Japan has several night trains that can be reserved only from one month before the intended date of travel. Two of the most popular are the Cassiopeia and the Hokutosei trains which run between Tokyo and Sapporo.
The romance of rail is very much alive and well in Japan, and thousands of Japanese aspire to go rocking, rolling and riding across half the length of Japan though the night in the luxury of a sleeping car. Not only Japanese, but demand among overseas tourists for the service is also high.
High demand and a very limited number of cars makes competition for tickets fierce. Over the past month I have tried to book tickets on the Hokutosei and Cassiopeia for three people overseas, but have found it to be nigh on impossible.
Different Japan Rail stations seem to have different ways of doing things when it comes to booking in advance. All require you to be there in person. There is no booking online or by phone. However, some stations require you to there in person at 10:00 a.m. when bookings begin, while others - at least Ueno Station in Tokyo—requires you to apply by 10:00 a.m., and at 10:00 a.m. your application for tickets is processed, in your absence, by station staff in the order your application was received.
Ticket offices at major stations tend to have earlier opening times. For example, Tokyo Station and Ueno stations' Midori no Madoguchi and View Plaza ticket offices open at 5:30 a.m. I therefore went to Ueno Station before 5:30 a.m. to get my application for night train tickets in as early as possible. I am willing to wake up at 4:15 a.m., get dressed, cycle the 15 minutes to Ueno Station to be there around 45 minutes before, i.e. 4:45 a.m., but each time there have always been at least two or three people camped out ahead of me.
I imagine that a similar scene plays out at hundreds of other railway stations throughout Japan every day; so unless you are at the very front of the line and therefore able to get your application processed in the first few seconds after 10:00 o'clock, you fail.
Booking a night train in Japan is extremely difficult, and for the time being I have given up accepting any more orders for such reservations. It requires resigning yourself to a night of little sleep and camping out on in a cavernous concourse on a hard tile floor in front of a closed roller door, and trying not to have to visit the toilet and lose your place to another early bird hopeful.
Read more on the Cassiopeia and Hokutosei trains
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