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All aboard the Railway of Smiles: Akita Nairiku Railway

All aboard the Railway of Smiles: Akita Nairiku Railway

The Tohoku Area (東北地方 Tōhoku-chihō) is a treasure trove of rail lines, both JR and private/third-sector, all with so many things to offer, be it the views of the Pacific Ocean on the Sanriku Railway, or the snow-capped landscapes of the many lines traversing mountainous areas pass through in winter, there is so much for train afficionados to enjoy, and one can never tire of looking out of the train windows.

 

Being the sixth-largest prefecture in Japan and the third-largest in the Tohoku Area, Akita is no slouch in this area­­­—with over 180 stations spread across nine lines, Akita has much to offer for noritetsu enthusiasts. While most readers would be familiar with the Akita Shinkansen, as well as the other JR lines that traverse the prefecture, there are two third-sector railways there that are still very loved by the local populace they serve, one of them being the Akita Nairiku Railway (秋田内陸縦貫鉄道 Akita Nairiku Jūkan Tetsudō).

 

The line

The Takanosu Station house. The red-and-white banner on the right can be transliterated as “Full speed ahead, with smiles aboard!” (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

Akita Nairiku Railway operates only one line: the Akita Nairiku Line (秋田内陸線Akita Nairiku Sen), so named because unlike quite a few of the other lines in Akita which run along or close to the Sea of Japan coast, this line traverses the inner reachings of the prefecture, connecting Kakunodate Station (角館駅Kakunodate-eki) in Senboku City to Takanosu Station (鷹巣駅 Takanosu-eki) in Kita-Akita City via a nearly 100km set of rails.

 

Bestowed with the moniker of “Smile Rail Akita Nairiku Line” (スマイルレール秋田内陸線) since November 2017, the nickname came about due to the railway’s promise to greet all travellers with a smile, and to have them leave with smiles on their faces. So committed are they to this idea of serving travellers with a smile that they named a new special train that was debuted in February 2020 “EMI 笑”, meaning “smile” in Japanese.

 

My ride on the Akita Nairiku Railway was in the summer of 2019, before I had a chance to take this new train, but it nevertheless brought a grin to my face—read on to find out more about what I enjoyed about my ride on this line!

 

What to see: The four seasons along the line

The magnificent countryside view out of the window shortly after leaving Kakunodate. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

Running through the more rural areas of Akita, the Akita Nairiku Line offers fantastic views in all four seasons—indeed, when I took it in the summer of 2019, I was treated to many scenes of lush greenery while travelling from Kakunodate to Takanosu, as the train made its way along the meanders of the Hinokinai and Ani Rivers.

 

The station house of Yatsu Station, prettily decorated with paintings of katakuri. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

For those who want to view something more special, though, head over to Akita in spring, and make a stop at Yatsu Station (八津駅 Yatsu-eki). Just a few minutes’ walk away from the station is a garden housing many wild dogtooth violet colonies.

 

An image of katakuri blooming (unfortunately not taken at Yatsu, but hopefully you will get to see something similar). (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

Known in Japanese as katakuri (カタクリ), these delicate flowers in beautiful shades of pink and purple are nicknamed “fairies of spring” due to their beauty and their whimsical nature, as they fully bloom only on sunny days, as well as how quickly they come and go, almost like a fairy appearing and disappearing in the blink of an eye. While they can be found in forested areas in Japan, the colonies at Yatsu are famed as being the densest across the whole of Japan, and there are various walking courses you can take within the colony. If you are lucky, you may even find a rare white dogtooth violet, the result of a genetic mutation.

 

Near the entrance of the garden is a rest stop, Katakuri-kan (カタクリ館), where one can have a breather after their walk and enjoy a snack and beverage. The garden is open for only a few weeks every year, from mid-April to early-May, so do not miss the chance to experience this wonder of nature.

