Based on “rail” events: Japan’s world-class railways (Part 2)
In the advent of railways in Japan in the late 19th century, and its “golden age” in the 20th century, many railway tracks were laid and hence many train stations were built rapidly throughout Japan, enabling people residing in remote places to travel to different places, and over the years the mode of transport grew exponentially in popularity. To date, there are more than 30,000km of railroads in Japan, with over 20,000km belonging to JR Group, and railway tracks have permeated to the far reaches of the country, from the northernmost lands of Hokkaidō (北海道) to the furthest south of Kyūshū (九州). As a result, there are a handful of train stations that have gained interests for visitors, such as the country's northernmost and southernmost stations, and those have invoke a sense of nostalgia.
Tokyo Station. (Image credit: JR East Hotels)
For this article, as part of our celebration for the railway service in Japan for the month of October that includes Railway Day (鉄道の日 Tetsudō no hi), we will explore the less-than-usual train stations in the country, especially those with honourable titles and interesting characteristics that have attracted many people, even foreign visitors.
(Note: this is a two-part series exploring the world-class railways of Japan, and for part two, we will be focusing on the train stations.)
Map of selected train stations in Japan. (Image credit: Google Maps)
From one end to the other
When it comes to cardinal directions, the railways of Japan have reached the furthest ends that people didn’t think was possible. With people living as far northern prefecture of Hokkaidō to the deep southern prefecture of Kagoshima (鹿児島県) in Kyūshū, there’s bound to be train stations built to serve the local community and travellers venturing to the furthest ends of the mainland.
If you like to know which stations lie on which extremity in Japan, have a look below:
① Northernmost station: Wakkanai Station (稚内駅 Wakkanai-eki) in Hokkaidō; operated by JR Hokkaido
Wakkanai Station, the northernmost station in Japan. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)
② Easternmost station: Higashi-Nemuro Station (東根室駅 Higashi-Nemuro-eki) in Hokkaidō; operated by JR Hokkaido
Higashi-Nemuro Station, the easternmost train station in Japan. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)
③ Southernmost station: Nishi-Ōyama Station (西大山駅 Nishi-Ōyama-eki) in Kyūshū; operated by JR Kyushu
Nishi-Ōyama Station, the southernmost train station in Japan. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
④ Westernmost station: Tabirahiradoguchi Station (たびら平戸口駅 Tabirahiradoguchi-eki) in Hirado (平戸), Nagasaki (長崎); operated by Matsuura Railway (松浦鉄道 Matsuura tetsudō)
- Westernmost JR train station: Sasebo Station (佐世保駅 Sasebo-eki), operated by JR Kyushu
Tabirahiradoguchi Station, the westernmost (non-JR) train station in Japan. (Image credit: Hirado City)
Go low or go high
There are also some stations with their own unique quirks. For example, in the town of Minakami (みなかみ町) in Gunma Prefecture (群馬県), there is a train station on the Jōetsu Line (上越線) with an unusual layout. Known as the “mole station” (モグラ駅 mogura-eki), Doai Station (土合駅) features two single-sided platforms on different levels of the station. One platform is above ground, and is for commuters heading towards Takasaki (高崎); the other platform however, is 70m underground and is for those heading towards Echigo-Yuzawa (越後湯沢) and Nagaoka (長岡) in Niigata Prefecture (新潟県). The Nagaoka-bound platform is accessible only by a 462-step staircase, and there are no lifts or escalators either. Commuters would take around 10 minutes just to climb down and reach the platform!
Furthermore, the train station is close to Mount Tanigawa (谷川岳 Tanigawa-dake), which belongs to the "100 Famous Japanese Mountains" (日本百名山 Nihon Hyaku-meizan). Because of this, the area is crowded with many hiking enthusiasts during non-winter seasons, where they can go up the mountain via Tanigawadake Ropeway, from Doaiguchi at the bottom to Tenjindaira at the top.
