A long game of Bingo

When most people think of Japanese railways it is of the high speed Shinkansen trains racing across the countryside. As much as I love the comfort and speed of these engineering wonders, my favourite journeys are on their slower, local cousins as they climb slowly into the mountainous regions of Japan.

B has her shopping days and I have my train days. Today was a train day, a chance to rest my feet and enjoy watching the Japanese landscape unfold gently outside of my window.

The ride from Okayama on Japan’s eastern Sanyo coast to Izumoshi, on the western Sanin coast should take three hours direct on the Yakumo Express. We’ll be doing that route tomorrow. But today’s trip took nine hours with six changes of train.

It began with a high speed Hikari RailStar Shinkansen ride from Okayama to Hiroshima. We left our large bags in coin lockers at Okayama and just travelled with Alex’s backpack carrier and a couple of day packs.

Once at Hiroshima we had a half hour wait for our next train to depart. We were catching a local service to Miyoshi on the JR Geibi line. The platform was rather crowded for such a small service, but I was a little disappointed to see a yellow and white pair of diesel railcars arrive, the same as we had caught a few times between Yamaguchi and Shin-Yamaguchi on the last trip. I was hoping for a KiHa 120 railcar, mainly because that’s what I had a n-scale model of at home.

My disappointment was short lived, for I was enjoying the chug-chug of the engine as it drove its way out of the Hiroshima city environs and off into the green hills and rice paddies. On many of these Japanese railcars it is possible to get a view out of the front or rear windows, which makes for quite a fun experience, as if you were driving the train yourself.

One hour forty minutes later, at the rural city of Miyoshi, my dreams came true. There, waiting for us, was a KiHa 120, silver with purple and blue stripes. We climbed on board the “bus” and waited for the journey to begin. A seats were facing inwards and unlike the last railcar, this one had an onboard toilet (though no baby change facilities).

There was an interesting collection of passengers aboard the train. Two old ladies dressed in black. I said that they must be off to a funeral, to which B replied, not necessarily. Perhaps they were old goths, I returned. A young westerner wearing earphones and ignoring everybody. A couple of older male Japanese railfans who would befriend us during  the trip, though the quieter of them was a mad All Blacks rugby union team supporter wearing a Canterbury shirt.

The single line, sleepers often interrupted by weeds, cruised off into the mountains through valleys of rice paddies and small towns. We passed through tunnels and across bridges over the rivers and canals that threaded the landscape, then up into the mountain forests, bright summer green.

During the times he was awake, Alex loved the sound of the train horn, enjoyed walking round the carriage introducing himself to the other passengers. He was like that all day, showing off his “train legs” with his ability to balance against the rocking movement of these old lines.

As the hour and a quarter journey came to an end another railway line merged up with ours from the left. We had arrived at Bingo Ochiai, the junction of three lines high in the mountains. Once an important railway junction it now stands almost deserted.

There are no regular station staff. Some of the buildings are rundown, others still looked after. One nearby building is supposedly a ryokan and tobacco shop, but it seemed deserted, though still lived in. Across the road was a vending machine, a few other buildings of purpose unknown. It was silent, but for the odd vehicle and the burbling stream. I fell in love with Bingo Ochiai, as I knew I would based upon the descriptions that I had read online. This was a journey I felt I had to do, a trip along a branchline whose future was perhaps uncertain as the rural population declined and you were left with barely living ghost towns like Bingo Ochiai.

But Bingo Ochiai was a bit more alive today than normal. Arriving at the station was a two car diesel engine hauled train. This was a special train, the Okuizumo-Orochi, a tourist train running only on weekends and holidays in Summer.

One carriage was enclosed, the other had wooden benches and open sides. The ceiling was decorated with constellation and mythological motifs. The stations that we passed through shared the artwork. I think it is some creation story, but I am not certain.

Though the patronage seemed low, those that boarded the train seemed well equipped for the experience, including one party complete with a serious looking video camera and tripod.

There were bento boxes of sushi and beef rice for sale on board, along with a drinks vending machine. The beef replaced our prepurchased bento boxes and it was very nice (and warm!).

Alex stood up by the window, loving the open air view, then the train pulled out and set off down that track we had seen on the way in.

A warm breeze and plenty of insect life entered the cabin as we trundled along. When we passed through the tunnels, depending one the curvature, sometimes we would get a blast of warm diesel exhaust, other times the cold air of the tunnel.

There were tiny stations and wonderful views of the Japanese forests of cypress, bamboo and deciduous trees. Train spotters, with cameras ready, were waiting at roadside vantage points. The township of Minohara had a couple of chairlifts, so I would suppose that it snows a fair bit up there in winter.

Soon afterward the train slowed and the conductor made a long announcement in Japanese. The reason soon became apparent. The train emerged into a breathtaking view of of big red road bridge and spiral loop through the mountains. It was only then that I realised just how high up we were.

The next stage was slow as we navigated through the first two of three switchbacks that this line is known for. Below we could see Izumo-Sakane station waiting for us. Forwards, then backwards, then forwards, then backwards we descended.

The train stopped for a while at Izumo-Sakane. Our rail fan friends left us there, while we explored the new looking station. It had a festive atmosphere with stalls selling local produce. We filled up a bottle with water from the spring, tanuki statues in attendance, and ate a couple of delicious skewers of chicken. We had to hurry back to the train!

A very long and very cold tunnel awaited us on the final leg of our Okuizumo-Orochi journey, then after two and a quarter hours we arrived in Kisuki. There, another KiHa 120 came to take us onwards to Shinji, where this line met the Sanin main line. I stood up the front for most of this ride, loving this bumpy narrow gauge ride through nowhere in particular. I felt like I was part of the countryside rather than the remoteness of the Shinkansen ride.

I was rather sad to bid the KiHa 120 goodbye when we arrived at Shinji. We watched a Yakumo express bound for Okayama pass us as we waited for a train to take us to Izumoshi. The Aqualiner rapid express lacked the charm of our previous rides, but it was only a short journey.

Those nine hours had passed quickly. I am so glad that we did that trip rather than go straight to Kyoto. It was relaxing, fun and allowed Alex to wander around and meet people. We both felt like we were interacting with the country through the rail journey. There are so many branchlines and interesting routes in Japan. I hope to do many more of them in future.

Izumoshi has turned out to be rather boring on a Sunday night. Most of the restaurants seem closed. There was a yatai opened on the main street, but this was empty of patrons. We eventually ate tasty salmon and grilled fish at a sushi restaurant; even Alex enjoyed it; and went shopping at a supermarket called “Trial” (it was, the backpack seemed heavier). Then we actually had an early night in the hotel!

I am convinced that some of the world’s most brilliant people work in the Japanese beverage industry. Look at this:

It’s a chocolate flavoured soft drink. Brilliant!

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