Rail Report: My “galactic” ride on the SL Ginga
Have you ridden on a steam locomotive (SL) train before? They are historical relics that are powered by steam from burning coals, but most of them have been replaced by their modern, energy-efficient counterparts years ago. But do you know that you can still ride some of them in certain parts of Japan? One of them is the SL Ginga, a Joyful Train that bears a particularly unique theme.
The SL Ginga runs on the Kamaishi Line (釜石線 Kamaishi-sen), plying between Hanamaki Station (花巻駅) and Kamaishi Station (釜石駅). Passengers will not only get to enjoy the sheer nostalgia of riding an SL train, but also enjoy the idyllic countryside views of Iwate Prefecture (岩手県 Iwate-ken) and experience the wonders of author Miyazawa Kenji’s (宮澤賢治) famous work “Night on the Galactic Railroad” (銀河鉄道の夜 Ginga Tetsudо̄ no Yoru), which the train’s theme is based on.
Map of SL Ginga’s route. (Image credit: Google Maps)
I had never ridden an SL train before, and SL Ginga would eventually be my first ever experience riding on one. It was hard for me to imagine what riding on such a train would be like, given how I have only ridden on its modern electricity-driven counterparts both in Japan and back home in Singapore.
Previously, I wrote about my time on riding the HIGH RAIL 1375, a Joyful Train that proved to be a unique and memorable experience. For this article, I will share yet another firsthand experience of riding another Joyful Train, with this one bringing me back to the olden days of railway travel in Japan, and revolving around a theme that brings passengers on a galactic adventure!
① Onward to the “Glasses Bridge”
Arriving in the city of Tono. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
My journey on the SL Ginga began from Iwate Prefecture’s capital city of Morioka (盛岡市), where I was based at. From here, I made my way to Tōno Station (遠野駅 Tōno-eki), and from there I would be hopping on the SL train.
But before heading to Tōno Station, I made a small detour to a famous bridge in the city of Tono (遠野市 Tōno-shi) named the Miyamorigawa Bridge (宮守川橋 Miyamorigawa-bashi), which is also popularly known as the “Glasses Bridge” (めがね橋 Megane-bashi) because of its conspicuous arches, located in the town of Miyamori (宮守町 Miyamori-chō).
Miyamori Roadside Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
I arrived at the bridge around 30 minutes before the SL Ginga was scheduled to cross it, so with some spare time on my hands, I decided to explore Miyamori Roadside Station (道の駅 みやもり Michi-no-eki Miyamori) nearby and checked out its local specialty products. Do you know that the town is known for its high production volume of wasabi? The roadside station had many wasabi goods, including wasabi craft beers (地ビール jibīru)!
Meganebashi Ramen. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
The one thing that particularly caught my attention was Meganebashi Ramen (めがね橋ラーメン) at an eatery inside the roadside station. It is a piping hot bowl of spicy miso ramen that is named and arranged to look like the iconic bridge nearby, and as a ramen lover, I knew I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to try it. Mildly spicy and fulfilling, it was a satisfying early lunch for me and I urge visitors to the bridge to give this a try.
Crowd waiting for the arrival of SL Ginga. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
The Miyamorigawa Bridge is said to be the central motif of Miyazawa Kenji’s “Night on the Galactic Railroad”, and is widely known as a popular photo-taking spot when the SL Ginga crosses it. The SL train traversing the bridge is said to be a magnificent sight to behold, and I wanted to see it for myself.
Gradually, the crowd began to grow at the plaza near the roadside station, with each looking for the best vantage points for taking photos of the incoming train. A tip from me: there are plenty of spaces and spots to view the train, but the best one is from a platform at the bottom of a flight of stairs, where visitors can see the train traversing above them.
SL Ginga crossing the Meganebashi Bridge. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
Finally, at around 11:40am, the SL Ginga arrived and made its way across the Miyamorigawa Bridge for all the visitors to witness. With the train billowing steam and slowing down for everyone to see, it was indeed a grand view and I found it encouraging to see the visitors waving enthusiastically at the train and the passengers on it.
After the train had passed, I made my way to Tōno Station where I would board that same train later in the afternoon.
Miyamorigawa Bridge (宮守川橋)
Address: Shimomiyamori-30-37-1 Miyamori-chō, Tōno, Iwate 028-0304
Access: 7-minute walk from Miyamori Station (宮守駅)
② Seeing kappa statues and an SL train up-close
Arriving at Tōno Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
After viewing the SL Ginga on the Miyamorigawa Bridge, I immediately made my way to Tōno Station, where the train was making a stop for water and coal supply replenishment which would take around an hour. I arrived at the station early so that I could explore the station and see the train up-close.
What surprised me about Tōno Station was its architectural design. Unlike newer train stations in Japan, the station building is made of concrete blocks and features traditionally European architectural styles, which is rather rare and quite a beautiful sight to behold.