 

Katakuri-kan (カタクリ館)
Address: 249-1 Yatsu, Nishiki-chō Koyamada, Senboku-shi, Akita 014-0516
Access: 2-minute walk from Yatsu Station (八津駅)
Opening hours: 08:30–17:15 daily (closed on Saturdays, 13–16 August, 28 December–5 January)
Tel: +81-18-747-3535

 

Spring is not the only season to view flowers in Japan, though—summer is just as equally beautiful, when alpine flowers burst into bloom. While there are famed spots like Rebun Island off Hokkaido and the Hakuba mountains in Nagano, the area along the Akita Nairiku Line also has its claim to fame for alpine flowers with Mount Moriyoshi (森吉山 Moriyoshi-zan), the fifth-tallest mountain in Akita and the tallest along the line. While it is more famed as a skiing spot, it has also been chosen as one of the Hundred Greatest Flower Mountains in Japan because of the variety of flowers that can be seen at various altitudes along its 1,454m height.

 

The alpine flowers at Mount Moriyoshi. (Image credit: 秋田県観光連盟)

 

From June to August, the rocky outcrops of the mountain are vividly coloured by the alpine flowers as they blossom in succession, and the hike up the mountain from the gondola stop will reward you with many breathtaking views. There are also boardwalks situated along the marshlands near the summit of Mount Moriyoshi, making it easy for novice hikers to enjoy walking along the trails, so if you have half a day to spend and would like to get up and close with nature (plus get some exercise in), this would be highly recommended.

 

Snow monsters on Mount Moriyoshi. (Image credit: 秋田県観光連盟)

 

For those who prefer to visit Mount Moriyoshi in the colder months of the year to get your skiing fix, another unique natural spectacle awaits you—that of snow monsters (樹氷 juhyō)! Formed during the depths of winter when strong winds cause icicles to form horizontally on trees, and snow in turns builds up on them, these massive structures can be observed in Hokkaido and Tohoku in winter. Along the Akita Nairiku line, they are best seen between the coldest months of January to March at the Ani Ski Area (阿仁スキー場 Ani Ski-jō).

 

Akita Nairiku Railway offers a one-day pass, inclusive of round-way taxi between Mount Moriyoshi and Aniai Station (阿仁合駅 Aniai-eki), the closest station, as well as a round trip on the gondolas at Mount Moriyoshi, making it easy for one to see the snow monsters up close and be awed by their majesty.

 

Aniai Station, the gateway to Mount Moriyoshi. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

Ani Ski Area (阿仁スキー場)
Address: Aniokashinai, Kita-Akita-shi, Akita 018-4743
Access: 25-minute taxi ride from Aniai Station (阿仁合駅)
Opening hours: 08:45–16:00 between June and October, 09:00–16:00 between early January and early March
Tel: +81-18-682-3311
Writer’s note: The opening hours are for the gondola up/down Mount Moriyoshi. The telephone number given is for the NPO Moriyoshi-zan, in charge of managing the mountain and ski area.

 

Tanbo art featuring the Akita Kanto lanterns and an Akita-inu dog. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)

 

For the noritetsu train fans who like to look at the scenery from within the train, though, there are also views for you to enjoy along your ride on the Akita Nairiku Line without having to get off the train! Some of you may have heard of tanbo­ art (田んぼアート).  For the uninitiated, tanbo art is where rice fields are used like canvasses and rice plants of different colours are planted in a specific design in order to create a huge image best viewed from afar.

 

The roots of tanbo art originated in Aomori in 1993, where locals in Inakadate Village came up with the idea in order to revitalise the village and attract tourists. Since then, the idea has caught on in other areas, and many other localities began to exhibit their own tanbo art creations from 2010 onwards. This is the same for the Akita Nairiku Line, where the tanbo art artworks are planted every May by the railway staff and locals.

 

An Akita Nairiku Line train passing by a tanbo art piece. (Image credit: 秋田県観光連盟)

 

Along the Akita Nairiku Line, tanbo art can be viewed at a few spots between July and early September. While the tanbo art at Inakadate features a wide variety of themes ranging from Godzilla to Star Wars and even the famed Mona Lisa painting, those along the Akita Nairiku Line are decidedly more local, showcasing things like Akita-inu dogs and Mount Moriyoshi.

