Getting around Japan at night can be difficult. Once the trains and buses stop there’re only expensive taxis left to ferry you home. And what is one to do if they want to travel long distances at night after the shinkansen has made it’s last run? How about riding a night train? During Japan’s modernization and rise to economic power, night trains criss-crossed the country carrying passengers to many far flung locales. Today as a result of air travel and night buses becoming quicker more affordable, night trains are a dying breed. My home city of Niigata is the starting point/terminus of the Moonlight Echigo night train which operates between there and Shinjuku. My travels this past summer provided me with the opportunity to try out this fading but ever so romantic method of travel.
Rain poured biblically from the heavens on the night of my departure. There was so much water that the night rang with the sound of manhole covers bouncing around in their settings due to the water pressure in the storm drains below. It was so bad that all trains were delayed. The Moonlight Echigo, which normally departs Niigata Station at 11:38pm didn’t arrive at the platform until just before my watch struck midnight. It didn’t depart until well past that hour.
My imagination had always painted pictures of Sean Connery and Poirot on the Orient Express when I thought of night trains, but my research had informed me that the Moonlight Echigo was an ordinary express train with ordinary express train reserved seats. I’ve always found the seats on Japan’s express trains to be adequately comfortable though and the seats on the Moonlight Echigo were no exception. They were a lot more comfortable than the seats in some of the overnight highway buses I’ve ridden, and with the train being mostly empty, I had the option of taking two rows of seats, my row and the one in front of it, and making a bed of the 4 of seats. More extravagant still, because the train was late and because the Green Car (first class cabin) was completely empty, the conductor smiled and turned a blind eye as I laid claim to two rows of Green Car seats and one of the blankets JR provides to its first class passengers. The Green seats are wider, than the regular reserved seats, they recline a few degrees further, they grant riders more legroom, they’re just that little bit softer than the regular reserved seats, and the Green Cabin has carpeting and more sound insulation than the regular reserved cabin. I got a reasonably good sleep that night but I woke up with an ache in both my knees from having them hang across the open space between the two rows of seats all night. The train arrived at Shinjuku Station at 7:05am. Almost 2 hours late on account of the bad weather. Despite the ache in my knees and the knowledge that my riding in the Green Car for free and having 2 rows of seats all to myself is unlikely to happen again, I’d be more than happy to ride the Moonlight Echigo (and any other night train like it) again. The bathrooms and sinks struck me as cleaner than those in ordinary day running express trains, and they were more plentiful; the lights in the cabin were also dimmed between stations allowing sleep to come more easily. I would recommend that potential riders bring an eye mask for when the lights come back up, and a neck pillow or travel pillow, and a blanket if you’re not riding in the Green Car.
The Moonlight Echigo only operates during holiday periods and on some weekends during months with extended holiday periods. It is particularly popular during the spring, summer and winter Seishun 18 Ticket season. I had planned on riding the Moonlight Echigo to and from Tokyo but the Tokyo to Niigata run is so popular that every seat was booked when I tried to get a reservation almost three weeks ahead of the date I planned to ride. Including the ¥510 reserved seat fee, a one way ride on the Moonlight Echigo normally costs ¥5970 (¥7360 if you opt for the ¥1900 Green Car seat), but if you take advantage of the Seishun 18 Ticket (good for 5 days of unlimited local and local rapid train travel for ¥11,500 - ¥2,300/day) during the spring, summer or winter Seishun 18 Ticket seasons as I did, that cost comes down to as low as ¥2810, that’s less than many highway bus services. The most cost effective way to ride the Moonlight Echigo, and any other night train for that matter, is to have the Seishun 18 Ticket, the reserved seat, and a regular ticket to the last stop before midnight. Without that regular ticket the conductors will take two days off of your Seishun 18 Ticket and you won’t get the full value out of it (note: you cannot purchase a Green Car ticket with the Seishun 18 Ticket, I was very lucky the conductors let me do what I did). So, fancy a trip to the snow country of Niigata?