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So sen-station-al: 7 Striking stations in Japan

So sen-station-al: 7 Striking stations in Japan

Rail travel in Japan is fun for a myriad reasons—there are so many different trains to ride, from the shinkansen to the Joyful Trains, and a good deal of them come with facilities like lounges and bar counters, as well as events like live performances, making it possible to spend an entire day on the train if possible! In addition, the scenery that can be caught from the windows of many train lines is just too beautiful—and let’s not forget about the variety of ekiben (駅弁 train station bento) that can be enjoyed!


There is another reason why taking trains in Japan is so entertaining—the station buildings themselves! From station buildings shaped like haniwa (埴輪 clay dolls) to stations with a vineyard in them, Japanese train stations exist in so many different shapes and forms, some of them can even be considered attractions in themselves. Here are seven stations across the whole of Japan, from Hokkaido (北海道) to Kyushu (九州), for those of you looking for interesting places to include on your itinerary now that Japan has reopened her borders!


1. Hirafu Station: The station with a lodge

JR Hakodate Main Line, Hokkaido Prefecture

Hirafu Station, as seen from the platform. (Image credit: たかちん/旅する応援団員)


Operated by JR Hokkaido (JR北海道), the Hakodate Main Line (函館本線 Hakodate-honsen) is a mega-monster of a line at over 400km in length, connecting Hakodate Station (函館駅 Hakodate-eki) in Southern Hokkaido with Asahikawa Station (旭川駅 Asahikawa-eki) in the centre of the island. 


Almost right smack in the middle of the line is Hirafu Station (比羅夫駅 Hirafu-eki), on the so-called “mountain line” section between Oshamanbe Station (長万部駅 Oshamanbe-eki) and Otaru Station (小樽駅 Otaru-eki). Hirafu is better known as one of Japan’s top ski resorts, together with its neighbours Niseko and Kutchan. Unlike Niseko Station (ニセコ駅 Niseko-eki) and Kutchan Station (倶知安駅 Kutchan-eki) which are bustling with activity—with the latter slated to become a shinkansen station when the Hokkaido Shinkansen (北海道新幹線) extension to Sapporo (札幌市 Sapporo-shi) opens in 2030—Hirafu Station is a quiet affair, with daily ridership in the single digits.


Left: Hirafu Station from the front. The small log building to the left is the cottage. Right: The first floor lounge area of the lodge.(Image credit: たかちん/旅する応援団員)


But what makes Hirafu Station so special is that it is the only station in Japan that houses a lodge within it! “Station Lodge Hirafu” (駅の宿ひらふ Eki no Yado Hirafu) occupies the second floor of the station building, and there is even a small cottage to house larger groups of people.

There are many so-called train view hotels in Japan that offer views of trains from the rooms—none, however, offer as close-up an experience as Hirafu Station, and spending a night here will give one the chance to experience waking up to the whistle of an approaching train!


Having a barbecue on the train platform! (Image credit: たかちん/旅する応援団員)


In the non-winter months, the lodge offers barbecue for dinner, making this the only place in Japan where you can grill meat and vegetables on the station platform as trains go by! The ingredients offered—including that famed Hokkaido dish of grilled lamb jingisu-kan (ジンギスカン), as well as seafood and seasonal vegetables like asparagus—are a treat for the palate, and train aficionados will surely enjoy being able to watch trains enter and leave the station while having their dinner!


Station Lodge Hirafu (駅の宿ひらふ)
Address: 594-4 Hirafu, Kutchan, Abuta-gun, Hokkaido 044-0077
Nearest station: JR Hirafu Station (JR比羅夫駅) 
Access: Within Hirafu Station
Tel: +81-80-5582-5241
Writer’s note: Hirafu Station can be accessed from either Hakodate or Sapporo Stations, the major stops on the Hakodate Main Line. 

From Sapporo, take a rapid/local train to Otaru, followed by a transfer to a local train to Kutchan, then a final transfer at Kutchan towards Oshamanbe. The ride will take around 2.5–3 hours in total, depending on whether you take a rapid or local train to Otaru.
Alternatively, from Hakodate, take the Limited Express Hokuto to Oshamanbe Station, and transfer to a local train headed to Otaru. The ride will take slightly more than three hours. Note that train services between Kutchan and Oshamanbe are infrequent, with seven trains a day from Kutchan to Oshamanbe, and four from Oshamanbe to Kutchan/Otaru.