 

For 2021, there were five spots where tanbo art could be viewed from within the trains:

① between Kakunodate and Ugo-Ōta (羽後太田駅) Stations

② at Kamihinokinai Station (上桧木内駅)

③ between Aniai and Kobuchi (小渕駅) Stations

④ between Maeda-Minami (前田南駅) and Ani-Maeda-Onsen  (阿仁前田温泉駅) Stations

⑤ at Jōmon-Ogata Station (縄文小ケ田駅)

 

The last spot features Hello Kitty, the hometown ambassador (ふるさと大使 furusato-taishi) of Kita-Akita City. The designs change yearly, so there is always something new to see every time you take the line!

 

What to experience: The culture and heritage

The start of a day-long adventure, with train tickets and beer. Note the little Akita-inu jumping its way through the stations on the Akita Nairiku Line. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

As mentioned in my article on the Tsugaru Railway, travelling on rural railways offers travellers a chance to experience the local languages, which are often vastly different from standard Japanese. This is true of the Akita Nairiku Line as well, where attendants are present on certain trains (namely, the rapid and express ones) to help the train conductor fulfill their duties, peddle souvenirs, as well as make in-train announcements regarding sightseeing along the line.

 

It was on the express train I boarded at Ani-Maeda-Onsen Station bound for Takanosu that I encountered an attendant, a rather feisty middle-aged lady. Though her accent was not as thick as that of the attendant I met while on the Tsugaru Railway, it was still hard to understand, even though she was speaking in standard Japanese—the minute she started talking with another local lady, though, I was reminded again of just how many variants of the language are present in as wide a country as Japan is.

 

Bears at Kuma-Kuma-En posing cutely and asking for food. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)

 

For those of you who would like to visit somewhere more unique than any regular tourist spot, how about a bear park? Kuma-Kuma-En (くまくま園), the only one of its kind in the Tohoku area, can be found along the Akita Nairiku Line—with over 60 black and brown bears in their care, the park offers many experiences not be found elsewhere, such as being able to get up close and personal with bear cubs, the opportunity to feed them, and even the chance to observe them hibernating during winter! There is also a small blueberry farm on site where one can experience berry-picking for a few weeks in July and August, and one can also feed the bears with the freshly plucked blueberries, making Kuma-Kuma-En a very immersive experience.

 

Ani-Matagi Station, the station closest to Kuma-Kuma-En and Matagi-no-yu. The statue next to the station building is that of a matagi. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

Kuma-Kuma-En (くまくま園)
Address: 39-1 Jinba, Aniutto, Kita-Akita-shi, Akita 018-4731
Access: 10-minute ride from Ani-Matagi Station (阿仁マタギ駅)
Opening hours: 09:00–16:00 (open from late April to early November)
Tel: +81-18-864-2626
Writer’s note: To arrange for the ride from/to Ani-Matagi Station, call Matagi-no-Yu (+81-18-684-2612).

 

The Ani area of Akita is rich in history and heritage—one of the reasons why the Akita Nairiku Line was built was to facilitate the transportation of materials from the Ani Mine (阿仁鉱山 Ani-Kōzan), which was said to be first opened as a gold mine in 1309. Later on, numerous other resources such as silver and copper were also harvested here, with Ani Mine becoming Japan’s largest producer of copper in 1716. After over 670 years of mining, though, the mine was exhausted of all its resources, and was closed in 1987.

 

Ani Denshōkan Museum. (Image credit: 秋田県観光連盟)

 

The Ani Denshōkan Museum (阿仁伝承館), though, was opened in 1986 in order to preserve the history of the area. Displaying samples of ores harvested at the Ani Mine, as well as tools used in the process, and information on the folk culture of the area, a visit to the museum is a good way to learn more about what commercial mining is like, and its influence on the residents of the surrounding districts.

 

Ani Ijinkan. (Image credit: 秋田県観光連盟)

 

Right next to the Ani Denshōkan Museum is the Ani Ijinkan (阿仁異人館), designated an Important Cultural Property in 1990. Built as lodgings for German engineers sent to work at the Ani Mine in 1879, it serves to recognise the impact these engineers had in modernising some of the mining processes, as well as a window into the architectural style and cultural influences of that time. Together, these two buildings are a gateway to a chapter of the modern history of the Ani area—so important and treasured by the locals they are, every year local primary school children visit the museums to sketch them, ensuring that this knowledge is passed on to the next generation.

