I have a dream. It’s a crazy dream I know, but it’s mine. I want to travel the length of the Sanin railway line, have done for a long time. Oh I’ve done parts of it before, but I wanted to do the whole length along the western coastline, from Shimonoseki at the far south of Honshu to Kyoto.
I figured out that it was possible to do the entire length in a single day, but that’s no good if you actually want to stop and see anything along the way. So I plan to do it in two.
Today’s leg was from Shimonoseki to Matsue. My Hyperdia timetable app was disagreeing with a those posted at the actual platforms, so I decided to go with the latter. No breakfast for me again, there was a train too soon. Not that there was anywhere much to eat on my side of the station. I believe there’s some interesting stuff on the other side but I’ll leave that for another time.
This first stretch was operated by KiHa 40 diesel motor cars, clunky and ugly ducklings, one yellow and white, the other solid orange. We chugged out under grey and raining skies, past tropically overgrown fields and depressingly rundown apartment blocks.
Eventually after Fukue the commuter section petered out, to be replaced by cloud clad hills to my right and a grey and choppy sea to my left with bright green rice paddies in between.
One of the reasons for wanting to follow this route is the view of the ocean. The coastline of western Japan looks like it has emerged from a traditional painting. Sharply pointed islands topped by elegant pines and jagged coastlines of tan rocks are unique to this part of the world. They are often briefly glimpsed between tunnels, mountains and vegetation, but oh is each sight worth it.
No train runs the entire length of the Sanin line. Instead it is broken up into multiple sections, some served by express trains, others only by local services. This was a local service that stopped at Nagatoshi, junction between the Sanin line, the Mine line back to the eastern Sanyo coast and a one stop branch line to Senzaki. Unfortunately, there was nothing running soon anywhere but back to Shimonoseki via either the Sanin or Mine lines. So I was stuck in Nagatoshi for the next three hours.
Well, I hadn’t had breakfast, so why not look around for some.
There seemed to be a distinct lack of shops, cafes or anything on the coastal side of the station. I kept walking toward the coast, past warehouses and factories, then stopped at a playground/lookout for an emergency trip to the squat. Should have used the seated disabled loo next door.
The seawall was just across the road. I first walked down towards the port as there seemed an interesting looking island there. But it wasn’t an island and the port looked purely functional. So I walked the other direction towards what I hoped might be shops, listening to the whisper of the wind through the pines and the chirps of insects, the high whistles of hawks (or whatever raptor they are) circling overhead.
It was hot, definitely summer.
Google Maps told me that I was already halfway to Senzaki Station. Some checking told me that I could catch a train back from there to Nagatoshi in time to catch the onwards train to my next stop of Hagi. Sounds like a plan!
Senzaki seemed to have more life than Nagatoshi. There were all sorts of small shops along the main street away from the station. Not particularly interesting shops, but something. There was even a museum, devoted to local poet Kaneko Misuzu, who committed suicide when faced with losing custody of her children to her philandering ex-husband. With the content all in Japanese I didn’t visit the museum.
As I walked a young girl rode past on her bike and called out “Hello! How are you?” in English before riding off.
I was terribly hot and hungry and so glad to find a small open restaurant back towards the station. I was the only customer, though the hour was early. I couldn’t read much of the menu. The majority of the options seemed to be sashimi and sushi, but I was not in the mood for raw fish again, so I ordered the tonkatsu set. Fortunately, one of the accompanying pickle dishes was made of cucumbers and small fish and was quite delicious, so I felt like I had something local.
I ate slowly, trying to maximise my time in the quaint, but cool, environment. When I eventually finished I walked across the road to Senzaki station, to be joined by a number of other passengers. And when the little diesel railcar arrived they all brought their cameras out.
Then, back in Nagatoshi, after a short, unremarkable ride, I was joined on the Masuda bound train by a young man doing just what I was, snapping photos along the route. Only he had a big all Japan railway timetable book on his lap. He told me he loved trains and his sister had studied a year in Australia.
Maybe that’s why I love Japan. Most people in Australia would think me nuts for taking so many photos out of a train, but half the passengers were doing it here today.
And there was plenty of pretty scenery to photograph along the way.