2. Ashinomaki Onsen Station: The station with a feline station master

Aizu Railway Aizu Line, Fukushima Prefecture

The station building of Ashinomaki Onsen Station. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)


It is not only JR lines that have interesting stations—many local lines have unique stations too, and one such line is the Aizu Line (会津線 Aizu-sen) belonging to Aizu Railway (会津鉄道 Aizu Tetsudō), that connects Aizu-Wakamatsu Station (会津若松駅 Aizu-Wakamatsu-eki) and Aizu-Tajima Station (会津田島駅 Aizu-Tajima-eki) in the Aizu area of Fukushima Prefecture (福島県 Fukushima-ken).


Some of you may have heard of Yunokami Onsen Station (湯野上温泉駅 Yunokami Onsen-eki) on this line—with its thatched roof, it is one of only two stations in Japan to have such a unique building. Ashinomaki Onsen Station (芦ノ牧温泉駅 Ashinomaki Onsen-eki) along the line looks like any other station at first glance, until you meet its claim to fame—a cat station master!


The rest room of the cat station master in the corner and magazine issues and clippings featuring Bus and Love. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)


There are a few stations across Japan with cats acting as their station master. Ashinomaki Onsen Station’s first cat station master, Bus (ばす), first assumed the role in 2008, after having lived in the station for many years after a child found her around the area. Due to old age and health problems, though, Bus retired in 2015, and Love (らぶ) took over as the second-generation station master. Love’s siblings, Peach (ぴーち) and Sakura (さくら), got appointed as facilities master and attendant in 2017 and 2021 respectively.


An old train car preserved at Ashinomaki Onsen Station. The car functions as a rest area and museum, and even houses an Aizu Line simulator where one can experience operating a train on the Aizu Line. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)


Today, Love and Sakura take turns to carry out their duties at the station—and they take pride in their work, often going out to the platform to send trains off and walking around the station and tracks to ensure that everything is in working condition!

When not busy, though, the cats can be found playing or resting in the station building, bringing smiles to travellers waiting for their next train. Unfortunately, photography of the cats is no longer allowed after flash photography damaged Bus’s eyes, but travellers are more than welcome to play with the cats and pat and stroke them—gently, of course!


Ashinomaki Onsen Station (芦ノ牧温泉駅)
Address: Kashū, Kami-Miyori, Ōto, Aizu-Wakamatsu-shi, Fukushima 969-5122
Staffed hours: 8:30am–5pm (Daily)
Tel: +81-24-292-3766

Writer’s note: Love unfortunately passed away on the 5 October 2022 at 12:56pm JST due to chronic kidney disease. Sakura is still carrying out her duties, though, and can be seen at the station on Tuesdays and Fridays to Sundays. (Information is correct as of 7 October 2022)
Ashinomaki Onsen Station can be accessed from either Aizu-Wakamatsu or Aizu-Tajima Stations on the Aizu Line. From Tokyo, take the Yamabiko on the Tōhoku Shinkansen to Kōriyama, transfer to the Ban’etsu West Line to Aizu-Wakamatsu, then switch to the Aizu Line. The ride will take approximately 4 hours.
Alternatively, Aizu-Tajima Station can be accessed from Asakusa Station via the Limited Express Revalty (four services a day), from which a local train towards Aizu-Wakamatsu can be caught. The whole ride will take approximately 4 hours as well.


#3: Moka Station: The station that is shaped like a train 

Moka Railway Moka Line, Tochigi Prefecture

The station building of Moka Station. Note how the doors are shaped like train wheels. (Image credit: Nyao148 / CC BY-SA 3.0)


You have heard of station buildings being modelled after various things like haniwa figures—how about a station shaped like a train itself?

The Moka Line (真岡線 Mōka-sen) is a local line that connects Shimodate Station (下館駅 Shimodate-eki) in Ibaraki Prefecture (茨城県 Ibaraki-ken) with Motegi Station (茂木駅 Motegi-eki) in Tochigi Prefecture (栃木県 Tochigi-ken). The line is named so because it passes through Moka City (真岡市 Mo-oka-shi) in Tochigi—Moka Station (真岡駅 Mōka-eki), the largest station on the line and where the line’s headquarters are, is built in the shape of a steam locomotive! 

Chosen as one of Kantō Region’s “Top 100 Stations” in 1997, its unique shape makes it a very interesting sight, and it is well worth the visit just to have a look at it! The station building also houses a corner with a steam locomotive and a few other carriages on display, as well as a souvenir shop, so there is plenty to look at when at Moka Station.


