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All aboard! Discovering Japan’s steam locomotive trains

All aboard! Discovering Japan’s steam locomotive trains

The clouds of steam billowing from the chimney, the retro design of the steam engine’s boiler, and the familiar chugging “choo-choo” sound. When you read these words, what image comes to your mind? For most people, it would be the steam locomotive (SL) train. Unlike modern trains, an SL train uses fuel such as coal that is burned to heat water in the boiler, therefore running the steam engine at the front and propelling the train forward.

 

Japan’s first SL train was the Type 110 from the United Kingdom, which landed in the country in 1872 and plied between Tokyo and Yokohama. In 1911, Japan built its first SL train domestically, and after World War 1 (1914–1918), many SL trains were manufactured domestically. But due to their impact on the environment and energy efficiency issues, SL trains gradually gave way to more modern trains run by electricity, especially in urban areas where the railway networks were undergoing rapid electrification. By the late 1960s, SL trains were retired from many train routes, and in 1975, all SL trains were essentially phased out, with the last one ceasing operation on the Muroran Main Line (室蘭本線 Muroran-honsen) in Hokkaido. Fortunately, some of them have been brought back to service in more recent times by popular demand, and people can still ride them today.

 

Operating the steam engine (left) and replenishing coal on an SL train (right). (Image credit: JR Kyushu (left) and JR East / Carissa Loh (right))

 

Active SL trains are a rarity in Japan not just because of their more modern counterparts; they are also extremely tedious to maintain and operate. The trains’ mechanical parts are old and prone to wear and tear, so they have to be inspected regularly to ensure safety and functionality. And since steam is used to operate the trains, they must also be checked for any steam or water leakages. Many parts of the trains are also analogue, which must be inspected in person to ensure they’re in working order. To run the SL trains, the train crew must be trained and qualified to know how to replenish the water and coal to keep them running.

 

It takes an amazing amount of hard work to run these trains, so the next you get to hop on these historical relics, remember to express gratitude to the people who put their heart and soul into keeping them up and running.

 

The SL trains that are running today ply between lines that are mostly located in rural areas. Rather than serving in bustling urban areas where speed, efficiency, and punctuality of trains are paramount, SL trains run on lines in the countryside where passengers can take their minds off their busy lives, and simply enjoy the scenic views passing by from their train windows. The slow travel across the countryside, the familiar soothing sounds of the train’s steam exhaust blowing off steam, and the rhythmic motions of the train as it chugs across the countryside, are just some of the priceless aspects of retro railway travel that the SL trains are able to grant.

 

Map of SL train routes in Japan. (Image credit: JR Times)

 

For this article, we are going to learn more about the different SL trains throughout Japan that we can ride today. Each of these trains has its own unique theme and charms that hearken back to the olden days of railway travel, and passengers will feel like they have been transported back in time onboard these retro trains. At the same time, passengers would also get to witness the most beautiful sceneries while riding the trains, and get to pass by quaint railway stations along the way.

 

Hokkaido area

SL Fuyu-no-Shitsugen Train (SL冬の湿原号)

Route: JR Kushiro Station (JR釧路駅) ↔ JR Shibecha Station (JR標茶駅) on the Senmō Main Line (釧網本線)
Operated by: JR Hokkaido (JR北海道)

 

SL Fuyu-no-Shitsugen Train. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

We begin with Japan’s northernmost region of Hokkaido (北海道) where an SL train runs exclusively during the winter season. The SL Fuyu-no-Shitsugen Train is a special train that travels between JR Kushiro Station and JR Shibecha Station from January to March, traversing through the Kushiro Wetlands (釧路湿原 Kushiro shitsugen) when they are blanketed in snow, and their pristine natural beauty will enthral visitors to eastern Hokkaido during this season.

 

The train used for the SL Fuyu-no-Shitsugen Train is the C11 171, which was built in 1932. Most of the C11 type SL trains have been decommissioned many years ago, but there are still a few operating in other parts of Japan (more on this later). Today, it’s the only SL train that is still in service within Hokkaido.

 

SL Fuyu-no-Shitsugen’s interiors (left) and grilling dried squid on the train (right). (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

Hop onboard the train, and passengers will feel like they have gone back in time. The cars feature varnished interiors and wooden seats to replicate the experience of riding the train in the olden days, and the overall design exudes a chic and charming ambiance that passengers can never experience with today’s modern trains.

