IT has taken me more than 10 years to make it to Niigata, that jewel on the Sea of Japan (and gateway to the fabulous northwest coast of Honshu). I made more than one attempt to get there, in my various teaching breaks when I was working in Japan, but I never got any further than Koide, high up in the frozen mountains. It has taken me 10 years to get to Hokkaido, the amazing North Sea Way... by various guiles I managed to visit the other main islands Shikoku (via girlfriend) and Kyushu (via medical trial), but I never ticked Hokkaido off my list. In some ways it is easier (and cheaper!) to travel in Japan if you are a tourist, rather than someone who is living here. When I was living in Japan I used to travel on the local trains and limited expresses using the Seishun 18 Kippu youth ticket because that was all I could afford. If you got up at 5am and caught the first train of the day you might hope to make it Koide by lunchtime, but by then it was time to come home. Unless you wanted to shack up at some hotel for the night, but I couldn't really afford that either. The local train would pull up in some draughty mountain station for another interminable wait, while through the falling snow, a shinkansen would blur silently by. On its way to Niigata. That was back then, when I was an English teacher trying to survive in Japan, and I was trying to keep costs down. That was before the great earthquake and tsunami and multiple nuclear meltdowns of March 2001, and my decision to leave Japan for the peace and security of Australia. I wasn't expecting to be back in a hurry. But, all too fast, I found myself back in Japan last night. My parents had scheduled on a tour round northern Japan in May this year, and they weren't about to be deterred by any natural disaster. They bought a ticket for me to accompany them, on JetStar, and a JR pass as well. A JR pass! It was like all my Christmases had come at once... finally I could gorge myself on all-you-can-ride bullet train. The only problem: I had to go back to Japan to do it! ..