 

Ani Denshōkan Museum / Ani Ijinkan (阿仁異人館・伝承館)
Address: 41-22 Shimoshinmachi, Aniginzan, Kita-Akita-shi, Akita 018-4613
Access: 5-minute walk from Aniai Station (阿仁合駅)
Opening hours: 09:00–17:00 daily (closed on Mondays and 29 December–3 January)
Tel: +81-18-682-3658

 

If the museums represent a page of the modern history of the Ani area, then there is another group that represents the folk history of the land—the matagi (マタギ) people. Mountain hunters and foragers who live off what the land has to offer, the matagi previously roamed rocky mountainous areas from Hokkaido to the Tohoku area, and all the way down to present-day Niigata. However, due to modernisation and a decreasing population, their numbers have dwindled significantly, and today only a few pockets of them remain active.

 

Stuffed bear specimens and traditional matagi hunting tools on display at the Matagi Museum. (Image credit: 秋田県観光連盟)

 

In present-day Japan, Akita has the most matagi villages left, and the most revered of all matagi are those from the Ani region, known for its harsh winters and severe environs. Like other places, though, the number of Ani matagi has dwindled to less than 30 today, though there exists facilities where people can learn more about this unique culture, with one of them being the Matagi Museum (マタギ資料館 Matagi-shiryōkan). Housing artifacts used by the matagi in their daily lives and with information panels detailing their culture, the museum, although small, offers a glimpse into the lives of these mysterious people.

 

Matagi-no-yu. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)

 

For those who want to take it a step further and actually experience how the matagi went about their daily lives, the hot spring hotel which houses the museum, Matagi-no-yu (マタギの湯), has various guided walking tours and storytelling sessions, all conducted by actual matagi. Seldom does one get the chance to experience such a cultural immersion, so those looking for something different may wish to take note of this.

 

Matagi-no-yu (マタギの湯)
Address: 67 Senbokuwatarimichikami, Aniutto, Kita-Akita-shi, Akita 018-4731
Access: 25-minute walk from Ani-Matagi Station (阿仁マタギ駅)
Opening hours: 09:00–17:00 daily
Tel: +81-18-684-2612
Writer’s note: The timing given above is for the Matagi Museum. Day use of the onsen is from 09:00 to 21:00.

 

The entrance to Quince Moriyoshi. Ani-Maeda Station was renamed Ani-Maeda-Onsen Station in March 2021. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

My last recommendation for the Akita Nairiku Line is about that quintessential bath that Japanese people can never get enough of – the onsen. While there are a few along the line, including Matagi-no-yu mentioned above, perhaps the most accessible of them all would be Quince Moriyoshi (クウィンス森吉), located within Ani-Maeda-Onsen Station itself. The first station in Akita to have a natural onsen within, while the facilities are rather basic compared to other similar places, such as Hotto-Yuda Station (ほっとゆだ駅 Hotto-Yuda-eki) in Iwate, its rustic simplicity is actually charming, and its location makes it ideal for getting a quick dip in and refreshing after a long train ride. In my case, I had been on the trains since 6am, having taken the first Komachi shinkansen out of Tokyo, so it was good to stretch my legs and freshen up after more than five hours!

 

The facility also houses a small restaurant and shop, showcasing local produce. Of note are the 100% locally handmade jams, made with various fruits grown in Akita. Apart from quince, the namesake fruit of the onsen facility, there are also other variants like raspberry and natsuhaze (ナツハゼ), a small berry reminiscent of currants that turns black when fully ripe, which is a good option for those looking for something unique!

 

Quince Moriyoshi (クウィンス森吉)
Address: 21 Donoshita Komata, Kita-Akita-shi, Akita 018-4513
Access: Within Ani-Maeda-Onsen Station (阿仁前田温泉駅)
Opening hours: 09:00–21:00 daily
Tel: +81-18-660-7000

 

What to eat and buy: Local delicacies

Due to being right next to the Sea of Japan, and with the Ōu Mountain range (奥羽山脈 Ōu-sanmyaku) traversing it, Akita has much to offer visitors, with delicacies from both the land and the sea guaranteed to tantalise your tastebuds!

