If you ever happen to be in Yamaguchi prefecture, or nearby, then I highly recommend you spend a day (or two) travelling on the SL Yamaguchi steam train to the mountain town of Tsuwano.
The five coach steam train runs every weekend and on public holidays from March through to the end of October (and on Christmas and New Years).
Seats need to be reserved in advance. If you have a Japan Rail Pass all you need to do is reserve a seat. But if not you will need to purchase a ticket (¥1,660 one way). You can reserve up to a month in advance.
Tickets can be bought (and seats reserved) from the green JR ticket offices or a travel agency. Alternatively you can just go to a green JR ticket machine at a station and book it yourself. I used the machine and easily found the train by searching for ‘SL Yamaguchi’.
The starting point is shin-Yamaguchi station and makes its way on a 2-hour journey up to the castle town of Tsuwano, stopping at a few stations along the way including Yamaguchi station. There is only one outbound and inbound trip a day.
The outbound trip leaves shin-Yamaguchi at 10:48 and arrives in Tsuwano at 12:58. The inbound trip leaves Tsuwano at 15:45 and arrives at shin-Yamaguchi at 17:30.
It is possible to visit the main sights of Tsuwano in one day, having just over 2.5 hours available between arriving and departing on the train.
The inbound trip is faster by 25 minutes as the train is going downhill for the majority of the trip. 😉
Inside the Train
The train has five coaches. Each coach is decorated to reflect a specific era, such as ‘Meiji-era’ style in coach number 4:
The ‘Showa-era’ style in number 3:
And the ‘Taisho-era’ style in car number 5:
I travelled in coaches 3 and 5. What I liked about them is that the seat backs were quite high so you were never disturbed by other passengers around you.
The train does travel very slowly – especially when travelling uphill. Though I think this is perfect as you can really soak up the scenery and take some great pictures.
Train Wavers and Paparazzi
One thing I did not expect were the amount of people I would be waving at while on the train. As soon as we left shin-Yamaguchi I immediately spotted people in their gardens, at train-crossing stops, in their cars alongside the tracks, and in rice paddies all waving enthusiastically at the train. Because we were travelling so slowly you could easily wave back at them.
I think the little boy sitting in the same booth with his family was a bit scared of me at first because I was so enthusiastic in waving at every single person I saw (even at the dog who was ‘waving’ thanks to its owner). Eventually the kid saw how fun it was waving at people and soon joined me. 🙂
What surprised me even more were the ‘train paparazzi’. There were areas during the route where I saw groups of people with their massive camera lenses and tripods taking aim at the train as it passed by (and then waving at us).
Getting covered in soot…
On the way to Tsuwano we spent a long time going through a tunnel up a steep mountain. I then noticed that the coach was slowly going hazy in the dull light. Once we eventually got through the tunnel there was an announcement over the speaker for everyone to open their windows.
Turns out all the soot was coming into the coaches and we needed to open the windows to clear the air. When I looked down I found my arms were covered in a light sprinkling of it – I felt this added to the authenticity of travelling on a steam train and made the experience even more awesome than it already was. 😀
Tsuwano is a great town for sightseeing. I spent the weekend here and explored all the main sights. I will be writing a post all about my time in Tsuwano soon!
Here is a link to the official SL Yamaguchi website. It’s best if you open it in Chrome as the page will automatically translate from Japanese to English. It also shows the availability of seats for the upcoming weekends and public holidays.