Train-lovers in Japan often get over-excited at the mere mention of the Shinkansen (bullet-train). With its super-fast speed, its sleek, smooth exterior and comfortable interior, there is no doubt that this is truly a travel method of Kings. Despite the fame of the Shinakansen, smaller railways are not to be overlooked as while they may not be the pinnacle of cutting-edge technology, local railways are full of charm, history and picturesque photo opportunities. Let’s take a look at two local railways of Japan to kindle your love of unique travel experiences.
The Kikuchi Tramway was opened in 1909, with a line running from Ikeda Station (close to where the present-day Kami-Kumamoto Station is located) to Sendanbatamachi Station (now known as the Fujisakigu-mae Station).
There are two lines – the Kikuchi Line (which runs from Kami-Kumamoto to Miyoshi, a route of 6.7 miles) and the Fujisaki Line (which runs from Fujisakigu-mae to Kita-Kumamoto, a route of 1.4 miles). It is possible to take the train from Fujisakigu-mae all the way up to Miyoshi. Part of the Fujisaki Line actually runs alongside the public road.
The trains rattle along at an impressive speed, but not too fast for you to miss the view as it sails past. These trains are small and the tracks are built right up to the edge of public parks and residential areas. One worthwhile trip for anyone wishing to try out the train while visiting somewhere quiet and relaxing is to take the Kikuchi line from Fujisakigu-mae Station to Kita-Kumamoto Station, a journey of only 6 minutes. At Kita-Kumamoto you will find yourself next to a charming park that has areas which are uncultivated and wonderfully wild, as well as neatly trimmed lawns and a decent kids play area. You’re also just a 5 minutes walk from the ‘Second Street’ second-hand shop – a Mecca for bargain hunters. Alternatively, if you’re looking for a trip a bit further afield, you could take the train all the way up to Miyoshi Station (the end of the line – a 26 minute journey from Fujisakigu-mae Station) and then walk 10 minutes to reach the Country Park.
You may not have heard of this train line but you will have almost certainly heard of its station master. In 2004, Kishi Station was nearly closed because of financial difficulties, and in 2006 staff were let go from all stations on the Kishigawa line because of these money problems. The station manager of Kishi Station at the time was Toshiko Koyama, who lived close by.
Koyama had recently adopted Tama, a stray cat who lived in the area and was looked on fondly by patrons of the Kishigawa Line. In 2007, the female cat was named as the station master of Kishi Station, a move which majorly boosted sales and turned around the fortunes of the seemingly doomed station line.
As station master, Tama’s main duty was to greet the customers of the train. She wore a station masters hat and became very famous – earning food rather than a salary for her role at the station. It could be said that Tama saved the Kishigawa line – the month her employment was announced, there was a 17% increase in the number of passengers compared to the same month of the previous year. In general, passenger numbers increased by 10% and it is estimated that Tama’s arrival contributed 1.1 billion yen to the local economy.
The popularity of Tama and her rise in fame led to other cats being employed at Kishi Station, including Tama’s mother Miiko, and her sister Chibi, as well as her apprentice Nitama who was hired in 2012.
Tama died in June 2015 and was publicly mourned around the world (the cats death was reported on in The Economist, by CNN, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, The Telegraph and the Japan Times.) She will be remembered fondly by anyone taking the ‘Tama Train’ which is decorated with cute cartoons of the much-beloved kitty. The station held a Shinto-style funeral for her and gave her the title of ‘Honourable Eternal Station Master’.
So if you thought that the Shinkansen is the only train worth taking in Japan – think again. These are just two examples of local railways in Japan with amazing stories to tell and interesting histories to discover. The story of the narrowly avoided death of the Kishigawa Line goes to show how the times are changing, but even with the birth of high-speed super-trains, it is worth preserving and cherishing much loved local railway lines for generations to come.