 

The train has five passengers cars in total, and Car 2 even features a café where passengers can enjoy sitting in the car over a warm cup of coffee while gazing out the window. All the cars feature classical boxed seats too, so you and your friends can sit together as a group and enjoy the ride together. And do you know one thing you can’t do on today’s modern trains? Grilling dried squids right in the car! Passengers can buy dried squids at the sales counter, and grill them on a small oven in the car.

 

If you would like to know more about the SL Fuyu-no-Shitsugen Train, check out the article here.

 

Things to note

① The SL Fuyu-no-Shitsugen Train is by reserved seating only, so reserved tickets are required to ride the train.
② The train operates only in winter, from late January to early March every year, so passengers are encouraged to check its calendar in advance. Operating days are also subjected to change.

 

Eastern Japan area

SL Ginga (SL銀河)

Route: JR Hanamaki Station (JR花巻駅) ↔ JR Kamaishi Station (JR釜石駅) on the Kamaishi Line (釜石線)
Operated by: JR East (JR東日本)

 

The SL Ginga. (Image credit: JR East / Shinoda)

 

Next, we move down to eastern Japan, and our next SL train offers something exceptional for their passengers. SL Ginga is an SL train that is one of JR East’s Joyful Trains, and the train’s central theme is “galaxy” (the “ginga” in the train’s name means galaxy).

 

The idea behind this train revolves around a prominent author, Miyazawa Kenji (宮澤賢治). He penned the novel “Night of the Galactic Railroad” (銀河鉄道の夜 Ginga Tetsudо̄ no Yoru) in the early 20th century, about a boy travelling across the galaxy on a magical railway, and learned about true happiness and the meaning of life throughout his journey. As such, the train design is inspired by the novel, with its exteriors covered in deep galaxy bluish hues and images of stars and constellations. The train plies the route between JR Hanamaki Station—which is also in Miyazawa’s hometown—and JR Kamaishi Station in Iwate Prefecture (岩手県).

 

The train used for the SL Ginga is the C58 239, an SL train that was built in 1940. It was phased out in 1972, but was eventually brought back and made its debut as SL Ginga in 2014, in an effort to revitalise tourism in the region after it was affected by the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami (東日本大震災 Higashi-nihon daishinsai) in 2011.

 

Inside the SL Ginga. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The SL Ginga features vintage-style booth seats, metal frames, stained-glass style windows, and even a long red carpet across the cars. The cars are also furbished to replicate the luxurious atmosphere early 20th century. Interesting surprises await onboard the train, such as an optical planetarium onboard the train on Car 1, a gachapon (ガチャポン capsule) machine on Car 2, where the capsules contain Miyazawa’s quotes from his works; and a corner displaying Iwate Prefecture’s famous Nambu ironware (南部鉄器 Nanbu-tekki) on Car 3.

 

Ticket for the planetarium on Car 1 (left) and inside the planetarium (right). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh (left) and JR East (right))

 

The SL Ginga traverses the countryside as it makes its way across various cities on the Kamaishi Line (釜石線 Kamaishi-sen). Passengers can witness beautiful green pastures and magnificent mountains throughout the trip, making for an unforgettable railway journey across rural areas in Iwate Prefecture.

 

If you would like to know more about the SL Ginga, check out the article here.

 

Things to note

① SL Ginga runs only on weekends in one direction. Passengers are encouraged to check its calendar in advance to see on which days it runs, and to which direction. Operating days are also subjected to change.

 

SL Banetsu Monogatari (SLばんえつ物語)

Route: JR Niitsu Station (JR新津駅) ↔ JR Aizu-Wakamatsu Station (JR会津若松駅) on the Ban’etsu West Line (磐越西線)
Operated by: JR East (JR東日本)

 

The SL Banetsu Monogatari in spring. (Image credit: JR East)

 

Next, we have another SL train that is also one of JR East’s Joyful Trains: the SL Banetsu Monogatari, a majestic historical relic brought back to life, and making its way along the railway tracks between prefectures Niigata (新潟県) and Fukushima (福島県).

