Reliving 「Night on the Galactic Railroad」 and other fairy tales with the SL Ginga
All aboard! One of only two steam locomotive (SL) trains running in the Tohoku Region, the magical SL Ginga (SL 銀河) brings to life Miyazawa Kenji’s (宮澤賢治) beloved classic “Night on the Galactic Railroad” (銀河鉄道の夜 Ginga Tetsudо̄ no Yoru).
The fairy tale tells the story of a young boy traversing the galaxy on an enchanted railway, and along the way learning about true happiness and the meaning of life. Similarly, the SL Ginga hopes to take you on a fantastic journey through the countryside of Iwate Prefecture (岩手県), and to bring happiness to its riders and the people it passes by.
Origins of the SL Ginga
Exterior of the SL Ginga. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Running along the JR Kamaishi Line (釜石線) in Iwate Prefecture, the SL Ginga was restored from the C58 239 SL train, in order to revitalise the disaster-stricken region after the 2011 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami (東日本大震災 Higashi-nihon daishinsai).
A native of Iwate Prefecture, Miyazawa Kenji hailed from the region of Hanamaki, and the SL Ginga plies the route between JR Hanamaki Station and JR Kamaishi Station. Taking inspiration from Miyazawa’s works, the train’s exterior is a deep galaxy blue emblazoned with stars and constellations.
The C58 239 SL train on display at a park before its restoration. (Image credit: JR East Morioka Branch)
Originally built in 1940, the C58 239 SL train was retired in 1972 and kept on display in a prefectural park, where it remained well-preserved for decades. Restoring it to a functional train still took considerable time, but thanks to the hard work of the crew, in April 2014 the train was reborn as the SL Ginga, making its debut to the delight of the local community. In 2020, the SL Ginga celebrates its 6th anniversary.
Local volunteers wishing train passengers a safe trip. (Image credit: JR East Morioka Branch)
Reborn from the love and dreams of the Tohoku people, the SL Ginga doesn’t only connect you to your destination, it also connects the hearts of the people who encounter it. When you ride the train, along the journey you will see and feel the welcoming hospitality of the locals, which will surely bring a smile to your face and warm the cockles of your heart.
Inside the SL Ginga
Being a huge fan of themed trains, I had always wanted to ride the SL Ginga, but never got to, as it does not run frequently. In August 2019, I finally got to ride this much-loved train—my first ever SL train experience.
Seats on the SL Ginga. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Once I boarded the SL Ginga, it felt like I had stepped back in time to the early 20th century, when Miyazawa Kenji lived. As you take in the atmosphere of the vintage-style booth seats covered in red velvet, complemented with metallic hardware and stained-glass style windows, you will be hit with a wave of nostalgia.
A red carpet is rolled out in the middle of the aisle, providing a luxurious path to your seat. You can visit this site for a virtual panoramic tour of the interior of the SL Ginga.
Boxed seat on the SL Ginga. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
All 176 seats on board this four-carriage train are four-person boxed seats, which sets you up for spontaneous conversations with fellow passengers. I travelled alone, and seated with me was a couple with their train-loving young son, headed to Hanamaki for a weekend getaway to relax at the onsen (温泉 hot springs). Seeing that I was a foreign tourist, they shared with me a simplified version of “Night on the Galactic Railroad”, and recommended some of their favourite places to visit around Iwate. Sometimes, it is unplanned encounters like these that make a trip memorable.
Activities on the SL Ginga
Enjoying ekiben on the SL Ginga. (Image credit: JR East)
For avid rail travellers, ekiben (駅弁 lunch boxes for eating on trains) is an essential part of the train ride. Usually bought at stations before boarding the train, most ekiben feature ingredients or dishes that are unique in the region they are sold in. As the SL Ginga runs in Iwate, many of the ekiben feature seafood caught from the Sanriku Coast.
