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Rail Report: Revisiting the Oykot and Shinetsu’s idyllic countryside

Rail Report: Revisiting the Oykot and Shinetsu’s idyllic countryside

Do you know that nostalgic feeling you have when you take a train back home in the countryside? It’s a feeling that we cherish when we escape from the bustling city and return to a place where time moves much slower, and the city views that are normally filled with modern buildings and towering skyscrapers are replaced with soothing views of mountains, paddy fields, and rivers.

 

The Oykot is a Joyful Train that does just that, running on the Shinano Railway Kita-Shinano Line (しなの鉄道北しなの線 Shinano Tetsudō Kita-Shinano-sen) and Iiyama Line (飯山線 Iiyama-sen) between Nagano Station (長野駅 Nagano-eki) and Tōkamachi Station (十日町駅 Tōkamachi-eki). The train offers passengers a nostalgic ride through Shinetsu’s idyllic countryside, as it travels along the magnificent Chikumagawa River (千曲川) and through paddy fields and mountains that can be seen in the distance.

 

Map of Oykot’s route. (Image credit: Google Maps)

 

I rode the Oykot for the first time two years ago during winter, and it was a highly memorable time in my life, as the concept of a nostalgic train ride to the countryside was something I never experienced on any railway trip. I got to ride it again recently and it felt incredibly nostalgic for me, perhaps this time in more ways than one.

 

For this article, I would like you to join me as I revisited the Oykot, and my “re-experience” of riding the train again, retracing the things I did and experienced when I rode it for the first time, as well as share my thoughts on my second outing. Nostalgia is the central theme for today, and I’m very sure it’s a feeling we all want to experience, so let’s ride on the train once again!

 

① All aboard from Nagano

Boarding Oykot from Nagano Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

The journey on the Oykot begins from Nagano Station, and I boarded the train there first thing in the morning. As I made my way through the train station and to the platform to meet and board the train, I was already having recollections of my first experience riding the train two years ago, so I knew it was going to be a very nostalgic experience.

 

Hello again, Oykot. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

As I made my way down to the platform, I laid my eyes on the train and warm memories began flooding back. From its quaint name to its unique train exterior design that features images of fusuma (襖) and shōji (障子), which are Japanese sliding screens and paper sliding doors that are typically found in Japanese homes. Seeing the designs alone will evoke intimate memories of one’s grandmother’s home in the countryside, and for me it also (strangely) evoked such memories as well.

 

Fun fact: in case you’re wondering, the name “Oykot” is simply Tokyo spelt backwards. The reversal in spelling is meant to show how the train ride is the opposite of the capital city’s bustling ambience, where passengers will instead get to experience the slower side of Japanese life when they travel to the rural areas filled with natural splendour.

 

Friendly staff bidding farewell. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

As the clock struck 9:17am, the train promptly departed from Nagano Station and was on its way towards Tōkamachi. There were other people on the platform who were there to see and appreciate the train in person, including a few railway enthusiasts, but there was also a friendly train station staff member who was there to bid farewell to all the passengers onboard the train.

 

It was a heartwarming gesture that I see every time I ride a Joyful Train, and the Oykot was no exception. It marked the start of yet another “joyful” train ride for me, and I was already excited to see what was in store ahead in this journey.

 

② Inside the train

Inside Cars 1 and 2. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

The Oykot is made up of two cars, and each car is able to seat up to 38 passengers. Both train cars have similar layouts, but more importantly, they feature different types of seats that cater to different passengers’ needs. There are three types of seats altogether: observation couple seats, booth seats for four people, and booth seats for two people.

 

Nostalgic upholstery design. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

What particularly stood out was the overall train interior design, which featured wooden furnishings and burgundy hues that complement the booth seats to give a very warm feel, as though you’re in someone’s home. What’s more, the upholstery featured images of snowflakes, which reflects how the region is known for its heavy snowfall.

 

Snacks and beverage menu. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Passengers onboard the Oykot can also get some snacks and beverages while riding on the train. It’s a welcoming feature of the train, especially when the entire train trip from Nagano to Tōkamachi is up to 3 hours. Previously, passengers also got to enjoy nozawana (野沢菜), which were pickled vegetables that were a local Shinshū delicacy. Unfortunately, they were not available this time around and I hope they make a comeback soon.

 

Oykot’s stamp counter. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Whenever I ride on a Joyful Train, there will always be one particular section that I would look for: the stamp counter. I find it fun to collect these stamps which are unique for every train, and of course, I got mine during my train ride. Plus, the Oykot was my second Joyful Train in Nagano and I also got one for my previous ride on the Resort View Furusato.

 

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to ride the HIGH RAIL 1375 for this journey; otherwise, I would have gotten all three stamps for Joyful Trains running in Nagano and completed the set!

 

Photobook on the Oykot. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Another interesting discovery I made onboard the Oykot is a picture book featuring photos of the Iiyama Line and the different trains that run on it, taken during different seasons throughout the year. With photos showing the train passing through pink cherry blossoms and vivid yellow nanohana (なのはな) flowers, the book made me realise just how scenic the train line was, and it even made me think of travelling on the line during other seasons.

 

③ Splendorous outdoor views

Chikumagawa River. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

One of the highlights of riding the Oykot is how it travels along the Iiyama Line, which runs along the majestic Chikumagawa River (千曲川). Fun fact: It is the longest river in Japan, stretching from the Nagano-Saitama border all the way through Nagano and to Niigata before reaching the Sea of Japan.

