“I would love to take that night train someday,” François said, as we were making nerdy travel plans. “Oh, I’ve traveled on that one before,” I said, “but that was in corona times, so that was a little easier.”
The Sunrise, one of Japan’s last night trains, runs from Tokyo to Takamatsu (Sunrise Seto) or Izumo-shi (Sunrise Izumo). The train is very popular and thus almost always sold out – except in a burgeoning pandemic, something I took advantage of in 2020. François looked at me with slight envy: “I want to try it, but whenever I look online, it’s always fully booked…”
I wanted to try it too – not online, but live, at the ticket counter at the station. Tickets go on sale one month in advance at 10:00 a.m. sharp, so for our planned trip on Thursday, November 23 (a Japanese day off, so that didn’t help), I found myself in front of the ticket office at 9:30 a.m. on Monday, October 23.
At the third stroke...
“Oops, I’m a little early!” I texted François a picture of the ticket counter, with only two people in line. If I went now, it would be my turn before the tickets went on sale. I decided to wait a little longer. (Spoiler: this was not smart.)
When it started to get a little busier, and there was just over fifteen minutes left on the clock, I decided to get in line. François was waiting at home by his computer. The station staff was asking everyone in line where they needed to go, filling out order forms in advance. And then it struck me: The lady in front of me also had to wait until 10:00. As did the man behind me… and probably the rest of the people at the counters.
At five to ten there were three counters open. The woman in front of me had the last spot. Slowly but surely the room grew quieter. The tapping on the keyboards quieted, and the three counter clerks waited. One had her phone on speaker: “…at the third stroke it will be nine o’clock, fifty-nine minutes, and…” At the stroke of 10:00, the three ticket clerks pressed the order button, and the tickets for the people in front of me were rolling out. They paid, and two minutes later it was my turn.
The girl behind the counter tapped her keyboard like crazy, until at one point her movements were limited to two buttons at the bottom right. Refresh, I guessed. After about twenty times, she gave me the bad news: all the twin rooms were sold out. “I have one more single and one nobinobi.” Nobinobi is a kind of public dormitory where you basically lie on the floor. Meanwhile, François messaged me that online everything was already sold out. I hesitated. The lady behind the counter refreshed again. “Oh, I now have two singles! It’s in different carriages though…” I asked her if we could meet each other on the train, and she said we could. One more refresh and she had two singles in the same carriage. “It’s smoking though,” she said. “Let’s do it,’ I said. And about four hundred euros later I had two tickets in the pocket! Not the ones we wanted, but hey. This will do.
How I would go about it next time, with more chance of success, i.e. more chance of getting one of those coveted double compartments?
- Don’t travel on a national holiday. Of course that would have been better for us too, but François has an office job, so we have to take that into account.
Buy your tickets the day they become available. That’s a month in advance, at 10:00.
- Go to a ticket office (midori no madoguchi, literally “green ticket window” in Japanese) at a station that is not too big. I was at Hachioji, where I live. It’s usually relatively quiet there. Larger stations are often hellishly crowded, and then you’re late anyway.
- Come early! This was my biggest mistake, though of course I didn’t know that in advance. The staff knows how it works with tickets for these kinds of trains, so they will take you aside, and direct you to a ticket office a little before ten.
- Be flexible. Is the compartment you want not available? Make sure you have a second option in your mind. Are you flexible in your travel destination? Then try both Sunrise Seto and Sunrise Izumo.
- Are you using a rail pass and/or are you not in Japan a month in advance? No problem. The fare is divided into a ride fare (covered by the rail pass) and a compartment fare (additional cost). So you can basically have someone else buy the (compartment) tickets for you.
(No, not me. I found the process pretty nerve-racking.)