The SL Moka in spring, amidst the cherry and rape blossoms. (Image credit: Shrmch_533 / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


For those who have read about JR East’s Joyful Trains with steam locomotives like the SL Ginga and SL Ban’etsu Monogatari, but are unable to travel all the way out to ride them, you can enjoy a steam locomotive ride on the Moka Line as well!

The SL Moka (SLもおか) runs on weekends, and reservations for it can be made online (although a valid Japanese phone number is required). Its relative proximity to Tokyo makes it easy for a quick trip to experience the steam locomotive, so for those of you with a day in your itinerary that needs filling, a trip on the Moka Line might just be the perfect activity!


Moka Station (真岡駅)
Address: 2474-1 Daimachi, Moka-shi, Tochigi 321-4306
Staffed hours: 5am–8pm (Daily)
Tel: +81-28-584-2911

Writer’s note: Shimodate Station, which is the start of the Moka Line, can be accessed via either the JR Mito Line and the Kantō Railway Jōsō Line. 

To access via the JR Mito Line, take a Nasuno or Yamabiko train on the Tōhoku Shinkansen from Tokyo Station, or the JR Utsunomiya Line from Ueno Station, to Oyama Station, and transfer to the Mito Line. The ride takes between 1 hour 20 minutes to 1 hour 40 minutes.

To access via the Kantō Railway Jōsō Line, take a rapid train on the Tsukuba Express from Akihabara Station to Moriya Station, and transfer to a train to Shimodate on the Jōsō Line. The ride takes approximately 1 hour 40 minutes.

From Shimodate Station, Moka Station is a 27-minute ride on the Moka Line. 


#4: Mizunuma Station: The station that has a hot spring facility 

Watarase Keikoku Railway Watarase Keikoku Line, Gunma Prefecture

Mizunuma Station. (Image credit: kimagurenote / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


The last interesting station building to be featured before we head over to West Japan can be found in Gunma (群馬県 Gunma-ken), Tochigi’s neighbouring prefecture.

Gunma, in addition to having many JR lines traverse it, is also well-connected by a series of local lines, one of them being the Watarase Keikoku Line (わたらせ渓谷線 Watarase Keikoku-sen) belonging to the Watarase Keikoku Railway (わたらせ渓谷鉄道 Watarase Keikoku Tetsudō). As the name implies, the Watarase Keikoku Line runs alongside the Watarase River (渡良瀬川 Watarase-gawa), from Kiryū Station (桐生駅 Kiryū-eki) in Gunma Prefecture to Matō Station (間藤駅 Matō-eki) in Tochigi Prefecture. 


A view of Mizunuma Station from the overpass within the station. The onsen facility is the building on the right. (Image credit: くろふね / CC BY 3.0)


Mizunuma Station (水沼駅 Mizunuma-eki) is on the outskirts of Kiryu City (桐生市 Kiryū-shi)—what makes it so unique is that it houses an onsen within its station building, just like other stations previously featured on this page like Hotto-Yuda Station (ほっとゆだ駅 Hotto Yuda-eki) on the Kitakami Line (北上線 Kitakami-sen) in Iwate Prefecture (岩手県 Iwate-ken)!

With the onsen facility right next to the tracks, one can listen to the sounds of trains pulling in and departing as they relax in the bath, making it an ideal spot to take a dip while on a journey. In addition, unlike other stations with onsen, like the aforementioned Hotto-Yuda Station, as well as Takahata Station (高畠駅 Takahata-eki) in Yamagata Prefecture (山形県 Yamagata-ken), the onsen at Mizunuma Station features an open-air bath as well. Not to worry, though, as the bath cannot be seen from the train, thus ensuring that your privacy is protected!


A closer look at Mizunuma Station, as well as the onsen facility. (Image credit: くろふね / CC BY 3.0)


Just like any other hot spring facility, the onsen at Mizunuma Station houses a restaurant serving local delicacies like “yama-unagi” (山うなぎ mountain eel) which is thickly cut mountain yam, as well as resting rooms for families or large groups, making it possible to spend a day on the Watarase Keikoku Line and ending with a soak and a mug of ice-cold beer before heading back to Tokyo!


