Hiking an abandoned railway: Abt Road and the Usui Pass
Straddling Gunma Prefecture (群馬県 Gunma-ken) and Nagano Prefecture (長野県 Nagano-ken), the Usui Pass (碓氷峠 Usuitо̄ge) played an important role in connecting the Kanto region and Nagano, but was notorious for being difficult to pass through. Yokokawa Station (横川駅 Yokokawa-eki), and Karuizawa Station (軽井沢駅 Karuizawa-eki) were only 11.2km apart, but the elevation difference was over 550m. As such, the Usui Pass had steep gradients of up to 66.7%, and was where Japan’s first Abt-system railway (rack and pinion railway) was used.
Model of an Abt-system railway. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
In 1963, the Abt-system railway was abandoned to switch to electric locomotives, and in 1997, the Nagano Shinkansen (now Hokuriku Shinkansen) opened. Nowadays, travellers can use the shinkansen (新幹線 bullet train) or expressway to go between the Kanto and Nagano.
Map of Abt Road. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
After the opening of the shinkansen route, the railway tracks between Yokokawa and Karuizawa were abandoned, and Yokokawa became a terminal station. Although railways are longer running on the Usui Pass, railway history lovers can still enjoy this route by walking along the Abt Road (アプトの道 Aputo-no-Michi), a 6km-long nature trail following the abandoned Abt-system railway of the Former Usui Line (旧碓氷線 Kyū Usui-sen), spanning from Yokokawa to Kumanotaira.
Last month, my colleague Julia and I got to hike along this fascinating trail, so let me show you what it was like!
Departing from Yokokawa Station
Departing Yokokawa Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Our journey to the Abt Road started from Yokokawa Station. According to the walking guide map by Annaka City, it takes about 125 minutes from Yokokawa to Kumanotaira (uphill), and about 96 minutes from Kumanotaira to Yokokawa (downhill).
As we were on limited time, Julia and I decided to take a taxi from Yokokawa Station to the Usui 3rd Bridge. On weekends and certain seasonal periods, there is a local bus that runs from Yokokawa Station to the bridge. Alternatively, it is a 100-minute uphill walk.
Tourist information office for Annaka City. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Yokokawa Station is a small station, and we were unable to find any taxis, so we headed towards the tourist information centre to ask for some help. The tourist information centre is about a 5-minute walk from the station, and is right by the starting point of the Abt Road nature trail.
Here, you can get some souvenirs relating to the history of the Usui Pass, buy some drinks and snacks for your hike, or just sit down and take a break before or after your hike. The centre also has a small exhibition corner, where you can learn more about Annaka City and its history. The kind staff helped us to call a taxi to the Usui 3rd Bridge, which arrived in about 10 minutes.
Usui 3rd Bridge
The Usui 3rd Bridge. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The Usui 3rd Bridge (碓氷第三橋梁 Usui Daisan Kyōryō) is definitely one of the highlights of the Abt Road. Made up of over 2 million red bricks, this bridge an architectural marvel. Built in 1892, this historic bridge was formerly used by trains travelling between Yokokawa and Karuizawa, and is affectionately dubbed Meganebashi (めがね橋 Glasses Bridge) as its four arches resemble a pair of glasses.
The Usui 3rd Bridge is Japan’s largest arched brick bridge, and is an Important Cultural Property, together with other structures of the Former Usui Pass Railway.
Climbing up the stairs to the top of the bridge. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
There is a small parking lot at the foot of the bridge, and we saw many people stopping by to take a look at this marvellous bridge. Behind the bridge, there is a staircase leading to the top, which takes about 5 minutes to climb.
Usui 3rd Bridge (碓氷第三橋梁)
Address: Sakamoto, Matsuida-machi, Annaka-shi, Gunma
Access: 100-minute walk along the Abt Road trail or 15-minute bus ride (seasonal operation) from JR Yokokawa Station (横川駅)
Admission fee: Free
The road to Kumanotaira
Heading to Kumanotaira. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
From the Usui 3rd Bridge, we took a 25-minute walk to Kumanotaira, the end of the Abt Road nature trail. Between Yokokawa and Kumanotaira, there are a total of 10 tunnels, but five of them are located in the short section between the Usui 3rd Bridge and Kumanotaira.