 

Like the SL Ginga, the SL Banetsu Monogatari is another train that was decommissioned years ago, but was brought back to service by popular demand. The train used is the C57 180, which was originally built in 1946 and also nicknamed “Kifujin” (貴婦人) for its graceful appearance. It was phased out after years of service, but made its return as SL Banetsu Monogatari in 1999. As its name suggests—“Banetsu Monogatari” means Banetsu Story —the train runs along the Ban’etsu West Line (磐越西線 Ban'etsu-sai-sen), between JR Niitsu Station and JR Aizu-Wakamatsu Station.

 

Like the SL Ginga, the interiors of the SL Banetsu Monogatari exudes nostalgia from the early 20th century. With crimson velvet upholstery, seat railings with wooden finishes, and boxed seats, the interior design hearkens back to the atmosphere of railway travel of the past, and passengers get to experience what it feels like to travel in style and comfort in a retro-furbished train car.

 

The SL Banetsu Monogatari’s Green Car. (Image credit: JR East)

 

What makes SL Banetsu Monogatari special is its inclusion of Green Car seats, located at Car 7. Green Car seats are premium ones compared to Ordinary Car seats in Japan, and the seats on Car 7 has a spacious 2+1 seating arrangement. There is even a Panorama Observation Room at the end of the car, where passengers can have a panoramic view of the beautiful scenery outside thanks to the room’s full-length windows.

 

Okojo Room (left) and Okojo Observation Room (right). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh (left) and JR East (right))

 

Even better, riding the SL Banetsu Monogatari is not just for adults, but for the whole family. Car 1 is divided into two sections: one is the Okojo Room for children that features a play area that is adorned with adorable images of okojo (おこじょ ermine), and the other is the Okojo Observation Room, an area with free seats and wide windows that families enjoy the outside scenery passing by.

 

If you would like to know more about the SL Banetsu Monogatari, check out the article here.

 

Things to note

① The SL Banetsu Monogatari is by reserved seating only, so reserved tickets are required to ride the train.
② The train operates mostly on weekends and some selected weekdays, so passengers are encouraged to check its calendar in advance. Operating days are also subjected to change.

 

SL Gunma (SLぐんま)

Routes:

① SL Gunma Minakami: JR Takasaki Station (JR高崎駅) ↔ JR Minakami Station (JR水上駅) on the Jōetsu Line (上越線)
② SL Gunma Yokokawa: JR Takasaki Station (JR高崎駅) ↔ JR Yokokawa Station (JR横川駅) on the Shin’etsu Main Line (信越本線)

Operated by: JR East (JR東日本)

 

The SL Gunma. (Image credit: JR East)

 

And for our last SL train under JR East’s Joyful Trains is the SL Gunma, which traverses the lands of Gunma Prefecture (群馬県). The central theme of the train is on the namesake prefecture itself, a landlocked region that features amazingly scenic mountains that passengers must see for themselves to fully enjoy and appreciate.

 

The SL Gunma is served by two types of SL trains: the D51 498 and the C61 20. They are two different types of SL trains that were originally built for different purposes: the D51 was meant for pulling freight cars, whereas the C61 was meant for pulling passenger cars. Because of this, the wheels are different too: the D51’s wheels are smaller so that the train can gain more traction when going uphill but will cause more vibration as a result, whereas the C61 has larger wheels that allow for smoother rides. Passengers might be able to tell the difference in riding trains, so keep a lookout for this when you get to hop on both of them.

 

The SL Gunma (top) and its interiors (bottom). (Image credit: JR East)

 

The SL Gunma also uses two types of passenger cars: the old-type passenger car, and the 12 series passenger car. The former was built between 1938 and 1952, and has been recently restored to its former glory with wooden grain finishing. The latter was built in 1978, and feature a more contemporary type of seats and fittings such as air-conditioning and automatic doors.

 

The train plies two routes departing from JR Takasaki Station: the SL Gunma heads to JR Minakami Station, and the SL Gunma Yokokawa goes to JR Yokokawa Station. Each route will highlight different sides of Gunma, especially during autumn when passengers can witness amazing fiery red and golden foliage blanketing the mountain slopes right from their train windows. Try both routes, and have the full experience of riding SL Gunma!

 

If you would like to know more about the SL Gunma, check out the article here.

