Standing on the platform at Kanaya Station in Shizuoka Prefecture, the enthusiastic crowd — myself included — watches with fascination as the train pulls in. Because this train is different. It’s not a sleek, aerodynamic bullet train; nor is it one of the ubiquitous, striped JR jobs. Rather, the tar-colored engine that’s creeping ever closer belches great plumes of smoke and cuts through the rural silence with bursts of its low-pitched whistle. On the tiny platform, a buzz of excitement is rippling through the group and we push forward eagerly as the carriage doors roll open.
“Welcome aboard!” a team of black-clad conductors sing out, punching tickets and helping with bags. As riders get settled in the antique passenger cars, the engine offers up its signature two-note whistle blast, and with ash swirling thickly outside the windows, we lurch away from the station. Clearly, it’s full steam ahead for a trip powered by one of Japan’s last old-fashioned locomotives.
Steam trains debuted in Japan in 1872, at the height of the Meiji Era’s modernization drive. The first rail line linked Shimbashi Station in eastern Tokyo and nearby Yokohama. Then, within a decade, steam trains were servicing major cities across Honshu and tracks were even being laid in snowy Hokkaido.
Most of the country’s original steam engines were imported from the United States and Europe, but by the early 20th century, Japan was turning out its own fleets of locomotives. Until 1975, when Japan National Railways retired the last steam locomotives from its fleet, the smoke-spewing engines were a familiar sight around the nation.
In the Oi River Valley, steam-train services were inaugurated in the 1920s as a means of moving goods further up the valley to the numerous dams being built in the region. By the 1960s, however, completion of the dams, coupled with an expanding national highway system, made the tiny line almost obsolete. In 1976, unwilling to continue subsidizing a little-traveled route, the Japan National Railways severly curtailed passenger services to valley destinations.
In stepped the Oigawa Railway Company a few months later with a plan to reinstate services to the valley’s upper reaches. Inspired by the Brienz Rothorn Bahn steam line in Switzerland, the privately-owned organization purchased two old steam engines and refitted them for tourist travel on the flattest portion of the tracks.
Now, four refurbished engines pull visitors from Kanaya to Senzu, 40 km away, almost every day of the year, with the exception of a few winter weekdays. In the high traffic weeks surrounding the appearance of cherry blossoms and fall foliage, the company offers up to three round-trip journeys a day.
Boarding an Oigawa steam train involves a step back into the early 1900s. The old-fashioned carriages are lined inside with dark wooden paneling; patrons settle comfortably onto plush, aqua-colored velvet benches. Overhead, the woven rope luggage racks look like something a railway porter might have heaved grandma’s steamer trunk on to a century ago. Decades-old fans on the carriages’ ceilings help circulate the air in the summer months.
From Kanaya Station, the train curves up into the Oi River Valley, past hedgerows of green-tea plants spilling down the hillsides. Shizuoka accounts for 45 percent of the nation’s tea production, with plantations in the prefecture dating back to the 13th century. In May, the fields teem with hordes of workers who come to relieve the burgeoning bushes of their revered leaves. At some of the small stations along the train’s route, visitors can taste the local brew for free.
The terraced fields soon give way to tantalizing glimpses of the Oi River, punctuated by long tunnels where the locomotive’s billowing steam heats the moisture on the walls, and fine mists roll gently through the open windows. When the river comes into sight again, the panorama is impressive. Pine- and bamboo-carpeted hills form an imposing backdrop for the oddly turquoise-hued waterway with its wide, stony banks.
It’s hard not to stay glued to the fabulous scenery as it rolls by at a leisurely pace, but conductor Yasuyuku Sugimori’s efforts at entertainment are difficult to ignore. The affable veteran of the Oigawa line frequently serenades guests with folk tunes on his harmonica. His repertoire ranges from distinctly Americana-flavored songs to traditional Japanese melodies. As he greets travelers between songs, he’s more than willing to play any personal requests.
“The kids love it,” he winks, as he flips his hat onto a nearby fan’s head. “Conductor for a day!” he proclaims. Several passengers clamor for a turn.
As we pass through the countryside, Sugimori points out local landmarks. “Here,” he gestures to a stand of trees along the river, “this explodes in pink at cherry-blossom time.” During those weeks, he continues, it’s hard to see the blossoms amid all the photographers. Even today, a number of dedicated shutterbugs line the route. They wave happily to us as we rumble by, cameras clicking furiously on their tripods.
With our departure occurring over the lunch hour, the majority of riders indulge in the railway’s bountiful “loco-bentos.” The lunch boxes are graced with the company’s logo and carry such whimsical treats as engine-shaped soy-sauce containers. My pint-size seatmate is especially enthralled with the chocolate cookies in cardboard train carriages.
“Tasty?” I ask, as he gobbles away.A crumb-tinged smile is the only reply.
We munch contentedly as the train continues to parallel the Oi River, now visible on the opposite side of the tracks. In the Edo Period (1603-1867), the Tokugawa Shogunate forbade the construction of bridges along the waterway in an attempt to deter any attacking forces on their march to the capital.
Today, the Oi River boasts a number of swaying rope bridges for pedestrian access, as well as the longest wooden footbridge in the world. I manage a quick glimpse of these vertigo-inducing structures before the train veers once more into the mountains. Twenty minutes later, we chug past one final stretch of tea fields before rolling slowly into Senzu Station.
While Senzu is the terminus for Oigawa’s steam train, there are numerous options for additional exploration. Next to the station, railway buffs may want to peek into the small but thoughtfully prepared exhibition on Japan’s steam-train history. Displays highlight the role steam locomotives played in the local economy and showcase bits of authentic train paraphernalia. For a continuing rail adventure, a small train line switchbacks north through the mountains between Senzu and Ikawa, pulling passengers up the steep gradients on the nation’s only surviving cog railway. At any season, great views of the area’s iridescent lakes (created by the river damming a century ago) can be seen from the train windows. Or, for a steam experience of another kind, opt for the bus from Senzu to Sumatakyo, a small hot-spring resort where a variety of ryokan (Japanese inns) offer visitors the opportunity to soak away their troubles amid the mountainous scenery.
No matter how you choose to spend your stay in the Oi River Valley, when it’s time to head back home you can rest assured that one of the Oigawa steam locomotives will be waiting, ready to transport you back down the valley to the realities of the present day.
The Oigawa steam train ( 4745-4112, www.oigawa-railway.co.jp) makes one round-trip journey a day (except in January), departing from JR Kanaya Station at 11:50 a.m. The return train leaves Senzu Station at 15:23. In high traffic seasons, two additional round trips are added. Tickets cost ¥2,370 one way. Regular trains also serve the route (¥1,810 one way). To reach JR Kanaya Station, board a Hikari shinkansen for Shizuoka at Tokyo Station, then switch to the JR Tokaido line bound for Hamamatsu (¥6,690, 1 hr. 50 mins.)