Planetarium show ticket (left) and inside the planetarium (right). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa (left) and JR East (right))
In line with the train’s galaxy theme, there is an optical planetarium in Car 1, and passengers can sit in for a short planetarium show. Did you know? SL Ginga is the first Joyful Train to have its own planetarium on board. The second is the HIGH RAIL 1375, which features a domed planetarium. For me, this is definitely a must-see when riding the SL Ginga.
Once you enter the planetarium, it turns pitch-black and the show begins, projecting constellations and thousands of stars onto the ceiling. In an instant, I felt like I was transported into space. In order not to disturb the show, photography is not permitted inside the planetarium.
The planetarium shows are free, but tickets are required (first-come-first-served). Once you get on the train, head over to Car 1, look for the attendant on duty and ask for a ticket to the show. Do take note of the times on the ticket; the first time is the gathering time (please gather outside the planetarium room), and the second time is the time that the show starts.
Miyazawa Kenji Galleries
Miyazawa Kenji Galleries on the SL Ginga. (Image credit: JR East)
All over the train are mini galleries dedicated to Miyazawa Kenji and the Tohoku region. Revolving around three main themes, the galleries bring Miyazawa’s world to life. There is a section on Ihatov, Miyazawa’s ideal city, which he talked about in his poems. You can also find items associated with Miyazawa's beloved Tohoku region on display.
Nambu ironware pots and astrology display. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
In Car 3, there is a showcase of Nambu ironware pots. Nambu ironware (南部鉄器 Nanbu-tekki) is a traditional cast iron craft from Iwate Prefecture, and is considered by many to be one of the best metalwork in Japan. It is said that water boiled in Nambu ironware pots are extra delicious due to the iron and minerals that get released into the water. I personally have not tried it yet, but if I can afford to buy a Nambu ironware pot someday, perhaps in the future I will give it a taste and let you know!
Beside the planetarium in Car 1 is a corner dedicated to astrology lovers, which has Miyazawa’s interpretation of horoscopes.
Gachapon on the SL Ginga. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
In Car 2, there is a small library corner where you can read some of Miyazawa Kenji’s works. In addition to the books, there is also a gachapon (capsule) machine, where each try is only ¥100. Inside these capsules are pin badges with quotes from Miyazawa’s literary works. Not just an author, Miyazawa was also a philosopher who incorporated his ideals into his works.
There is a total of 50 designs for the badges, and the colours represent the category of the quotes. I tried three times, getting one yellow, and two dark blue badges. Dark blue represents the galaxy, and has quotes relating to galaxies, the universe, moon or stars.
Memories of a trip on the SL Ginga
Commemorative post card
Commemorative post card. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Riders will get a commemorative postcard as a souvenir of their ride on the SL Ginga. After receiving it, head over to Car 4 to stamp the back with an old-school stamp press! The back of the postcard also has illustrations of the specially decorated station signboards for the stations that the SL Ginga stops at.
Souvenirs and gifts
Souvenirs on sale on board the SL Ginga. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Car 4 is also where the souvenir gift shop is located. Here you can get your fix of exclusive SL Ginga-themed items to bring home for your family and friends (or for yourself). There are A4 files, candies, tote bags, keychains, pens and more.
Souvenirs from a ride on the SL Ginga. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The friendly train attendants will also be going around the carriages with a conductor’s cap and signboard props, to help you take commemorative photos of your journey on board the SL Ginga. As souvenirs, I took this photo and bought some SL GInga-themed keychains.
SL Ginga confectionery at major stations
SL Ginga x Kamome no Tamago collaboration. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Kamome no Tamago (かもめの玉子) is perhaps Iwate’s most famous souvenir. It is a delightful sponge cake filled with sweetened white bean paste, and coated with white chocolate, resembling the egg of a seagull, which is what its name literally translates to.
In a special collaboration, you might spot this limited-edition SL Ginga version of Kamome no Tamago, which has a chocolate filling and dark chocolate coating instead. There is even a version that comes in special packaging shaped like a train!
Another popular souvenir from Iwate is nanbu senbei (南部せんべい), which also has a limited-edition SL Ginga version.