 

I remembered seeing the river for the first time during my previous ride on the train about two years ago, and how I was impressed by its grandeur. When I saw it again this time around, I was awe-struck by its immensity once again. Plus, the river looked different this time too, when it featured river water roaring down towards the direction of Niigata and to the Sea of Japan. It’s a priceless scenery that I felt everyone should enjoy once in their lives!

 

Golden paddy fields and mountains in the distance. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Another beautiful thing about sceneries when it comes to the Shinetsu Region? Vast paddy fields and mountain views! The Iiyama Line also passes by many paddy fields and mountain ranges that the region is famous for, and when I rode the Oykot, I saw endless golden paddy fields that stretched as far as I could see, and the mountains shrouded in misty clouds in the distance. It’s one of the most glorious views I had ever enjoyed while riding a train through the countryside.

 

④ Explore Iiyama Station

Iiyama Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

One of the stations that the Oykot stops at is Iiyama Station (飯山駅 Iiyama-eki). The station became a stop for the Hokuriku Shinkansen on 14 March 2015, and I remembered coming here for something very special that I don’t see in other train stations.

 

Karakuri clock. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Inside Iiyama Station is Karakuri (絡繰り mechanical) clock, where animatronic puppets come to life at every hour and enact a traditional stage performance to the tunes of “Furusato” (故郷), a popular song that tells the story of a person living in a distant land and feeling nostalgic for the hills and fields of their childhood home in the countryside. Sentimental, don’t you think?

 

Mountain view from inside Iiyama Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Here’s a tip for anyone stopping by Iiyama Station: do not miss the amazing view of the mountains that you can see right from inside the station. Nagano is known for its mountains, and when I visited the station, the weather was pretty clear so I got an incredible view of it from the second floor.

 

Local snacks and delicacies at Iiyama Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Want to know another thing that you shouldn’t miss? Local snacks and delicacies that are on sale on the second floor! When I was making my way back to the Oykot, I came upon stalls selling locally grown produce, local snacks and delicacies.

 

If there’s one thing I highly recommend, it’s oyaki (おやき), which are dumplings made from buckwheat flour with various delicious fillings inside. It’s a specialty of Nagano, where buckwheat is more common than rice, and it’s always fun to see what kind of fillings you can find.

 

Morimiyanohara Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

As the Oykot continued its way towards Tōkamachi, it made a stop at another station that brought back some memories. Morimiyanohara Station (森宮野原駅 Morimiyanohara-eki) is a train station on the Iiyama Line that bears the honour of experiencing the highest snowfall of 7.85m recorded on 12 February 1945.

 

There is a marker at the station to indicate just how high the snowfall was back then, and spotting that marker quickly reminded me of how snowy the region can be, and why it is often called “snow countries” (雪国 yukiguni).

 

⑤ Lively folk dance onboard the train

Traditional folk dance. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

There was one more surprise that awaited me at Morimiyanohara Station apart from just the marker indicating the heaviest snowfall on record. A group of elderly ladies dressed in traditional costumes hopped on board the train and began to perform a folk dance for all the passengers to the tunes of folk songs from the countryside!

 

It was quite a surprise for me to witness the ladies performing the dance with such enthusiasm, especially when I didn’t get to see it the last time I rode the Oykot. The dance included motions of sowing seeds at paddy fields, and the tunes were reminiscent of those heard during summer festivals in Japan. Needless to say, it was an eye-opening experience.

 

Bidding farewell to passengers on the train. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

The friendly elderly ladies got off at Tsunan Station (津南駅 Tsunan-eki) by the end of their performance, and bade farewell to passengers on the train who were on their way to Tōkamachi. It was yet another heartwarming gesture by the locals, and I felt thankful to be able to experience their hospitality.

 

⑥ Last stop: Tōkamachi

Tōkamachi Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)


At around 11:41am, I finally reached the Oykot’s last stop at Tōkamachi Station. The whole journey lasted around 2.5 hours, and during the entire train ride, I got to experience wonderful things, from breathtaking outdoor scenery to a heartwarming traditional dance performance right on the train itself.

 

The Oykot and the Koshino Shu*Kura. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Just when I was about to leave Tōkamachi Station to continue to the next part of my day, I came across a conspicuous sign that reminded me how the station is also the last stop for another Joyful Train: the Koshino Shu*Kura. I rode the train before from Jōetsumyōkō Station (上越妙高駅 Jōetsumyōkō-eki) but not until this station, and I hope that maybe I will get to do that someday.

 

Until then, I bade farewell to the Oykot and resumed the next part of my journey for the day. See you again soon!

 

Closing

My commemorative photo onboard the Oykot. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

The Oykot was conceived with the purpose of taking passengers on a nostalgic ride to the countryside, and letting them enjoy the “slow life” away from the bustling city. Passengers will feel rejuvenated by the amazing natural scenery from the train window and be charmed by the quaint train interiors and the locals’ warm hospitality.

 

It was my second ride on the Oykot, and it was yet another memorable chapter in my railway adventures. Although I was mesmerised by the sheer nostalgia of riding a train to Shinetsu’s countryside, I was also swept by the nostalgia of riding the train for the second time, retracing the steps I took back then and remembering the same sights and sounds that I experienced two years ago.

 

If you’re looking for a very unique railway experience, then consider riding the Oykot and be charmed by Shinetsu’s countryside and the sheer kindness of the locals!

 

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

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

 

Want to ride the Oykot and explore the Shinetsu Region? Then check out the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), 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 ¥18,000, it makes for a great option for travellers exploring Nagano and Niigata. 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, here.

 

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.

 

Header image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang

 

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