The first tunnel Julia and I encountered was the longest tunnel of the 10, the No. 6 Tunnel (6号トンネル), which is a whopping 546m long. It took us about 10 minutes to walk through the tunnel! Inside the tunnel, the temperature is much cooler than outside, so it was a pleasant walk. We were glad that the No. 7–10 Tunnels were each around 100m or less.
Kumanotaira. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
At Kumanotaira, you can see remnants of the abandoned railway tracks, and this is the end of the Abt Road trail. From here, it takes about 100 minutes to walk back to Yokokawa Station.
The tunnels were cool. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
After checking out the area around Kumanotaira, we headed back towards Yokokawa Station, taking about an hour to pass through the 10 tunnels. The tunnels are abandoned railway tunnels, made with bricks. Walking through them felt like stepping back in time or stepping into a different world.
After exiting the final No.1 Tunnel, we came across Toge-no-Yu, which is a day trip hot spring facility. It would have been nice to take a quick dip in the hot springs, but alas, we were short on time and had to make haste.
Address: 1222 Sakamoto, Matsuida-machi, Annaka-shi, Gunma 379-0307
Access: 55-minute walk or 5-minute taxi ride from JR Yokokawa Station (横川駅)
Opening hours: 10:00–21:00
Admission fee: ¥700/adult for 3-hour use, ¥900/adult for 6-hour use, ¥1,000/adult for full-day use
Spotted: old railway tracks and monkeys. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
From Toge-no-Yu, we noticed that we could see the old railway tracks along the walking path. It was also here that we started to see many, many monkeys. Some were curious, following us as we walked, while others were more interested in resting, lazing around and lying on the cables or fences.
Old Maruyama Substation
Old Maruyama Substation. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
After walking for about 15 minutes, we reached the Old Maruyama Substation (旧丸山変電所 Kyū Maruyama Hendensho). First opened in 1912, this was a former electric substation that converted electric power to an appropriate form to supply and support the steam locomotive trains on the Former Usui Line. With the electrification of the line in 1963, the Old Maruyama Substation was relieved of this duty.
Old Maruyama Substation. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Together with the Usui 3rd Bridge and various other structures along the abandoned line, the Old Maruyama Substation was designated as an Important Cultural Property in 1994. Now, although the substation is no longer in use and the public cannot enter it, we can still view it and get up close from the outside.
Usuitouge Railway Heritage Park
Usuitouge Railway Heritage Park. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Another 36-minute walk from the Old Maruyama Substation brought us to the Usuitouge Railway Heritage Park (碓氷峠鉄道文化むら Usuitо̄ge Tetsudо̄ Bunka Mura). Tired but upbeat that we were near the end of our hike, we continued walking along the path, but stopped when about a dozen rolling stock came into sight. We had reached the Usuitouge Railway Heritage Park! Unfortunately, we were hiking on a Tuesday, which is when the park is closed.
Usuitouge Railway Heritage Park. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The Usuitouge Railway Heritage Park is a railway theme park that exhibits history about the Former Usui Line and showcases vehicles formerly used on the abandoned railway between Yokokawa and Karuizawa, such as an Abt rack locomotive, EF63 trains, and other retro trains.
Experience railway history at the Usuitouge Railway Heritage Park. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
In addition to being able to learn more about the history and look at the old train vehicles, visitors can also experience riding mini SL trains and open-air torokko trains, and even try out operating an EF63 electric locomotive train themselves.
On weekends, open-air torokko trains run between Toge-no-Yu, the Old Maruyama Substation, and the Usuitouge Railway Heritage Park, so that’s another fun thing to experience.
Usuitouge Railway Heritage Park (碓氷峠鉄道文化むら)
Address: 407-16 Yokokawa, Matsuida-machi, Annaka-shi, Gunma 379-0301
Access: 3-minute walk from JR Yokokawa Station (横川駅)
Opening hours: 9:00–17:00 (March–October) / 9:00–16:30 (November–February) / Closed every Tuesday (except August) and during the year-end (29 December to 4 January)
Admission fee: ¥700/pax (middle school and above), ¥400/pax (elementary school), free for children below elementary school age
Note: Additional charges apply for riding mini SL trains / open-air torokko trains, and operating the EF63.
