Riding the Akita Nairiku line

Such is the web of Japanese Railways that there are many ways to travel between Kakunodate and Hirosaki by train. The fastest is to use Shinkansens. But I am a fan of the slow route, the unpopular line at risk of closure, the local train for a declining number of locals.

The Akita Nairiku line.

I’ve travelled it once before, in Autumn, but with night falling at the end of an exhausting day. This was a chance to ride it in winter during the day, to get up close and personal with the snows of Tohoku.

It had snowed overnight and a fresh layer coated Kakunodate. Fortunate then, that we had a breakfast at the hotel, a combination of Western and Japanese options.

The Akita Nairiku line is not covered by the JR Pass, so I had to buy separate tickets at the tiny station office that adjoins the main station building at Kakunodate, the southern terminus of the line.

A single diesel railcar awaited us on the platform as we hurried aboard after Alex played in the powdery snow outside. I took my place at the front of the car, a driver’s eye view of the ride.

This train was heading as far as Aniai, the headquarters of the railway, almost an hour and a half away.

Most stations are barely more than a short elevated platform and waiting room (hopefully heated) accessed by stairs leading off into the snow. There are few proper towns along the route, mainly collections of rural houses. There are also 20 tunnels and 322 bridges, not that I was counting.

The winter scenery was simply spectacular, with trees decorated with the clumps of white snow, winding rivers with fuzzy snow boundaries and white and green mountains running along at the edge of the scene.

At one bridge the driver made an announcement in Japanese and slowed for us to take photographs.

Aniai was a nondescript Japanese town with only a few shops open along the street. Old ladies shovelled snow off the sidewalks and into drain openings where it will add to the rushing water. We greet each other with “Konnichiwa” as we walk past.

Besides the A-frame station building is another containing a museum of the line, the walls lined with photos of steam locomotives and old rolling-stock, a Lego train greeting visitors at the front and an unlit irori at the rear, bear rug of the floor, a stuffed bear posing behind and old implements in a corner.

Inside the station was a little snack stand, another selling railway souvenirs and a restaurant. We ate a hearty stew of horse meat (we thought it was beef, but I knew of the local cuisine) and yellow rice, Alex sticking to spaghetti.

The express service from Kakunodate pulled up at the platform, again a single railcar, but this time decorated inside and out with pictures of dogs, including on the seat covers. There was also free WiFi and a conductor who pushed her trolley of snacks and souvenirs. These sometimes make more money for such railway lines than ticket sales.

I was not the only rail enthusiast on board, for they are common in Japan. One man had followed us from Kakunodate, another was bound for Aomori and the Gono Line, which we caught last year. We “fought” for spots at the front of the train, though I was mostly content to sit back and relax for the 48 minute ride, as the scenery was not quite as good as on the first leg.

Last time I arrived at the terminus of Takanosu station it was dark, I was starving, exhausted and it was raining. I had enough time for a brief perusal of the station street and to decide that I was too confused to order a meal from the busy station cafe before catching a very comfortable Express train to Hirosaki.

This time it was daylight, we only had a few minutes, the cafe seemed to be closed and we boarded the local service to Hirosaki.

The electric train raced along as we sat on the inward facing seats. The snow falls were even greater here than we had seen previously and at times it appeared to be a raging blizzard outside. It was yet another dramatic introduction to snow.

At Odate a couple of deaf girls boarded, a Caucasian and an Asian who seemed to be a chatterbox signing to her tablet.

Finally we reached Hirosaki and we’re glad that our hotel, the Toyoko Inn, same as on my last trip, was adjacent to the station. Dragging lots of luggage through snow is not fun.

We checked in an set about exploring Hirosaki. We’d previously visited when Alex was a lot younger and enjoyed the castle gardens and neputa festival museum. It was too late for that kind of thing, especially with early darkness.

As we walked Alex complained about boring long train rides (B had enjoyed the scenery) taking us to boring places. Why couldn’t we go to an amusement park, for instance?

Nearby was an Ito-Yokado cheap department store, which also has ATM’s that take foreign cards. On the fourth floor is the children’s section, including a games arcade. We gave Alex a number of goes (at 100 Yen a pop – say a dollar something) on the Mario Kate ride and suddenly he was happy. This was a good place after all.

As darkness fell we wandered around the streets searching for an interesting place to eat. The station is away from the city centre and the shopping and dining options are a little limited. We were tempted by a “Gusto” family diner – I have a soft spot for chain diners s they are lacking in Australia now. But enough Western food for us.

Snow started falling quite heavily and we delighted in the dancing flakes as the drifted down. I loved the contrast between the snow, the dark streets and the bright lights of the shops, a larger version of last night. I didn’t mind the lack of big shopping malls and flashy eateries, enjoying the loneliness of the cityscape whilst knowing that it was still awake with people.

Near our hotel was an Japanese private room izakaya with an English menu and so we settled into there and left very satisfied after a variety of small dishes.

I was tempted to catch the private Konan line to somewhere by myself, but decided I would return too late. In the distance I could see the bright lights and screens of other shops in Hirosaki. Nitori, the Ikea like chain, maybe some pachinko parlours. Too far away.

Connected to the station was Appliese, a small shopping centre and named after the local area’s obsession with apple farming. There are lots of speciality products for sale, though we are a bit appled-out after the last trip. A Mister Donut shop sells their unhealthy foods, but I feel strangely tempted to visit it at night, another weird Japanese fantasy.

In the end I just return to the hotel, having thoroughly enjoyed my day and our ride on the Akita Nairiku Jukan line. I hope it will continue to run for a good many years yet.

(Photos from my camera don’t appear to have uploaded so only my mobile phone photos are currently included in this post. Will update later along with a better video.)

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