 

Things to note

① Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the SL Gunma is currently not running until spring 2022.
② The SL Gunma's operating schedule is irregular. Passengers are encouraged to check its calendar in advance.

 

SL Taiju (SL大樹)

Route: Shimo-Imachi Station (下今市駅) ↔ Kinugawa-Onsen Station (鬼怒川温泉駅) on the Tōbu Kinugawa Line (東武鬼怒川線)
Operated by: Tobu Railway (東武鉄道)

 

The SL Taiju. (Image credit: 東武鉄道)

 

In the prefecture of Tochigi (栃木県), there is a nostalgic train that passengers can take to experience the olden days of railway travel in the region. The SL Taiju is an SL train that specially runs through the city of Nikkō (日光), one of the historical epicentres of Japan, and an area that includes famous landmarks and an iconic hot spring resort.

 

For this project, Tobu Railway rented the train from JR Hokkaido and commenced the SL Taiju, which made its debut on 10 August 2017, plying between Shimo-Imachi Station and Kinugawa-Onsen Station. On August 2020, another train, the SL Taiju Futara (SL大樹ふたら), made its debut and it includes an additional stop at Tōbu-Nikkō Station (東武日光駅). This station is regarded as the “gateway to Nikkō”, as passengers can alight here and make their way on foot to the Shrines and Temples of Nikkō, the famous UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tochigi Prefecture.

 

Inside the SL Taiju. (Image credit: 東武鉄道)

 

Here are some interesting facts about the SL trains. The train name “Taiju” is actually an honorific name for “shōgun” (将軍 military general), which was commonly associated with the Nikkō Tōshōgū Shrine (東照宮) built for the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康). The train name “Futara”, on the other hand, is from Mount Futara (二荒山 Futara-san), the old name of Mount Nantai (男体山) in the region.

 

SL Taiju at Kinugawa-Onsen Station. (Image credit: 東武鉄道)

 

The beauty of riding the SL Taiju isn’t only about the nostalgia in riding the train. The central theme is also about discovering the natural and historical marvel of Nikkō and Kinugawa Onsen, two of the most iconic attractions of Tochigi Prefecture. Passengers can take the train and make their way to the magnificent Nikkō Tōshōgū Shrine to appreciate its sheer historical value, and also visit one of the most famous hot spring resorts in the region.

 

Things to note

① Passengers need two tickets to ride the SL Taiju: a standard fare ticket, and an SL seat reservation ticket. Ticket sales and reservations are available one month in advance from departure date.
② The train runs almost daily, but its departure times differ according to the day of the week. The stations that the train will make a stop at also differ according to the day of the week. Passengers are encouraged to check its calendar in advance.

 

SL Moka (SLもおか)

Route: Shimodate Station (下館駅) ↔ Motegi Station (茂木駅) on the Moka Line (真岡線)
Operated by: Moka Railway (真岡鐡道)

 

SL Moka in spring (left) and autumn (right). (Image credit: 真岡鐡道)

 

SL Moka is an SL train that traverses between two prefectures: Tochigi and Ibaraki (茨城県). It plies along the Moka Line, which used to be operated by Japan National Railways (JNR). When JNR was privatised, JR East took over the line in 1987 for a year, but was eventually taken over by Moka Railway (真岡鐵道 Mōka Tetsudō) in 1988.

 

The SL Moka uses the C12 66 SL train, which was originally built in 1933, and plied the railways in several regions throughout Japan. It retired in 1972, and was residing in the town of Kawamata (川俣町) in Fukushima Prefecture (福島県). However, it was transferred to the city of Mōka (真岡市) in Tochigi Prefecture in 1991, and restoration works began in 1993 before making its debut as the SL Moka in 1994. The SL train was brought back from retirement thanks to the city’s SL revival project, whose aim was to revitalise the image of the areas along the Moka Line, and highlight the romance of SL trains to the local children.

 

SL Moka’s interiors (left) and in autumn (right). (Image credit: 真岡鐡道)

 

The SL Moka plies between Shimodate Station (下館駅) in Ibaraki Prefecture and Motegi Station (茂木駅) in Tochigi Prefecture, and along the way, there are many unmanned railway stations that exude a charming ambiance. Passengers can get off at these quaint stations, and explore the surrounding areas and simply enjoy their tranquillity.