Train photography and warm welcomes at Miyamori Station
The SL Ginga crossing the Miyamorigawa Bridge. (Image credit: JR East)
SL trains run infrequently, and they have garnered many fans and enthusiasts, who prefer to take photos of the train instead of riding it. The most scenic and well-known photo-taking spot for the SL Ginga is a short 700m walk from JR Miyamori Station (宮守駅). From this viewpoint, you can see the train crossing the Miyamorigawa Bridge (宮守川橋梁 Miyamorigawa kyо̄ryо̄), which is affectionately nicknamed “Glasses Bridge” (メガネ橋 Megane-bashi) due to the shape of its arches.
The view of the steam billowing from the train as it crosses the arched bridge is a magical sight to behold, and will take you back to the stories you read as a child. To Harry Potter fans, it might even remind them of the Hogwarts’ Express.
Crowd welcoming the SL Ginga as it crosses the Miyamorigawa Bridge. (Image credit: JR East Morioka Branch)
You might think that only photographers would camp out and wait for the train to pass by, but more often than not, most of the people waiting are everyday people from the local community, gathering at the viewpoint to welcome visitors with their energetic waving. Give them a wave back when you see them!
A recharging break at Tono Station
Along the route, the SL Ginga makes a 1-hour stop at JR Tо̄no Station (遠野駅), where it replenishes its water and coal supply, and disposes of ash waste.
The SL Ginga refuelling at Tono Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Unlike modern electric trains, SL trains consume large amounts of water and coal to run. For a 251km round-trip, the SL Ginga consumes 34 tonnes of water and four tonnes of coal, more than it can carry. As the train cannot carry so much water for the entire journey, the train makes pit-stops at Tono Station on both the inbound and outbound journeys for refuelling.
A refuelled SL Ginga coupling at Tono Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Since train stops for more than an hour at Tono Station, don't miss your chance to get up-close and witness the behind-the-scenes hard work that goes into the upkeep of an SL train, a rare sight that is definitely a treat for locomotive fans! You can even witness the cars decouple and couple as the train is refuelled at this station.
Many Japanese SL enthusiasts buy special entrance tickets that let them enter Tono Station when the SL Ginga stops there. These ¥150 tickets allow them to enter the platform and get close to the SL Ginga, even if they are not going to ride the train.
Learn about Japanese folklore at Tono
Kappa statues outside Tono Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Tono is said to be the hometown of Japanese folklore, and is well-known for the legends of spirits and supernatural creatures originating in the area.
Perhaps the most popular creature is the kappa (河童), which is said to be a water-dwelling troll that kidnaps and eats children. The tale of the kappa serves as a reminder for children to be careful when around bodies of water.
Inside the Tono Monogatari no Yakata. (Image credit: 公益財団法人 岩手県観光協会
Tono’s local legends and stories were mostly passed down orally, until they were collected and published into a book, “Legends of Tono” (遠野物語 Tōno Monogatari) in 1910. This book is said to be one of the first collections of Japanese folk tales, and you can find out more about the stories mentioned in it at the Tono Monogatari no Yakata (とおの物語の館), a local museum where videos, live readings, sculptures and ehibits bring these treasured tales to life. Since the museum is within walking distance from Tono Station, why not take a short detour here while you wait for the train to refuel?
Tono Monogatari no Yakata (とおの物語の館)
Address: 2-11 Chūō-dōro, Tōno, Iwate 028-0523
Access: The Tono Monogatari no Yakata is an 8-minute walk from JR Tōno Station.
Opening hours: 9:00–17:00
Grand send-offs and welcomes at Hanamaki and Kamaishi
Shishi odori send-off at Hanamaki Station. (Image credit: JR East)
You’re in for a special treat if you board the SL Ginga from the starting station of Hanamaki, or if you get off at Kamaishi Station on a Saturday. At Hanamaki Station, you will sent off with a shishi odori (鹿踊り deer dance) performance, a traditional performing arts from Hanamaki. At Kamaishi Station, you will be welcomed by a toramai (虎舞 tiger dance) performance. These performances are arranged by local volunteers, town councils and tourism committees, who are eager to welcome you to their cities.