Doai Station in Minakami, Gunma Prefecture. (Image credit: photoAC)
Takasaki-bound platform above ground (left), and Nagaoka-bound platform 70m underground (right). (Image credit: photoAC)
Takasaki-bound platform above ground (left), and Nagaoka-bound platform 70m underground (right). (Image credit: photoAC)
For those with adventurous hearts, they might be delighted to know that there’s a glamping site just outside Doai Station. DOAI VILLAGE is a one-of-a-kind glamping site for those who would like to spend a luxurious night at the “mole train station”, and it features facilities for accommodation, food and beverages, and even outdoor saunas. This site specially caters to travellers and hikers, and with this glamping site, the developers hope that it would help to bring more visitors to the area and revitalise the local tourism.
For more information on DOAI VILLAGE, you can have a look at their official website here (in Japanese only).
DOAI VILLAGE at Doai Station. (Image credit: DOAI VILLAGE)
On the flipside, there is another train station on the other side of the elevation spectrum. In the village of Minamimaki (南牧村) in Nagano Prefecture (長野県) is where Nobeyama Station (野辺山駅) is found, and at an altitude of 1,345.67m above sea level, it is the highest JR train station in Japan.
Nobeyama Station, the highest JR train station in Japan. (Image credit: JR East/Carissa Loh)
The station is along the Koumi Line (小海線), which is also home to some of the highest train stations in Japan. The highest elevation on this line is at 1,375m, between Nobeyama Station and Kiyosato Station (清里駅), and this elevation is also the highest among all JR lines. One special point to raise is that HIGH RAIL 1375, a Joyful Train by JR East, runs along this train line and commuters would not only pass though this station, but also enjoy the amazing highland scenery of the Yatsugatake Mountain Range.
HIGH RAIL 1375, a Joyful Train by JR East. (Image credit: JR East)
Another train line worth mentioning, when it comes to high elevations, is the Ikawa Line (井川線 Ikawa-sen) in Shizuoka, operated by Ōigawa Railway (大井川鉄道 Ōigawa-tetsudō). What’s outstanding about this line is the terrain: the trains are operating in mountainous regions, so many trains have to go up steep slopes at an unnatural angle. Trains can normally ascend up to 25 metres for every 1000 metres, equalling to 1.4 degrees.
Section between Abt Ichishiro Station and Nagashima Dam Station (left) and 90‰ gradient mark (right). (Image credit: Ōigawa Railway)
However, between Abt Ichishiro Station (アプトいちしろ駅 Aputoichishiro-eki) and Nagashima Dam Station (長島ダム駅 Nagashima-damu-eki) on the Ikawa Line, the angle goes as high as 9 degrees, or a slope of 90‰, making it the steepest track for ordinary trains in Japan. This is made possible with the use of Abt rack system which uses a tooth-shaped rail called rail rack.
Closeup of the rail rack. (Image credit: Ōigawa Railway)
The railway track opened in October 1990 for dam construction works, but prior to this, the railway track with the steepest elevation was the Usui Pass (碓氷峠 Usui-tōge) on the Shin’etsu Main Line (信越本線 Shin'etsu-honsen), before its closure to make way for the Nagano Shinkansen (now Hokuriku Shinkansen) in 1997. The Usui 3rd Bridge (碓氷第三橋梁 Usui-sandai-kyōryō) was used as a railway passage for the pass, and it is also known as Meganebashi (めがね橋 spectacles bridge) because it resembles spectacles. It is also Japan’s largest arched brick bridge, and is designated a National Important Cultural Asset in 1993.
Usui 3rd Bridge in autumn. (Image credit: ググっとぐんま写真館)
In some cases, the train stations are located in locations so remote that only a few people know exactly where they are. These train stations are known as hikyō-eki (秘境駅 secluded stations), a term coined by Ushiyama Takenobu (牛山隆信), and they were originally built to serve the local community. However, because of decreasing population within the community—as a result of urban migration and declining population nationally—ridership fell over time, and the stations became desolate.
Many secluded stations can be found in remote areas that once had more people living there in the past. Because of the mountainous terrains and sparsely populated local community, the stations serve very few commuters, and they are often served by as single train line with very few trains. But there is one particular line that has gained attention for passing through particularly remote areas. That line is the Iida Line (飯田線 Iida-sen), operated by JR Central.
The extensive line stretches from Aichi Prefecture (愛知県) to Nagano Prefecture via Shizuoka Prefecture (静岡県), and has a reputation for passing through some of the most secluded stations. In fact, five stations on this line are in the top 15 ranking for most secluded stations in Japan! Some people would ride on this line to seek out these stations, but along the way they will discover hidden gems other than just the train stations.