 

Things to note

① The SL Moka runs only on weekends and some selected weekdays. Passengers are encouraged to check its calendar in advance. Operating days are also subjected to change.
② Passengers need two tickets to ride the SL Moka: a standard fare ticket, and an SL Moka (numbered) ticket. Advance reservations are required to ride the train.

 

SL Paleo Express (SLパレオエクスプレス)

Route: Kumagaya Station (熊谷駅) ↔ Mitsumineguchi Station (三峰口駅) on the Chichibu Main Line (秩父本線)
Operated by: Chichibu Railway (秩父鉄道)

 

The SL Paleo Express. (Image credit: 秩父鉄道)

 

Our next SL train bears the reputation of the being the closest running SL train to the Tokyo Metropolitan Area. The SL Paleo Express is a historical train operated by Chichibu Railway, plying on the Chichibu Main Line in Saitama Prefecture (埼玉県).

 

The SL train used for the SL Paleo Express is the C58 363. It is the same type used for the SL Ginga by JR East, and together they are the only trains of their type that are still running in Japan today. Originally retired in 1972, it was laid to rest in the schoolyard of an elementary school, when its revival was decided at the Saitama Expo 1988 as part of an SL revival project.

 

Inside the SL Paleo Express (left) and people admiring the train (right). (Image credit: 秩父鉄道)

 

What’s intriguing about the SL Paleo Express lies in its name: “Paleo” is a reference to the paleoparadoxia, a herbivorous aquatic mammal that once roamed the Chichibu area of Saitama Prefecture around 20 million years ago, and whose remains were discovered by archaeologists in the area. In fact, you can see the animal’s bones on display at the Saitama Museum of Natural History!

 

The SL Paleo Express running through a valley in autumn. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

The highlight of the SL Paleo Express is the amazing scenery that passengers get to enjoy as it chugs through the scenic mountain valleys that Chichibu is famous for. In particular, the season of autumn is when they get to see a magnificent view of the red and golden foliage that envelops the valley.

 

Things to note

① The SL Paleo Express makes only one return journey on the Chichibu Main Line per day.
② The SL Paleo Express generally runs only on weekends and national holidays, but it runs on selected days in summer and autumn. Passengers are encouraged to check its calendar in advance. Operating days are also subjected to change.
③ Passengers require two tickets to board the train: a standard fare ticket, and an SL reserved / unreserved seat ticket. Reservations can be made on Chichibu Railway’s website (in Japanese only).

 

Central Japan area

SL Kawaneji (SLかわね)

Route: Shin-Kanaya Station (新金谷駅) ↔ Senzu Station (千頭駅) on the Ōigawa Main Line (大井川本線)
Operated by: Oigawa Railway (大井川鐡道)

 

The C10 8 during spring season. (Image credit: 大井川鐡道)

 

Oigawa Railway is a railway company based in Shizuoka Prefecture (静岡県) that bears a special reputation: it is the only railway company in Japan that operates SL trains for more than 300 days a year. This is an interesting distinction, especially when most other SL trains operate only during weekends and national holidays, so passengers can enjoy riding its SL trains almost all year round. The company also has the highest number of active SL trains, and they cover the most distance in the country as well.

 

Oigawa Railway operates the SL Kawaneji that uses four types of SL trains, each with its own unique history. For example, the C56 88 SL train was first developed in 1936, and it originally plied the railway tracks in Hokkaido. But later, it was transported to Thailand to be used for transporting supplies during World War 2. After the war, it was returned back to Japan in 1979, and came into service for the company in 1979.

 

Next is the C11 227, which is Oigawa Railway’s representative SL train. It originally ran on the former Shibetsu Line in Hokkaido, but was transferred to the company in 1975 as part of the local SL revival project. Making its maiden departure in 1976, it became Oigawa Railway’s first operating SL train.

 

The C10 8 (left) and C11 190. (Image credit: 大井川鐡道 (left), Shizuoka Prefectural Tourist Association (right))

 

Another SL train is the C10 8. Originally built in 1945, the train was retired from service in 1961 and was resting at a depot in Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, until it was brought back to serve as SL Rias Line (SLリアス線) in the city of Miyako, Iwate Prefecture. In 1994, Oigawa Railway bought the trains over from Miyako, and began operating the train in 1997. And lastly, we have the C11 190 SL train, the newest addition to the SL train lineup. Retired in 1974, the train was transferred to Oigawa Railway in 2001, and returned to service in 2003 after a two-year restoration.