I said goodbye to my young friend at Higashihagi, this time to take a planned for exploration stop. Unfortunately, the well preserved samurai houses in the old castle town area are about 3 kilometres from the station and it was hot. Roasting hot. Still, I walked it. And walked it out in that glaring heat.
It was a relief to wander inside the Kikuya old residence, with its tatami floors, pretty garden and soy sauce manufacturing implements. One of the old ladies handed me a Japanese style fan because I certainly looked like I needed it.
Afterwards I wandered around the streets of the area, past the white and straw/mud walls of the residences. It really was well preserved and had the atmosphere not been so hot it would have been atmospheric as well. I wanted to find a taxi to take me back to the station, but none were to be seen.
I walked past the Hagi Museum, which would probably have been fascinating, as this town was one of the leaders in bringing democracy and modernity to Japan. But I just couldn’t.
I stopped to buy some freshly squeezed, but quite sour orange juice and a bitter orange soft serve ice cream, and along with two young cyclists, was told to sit inside near the airconditioner, without any reluctance on my part.
But then I needed to get back. The short covered arcade looked in a very sad state, so many shops shuttered, dreadful muzak over the sound system.
Still not taxies. Walking along the shadowed side of the street I was now close enough to the station not to bother. By the time I finally made it inside I was utterly exhausted and drenched in perspiration. My arms shook, my fingers were pudgy and could barely move.
Eventually, with the help of a cool breeze and quite a few drinks of water I recovered.
When the train to Masuda arrive I was delighted to discover that it was a single KiHa 120 diesel railcar. Now I know you don’t care what type it is, but these have been my favourites ever since I got a little model one for my trainset at home, my first Japanese model train.
I didn’t join the other passengers on the inward facing benches. No, I stayed up the front taking photos as we trundled along. And what wonderful views too, branches and grass brushing against the sides of the train as we raced through green corridors. Scenes of exotic islands and small fishing villages lining the coves.
A few of the tunnels seemed to be filled with mist or smoke, our headlamps making dusty brown beams. As we entered another tunnel a hawk suddenly flew up and slammed into the front of the train. I was worried that the glass would shatter, but the train survived okay, even if the bird didn’t.
We left the railcar at Masuda, where I admired the beautiful evening light from the platform until our two car diesel Super Oki express arrived. I’ve caught this one before, but my request for left hand window seats couldn’t be granted as the train was quite full.
So I positioned myself at the car end to watch the sun sink into the sea. It’s funny, because on our last Super Oki ride on this route I had also spent most of my time in the vestibule area, humming to keep a four month old Alex quiet in his Baby Bjorn.
With the Sun almost set we arrived at Hamada and looking at the numbers of boarding passengers thought I should return to my seat. It was the right choice as somebody sat next to me and promptly fell asleep.
I was glad for the seat myself after being on my feet for so long and by the time we arrived at Matsue I was utterly exhausted.
But no rest for me yet. First I dumped my bags at the hotel, then went out amongst all the tipsy Friday night revellers to find some dinner. I ended up in one of the many bars and at a dinner of tempura and karaage chicken. Then back to the station to pick up some supplies from the convenience store. And back to the hotel, where my washing awaits (and still does as I type this). The washing machines and dryers are free at the Dormy Inn Express, though I needed receptions help to work it, the instructions are all in Japanese.
There’s a big music player dock with bluetooth and a DVD player in my room, a television in the bathroom. Soaking my feet in a hot bath while watching TV felt quite decadent and quite deserved after today.
So far the Sanin line has been the kind of adventure I’d hoped for, if only it was a bit cooler. Haven’t worked out where I’m staying tomorrow, or even what exactly I’m going to do. Except that it should involve the remaining bits of the Sanin line I haven’t travelled on so far. For now, goodnight!
Edit 13/11/2013: It’s interesting to note that Nagato is the birthplace of Shinzo Abe, the current prime minister of Japan. Also, a study of the maps indicates that most of Nagato’s shops lie on the opposite side of the station to the area that I was exploring.
Photos: Shimonoseki to Senzaki, Senzaki to Higashihagi, Hagi, Hagi to Matsue