Kappa statues in front of Tōno Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
Visitors to the train station will also notice something peculiar in front of the station building: a small pond with statues of kappa (河童) which, according to Japanese traditional folklore, are trolls that live near water bodies and kidnap and eat children. Tōno is known for its Japanese folklore, and it is said to be the place where folklorist Yanagita Kunio (柳田 國男) recorded and complied folk legends into his book “Tōno Monogatari (遠野物語)”, with kappa being perhaps the town’s most well-known legendary creature.
Seeing the SL Ginga up-close. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
After exploring the train station, I was off to see the SL Ginga upfront at the station platform. I was taken aback by its sheer elegance and grandeur, with its ebony metallic exteriors and the conspicuous “choo-choo” sound of its steam whistle. The train was in the midst of replenishing its fuel, and I had some time to witness the replenishment process and explore the interiors before its departure.
The SL Ginga started operating in 2014 to revitalise tourism in areas along the Sanriku Coast, which sustained heavy damage after the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami (東日本大震災 Higashi-nihon daishinsai) in 2011. I was personally moved by the train’s origins when I first heard it, and it made me even more glad that I finally got to ride it.
Replenishing the coal supply (left) and observing the driver’s cab (right). (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
The train’s refuelling and maintenance at Tōno Station was quite an eye-opener. The steam engine had to be decoupled from the passenger cars first, and then the train crew had to replenish the coal and water at the train’s tender. Refuelling an SL train is a painstaking task, and it’s not something we get to see today when current trains are powered by electricity. After refuelling, the steam engine was recoupled with the passenger cars, and I got to see it firsthand.
Coupling between the steam engine and the passenger cars. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
Also, I got to see up-close the driver’s cab, which was a huge metal contraption featuring numerous levers and switches. The driver of an SL train must be adequately trained to operate it safely and effectively, and seeing the tremendous amount of effort required to operate the train reminded me of how difficult handling an SL train was, making me feel grateful for the train crew’s hard work.
Finally, at around 1:31pm, the SL Ginga was ready to depart and I hopped onboard for my first ever railway adventure on an SL train. My journey on the train was from Tōno Station to Kamaishi Station, which would take around 1 hour 40 minutes. With only so much time onboard, I made sure I was going to enjoy every minute of my train ride.
③ Inside the train
Inside Car 1. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
The SL Ginga is made up of four cars in total, with Cars 1, 2 and 3 being the passenger cars, and Car 4 being the SL Gallery Car. The train can seat up to 176 passengers, and each car features a special section dedicated to Miyazawa Kenji’s works.
Speaking of Miyazawa Kenji, do you know that he was originally from Iwate Prefecture? His hometown was in Hanamaki, and the train was fitted with interior furnishings that hearken back to railway travel during Miyazawa Kenji’s time, in the early 19th century. When I first saw the classic booth seats, stained glass artwork, and red carpet covering the car floors, I felt like I was transported back in time to a time when travelling by train was a vastly different experience.
Optical planetarium in Car 1. (Image credit: JR East)
Do you know what’s cool about the SL Ginga? It features an optical planetarium in Car 1, where passengers can gaze at images of constellations and stars on the ceiling. Passengers will lose track of time while inside the planetarium, and can feel like they are travelling on a railroad throughout the galaxy. I was really looking forward to seeing the planetarium, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was unfortunately closed. Oh well, better luck next time, I guess.
Miyazawa Kenji Galleries throughout the train. (Image credit: JR Times / Sue Lynn (left), JR East / Nazrul Buang (right))
The train features all kinds of exhibits and memorabilia dedicated to the late novelist. While checking out the train during my train ride, I noticed many mini-galleries found at the ends of each car, and they have unique themes that explore different facets of the novelist’s fascinations, such as astronomy, social design, and artwork.
Inside Car 4. (Image credit: JR Times / Sue Lynn (top-left), JR East / Nazrul Buang)
Perhaps the most impressive section inside the train is in Car 4. Known as the SL Gallery Car, it features a photo gallery showcasing the SL train’s history, a plush retro leather sofa, a souvenir counter, and more exhibits dedicated to Miyazawa Kenji.
I personally recommend checking out the limited-edition SL Ginga souvenirs and local craft beers. In particular, try to get your hands on their special ekiben (駅弁 railway lunchbox); only a few are sold at the souvenir counter, so it’s best if you get them right away upon boarding the train.
SL Ginga’s stamp press and commemorative postcard. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
Do you know the one thing I will always look for in any Joyful Train? A stamp press! SL Ginga is no exception, and its stamp press can be found in Car 4. Stamps are a valuable collectible for every railway enthusiast, and it is always exciting to see what the logo would look like after pressing. What’s more, passengers will get a commemorative postcard for riding on the SL Ginga too, which you can use for your stamp collection.
