A journey back in time: Oykot!
Travellers to Japan can attest the joy of getting around Japan by train. Many have vouched for the sheer enjoyment of riding the bullet train (新幹線 shinkansen), explaining the smooth experience of the train ride, or the impeccable quality of Japan’s customer service and hospitality (おもてなし omotenashi). Travellers have also commended the local trains: they have witnessed the trains’ punctuality and even reminisce the iconic chimes! I also find train travel in Japan to be a breeze. Comfortable and pleasurable, train travel in Japan is also an adventure every time, and I’m always up for a new one if I ever come to Japan. Especially if I come to eastern Japan, I would love to try all the Joyful Trains by East Japan Railway Company (or simply JR East).
Joyful Trains are exclusive trains specially by JR East. Each has its own unique theme and travel route throughout eastern Japan, enthralling passengers with its exceptional services while showcasing the beauty of the region that each train passes through. In February, I got the opportunity to check out one of the Joyful Trains named Oykot, and I have to say that it was an exciting experience. Let me show you what Oykot is all about!
Oykot train making its arrival. (Image credit: JR East/Nazrul Buang)
The Oykot train is conceived with the idea of rustic Japan and bringing people back to the countryside. It bears the theme of one’s old hometown (故郷 furusato) so the train ride invokes a sense of nostalgia and healing for the passengers. The central theme of Oykot is to remind passengers of their grandmother’s home in their hometown; in other words, to bring back their fondest memories of growing up in the peaceful countryside and that all-familiar warm feeling you get whenever you step inside the humble abode of your grandmother’s. Plus, if you haven’t noticed, Oykot is basically "Tokyo" spelled backwards. There’s a simple reason behind this: the areas around the Iiyama Line that Oykot runs along is the antithesis of Tokyo. When Tokyo is known as a bustling and boisterous megalopolis, the areas around the Iiyama Line are the opposite: quiet and blissful, without any glaring advertisements or noisy traffic to bombard your senses. Hence, Oykot is spelled backwards to portray the contrast from a city like Tokyo. After all, Iiyama means ‘home of the heart’ for the locals.
As a non-Japanese, I was wondering how this theme would influence someone like myself. Unlike Singapore, Japan has large urban cities and the tranquil rural countryside. Many Japanese from the countryside would make the migratory move to the big city when they grow up and look for employment, so coming back home has an intimate meaning for them. For a Singaporean like myself coming from a country that has no countryside, I was curious to know what riding Oykot would mean for me.
Interiors of Oykot. (Image credit: JR East/Nazrul Buang)
It was an unusual feeling. I could somewhat understand Oykot’s theme of nostalgia (懐かしい natsukashī), from the carefully thought interiors to the rural train route. The inside of train is lined with faded red upholstery seats and wooden tables, things that would remind me and anyone of their grandparents’ homes. I admit that even I felt like I was going back home on the countryside, even when it’s not!
Nozawana, a type of pickled vegetables. (Image credit: JR East/Nazrul Buang)
Passengers on the Oykot train will be treated of a serving of nozawana (のざわな), a type of pickled vegetables synonymous with the Shinshū (Nagano) area. I thought it’s a nice gesture; what better way to experience the countryside than to have a taste of it right inside the train! Plus, for an added local hometown touch, they are distributed by genial female attendants dressed in uniforms resembling traditional countryside outfits. I kid you not, they really look like my own grandmother!
Female attendants on Oykot together with Carissa. (Image credit: JR East/Carissa Loh)
Snowy fields from inside the train. (Image credit: JR East/Nazrul Buang)
Rural countryside along Iiyama Line. (Image credit: JR East/Nazrul Buang)
The best part for the Oykot train ride was the scenery. It was breath-taking; I took the train in February, the middle for the winter season. As the train chugs through the rural areas, I witnessed homes blanketed by pristine powdery snow and the clear blue Chikuma River that runs along the train route.
Here’s some trivia about the Iiyama Line: historically the area around the line experiences the heaviest snowfall throughout the whole country! I got off at JR Togarinozawa-onsen Station (JR戸狩野沢温泉駅 Togarinozawa-onsen-eki) back in February, and nearby there is another station named JR Morimiyanohara Station (JR森宮野原駅 Morimiyanohara-eki) just 30 minutes away. There it experienced the heaviest snowfall on record: 7.85 metres in total back in 1945! The record snowfall marking is still standing there for you all to see!
Chikuma-gawa River. (Image credit: JR East/Nazrul Buang)
Snowfall record at JR Morimiyanohara Station. (Image credit: JR East/Carissa Loh)
When the snow melts and spring finally comes in Iiyama. (Image credit: JR East)
A temple in Iiyama during autumn. (Image credit: JR East)
One of the treats of taking the Oykot train awaits at JR Iiyama Station (JR飯山駅 Iiyama-eki), one of the stations that the train stops at. Here, passengers can alight and witness an intricate clockwork at work named Karakuri Clock. At the strike of every hour, passengers can watch and listen as animatronics depicting a traditional stage performance come to life with ‘Furusato’, a popular hometown song written by Takano Tatsuyuki (who hails from Nakano, a city that neighbours Iiyama), playing in the background. On top of that, the station has many stalls selling foods and titbits that are native to the town.
Karakuri at JR Iiyama Station. (Image credit: JR East/Nazrul Buang)
Karakuri Clock coming to life at JR Iiyama Station. (Image credit: JR East/Nazrul Buang)
In all, riding the Oykot train is a novel experience. While sitting inside the rustically designed train carriage, I felt like time momentarily stopped. I came from Singapore where it feels like time passes by quickly, and I thought that this is something special for anyone curious to know the phrase ‘when time stops’ really mean.
Oykot in winter. (Image credit: JR East)
A trip on the Oykot. (Video credit: East Japan Railway Company)
More details on Oykot
The Oykot train travels between Nagano station and Tokamachi station, and the departure times differ according to the calendar. Check out the timetable and schedule here. All seats on board this special train require reservations, which can be made online here. For more information on the Oykot train, you can visit the link here.
(INSIDER TIP: If you have the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), you can take the Oykot train and make seat reservations for free!)
JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)
The new 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 train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains, within the valid area for 5 consecutive days. It's only ¥18,000, making it a considerable option for rail travellers. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free. For more information of the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), you can visit the link here.
NOTE: From 1 April 2021, there have been some changes in the validity and pricing of the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area). For more information, please check here.
Header image credit: JR East