 

The SL Kawaneji passing underneath cherry blossoms. (Image credit: 大井川鐡道)

 

The company operates the SL Kawaneji on the Oigawa Main Line, between Shin-Kanaya Station and Senzu Station. The line passes through a quiet mountainous areas that are especially scenic, and the SL trains bring passengers through idyllic green tea fields that Shizuoka is famous for, and the placid Ōigawa River (大井川). Passengers will not only get to witness the beauty of the surrounding areas, but they get to do so from the comfort of the train carriage, whose wooden chairs and vintage fans hearkens back to the olden days of the Shōwa Era (1945–1989). A nostalgic train ride through the beautiful countryside of Shizuoka is a memorable experience you need to have once in your life.

 

Things to note

① Seats on the SL trains are limited, so passengers are encouraged to make ticket reservations on Oigawa Railway’s website. Reservations must be made at least 2 days or more before the departure date.

 

Thomas & Friends (トーマス号)

Route: Shin-Kanaya Station (新金谷駅) ↔ Senzu Station (千頭駅) on the Ōigawa Main Line (大井川本線)
Operated by: Oigawa Railway (大井川鐡道)

 

Thomas the Tank Engine (left) and James the Red Engine (right). (Image credit: WENDY TOUR)

 

There’s one more type of SL train operated by Oigawa Railway, and perhaps this one deserves special attention for its conspicuous engine design. The company also operates SL trains that are modelled Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends, who are famous British anthropomorphised fictional SL trains. They gained massive popularity as a children’s television series that was aired since the mid-1980s, and have become famous among the young viewers all over the world.

 

The trains first began its service in 2014, and since then they have been highly popular among families. They run only on selected days throughout the year, and during those years, many special items and events are up for their passengers. For example, passengers can get their hands on the limited-edition Thomas Lunchboxes as well as Thomas the Tank Engine-themed souvenirs that will be on sale at Shin-Kanaya Station. On the other end of the Oigawa Main Line at Senzu Station, there will be Thomas Fair where passengers can see other characters such as Hiro and Henry as well. It’s a fun-filled joyous occasion for fans of our lovable train-friends!

 

Things to note

① Tickets for the train are sold only domestically, and cannot be bought from overseas.
② The train runs only on selected periods of the year, especially during the school holidays. Passengers are encouraged to check its calendar in advance. Operating days are also subjected to change.

 

Western Japan area

SL Yamaguchi (SLやまぐち号)

Route: Shin-Yamaguchi Station (新山口駅) ↔ Tsuwano Station (津和野駅) on the Yamaguchi Line (山口線)
Operated by: JR West (JR西日本)

 

SL Yamaguchi. (Image credit: JR West)

 

For our next SL train, we head out to the westernmost side of Honshu, in the region of Chugoku (中国地方). Billowing steam and plying the railway tracks between prefectures Yamaguchi (山口県) and Shimane (島根県) is the SL Yamaguchi, a historical relic brought back to life and serving passengers along the rural countryside of western Japan.

 

SL Yamaguchi is operated by two SL trains: the C571, and the D51 200. They were originally retired in 1973, when more modern ones were becoming more commonplace. But retirement proved to be short, as they were then brought back in 1979 and began operation by JR West on the Yamaguchi Line.

 

SL Yamaguchi’s retro boxed seats (left) and experience corner on Car 3 (right). (Image credit: JR West)

 

Like the SL Banetsu Monogatari, the train is nicknamed “Kifujin” for its graceful appearance and beautiful black iron exterior. It is made up of five passenger cars that have been refurbished in 2017, and each of them has its own unique retro design. Car 1 is the Green Car with a 2 + 1 seat configuration, featuring lush velvet red seats. Cars 2–4 feature deep blue, Shōwa Era-inspired boxed seats. And lastly, Car 5 has varnished wooden interiors with olive green boxed seats. Car 3 also features an open area, a display section showcasing exhibits and the history of SL trains, and even an SL experience corner!