④ Joyous ride through the countryside
Outdoor scenery from the SL Ginga. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
As the SL Ginga made its way towards Kamaishi Station, it journeyed through Iwate Prefecture’s rural areas, which were filled with scenic greenery and picturesque rivers. The prefecture is known for its pristine natural beauty, and as the train made its way along the Kamaishi Line, I got to fully enjoy glimpses of it during my ride.
Also, riding an SL train felt completely different from a modern train. Unlike today’s trains that offer smooth and quiet rides, an SL train’s slow chugging along the railway tracks has a unique and consistent rhythm which felt inexplicably soothing to me. Rather than obsessing over reaching my destination in time as I would for most of my train rides, I felt like it was one of the moments where I simply wanted to enjoy the ride as much as possible.
Rikuchū-Ōhashi Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
One of the more interesting discoveries I made along the Kamaishi Line was before my arrival at Rikuchū-Ōhashi Station (陸中大橋駅 Rikuchū-Ōhashi-eki). Before reaching the station, the train passed by a section that featured a hairpin turn and a tunnel, which was a rare experience for me. If you are travelling on the Kamaishi Line, be sure to keep a lookout for this interesting section.
After that, the train reached Rikuchū-Ōhashi Station and made a brief stop here, so passengers could get off and take in the picturesque surroundings for a few minutes. It was a therapeutic moment for me to feel the “slow life” of the countryside, which was also filled with vivid greenery. Don’t you find such moments refreshing, especially when it is during a railway trip away from the big city?
⑤ Final destination at Kamaishi
Heartwarming welcome at Kamaishi Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
Finally, at around 3:10pm, I reached Kamaishi Station, the terminal station of the Kamaishi Line. As the train approached the station, the passengers and I were treated to warm hospitality by the locals, as they enthusiastically waved flags at us to welcome us to their coastal city of Kamaishi (釜石市 Kamaishi-shi). I always find such a gesture endearing, and it made me feel glad to set foot at their home for the first time in my life.
One last look at SL Ginga. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
Before leaving the station, I took one last look at the SL Ginga before it retired for the day. The train makes only one departure per day either from Hanamaki Station or Kamaishi Station, and after completing its trip, the train was to undergo maintenance again for the next day when it was scheduled to travel towards Hanamaki Station.
As the steam whistle blew, all the passengers who just alighted gathered at the platform to bid farewell to the train and thank the train crew for their hard work in operating it. I also went to get a spot for a good view of the train, and hoped to see it again in the future.
A coal from the SL Ginga as a commemorative gift. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
Just when I exited the station from the ticket gate, I was treated to an unusual gift from the train staff: a piece of coal from the SL Ginga! SL trains run on steam generated from burning coals, and pieces of coals were handed out to passengers of the SL Ginga as tokens of appreciation. I never thought I would receive something as unique as this, but it certainly made for an unforgettable memento from my train trip.
After my ride on the SL Ginga, I was scheduled to travel on the Kamaishi Line again, heading towards Shin-Hanamaki Station (新花巻駅) to catch my connecting shinkansen ride to Morioka. But since I had some spare time before my next train, I decided to explore Kamaishi Station a little.
Sanriku Railway Rias Line train. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
Apart from being the terminal station on the Kamaishi Line, Kamaishi Station is also an intermediate station along the Sanriku Railway Rias Line. The station, along with many others on the Rias Line lines, was severely affected by the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011, and it was finally reopened in 2019 after major restoration.
Exploring Kamaishi Station and around it. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
While looking around the station, I learned that Kamaishi was one of the venues for the Rugby World Cup in 2019, which helped to revitalise the city. The disaster in 2011 affected the livelihood of numerous residents in the city and areas along the Sanriku Coast, and the sports event was a boon to rebuilding the city’s infrastructure. I remembered how the disaster severely affected the lives of the people around the region, and to see Kamaishi back on its feet was a highly encouraging sight for me.
At 3:57 pm, my train to Shin-Hanamaki Station departed from Kamaishi Station, and I bid farewell to Kamaishi. I didn’t have much time to explore the city more, but I knew that I would visit it again someday in the future. I travelled for the second time on the Kamaishi Line, and it marked the end of my railway adventure for the day.
Kamaishi Line map at Shin-Hanamaki Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
The SL Ginga was my first ever experience riding an SL train, and it was truly a memorable experience. It made me realise how railway travel can be an experience in itself and not just a mode of transport, and I learned how to enjoy the journey, not just about wondering when I will reach my destination.
Riding the SL Ginga also gave me a sense of nostalgia that I had never experienced before on a railway trip, and I hoped that it would just be the start of riding other SL trains that are still running in other parts of Japan.
Note: the SL Ginga is unfortunately slated to retire in spring 2023. Check out the article here for more details.
JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)
The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)
Planning to ride the SL Ginga and explore the Tohoku Region? Then check out the check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku 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 ¥20,000, it costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Shin-Hanamaki (~¥27,000). 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 (Tohoku 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, JR East (bottom-right)