Along Japan’s North Coast by train
Japan is famous for its shinkansen bullet trains. They are fun to ride on and an absolute must for any railway enthusiast visiting Japan for the first time.
However, it is often forgotten that, aside from the shinkansen, Japan has a fascinating conventional railway network as well. It includes a lot of little local trains that link up all the smaller places and travel at a much slower pace.
As enjoyable as it is to race along at 300km/h in air-conditioned comfort, it is also a lot of fun to board a local Japanese train and meander slowly through the countryside, stopping at all the stations on the way and watching life go by.
In August 2006 we flew back to Tokyo on British Airways and then decided to head to Yamaguchi using a much slower route. Instead of the usual 4 or 5 hours, we planned to take 4 days.
We started out in Hamamatsu, halfway between Tokyo and Osaka, with lunch in an eel restaurant. Eels (unagi) are popular in Japan in the summer months as they are said to give you some of the stamina needed to sustain you during the hot humid days. We hoped they would give us stamina for our trip.
From Nagoya we took the Hida diesel train to Takayama in Gifu prefecture. Takayama is famous for its well-preserved old town and features lots of buildings that go back hundreds of years.
We had a good wander around and then stayed at a Japanese style hotel (ryokan) and enjoyed a relaxing evening of bathing, drinking and eating.
After a delicious Japanese breakfast at the ryokan we caught a slow train up the Takayama line heading north. The scenery was wide blue rivers, mountains and bridges. It was hot outside but with the windows down the breeze came into the carriage and cooled us.
Eventually we came to Toyama on the north coast. We had a little look around a local market and bought some fresh fruit and vegetables before boarding another local train to take us on to Kanazawa.
We spent the afternoon in Kanazawa touring the beautiful Japanese gardens, the samurai district and the ninja temple before a cracking evening spent in the local pubs eating and drinking.
Our confirmed favourite spot was Itaru. It was a lovely mix of old decorations, friendly staff and outstanding food.
We stayed in a small business hotel close to the station.
The next morning we were up bright and early as we had a bit of ground to cover.
First we boarded a “Raicho” (thunder bird) express and took it as far as Tsuruga. Then we spent the rest of the day almost like a baton in a relay race being passed along a series of local lines along the north coast.
From Tsuruga we went on the Obama line to Nishi Maizaru.
Then on the private Kinki Tango railway all the way to Toyo-Oka.
At Toyo-Oka we bought some boxed lunches (bento) and ate them on the San-in line train heading for Tottori.
The San-in line hugs the coast for much of the journey and some of the views from the viaducts are quite spectacular.
We got out at Tottori and had a brief break walking onto the famous sand dunes.
Back on the rails, we caught our last train of the day to our next overnight stop at Matsue.
Matsue, the town where my wife was born, is a great place for a visit. The city boasts the second largest original castle in Japan and Izumo Taisha, located nearby, is one of the most important shrines in the country.
We spent the morning walking around and then had a couple of hours at the civic centre with a tutor teaching us how to make Japanese confectionery.
It wasn’t easy but I was quite impressed with my results.
In the afternoon we boarded our final train, “the Super Oki” limited express, taking us further along the coast through Hamada and Masuda and then down the Yamaguchi line to Yamaguchi itself.
After a few days in Yamaguchi we moved further along the coast to Karatsu just outside Fukuoka and stayed there a couple of nights before returning by shinkansen to Tokyo.