, off the beaten track, with a Seishun 18 Ticket (Juhachi Kippu). A ticket costs ¥11,850 and will give you unlimited rides on local and rapid JR trains (excluding reserved seats) throughout Japan from north to south for any five days on a set six-week period.
The Seishun 18 Kippu is offered by the JR East (East Japan Railway Company) three times a year to coincide with the three university holiday breaks – March, August, and December. It can be bought at any JR ticket office and travel center within a sales date period. [Update: 2016 is the last year it was offered in March, so I’m lucky. Now it’s only valid during the summer and winter breaks.]
This ticket is perfect for those who have lots of time, limited budget, and a preference for slow travel and adventure. And what an adventure I had! It took me a lot of research and planning before I embarked on my journey. I looked up train timetables on the routes I planned, making sure there was enough time between connections. I cannot afford to miss a train and wait for the next one because the rule is the farther a place is from the major cities, the less frequent the trains are.
For my first spring break in Japan, I went to Akita via Murakami with an overnight stay at Niigata. The sakura was not yet in bloom there, but I wanted to see the deepest lake in Japan, Lake Tazawa, whose legend and mystery attracted me.
Here’s a summary of my four-day trip to the north:
Day 1 – Shibuya to Niigata
I stayed overnight in Niigata after a half-day exploration of some sights in the city.
Day 2 – Niigata to Akita
Day 3 – Lake Tazawa
Akita deserved a two-day and two-night stay, but that still wasn’t enough to go to the rest of the must-visit places there. It means there’s a reason to go back.
Day 4 – Road Trip Home
The last leg of the adventure is the trip home. This proved to be very exhausting because it was a whole day trip of catching trains. I didn’t have a powerbank so when my phone’s battery ran out, I had to rely on the station’s time schedule when I was left behind by a train in Kuroiso.
The expected time of arrival in Shibuya Station was greatly affected by one missed train transfer. But the entire experience was extremely fun and exciting, taught me a lot about Japan and its people, and also made me appreciate the countryside even more. Despite the daunting amount of time spent in slower trains, there is something quaintly nostalgic about clanking along through mountains and farmland in an old three carriage train.