Mizunuma Station Onsen Centre (水沼駅温泉センター)
Address: 120-1 Mizunuma, Kurohone, Kiryū-shi, Gunma 376-0141
Nearest station: Watarase Keikoku Line Mizunuma Station (わたらせ渓谷線水沼駅)
Access: Within Mizunuma Station
Operating hours: 10:30am–8pm (Daily)
Admission fee: ¥650 (Weekdays), ¥800 (Weekends and Public Holidays)
Tel: +81-27-796-2500

Writer’s note: The URL and telephone number given above are for Mizunuma Onsen Centre, the onsen facility within Mizunuma Station. Mizunuma Station can be accessed via the Watarase Keikoku Line, which starts from Kiryū Station on the JR Ryōmō Line. Kiryū Station can be accessed via two ways from Tokyo—take the Nasuno or Yamabiko train on the Tōhoku Shinkansen to Oyama Station, then transfer to the Ryōmō Line. Alternatively, take an Asama or Hakutaka train on the Hokuriku Shinkansen to Takasaki Station, then transfer to the Ryōmō Line. The whole journey takes approximately 2 hours 40 minutes. 


#5: Nagatoshi Station: The station with torii gates

JR Sanyō Main Line, Yamaguchi Prefecture

Nagatoshi Station. (Image credit: 時の記録者 / photoAC)


After touring East Japan, let’s take a trip down to West Japan, which has its fair share of attention-grabbing station buildings!


One such station is Nagatoshi Station (長門市駅 Nagatoshi-eki), found in Nagato City (長門市 Nagato-shi) of Yamaguchi Prefecture (山口県 Yamaguchi-ken). Even though it functions as a major transport hub, serving both the San’in Main Line (山陰本線 San’in-honsen) and Mine Line (美祢線 Mine-sen), the station building of Nagatoshi Station itself is rather unassuming. But the answer does not reveal itself until you pass the fare gates of the station and head to the platforms.


Some stations have a “Platform 0”, which is mainly used for trains terminating at that station. The “Platform 0” for Nagatoshi Station is no longer in use, but on the tracks of the platform, you will find a total of 20 torii (鳥居), the red gates to Japanese Shinto shrines!


The fascinating torii at Motonosumi Shrine—you can imagine what the display at the station looks like! (Image credit: NISSANEV / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


This display, set up in February 2020, is modelled after Motonosumi Shrine (元乃隅神社 Motonosumi-jinja), a famous sightseeing spot in Yamaguchi Prefecture known for its long stretch of over 100 toriis along its path that snakes out to a cape.

Although based off a famous tourist attraction, the torii gates at Nagatoshi Station have become something of a tourist attraction themselves, with travellers stopping by to snap a picture at the station. If you ever find yourself in the San’in area, do consider dropping by Nagatoshi Station to catch a view of this unique spectacle!


Nagatoshi Station (長門市駅)
Address: Higashi-Fukawa, Nagato-shi, Yamaguchi 759-4101
Staffed hours: 7am–7pm (Daily)
Tel: +81-83-722-2600

Writer’s note: Nagatoshi Station is on the San’in Main Line, which starts from Kyoto Station in Kyōto, although the closest shinkansen station is Asa Station in Yamaguchi on the Sany Shinkansen. From Tokyo, take a Nozomi train bound for Hakata to Shin-Yamaguchi, and transfer there to a Kodama train bound for Hakata to Asa. At Asa, transfer to the Mine Line, which ends at Nagatoshi. The total time needed is slightly more than 6 hours.


#6: Saigawa Station: The station that resembles a rhino

Heisei Chikuho Railway Tagawa Line, Fukuoka Prefecture

The station building of Saigawa Station. See the rhinoceros resemblance yet? (Image credit: Randwick / CC BY-SA 3.0)


The last two stations of our sen-station-al tour can be found in Fukuoka Prefecture (福岡県 Fukuoka-ken)! Known for its delicious food like mentaiko (明太子 spicy salted cod roe) as well as motsu-nabe (もつ鍋), a steamy hotpot featuring offal, Fukuoka is also well-covered by a wide network of trains spanning not only those operated by JR Kyushu (JR九州), but also private railways and subway lines as well.


The first station on our list can be found along the Tagawa Line (田川線 Tagawa-sen). Operated by Heisei Chikuho Railway (平成筑豊鉄道 Heisei Chikuhō Tetsudō), the Tagawa Line is one of the shorter lines featured in this article, at 26.3km, and connects Yukuhashi Station (行橋駅 Yukuhashi-eki) with Tagawa-Ita Station (田川伊田駅 Tagawa-Ita-eki), although trains operationally continue on the Ita Line (伊田線 Ita-sen) that starts at Tagawa-Ita Station and ends at Nogata Station (直方駅 Nōgata-eki).