 

Things to note

① The SL Yamaguchi runs mainly on weekends and selected weekdays. Passengers are encouraged to check its calendar in advance. Operating days are also subjected to change.
② The train makes only one return journey per day on the JR Yamaguchi Line.

 

Kyushu area

SL Hitoyoshi (SL人吉)

*Route: Kumamoto Station (熊本駅) ↔ Tosu Station (鳥栖駅) on the Kagoshima Main Line (鹿児島本線)
Operated by: JR Kyushu (JR九州)

 

SL Hitoyoshi. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)

 

And for our final SL train, we head down south towards Kyushu (九州). The SL Hitoyoshi holds the honour of being the only active SL train in the region, and passengers onboard the train will be captivated by its chic interiors and beautiful scenery throughout its route. The train first made its debut in 2009 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the completion of the Hisatsu Line (肥薩線).

 

Boxed seats and SL historical corner in Car 1 (top), bar counter in Car 2 (bottom-right), and an observation car in Car 3 (bottom-left). (Image credit: JR Kyushu)

 

From a distance, passengers will be captivated by SL Hitoyoshi’s beautiful black steam engine, and the elegant deep brown hues of the passenger cars’ exteriors. The train used for SL Hitoyoshi is the 58654, and it is made up of three cars, each with its own unique charms. Car 1 features an observation car with maple wood interiors, and an SL historical exhibit corner, Car 2 has a chic bar counter where passengers can purchase and enjoy hot beverages, and Car 3 features a small book corner and another observation car at the end, with interiors made from rosewood.

 

All the cars feature boxed seats, with different cushion designs for each ear. The whole train exude amazing charm and refinement, and passengers are in for an unforgettable railway journey on board the train.

 

SL Hitoyoshi crossing the Kuma River. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)

 

The SL Hitoyoshi’s original train route plies on the Hisatsu Line, between Kumamoto Station (熊本駅) and Hitoyoshi Station (人吉駅) in Kumamoto Prefecture. However, parts of the line were damaged by floods in 2020, especially the section along the Kuma River (球磨川 Kumagawa), so the train route has to be diverted to Tosu Station on the Kagoshima Main Line in the meantime. Passengers will still be able to enjoy the beautiful countryside of Kyushu, and we hope that that damaged original line will be repaired in time.

 

Things to note

① *The SL Hitoyoshi currently runs between Kumamoto Station and Tosu Station (鳥栖駅) in Saga Prefecture (佐賀県).
② The train runs mainly on weekends and a few selected weekdays. Passengers are encouraged to check its calendar in advance. Operating days are also subjected to change.
③ The train makes only one return journey per day.

 

Closing

SL trains form an integral part of Japan’s railway history, and remains to be a valuable cultural heritage for the locals. The familiar scene of an elegant train billowing steam along the railway tracks across the countryside invokes a strong sense of nostalgia for the people in Japan, and even with the arrival for more modern trains, people would still like to see these historical relics make their way across their towns and cities.

 

For all the railway enthusiasts out there, make sure you keep a lookout for these charming trains the next time you set foot in Japan!

(Tip: if you’re planning to ride SL Banetsu Monogatari, SL Ginga, or SL Gunma, you can do so with JR East’s rail passes below!)

 

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains, within the valid area for 5 consecutive days. It's only ¥30,000, making it a considerable option for rail travellers. You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, on the JR-EAST Train Reservation. It can also be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.

 

You can use this pass to ride the SL Banetsu Monogatari, SL Ginga, and SL Gunma. However, for SL Banetsu Monogatari, the pass only covers the route between JR Aizu-Wakamatsu Station and JR Nozawa Station (JR野沢駅).

 

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥27,000, you can save a lot of money if you travel extensively by trains in the region. You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, on the JR-EAST Train Reservation. It can also be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.

 

The JR-EAST Train Reservation. (Image credit: JR East)

 

You can use this pass to ride the SL Banetsu Monogatari and SL Gunma. However, for SL Banetsu Monogatari, the pass only covers the route between JR Hideya Station (JR日出谷駅) and JR Niitsu Station.

 

Header image credit: (Clockwise from top-right) JR East, Hokkaido Railway Company, 真岡鉄道, JR Kyushu

 

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