 

Kiritanpo-nabe, Akita’s soul food. (Image credit: 秋田県観光連盟)

 

While there are many to introduce for first-timers, arguably the big two that almost everyone will mention are Hinai chicken (比内地鶏 Hinai-jidori)  and Inaniwa udon (稲庭うどん). Hinai chicken, one of the three famous chicken breeds in Japan, is known for its firm bite and deep flavour, and can be savoured in many ways, ranging from being simply salt-grilled as yakitori, to as an ingredient in hotpots, such as the quintessential Akita hotpot of kiritanpo-nabe (きりたんぽ鍋), a hearty dish featuring kiritanpo, rice shaped into a hollow log and grilled slightly. (It can also be enjoyed in Akita’s most famous ekiben, Odate’s torimeshi (とりめし), so for those of you who want to savour it on the go, this is another option for you!)

 

Mention udon, and what comes to mind for most people is the Sanuki style of udon with its thick and chewy strands. Inaniwa udon, though, is on the other end of the spectrum—traditionally made via a labour-intensive process that involves stretching the dough during kneading and drying it out over several days, the noodles produced are thin and narrow, yet still retaining the slippery texture and firm bite found in Sanuki udon. Most commonly available as loose dried noodles in bags (yet another difference with dried Sanuki udon, which is sold as bundles in packs), Inaniwa udon, though originally hailing from Yuzawa City further down south, has now become one of the representative foods of Akita.

 

As a tourist, which do you try? The answer is of course both! There are many places along the Akita Nairiku Line that offer both Inaniwa udon and Hinai chicken, the latter especially because it is farmed in the northern part of Akita, where the Akita Nairiku Line is situated. The best way to experience these two simultaneously is to order a meal combining the two, which was what I did when I found myself in Kakunodate on a chilly, rainy day in May, with time to spend before my next train.

 

Being a tourist area, there is no shortage of restaurants in Kakunodate for people to eat at, which is how I found myself at Jūbei (十兵衛), very conveniently situated in the area with the old samurai houses. Unlike its more famous sister shop, Sakura no Sato (桜の里), which sees long queues during lunch hours and the holiday periods, Jūbei was relatively quiet with only a few patron arounds, even though both restaurants offer the same menu at the same prices.

 

The oyakodon & Inaniwa udon set from Jūbei. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

I took my own advice and ordered a set consisting of half-sized portions of both oyako-don (親子丼), chicken-and-egg rice bowl made with Hinai chicken meat and eggs, and cold Inaniwa udon. While I have eaten and made oyako-don before countless times, the quality of the chicken and eggs used, being the main ingredients, is a huge factor in determining the result – and this variant made with Hinai chicken meat and eggs was so much more flavourful than those made with supermarket-bought chicken. The eggs were also half-cooked, the runny texture providing good contrast with the firmness of the meat, which released more umami the longer I chewed.

 

The warmth of the rice bowl was a good foil against the cold noodles, which came with a choice of either sesame or soy sauce-based dipping sauces. I went with the soy sauce, the light flavour refreshing after the creaminess of the eggs in the oyako-don and allowing the taste of the noddles to shine through. It was my first time having Inaniwa udon then, and I was wowed by the texture and bite the strands had despite being so thin.

 

The set also comes with a few slices of iburi-gakko (いぶりがっこ), that smoked radish pickle loved by all in Akita, as well as a small side dish, making it a very fulfilling meal, and a good introduction to the delicacies of Akita. If you have time for only one meal in Akita, do consider having something similar to experience the best of what the prefecture has to offer!

