Abtsolutely fabulous: The Oigawa Railway

“It’s too quiet here. Except for a couple of hours when the trains arrive we don’t get any visitors,” said the very helpful lady from the tourist office.

“It’s your fault,” I tell myself, then explain to her that “You need to promote yourself more. Nobody knows about the Oigawa Railway outside of Japan. It’s so beautiful you should get lots of visitors.”

The only way I found out about the Oigawa Railway was by a line on a map of Japan. It took a bit of hunting on Wikipedia to find out more. The company website only had a PDF in English, though at least it gave instructions for reserving tickets online. There was also an interesting Japanese railfan article.

So many Japanese attractions target only the local market when they could be getting visitors from across the world. The Oigawa Railway is a case in point.

We had to wake up early to reach the railway, well early for a holiday (before 8 am). This Toyoko Inn’s breakfast seemed a bit more substantial than the others’, with fried noodles and a thick western style soup in addition to the Japanese miso, rice cake and pickles typically on offer.

From Toyohashi we caught a Kodama (all stops) shinkansen to Kakegawa, where we had five minutes to change platforms for a local train on the Tokaido line. It was a pretty route through very rural scenery. At Kanaya station we bought our tickets for the non-JR Oigawa Railway and changed to an old electric set on their Oigawa Main Line, but only as far as the next station, Shin-Kanaya.

There, our steam train was being prepared. Apart from Disneyland a few days ago, this was Alex’s first ride on a real steam train. While it was getting ready we popped over to the railway shop opposite where they sold souvenirs of the toy and edible varieties, and had a display of a couple of real tank engines and passenger wagons, along with small coin operated rides and a European model railway.

Then it was time to board the old brown wooden carriages. They looked rather dingy, with pairs of straight backed seats in grouped to face each other. We were seated backwards to the direction of travel. One of the ladies facing us spoke English and pointed out the sights that were announced only in Japanese along the way.

I have to say that it wasn’t the best of steam train experiences, with the windows closed and the passengers chattering loudly there was little of the sound and smell that a steam train ride usually brings. Alex slept much of the way anyway. But what the train lacked in atmosphere was more than made up for by the view outside as we followed the broad Oi River. The line was originally built to facilitate the construction of dams along the river, so it’s once powerful flow was now reduced, leaving a very wide bed of grey rocks.

Lining the route were cherry trees, now blossoming into white and pink clouds, and rows of tea plants, fans on poles keeping the air moving across the plantations.

The main line terminates at Senzu and you must change trains to continue on. We had to wait for ours to be shunted into position, while SL C5644, the steam locomotive that had brought us this far was rotated on the turntable and hooked up for the return journey back to Shin-Kanaya.

The train which would take us up to the top of the Oigawa railway looked distinctly toy like with a short low diesel locomotive hooked up in a pusher configuration to the rear of similarly short and low orange passenger carriages. A crowd of photographers looked on.

We boarded the low carriages, which had two seats on the right and one of the left for each row. The windows could open, much to my delight, though B was feeling too cold to want to open ours.

The Ikawa line gets even less publicity than its steam locomotive counterpart but is far more fun and the scenery utterly spectacular, definitely world class. It chugs slowly up along the river and into the mountains, through 61 tunnels and (according to Wikipedia) 51 bridges. The only negative was the constant loud commentary over the PA, in Japanese, of the train conductor.

There were cherry blossoms along the route and as puffs of pink wild on the hill sides. Tea plantations clung to the edges where they could. Tall straight cypress were probably plantations and there were short lengths of log placed in drying positions outside the occasional hut or house. Light flickered through stands of bamboo and forests growing on impossibly steep slopes. Later on in the ride the forest had not yet recovered from winter and the leafless treescape looked grey and wasted.

But the real stars were the rivers and the mountains. Grey and blue, wide and narrow, it flowed quickly through narrow ravines or lakelike through wide valleys. Waterfalls cascaded down steep gullies while the higher slopes of the mountains were scarred by landslides. We crossed narrow bridges looking directly down upon the waters as if the train were on a tightrope. Points along the river are dammed, great concrete fortresses holding back the river hordes. And up we go, up, up high into those mountains.

Between Abt Ichishiro and the Nagahama Dam the slope is so steep that they have installed a rare Abt rack system. An additional electric locomotive, normal height in comparison to our existing train, is coupled on to ours and uses a cog system that locks into a racked middle rail to push the train up a steep 9 in 100 slope.

Then the extra locomotive decouples and we are on our own again.

There are no towns along the way, only stops to let hikers or onsen bathers on and off. At the final station of Ikawa there is the station and down some stairs a small shop staffed by a very old couple and selling local pickles. They have a restaurant too and what looks to be a pot of stew with chikuwa and tofu on the boil. Unfortunately, despite our hunger, we have to go back down again or risk a long wait and a very late return to the hotel. Our food options are very limited with only prepackaged stale red bean or apple buns.

The ride down feels faster than going up. Indeed the route is steep enough that the only challenge should be breaking. With fewer announcements we all sleep a little and when stopped at stations, soak in the sounds of  the river and the wind rustling through the pines.

Alex played in the train, having some time to himself where he was not being forced around busy streets or shops. It is delightful to see him smile and laugh so much.

At Senzu we had an hour to kill before our next train. Unfortunately, the train museum was closing, and so were most of the eateries, though we bought an ice cream for Alex and some snacks. It was there we met the very friendly tourist information lady, originally from Beijing (Peking to her) twenty years ago. After chatting with her and trying to find another warm jacket for Alex is the sole clothing shop, we crossed the bridge to the other side of the town, Higashifujikawa.

There was a statue of a young child doing a pee, a Japanese Mannekin Pis in a jacket. Utterly incongruous and hilarious at the same time. One building, possibly a guest house had some interesting decorations out the front, while a few small shops shuttered for the day. B was disappointed at the lack of life, but I rather enjoyed the bucolic nature of Senzu.

An old red and yellow electric set took us back down to Kanaya, while the river reflected the silver-grey sky of an Asian day nearing its end.

We had to race through the underpass in order to change to the JR Tokaido train to Kakegawa, but as a result now had a more relaxed Shinkansen connection. Now on a very comfortable and fast train, we all joined in for a couple of games of Uno, Alex’s favourite card game.

Having a cack at Kakegawa

Finally back at Toyohashi, we had a wander through the station department store before heading to the basement for a meal of ramen. On the way out we bought some beautiful looked white and red strawberries, so perfect in appearance.

While Alex and B returned to the hotel, I decided that I needed to try out Toyohashi’s tram system. So I caught a tram to nowhere and back again, along dark streets where the shops were almost all shuttered for the night. But I loved the feel of these narrow older trams, so much less crowded than the Toden Arakawa line was, and at least I have seen something of Toyohashi.

Oh, an they started accepting Suica smart card for ticketing yesterday!

So nine trains and two trams today, at speeds ranging from a couple of hundred kilometres an hour to six. Of all those trains it is the ride between Senzu and Ikawa that was the best. Help out that poor lady at the Senzu tourist office. This is a line that deserves to be known far better than it is. It seems that on each visit to Japan I discover a railway line even more scenic than the last. Well, I would be surprised if anything can top this one.


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