Relax at a hot spring at Hanamaki
Rose garden and hot springs at Hanamaki Onsen. (Image credit: Hotel Hanamaki)
Surrounded by abundant nature, Hanamaki Onsen (花巻温泉) is best known for its outdoor hot springs (露天風呂 rotenburo), beautiful rose garden, and the flowerbed sundial designed by Miyazawa Kenji. Roses are in season from late June to September, when some hotels even have rose baths. The hot spring village is easily accessible from both JR Hanamaki Station and JR Shin-Hanamaki Station.
Hanamaki Onsen (花巻温泉)
Address: 1-125 Yumoto, Hanamaki-shi, Iwate 025-0304
Access: Free shuttle bus (20-minute ride) from JR Shin-Hanamaki Station for staying guests, or a 20-minute ride on a local bus from JR Hanamaki Station.
Explore the world of Miyazawa Kenji at Shin-Hanamaki
The Miyazawa Kenji Fairy Tale Village. (Image credit: 公益財団法人 岩手県観光協会)
If you are a fan of Miyazawa Kenji’s works, then you would not want to miss these two places, which are both easily accessible from JR Shin-Hanamaki Station (新花巻駅). The Miyazawa Kenji Fairy Tale Village (宮澤賢治童話村 Miyazawa Kenji Dо̄wa Mura) is where you can get immersed in the world of Miyazawa’s fairy tales. Built according to his works, the four areas of the village bring you characters and settings from the novels.
Miyazawa Kenji Fairy Tale Village (宮澤賢治童話村)
Address: 26-19 Takamatsu, Hanamak-shi, Iwate 025-0014
Access: From JR Shin-Hanamaki Station, take a 2-minute bus ride to Miyazawa Kenji Kinen-kan Bus Stop. The Fairy Tale Village is a 2-minute walk from the bus stop.
Opening hours: 8:30–16:30
The Miyazawa Kenji Memorial Museum. (Image credit: 公益財団法人 岩手県観光協会)
If you’d prefer to learn more about the life and times of Miyazawa, the Miyazawa Kenji Memorial Museum (宮澤賢治記念館 Miyazawa Kenji Kinen-kan) is where you can find out about the man’s ideas and imagination.
Miyazawa Kenji Memorial Museum (宮澤賢治記念館)
Address: 1 Chiwari-1-36 Yasawa, Hanamaki-shi, Iwate 025-0011
Access: From JR Shin-Hanamaki Station, take a 2-minute bus ride to Miyazawa Kenji Kinen-kan Bus Stop. The Museum is a 10-minute walk from the bus stop.
Opening hours: 8:30–17:00
A Trip on the SL Ginga
The SL Ginga plies the route between JR Hanamaki Station (花巻駅) and JR Kamaishi Station (釜石駅) on the JR Kamaishi Line (釜石線).
A memorable trip awaits on the SL Ginga. (Image credit: JR East Morioka Branch)
Due to the large amount of resources required to operate the train, the SL Ginga only makes a one-way trip for each day of operation, which is mostly on weekends. Usually, the SL Ginga will make the outbound trip from JR Hanamaki Station to JR Kamaishi Station on a Saturday, with the inbound trip from JR Kamaishi Station to JR Hanamaki Station on the following day.
- If you’re coming from Morioka, JR Shin-Hanamaki Station (新花巻駅) is only 10 minutes by bullet train on the Tōhoku Shinkansen from JR Morioka Station (盛岡駅).
- If you’re coming from Tokyo, JR Shin-Hanamaki Station is around 3 hours by bullet train on the Tōhoku Shinkansen from JR Tōkyō Station (東京駅).
JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)
The new JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)
If you are visiting the Tohoku region to ride the SL Ginga and explore the rest of Iwate Prefecture, check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku 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 ¥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.
NOTE: From 1 April 2021, there have been some changes in the validity and pricing of the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area). For more information, please check here.
Header image credit: JR East