A Heisei Chikuhō Railway train. (Image credit: kimuchi583 / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Saigawa Station (犀川駅 Saigawa-eki) is located almost 10km away from Yukuhashi—what makes it so special is its unique station building, with its tall, pointed towers and angled facade!


Sai (サイ)” is the Japanese name for the rhinoceros—the station building, made out of hinoki wood, certainly looks like a crouched rhinoceros when viewed from a distance, the tall, pointed tower resembling the animal’s horn. The station houses a community space, Yū Town Saigawa (ユータウン犀川), within it. There is a café open for lunch, as well as a library corner within the space, creating an environment where residents of the area can interact with each other. For those whose itinerary includes a trip on the Heisei Chikuhō Railway, a stop at Saigawa Station to view its interesting façade is something not to be missed!


Saigawa Station (犀川駅)
Address: Saigawa-Honjō, Miyako, Miyako-gun, Fukuoka 824-0231
Staffed hours: 10am–1pm, 2pm–6pm on weekdays (excluding public holidays)
Tel: +81-94-722-1000

Writer’s note: As Saigawa Station is unmanned, the staffed hours and telephone number given above are for Kanada Station, the only staffed station managed by Heisei Chikuhō Railways.
To get to Saigawa Station, take a Nozomi train on the Sanyō Shinkansen from Tokyo bound for Hakata and transfer at Kokura to a limited express Sonic bound for Ōita to Yukuhashi. At Yukuhashi, transfer to the Tagawa Line. The total time needed is approximately 5 hours 40 mins.


#7: Tanushimaru Station: The station that resembles a kappa

JR Kyūdai Main Line, Fukuoka Prefecture

The station building of Tanushimaru Station, looking more like a duck than a kappa until you start to notice the details…  (Image credit: Bakkai / CC BY-SA 3.0)


The last station we will be visiting in this article is also in Kyushu, but this time on one of JR Kyushu lines, the Kyudai Main Line (久大本線 Kyūdai-honsen) connecting Fukuoka Prefecture and Oita Prefecture (大分県 Ōita-ken). Tanushimaru Station (田主丸駅 Tanushimaru-eki) is on the Fukuoka side of the line, some 20km away from Kurume Station (久留米駅 Kurume-eki), the Fukuoka terminus of the line.


The building of Tanushimaru Station is special because of its façade, built to resemble a kappa (河童), a mythical Japanese creature that looks like a person with a duck face, and a green crown atop its head! From afar it looks like a duck, continuing the animal theme established with Saigawa Station, until you realise the green crown on the roof of the station. In fact, the whole station building resembles a kappa lying on the ground!

Another fact about Tanushimaru Station that makes it so special is that the current station building, completed in 1992, was designed by local high school students, making it a local station in every sense of the word!


A kappa statue right outside Tanushimaru Station. (Image credit: <シェル> / photoAC)


Tanushimaru Town (田主丸町 Tanushimaru-machi), where the station is located, is home to many kappa legends, similar to Tono City (遠野市 Tōno-shi) in Iwate Prefecture. There are estimated to be as many as a thousand kappa stone statues scattered all over Tanushimaru, and the town has made the beast its local mascot, its local cafes and bakeries even selling kappa-themed sweets and curry rice!


In Tōno, you can even go fishing for kappa with cucumbers, said to be their favourite food (which also explains why cucumber maki-zushi is called kappa-maki)—just remember to apply for a permit first! (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

With guides taking you on a tour around the town and sharing its history with you, those of you who have an interest in Japanese mythology will no doubt find Tanushimaru Station and its surroundings a good way to spend your day!


Tanushimaru Station (田主丸駅)
Address: 1015-2 Tanushimaru, Tanushimaru, Kurume-shi, Fukuoka 839-1233
Staffed hours: 6:20am–7:10pm (Weekdays), 6:40am–6:15pm on (Weekends and public holidays)
Tel: +81-94-372-4956

Writer’s note: To get to Tanushimaru Station from Tokyo, take a Nozomi train on the Sanyō Shinkansen bound for Hakata. At Hakata, transfer to a Tsubame train on the Kyushu Shinkansen bound for Kumamoto, and change to a local train bound for Hita at Kurume Station. The total time needed is approximately 6 hours.


With such an extensive rail network across Japan, taking a train ride in the country is never a dull affair! Not only are there many interesting trains to take, there are also many unique station buildings that are an attraction in themselves. The seven showcased here are but a tiny selection, so keep an eye out the next time you board a train in Japan, and you may find more sen-station-al station buildings awaiting you!


Header image credit: Kevin Koh

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