Late lunch: Toge no Kamameshi
Oginoya near Yokokawa Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
It was about 15:00 when we reached Yokokawa Station, and we were famished. Lucky for us, Yokokawa is the birthplace of the famous Toge no Kamameshi (峠の釜めし Tо̄ge no Kamameshi) ekiben (駅弁 lunch box for eating on the train), and there was a large Oginoya (荻野屋) store nearby the station.
In the past, before the opening of the Nagano Shinkansen (now Hokuriku Shinkansen) in 1997, trains would transit at Yokokawa, where EF63 electric locomotives would connect to the trains before they continued their arduous uphill journeys towards Karuizawa via the Usui Pass. The connection of locomotives to the trains at Yokokawa Station would take a long time, and the enterprising Oginoya took this opportunity to start selling Toge no Kamameshi ekiben at the station platform while passengers waited. Even today, Toge no Kamameshi remains a well-loved and representative ekiben of Gunma Prefecture.
Toge no Kamameshi and special flavours.(Image credit: JR East / Julia Yee)
Julia and I eagerly made our way to Oginoya, but alas, we came late in the day, and all the special unagi and chicken flavours of Toge no Kamemeshi had sold out. However, neither of us had tried the original Toge no Kamameshi before, so we were very happy to try the regular version.
Toge no Kamameshi. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The Toge no Kamameshi ekiben itself is filled with lots of goodies, like chestnut, bamboo shoots, burdock, shiitake mushroom, and quail egg, cooked together with the rice in an earthenware pot. Other than the delicious meal itself, one special thing about this ekiben is its hefty earthenware container, which makes a great souvenir!
Toge no Kamameshi gachapon. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Not just a restaurant, the Oginoya store also sold souvenirs. I tried the special Oginoya gachapon capsule toy, where you could get one of six types of Oginoya ekiben toys. I was incredible lucky to get the Toge no Kamameshi toy on my first try, which I assembled before digging in to my meal.
We spent too much time at Oginoya. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
After spending too much time browsing through Oginoya’s selection of souvenirs, Julia and I made a dash back to Yokokawa Station and managed to make it just in time to board the 16:30 train bound for Takasaki.
Oginoya Yokokawa Shop (荻野屋 横川店)
Address: 297-1 Yokokawa, Matsuida-machi, Annaka-shi, Gunma 379301
Access: 5-minute walk from JR Yokokawa Station (横川駅)
Opening hours: 9:00–17:00
Our walk along the Abt Road was amazing, and other than the fantastic scenery, we were able to learn so much about the Former Usui Line and the unique history surrounding it. I hope to visit again in autumn, when the plentiful trees along the trail turn various shades of yellow, orange, and red. The Abt Road is very easily accessible from JR Yokokawa Station, which is about half an hour from JR Takasaki Station, a station serving the Joetsu Shinkansen and Nagano Shinkansen.
JR TOKYO Wide Pass
The JR TOKYO Wide Pass and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)
Thinking of visiting Yokokawa and the Abt Road? Check out the JR TOKYO Wide Pass, an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 3 consecutive days. At only ¥10,180, it is about the same price as a round-trip between Tokyo and Yokokawa Station (~¥10,700). You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains like the SL Gunma online for free, up to 1 month in advance, here.
The JR TOKYO Wide Pass can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.
The Japan Rail Fair 2022
(Image credit: JAPAN RAIL CAFE)
Interested in finding out more about the Abt Road and other railway history sites? Join us for a special seminar at The Japan Rail Fair. Follow us on an enter-train-ing tour of historic railway sites, and let's go on short railway trips from Tokyo to the Izu Peninsula, Takeshiba Waterfront, and Kawaguchiko!
Happy Railway Day! Enjoy railway history and eki-citing train trips from Tokyo
Date: 14 October 2022 (Friday)
Where to watch: Live on Facebook and YouTube
Header image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh