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Joyful Train in Autumn 2021 #4: SL Banetsu Monogatari

Joyful Train in Autumn 2021 #4: SL Banetsu Monogatari

Have you ever ridden a steam locomotive (SL) train before? In today’s world, most trains are powered by electricity, and operate based on speed and efficiency. But do you know that in Japan, there are a few SL trains that still ply on railway lines? These historical remnants offer passengers the value of nostalgia and a glimpse into how people used to travel by rail in the past. Eastern Japan has its share of SL trains that still run today, and one of them travels between prefectures Fukushima (福島県) and Niigata (新潟県).

 

The SL Banetsu Monogatari is a Joyful Train that is also one of the few SL trains that are running in Japan today. It hearkens back to railway travel of the yesteryears, and a few of such trains have been brought back into service by popular demand after they were phased out many years ago.

 

Jak and Emmie’s travel route on the SL Banetsu Monogatari. (Image credit: JR Times)

 

Jak and Emmie were almost at the end of their autumn adventure around the Shinetsu Region (信越地方 Shinetsu-chihō), and their fourth and final Joyful Train ride was the majestic SL Banetsu Monogatari, where they experienced a memorably nostalgic ride through Niigata and Fukushima’s rural areas. Let’s hop onboard together with them and see how “joyful” their ride was!

(Note: this is the final part of the four-part Joyful Train Series, which focuses on the Joyful Trains that Jak and Emmie took during the autumn season.)

 

Behold, the SL Banetsu Monogatari

SL Banetsu Monogatari. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

The SL Banetsu Monogatari made its debut in 1999, and the train used is the C57 180. Built in 1946, it is renowned for its elegant appearance, earning the name “Kifujin” (貴婦人 noble lady), and it was retired many years ago as SL trains gave way to more modern ones. However, many people voiced their interest to see them run again, so a few were eventually brought back to service, one of which is the SL Banetsu Monogatari.

 

The train plies on the JR Ban’etsu West Line (JR磐越西線 Ban’etsu-saisen), running between JR Niitsu Station (JR新津駅 Niitsu-eki) in Niigata Prefecture and JR Aizu-Wakamatsu Station (JR会津若松駅 Aizu-Wakamatsu-eki) in Fukushima Prefecture. As the train chugs along the railway tracks and billows hot steam along the way, passengers onboard will get to enjoy the beautiful idyllic views of the countryside, and experience the nostalgia of riding an SL train.

 

SL Banetsu Monogatari’s passenger car exterior. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

The train runs mostly on weekends and national holidays, with only one round trip per operating day. All the seats on the train are reserved seating only, so passengers must make the reservation before boarding the train. Also, a fun fact about the SL Banetsu Monogatari: the name translates as “Banetsu Story”, and it refers to the passengers' story of riding and experiencing the JR Ban'etsu West Line, which is also known as the "Railway of Forests, Water and Romance".

 

People admiring the SL Banetsu Monogatari. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

Jak and Emmie were finally on the last stretch of their autumn adventure, and their excitement for their fourth and final Joyful Train ride was palpable. They began their journey at 10:05 in the morning from JR Niitsu Station, and they would be riding the train all the way to JR Aizu-Wakamatsu Station. Even before hopping on the train, the duo was pleasantly surprised by the exciting mood at the station: a big crowd of people had gathered to have a look at and take photos of the majestic train.

 

From their imposing steam engines to the familiar “choo-choo” sounds they make, SL trains attract the attention of all kinds of people, including Jak and Emmie who were about to ride the SL Banetsu Monogatari for the first time. The duo also learned that children in particular are fond of SL trains' retro design, and they find it exciting to ride such a train in the present day. The duo is personally familiar with SL trains since a few are currently running in their home country in Thailand, but they were still amazed at the train; it was so well-maintained that it looked brand new to them!

 

People lining up to see the engine room. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Do you know one thing you shouldn’t miss before riding the train? Checking out the engine room. At JR Niitsu Station, visitors can check out the engine room where coal is burned to power up the train. It’s a fascinating opportunity to see and appreciate the inner workings of the train and the tedious work behind operating it. However, take note: the slots for this activity are limited and they get filled up very quickly, so grab your slots while you can!

 

Ekiben for sale at JR Niitsu Station. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

Another thing not to be missed before riding the SL Banetsu Monogatari? Getting an ekiben (駅弁 railway station lunchbox)! One of the fun ways to enjoy railway trips in Japan is to have an ekiben onboard the train, and at JR Niitsu Station, passengers can choose from a wide variety that is on sale, each featuring the finest ingredients of the region.

 

Station staff greeting the passengers at the station. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

Jak and Emmie, together with all the passengers of the train, were also warmly greeted by the train staff at the station just before setting off. Niigata Prefecture is home to not only the SL Banetsu Monogatari, but to many other exciting trains as well, including different types of shinkansen and Joyful Trains such as the KAIRI and Koshino Shu*Kura, both of which the duo rode earlier in their autumn trip. It’s a warm reminder of how the prefecture is a favourite location among railway enthusiasts, and the duo was moved to see how all visitors are more than welcome to come back again for their future railway adventures.

 

Jak and Emmie spent a total of 3.5 hours on the train, travelling from Niigata to Fukushima. Throughout their ride, they got to experience the wonders of the SL Banetsu Monogatari, a train that is filled with nostalgic value and quirky findings. Let’s join them for one last time, and see what discoveries awaited them.

 

Car 1: For the young ones

Okojo Observation Room in Car 1. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

When Jak and Emmie first laid their eyes on the train, they were surprised by its sheer length: with a total of seven cars altogether, it was the longest Joyful Train that they had ever ridden. As they checked out the different cars, they learned that the SL Banetsu Monogatari is a family-friendly train, as one of the cars is dedicated specially for children.

 

Okojo Room in Car 1. (Image credit: Japanmase)


Car 1 is the Okojo Observation Car, and it is made up of two sections. One is the Okojo Observation Room that features large windows so that passengers can marvel at the outdoor views passing by. A nice touch for the room is that there are windows at the lower half of the room so that children can enjoy the passing scenery too. How thoughtful!

 

An ermine on the train’s emblem (left), and ermine statues at JR Niitsu Station (right). (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

The other section is the Okojo, a playroom for children. Jak and Emmie found it very enlightening to see how inclusive the train is for families with children, and they were also enamoured by the numerous images of okojo (おこじょ ermine) all over the car. They first saw an image of the cute animal on the train’s emblem before boarding the train, and they even spotted statues of it back at JR Niitsu Station! They didn’t expect to see them again on the train and throughout their whole ride.

 

Cars 2–3, 5–6: Riding in comfort

Inside Cars 2, 3, 5, and 6, and its retro interiors. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

One outstanding characteristic of the SL Banetsu Monogatari is its high seating capacity: up to 346 passengers can ride the train! As such, the train has a total of four ordinary passenger cars: Cars 2, 3, 5, and 6. When Jak and Emmie walked through the cars, they felt like they had gone back in time because of the retro fittings and vintage interior designs that pay homage to railway travel during the Taishō Era (1912–1926), a time when SL trains were prevalent. All the seats are boxed seats, so groups (especially families) can enjoy their time on the train while seated together.

 

A rock-paper-scissors contest in the train. (Image credit: JR East)

 

Do you know that there are also activities held inside the SL Banetsu Monogatari? The train staff would organise games such as janken taikai (じゃんけん大会 rock-paper-scissors contest), where passengers can take part in several rounds, and the eventual winner will get a special prize. Jak and Emmie were looking forward to such games onboard the train, but due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, they unfortunately had to be called off. All the more reason they would look forward to riding the train again in the future, and hope to see such fun-filled events make their return.

 

The SL Chaya sales counter in Car 5. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

Jak and Emmie also found the SL Chaya (茶屋) sales counter in Car 5. Here, passengers can get all sorts of snacks, drinks, and of course, SL Banetsu Monogatari-themed souvenirs. Jak and Emmie were surprised by the variety of souvenirs available, which was more than those in the previous Joyful Trains they rode, and they were pretty spoilt for choice on what to get. Eventually, they got a postcard and a masking tape, which they thought were cute and nice to take away from their time on the train.

 

Their choice of souvenirs: masking tape and postcard. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

For passengers who didn’t manage to get their ekiben at JR Niitsu Station, fret not. They are also available at the sales counter, and they are specially prepared using local ingredients too. But take note that the quantities of ekiben sold on the SL Banetsu Monogatari are limited, so passengers onboard the train should get them while they can.

 

Jak and Emmie’s SL Banetsu Monogatari bentō. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

Jak and Emmie went for two ekiben from the counter: the SL Banetsu Monogatari Bentō (SLばんえつ物語弁当) and the Yuki-Daruma Bentō (雪だるま弁当). They featured local ingredients from Niigata such as salmon and salmon roe, and they were as delectable as they looked. More importantly, they were impressed at the Yuki-Daruma Bentō’s adorable packaging. Shaped as a snowman, it’s a nod to Niigata’s reputation as a “snow country” due to its extremely high snowfall.

 

Car 4: Observing the scenery

Car 4, the Observation Car. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

Car 4 is the Observation Car, where passengers can enjoy a wide view of the passing scenery outside thanks to the car’s large windows. Benches and low couches are also here so that passengers can have a seat and enjoy a full view of the outdoors without any obstruction. Jak and Emmie loved the sheer spaciousness of the car, but unfortunately the benches were cordoned off due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, they got to see some amazing outdoor scenery from the car’s large windows.

 

Post box in Car 4 (left) and Jak sending a postcard (right). (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

Apart from the views, the duo was also pleasantly surprised by one particular finding inside the car: a post box! The retro post box located in Car 4 is a pleasant surprise for any passenger in the car, and the duo didn’t expect to find something like this on a train. Passengers can write and send a postcard via the post box too, and Jak and Emmie did just that as a memento for their time on the train. The post box is also surrounded by a photo gallery that showcases the train during different stages of maintenance, a testament to how it has withstood the test of time throughout the years.

 

Stamp counter in Car 4. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

Another thing that Jak and Emmie found in Car 4 that was a recurring discovery in all their Joyful Train rides? A stamp counter. Jak and Emmie spotted SL Banetsu Monogatari’s stamp counter in Car 5, and of course, they had a go at it. Moreover, it’s a particularly momentous occasion for the train, as it was celebrating its 900,000-passenger milestone since its debut. What a special time for the train and all its passengers!

 

Car 7: Riding in elegance

Banetsu_Car7.jpg (1.26 MB)

The Green Car at Car 7. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

Do you know that the SL Banetsu Monogatari is the only Joyful Train that features Green Car seats? Car 7 is the Green Car, which features 30 plush Green Car seats in a two-by-one seat configuration. One perk that the duo noticed about this seat configuration is how they had some privacy to themselves, unlike the boxed seats in the ordinary passenger cars where passengers may be seated with other people. Also, the Green Car has elegant interior furnishing and seats that are bigger with more legroom, but most of all, it features one big surprise right at the end of the car.

 

The Panorama Observation Room at the end of Car 7. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

At the end of Car 7 is the Panorama Observation Room which features full-length, floor-to-ceiling windows. Only passengers on the Green Car have access to it, and they can enjoy a wondrous panoramic view of the outdoor scenery as the train passes by the idyllic countryside. And here’s an interesting perk for passengers in the Green Car and the Panorama Observation Room: given the sheer length of the SL Banetsu Monogatari, they can even see the engine car at the front when the train goes around bends on some sections of the JR Ban’etsu West Line.

 

SL Banetsu Monogatari’s engine car in the front, as seen from Car 7. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

Jak and Emmie had the opportunity to ride the Green Car, and they were amazed by the lush experience throughout their trip. Passengers who ride the train with the JR EAST PASS must pay an additional fee to be in the car, but after their time in it, the duo can wholeheartedly vouch for the upgrade and strongly urges everyone to give the Green Car a try. The VIP treatment that they enjoyed in the car was absolutely worth it. But take note: the seats in the Green Car are very limited, and they're highly popular among passengers, so grab them while you can!

 

Not your usual pit-stop

JR Tsugawa Station. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

Jak and Emmie had learned by then that in all of their Joyful Train rides, the train stopped at one particular railway station that offered an exceptional experience, whether it’s a stupendous view of the Sea of Japan, or being able to set foot on the JR railway station with the highest elevation in Japan. For SL Banetsu Monogatari, that one special railway station is JR Tsugawa Station (JR津川駅 Tsugawa-eki) in Niigata Prefecture.

 

Okojiro (left) and Okojiro’s House (right) at JR Tsugawa Station. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

The train makes a 15-minute pit-stop at the station, and as passengers get off to explore it, they will see Okojiro (オコジロウ) at the train platform. The adorable mascot statue takes the form of an okojo, the same animal whose images are all over the Okojo Car, and what’s more, passengers can also visit Okojiro’s House (オコジロウの家 Okojirō no ie), which is a waiting room designed like a cute house.

 

Water replenishment and safety checks at JR Tsugawa Station. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

More importantly however, passengers at JR Tsugawa Station will get to see the train staff conducting safety checks and replenishing the SL Banetsu Monogatari’s water and coal supply, which are part and parcel of operating an SL train. Not only do such trains need coal and water to operate, but they also need a lot of them. In fact, the SL Banetsu Monogatari has to make a pit-stop at JR Tsugawa Station every time it travels between JR Niitsu Station and JR Aizu-Wakamatsu Station to replenish the coal and water needed to complete the whole journey.

 

Passengers having a close-up view of the train’s engine car. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

It was a rare opportunity for the passengers to witness the painstaking amount of tedious work required to operate SL trains. Since the advent of electrification on the railways of Japan, the sight of manual labour to run SL trains has become a thing of the past. Jak and Emmie got to watch the staff at work first-hand, and it made them realise how laborious it is to run the train and feel grateful at how SL trains are still running today thanks to the hard work and dedication of the staff.

 

Beautiful views as seen from the train. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

As the train chugged along the tracks and made its way towards JR Aizu-Wakamatsu Station, Jak and Emmie witnessed many picturesque views of the rural countryside. They felt that the JR Ban’etsu West Line is one of the most scenic railway routes that they had ever travelled on, and couldn’t help but simply feel rejuvenated by the sights and sounds while on the train.

 

Scenic sections along the Ban’etsu West Line. (Image credit: JR East (top), 新潟県観光協会 (bottom left), やえざくら / PIXTA (bottom right))

 

And indeed, many people would agree with Jak and Emmie’s sentiments, as the JR Ban’etsu West Line is often regarded as one of the most scenic train lines in Japan. The line is famous for its beautiful natural surroundings all year round, especially the section along the border between Fukushima and Niigata where the view is especially gorgeous. Like many others who have travelled before them, the duo was enchanted by the scenery along the line, and they knew they would be travelling on it again in the future.

 

People waving at Jak and Emmie. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

They were also touched to see so many people waving at them as the train passed by! The SL Banetsu Monogatari is much loved by the locals living along the JR Ban’est West Line, and is in fact one of the most beloved trains among all Joyful Trains. Jak and Emmie didn’t know that, and they were so heartened to see such a warm gesture throughout their trip.

 

Gelato on the train. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

One more surprise awaited the duo: gelato. They got some for themselves while on the train, and they were from Echigo Yukimuro-ya (越後雪室屋), a famous long-established shop from Niigata that specialises in a unique type of natural refrigeration called “Yukimuro snow-ageing” where natural ingredients are preserved using snow. It’s a method that is native to a “snow country” such as Niigata, and it results in ingredients that are naturally sweet and fresh. Jak and Emmie got the coffee and Koshihikari flavours, which they felt had profound tastes that were very different from other regular gelatos. They gave these the thumbs up, and strongly recommend anyone riding the train to give them a try.

 

Arriving at JR Aizu-Wakamatsu Station. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

At 1:35pm, Jak and Emmie finally reached their destination at JR Aizu-Wakamatsu Station. The SL Banetsu Monogatari was their longest ride among all Joyful Train rides during their autumn adventure, but they never felt like the journey was long at all. Riding an SL train that ran leisurely through the laid-back countryside, enjoying delicious food, and soaking in the nostalgic atmosphere while gazing at the wondrous scenery along the railway line made them forget about the passing of time altogether, and they were thoroughly mesmerised by the whole experience. 

 

Because of that, they felt quite sentimental about saying goodbye to the train, as it was one of the most unique train rides they had ever experienced. They knew deep inside that this wouldn't be their last time seeing and riding the train, but until then, they bade farewell to it and continued with their autumn adventure.

 

Closing

Throughout their journey in the Shinetsu Region, Jak and Emmie had ridden four Joyful Trains altogether, traversing prefectures and witnessing so much beautiful scenery during their rides. By the end of their trip, they understood why they are called “Joyful Trains”, and they had some of the most wonderful times on the trains, discovering their unique charms and travelling along highly scenic train lines.

 

There are still other Joyful Trains that they haven’t ridden yet, but they know that it’s only a matter of time before they do while embarking on their next adventure. In the meantime, they would like to express their gratitude to all of you readers for following them on their unforgettable journey and hope you all will do so again for their next one. See you again next time!

(Tip: if you want to ride the SL Banetsu Monogatari, you can do so for free with the following JR East rail passes!)

 

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

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

 

If you are planning to ride the SL Banetsu Monogatari and explore the Shinetsu Region, check out the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥18,000, the pass costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Niigata (~¥21,000), and makes for a considerable option for railway travellers. The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.

(Note: this pass only covers the section between JR Niitsu Station and JR Hideya Station (JR日出谷駅 Hideya-eki) on the JR Ban’etsu West Line.)

 

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

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

 

Alternatively, the 5-day JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) is another affordable pass if you like to ride the SL Banetsu Monogatari and explore the Tohoku Region (東北地方). At only ¥20,000, it costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Aizu-Wakamatsu (~¥20,000), and makes for a considerable option for railway travellers. The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.

(Note: this pass only covers the section between JR Aizu-Wakamatsu Station and JR Nozawa Station (JR野沢 Nozawa-eki) on the JR Ban’etsu West Line.)

 

Rail pass holders who would like to ride in the Green Car can get the tickets at Midori-no-Madoguchi (みどりの窓口) offices at most JR railways stations, and JR East Travel Service Centers at major railway stations like JR Tokyo Station, JR Ueno Station, JR Shinjuku Station and more. The ticket for the Green Car seat from JR Niitsu Station to JR Aizu-Wakamatsu Station is ¥1,670 per adult.

 

Header image credit: Japanmase

 

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