 

Jūbei (十兵衛)
Address: 23 Yokomachi, Kakunodatemachi, Senboku-shi, Akita 014-0323
Access: 15-minute walk from Kakunodate Station (角館駅)
Opening hours: 09:00–17:00 daily
Tel: +81-18-755-1881

 

The exterior of Andō Brewing. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

While in Kakunodate, a famed tourist district, there is much to see and do apart from just having a meal. Apart from the old samurai houses and rice warehouses now converted into tourist attractions and hotels, which provide interesting experiences for those of you looking for a unique place to stay at for the night, there are also old buildings still being used for the purpose they were originally built for back in the day. One such building is Andō Brewing (安藤醸造 Andō Jōzō), a fermented foods maker founded in 1853. The building their head shop and factory are currently housed in was rebuilt in 1883, and still retains much of its original look almost 150 years later, right down to its charming red brick exterior, built to protect the interior from the fires that would ravage the area right up till the Meiji era.

 

They produce a wide range of fermented foods and seasonings, ranging from soy sauce and miso to pickles, and even frozen food products like marinated fish and marinated grilled Hinai chicken. If you are looking for an interesting local souvenir for yourself, or for culinary-inclined friends and family, do consider getting some of their condiments. Additionally, if you have time to spare while waiting for your train, their other outlet slightly beyond the main tourist district of Kakunodate has an eat-in corner where you can order dishes like ramen and oyako-don made using their products, which is also a good chance for you to get a taste first before buying anything!

 

Andō Brewing (安藤醸造)
Address: 27 Shimoshinmachi, Kakunodate-machi, Senboku City, Akita 014-0315
Access: 11-minute walk from Kakunodate Station (角館駅)
Opening hours: 08:30–17:00 daily
Tel: +81-18-753-2008
Writer’s note: There are three outlets in Kakunodate. The address given above is for the main store. The outlet with the eat-in space, the Kitaura store, is a 30-min walk away from the main store.

 

The Okashinai cheese manjū. Avoid staring into those eyes for too long… (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

For those who want something sweet, how about a unique treat named after one of the stations on the Akita Nairiku Line? The train attendants, as mentioned earlier, sell local souvenirs and other trinkets in the train—what caught my eye amidst all the options was a little smiley face staring back at me, that of a manjū (饅頭), a little baked cake with bean paste filling.

 

The Okashinai cheese manjū (チーズ饅頭 笑内), named after Okashinai Station (笑内駅 Okashinai-eki) on the line, has a filling of cheese enveloped within the white bean paste. Bite into it, and the thin skin gives way to a core that is both sweet and mildly salty, although I must admit it is a little hard to eat something that smiles so widely at you…It makes an excellent snack for when you have the munchies—the best part is that they are also sold individually (and costing less than 100 yen!), in addition to the usual boxes, which makes it easy for you to sample one first before deciding if you want to get a box or two as gifts.

 

Apart from the cheese manjū, other local goodies, such as dorayaki (どら焼き), pancakes enclosing red bean paste, are also available—the dorayaki are made by a famed wagashi maker in Akita, and they are also very good, chock full of bean paste that is not overwhelmingly sweet. Do consider getting a few items from the attendant cart to support the Akita Nairiku Line!

 

Closing

The interior of an Akita Nairiku Line train, with Akita-inu images plastered all over the ceiling. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

When I arrived at Takanosu Station, right before I was about to get off, the attendant, who probably figured I was a tourist from my bags, gave me a smile and wished me a pleasant and safe journey. That put a smile on my face as I exited the station and entered the JR station building. True to their name of “Smile Rail” and their motto of putting smiles on the faces of all who take their trains, the Akita Nairiku Line is indeed an enjoyable experience, with its rustic scenery and old-school charm.

 

Despite the declining populations along the line, though, the railway is actively trying to rebrand itself as a tourist attraction in order to increase its revenue and continue operating. When COVID-19 is more under control and travel to Japan becomes a possibility again, I know I want to take the Akita Nairiku Line once more to experience the hospitality they have to offer, and to put a smile on their faces, much like they did with mine.

 

Writer's note: The Akita Nairiku Line can be accessed via either of its terminal stations at Kakunodate and Takanosu. To get to Kakunodate, take the Akita Shinkansen (approximately 3 hours from Tokyo). To get to Takanosu, take the Tohoku Shinkansen to Shin-Aomori (approximately 3 hours from Tokyo) and transfer to the Ōu Main Line to Takanosu (approximately 1 hour 20 minutes).

 

Header image credit: Akita Nairiku Jukan Tetsudo

 

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