Kowada Station, voted the third most secluded station in Japan. (Image credit: JR Central)
For instance, Kowada Station ( 小和田駅 Kowada-eki), voted the third most secluded station in Japan, is located in the mountains of Shizuoka Prefecture. The train will make a 20-minute stop at this unmanned station and passengers can get off and explore the surrounding areas before hopping back on the train and resume your journey. Passengers will get an amazing view of the mountains and the magnificent Tenryū River (天竜川 Tenryū-gawa) right from the station platform. On a clear day, they can also spot a private house over the mountains, which would take around 40 minutes to trek to.
View of surrounding mountains and Tenryū River from Kowada Station platform. (Image credit: JR Central)
Just seven stops away from Kowada Station is Tamoto Station (田本駅 Tamoto-eki), voted the sixth most secluded station in Japan. Like Kowada Station, this unassuming station is also unattended, and only features a small shelter on the platform. Commuters looking for a nice view can get off here and climb the stairs from the platform along the cliff and see the station from atop the bridge that stretches across the railroad tracks.
View of the Iida Line’s railroad tracks from a bridge at Tamoto Station, voted the sixth most secluded station in Japan. (Image credit: JR Central)
For those who find these modest train stations charming, they can continue their journey on the Iida Line and make a stop at Kinno Station (金野駅 Kinno-eki), voted the seventh most secluded station in Japan, and 3 stops away from Tamoto Station. This one is also unattended and only has a shelter on the platform. One interesting point to note: among all the 94 train stations along the Iida Line, this station has the fewest passengers on average, with less than 200 per year for the last few years.
Kinno Station, voted the seventh most secluded station in Japan. (Image credit: JR Central)
Just one away from Kowada Station is the eleventh most secluded station in Japan: Nakaisamurai Station (中井侍駅 Nakaisamurai-eki). This station, akin to the other secluded stops along the Iida Line, is unattended and only has a waiting room for passengers. According to Nagano Prefecture’s official statistics, the average number of passengers boarding from this station per day is less than 10.
Nakaisamurai Station, the eleventh most secluded station in Japan. (Image credit: JR Central)
One honourable mention is the Shiteguri Station (為栗駅 Shiteguri-eki), yet another secluded station (ranked #14) that is also on the Iida Line. One outstanding feature about this station is its amazing view from the platform, especially in autumn. It also has the largest viewpoint among all the secluded stations on the line, so it is definitely worth checking out.
View from Shiteguri Station platform. (Image credit: JR Central)
Passengers on the Iida Line might notice that a particular section that’s a little peculiar. Between Shironishi Station (城西駅 Shironishi-eki) and Mukaichiba Station (向市場駅 Mukaichiba-eki), there is an S-shaped iron bridge where the line curves along a cliff. Perhaps unnoticeable to many passengers, what’s unique about it is how the bridge enables trains to bypass the cliff blocking the path by crossing from one side of the Misakubo River (塩郷川 Misakubo-gawa) to the other and back. In the past, the original plan was to dig a tunnel for this section. Unfortunately, it collapsed and the plan was scrapped, so the alternative was to built a bridge to go around the cliff instead. This is a rarity for railroads in Japan so for those seeking out secluded stations on the Iida Line, they should look out for this specific bridge.
The S-shaped iron bridge along the Iida Line. (Image credit: JR Central)
A "secluded train service"?
The main challenge with exploring secluded train stations, as many would expect, is that it’s a troublesome feat. For the Iida Line, there are 94 stations altogether and it would be extremely time consuming to visit all secluded station in a day. Luckily, JR Central has a train specially for people who want to explore them.
Express Iida Line Hikyō Station Train. (Image credit: JR Central)
The train’s logo. (Image credit: JR Central)
It is called Express Iida Line Hikyō Station Train (飯田線秘境駅号 Iida-sen Hikyō-gō), and it has been running since 2010. The train service runs mainly in spring and autumn seasons where passengers not only explore the secluded stations, but also marvel at the beautiful cherry blossoms in spring or autumn foliage in autumn. Since its commencement, they have been many repeated visitors, and this year, the train celebrates its 10th anniversary.
If you like to know more about this train, you can have a look at the official website here (in Japanese only).
Train running through beautiful foliage during autumn. (Image credit: JR Central)
And then there are stations with other honourable titles, such as one closest to the sea. There are a number of contenders, but the title goes to Ōmigawa Station (青海川駅 Ōmigawa-eki) in Niigata Prefecture, found on the Shin’etsu Main Line (信越本線 Shin'etsu-honsen), and operated by JR East.
Ōmigawa Station in Niigata Prefecture. (Image credit: photoAC)
Better yet, the Joyful Train Koshino Shu*Kura stops here too, so sake lovers on board the train would also get to enjoy a wonderful view during their trip. My colleague Carissa wrote an article about the train, and you can have a look at it here.
Koshino Shu*Kura by JR East. (Image credit: JR East)
But for those purely interested in finding stations with picturesque settings, the following stations are lauded for their beautiful surroundings (listed in order of region, northernmost to southernmost):
① Kitahama Station (北浜駅 Kitahama-eki) on the Senmō Main Line (釧網本線 Senmō-honsen) in Abashiri (網走), Hokkaidō; operated by JR Hokkaido
Kitahama Station in Hokkaidō. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)
② Todoroki Station (驫木駅 Todoroki-eki) on the Gonō Line (五能線 Gonō-sen) in Fukaura (深浦), Aomori Prefecture (青森県 Aomori-ken); operated by JR East
Todoroki Station in Aomori Prefecture. (Image credit: photoAC)
The Gonō Line is also widely regarded to be one of the most scenic train routes, offering passengers with a magnificent coastal view as it stretches between prefectures Akita (秋田) and Aomori. The Joyful Train Resort Shirakami passes by this station, although it doesn't stop here.
Resort Shirakami along the Gonō Line. (Image credit: JR East)
③ Obasute Station (姨捨駅 Obasute-eki) on the Shinonoi Line (篠ノ井線 Shinonoi-sen) in Chikuma (千曲), Nagano Prefecture; operated by JR East
View from Obasute Station platform. (Image credit: photoAC)
It is also worth noting that the Joyful Train Resort View Furusato also makes a stop at this picturesque station. I wrote about this before, so do have a look!
Resort View Furusato by JR East. (Image credit: JR East)
④ Okuōikojō Station (奥大井湖上駅 Okuōikojō-eki) in Kawanehon (川根本), Shizuoka Prefecture; operated by Ōigawa Railway
Okuōikojō Station, with the Ikawa Line stretching over the Ōi River, in Shizuoka. (Image credit: Ōigawa Railway)
⑤ Jōkōji Station (定光寺駅 Jōkōji-eki) on the the Chūō Main Line (中央本線 Chūō-honsen) in Aichi Prefecture (愛知県); operated by JR Central
Jōkōji Station in Aichi Prefecture (left) and autumn foliage in surrounding area (right). (Image credit: JR Central)
⑥ Amaharashi Station (雨晴駅 Amaharashi-eki) on the Himi Line (氷見線 Himi-sen) in Takaoka (高岡), Toyama Prefecture (富山県 Toyama-ken); operated by JR West
Amaharashi Station with the Tateyama Mountains in background. (Image credit: Pixta)
⑦ Amarube Station (餘部駅 Amarube-eki) on the San’in Main Line (山陰本線 San'in-honsen) in Kami (香美), Hyōgo Prefecture (兵庫県 Hyōgo-ken); operated by JR West
View from Amarube Station platform. (Image credit: photoAC)
There is a railway bridge named Amarube Viaduct on the San’in Main Line section between Amarube Station and Yoroi Station (鎧駅 Yoroi-eki). Originally built in 1912, the bridge was replaced a few years ago and a new station named “Empty Station” (空の駅 kara-no-eki) was built. Visitors can walk on the railroad track on the old bridge, and there is also a lift that descends below.
For more information on this bridge, you can have a look at their official website here (in Japanese only).
