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October 11, 2016, Japan

Making tracks the old-fashioned way

Janice Tay takes a journey back in time in Japan, on the Oigawa Railway’s famous steam locomotives

Janice Tay

WITH every train I changed, I seemed to be slipping further back in time.

I was making my way to Shizuoka, a prefecture in eastern Japan, whose biggest draw for tourists is Mount Fuji.

But I was heading instead to a remote stretch of mountains, little known except to hikers, climbers and railway fans, who travel there to ride on steam locomotives or photograph them chugging picturesquely through the countryside.

On the first leg of my journey, a bullet train — all shiny efficiency and speed — took me from Kyoto to Hamamatsu, a city about midway between Tokyo and Osaka.

The local train I boarded in Hamamatsu was shabbier and looked well used but because it slowed to stop at every station, there was time to see who was sharing the carriage with me.

Passengers were no longer travellers rushing to a distant city but people from the area, all with stories in the bags they carried and the clothes they wore.

Students laughing near a door — all in identical sports gear, they must be a team; a couple dressed for hiking who gazed at each other as if they would like to hold hands; a woman in a dark kimono playing with her phone; an elderly man sitting ramrod-straight, his arms folded and his eyes closed.

Another local train took me to Shin-Kanaya Station, where the steam locomotives of the Oigawa Railway begin their run.

There is a little museum to explore while waiting, with engines and carriages that saw service decades ago to clamber into and poke around in.

But the real stars are the working locomotives of the line, polished to a black gleam and coal-fed till steam whistles and hisses out from top and bottom. The steam does more than power the engine; it also heats the carriages in winter.

For summer, there is a line of retro looking fans on the ceiling.

A trip back in time

I had booked a ride back into the past. When I boarded the carriage, I stepped onto a plank floor and walked past rows of wooden seats upholstered in faded blue velvet. The train attendant passing through the carriage played a harmonica.

We left modernity even farther behind as the train pulled away from the urban sprawl and into the mountains, passing winding rivers and tidy rows of tea bushes.

Who needed music from a smartphone when there were tracks — the railway kind — and wheels churning out a rhythm on them?

We had gone back to an age where journeys were anticipated events, and in the rising call of the steam train’s whistle was a promise that something was about to happen — the promise of a story.

The passengers were not the only ones drawn to the romance of steam travel. All along the line, people had gathered to wait and wave as the train thundered past.

And we waved back at them: at the children, at the photographers with their long lenses, at the residents out walking their dogs and — as we passed an indoor swimming pool — at the men in swimming trunks who had come out despite the cold to give us a proper send-off.

Water treatment

But there is another reason to visit this corner of Japan besides steam trains and mountain views: onsen (Japanese for hot spring).

I was spending the night in the hot springs village of Sumatakyo Onsen, where the waters are said to revitalise the skin and make women beautiful.

I had booked myself into Suikoen, a hotel with retro interiors suggesting the art deco style and 1920s Japan. Like the steam trains, my room showed signs of age — a little chipped and faded but comfortable and comforting.

The dining room also looked a bit worn, but when I asked for tea, what was served would not be out of place in the fine dining establishments of Kyoto.

Grown locally in the Kawane area, the green tea here was superb, with a bite that stopped just short of bitterness.

“Wonderful tea,” I remarked to the waitress when I asked for yet another cup.

“The water here is delicious too,” she said.

It seemed only right that a trip full of associations with water — steam engines, wide rivers and hot springs — should end with a lovely cup of tea.

After dinner, I stopped by the hotel souvenir shop. I asked the cashier if the tea served in the restaurant was on sale, and he pointed it out. I took a packet and pulled out my wallet.

He put the tea in a bag. “Is it nice?” he asked.

“Oh, yes,” I said, although I didn’t really need to.

He had asked the question with a little smile, like someone who already knew well the fragrance of the tea grown on that land and the richness of its waters.


Getting there

As I live in Kyoto, I took the JR Tokaido Shinkansen from Kyoto Station to Hamamatsu Station, then boarded a JR Tokaido train to Kanaya Station.

From there, I took a local train on the Oigawa Railway to get to Shin-Kanaya Station, where the steam locomotives begin their run.

Traveller’s tips

Shopping: The Oigawa Railway stocks a wide array of train-themed souvenirs, from snacks to mugs and toys. Travellers less mechanically inclined could consider picking up some green tea, as Shizuoka prefecture is a major producer.

Lodging: The area served by the Oigawa Railway can be explored as a day trip from Shizuoka city, but to really enjoy the mountains, consider spending a night at Suikoen, a hotel in the hot springs village of Sumatakyo Onsen. Room rates start from about 11,000 yen (S$148) per person for one night, and include dinner and breakfast.

A 35-minute bus ride from Senzu Station, the last stop on the steam locomotives’ run, will take you to the hotel. The Oigawa Railway’s two-day pass can be used on this bus service.

Transport: The Oigawa Railway offers a two-day pass for unlimited rides on the two lines — the Main Line and the Ikawa Line — and bus services that it operates. The pass costs 3,900 yen. An additional fee of 800 yen is required for each steam train ride.

Travel Treats is the final travel fair of the year promising a feast of year-end deals for globetrotters. It is organised by the Singapore Outbound Travel Agents Association (SOTAA), and supported by official card American Express and official travel insurer AIG.

When: Oct 15 and 16, from 11am to 9.30pm
Where: Marina Bay Sands, Level 1, Expo Hall A. Admission is free.

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