Amarube Viaduct below the San’in Main Line. (Image credit: Hyogo Tourism)
⑧ Shimonada Station (下灘駅 Shimonada-eki) on the Yosan Line (予讃線 Yosan-sen) in Ehime Prefecture (愛媛県 Ehime-ken), Shikoku (四国); operated by JR Shikoku
Shimonada Station in Ehime Prefecture. (Image credit: JR East/Carissa Loh)
⑨ Chiwata Station (千綿駅 Chiwata-eki) on the Ōmura Line (大村線 Ōmura-sen) in Higashisonogi (東彼杵), Nagasaki Prefecture; operated by JR Kyushu
Chiwata Station in Nagasaki Prefecture. (Image credit: 長崎県観光連盟)
Sunset view outside Chiwata Station. (Image credit: 長崎県観光連盟)
⑩ Kareigawa Station (嘉例川駅 Kareigawa-eki) on the Hisatsu Line (肥薩線 Hisatsu-sen) in Kirishima (霧島), Kagoshima Prefecture; operated by JR Kyushu
Kareigawa Station in Kagoshima. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
Surrounding greenery at Kareigawa Station. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
Out of bounds
For a picture-perfect station that is close to Tokyo, there is the Umi-Shibaura Station (海芝浦駅 Umi-shibaura-eki). Found on the Tsurumi Line (鶴見線 Tsurumi-sen) operated by JR East, and located in Yokohama (横浜) in Kanagawa Prefecture (神奈川県), this station is unlike most others because it’s not exactly accessible to the public. That’s because it’s within the premises of Toshiba Corporation, and only employees and authorised personnel can access this station. Even if one exits the ticket gate, they cannot leave because it’s directly connected to the corporation’s compound.
View from Umi-Shibaura Station platform. (Image credit: photoAC)
Nevertheless, many visitors come for the view around the station, and on a clear day, visitors can see the magnificent Yokohama Bay Bridge. To accommodate to the visitors, Toshiba has since developed a park within the premises named Umishiba Park, and visitors can access this park from the station. Visitors must note however, that taking photos of the surrounding buildings is strictly prohibited by the corporation.
Bonus: a statue of a peeing boy?
Travellers arriving in Tokyo would normally take the train to get to the city from the airport. If they’re coming in from Haneda Airport (羽田空港 Haneda-kūkō), they would be highly familiar with Hamamatsucho Station (浜松町駅 Hamamatsuchō-eki), the gateway station between the airport and Tokyo metropolitan area. Although tens of thousands of commuters use this station each day, many wouldn’t realise that there’s a peculiar statue found here.
Manneken Pis, front (left) and back (right), at Hamamatsucho Station. (Image credit: JR East)
At the corner of the busy train station stands a Manneken Pis, a statue of a boy urinating into a fountain, and a replica of the original 17th-century fountain sculpture at Brussels, Belgium. Like its original European counterpart, it also has the bizarre tradition of having a wardrobe makeover on a regular basis. The makeover is scheduled every 26th of each month by the volunteer group Ajisai (あじさい hydrangeas) made up of elderly volunteer women, and the costumes change according to the month/occasion:
- April → Newly enrolled schoolboy uniform carrying a school bag
- May → Children's Day outfit with a carp streamer
- July → Pokémon costume during the Pokémon Stamp Rally
- December → Santa Claus outfit
- Ultraman stamp rally → Ultraman costume
- Fire Prevention Week → Firefighter costume
- And now, in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic → facial mask
When you visit Tokyo again soon, and you’re making your way to the city from Haneda Airport, be sure to drop by Hamamatsucho Station and look for this adorable landmark!
As the demands of train commuters evolve over time, it becomes essential that railway companies rethink their services and upgrade their trains periodically. The trains of Japan have impressed people from all over the world, and it continues to improve in hopes of attracting even more people to visit the country and travelling with them. Plan your next “rail-ly” awesome train journey in Japan and explore the amazing trains for your next adventure!
(INSIDER TIP: If you have the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), you can travel on the JR East Lines in Tohoku Region and make reservations for free! Or, if you have the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), you can travel on the JR East Lines in Nagano and Niigata and also make seat reservations for free!)
JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)
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 areas. It's a 5-day flexible pass where you can choose any 5 days within a 14-day period for your travel, and the 5 days need not be consecutive either. It's ¥19,350 when you buy it overseas, making it a considerable option for rail travellers. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free.
JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)
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. It's a 5-day flexible pass where you can choose any 5 days within a 14-day period for your travel, and the 5 days need not be consecutive either. It's ¥17,310 when you buy it overseas, making it a considerable option for rail travellers. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free.
Header image credit: JR East Hotels