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Feel the power of an SL train and discover Gunma’s gems: SL Gunma

Feel the power of an SL train and discover Gunma’s gems: SL Gunma

Choo choo! Many of us get excited when we hear the whistling of a steam locomotive (SL) train, don’t we? A big hit amongst railway enthusiasts, SL trains offer a glimpse into the past, and let us live out childhood fantasies of riding a choo-choo train. Although most SL trains were built in the 1930s and 1940s, the good news is that some of them have been well-preserved and restored, and today you can still enjoy riding them in certain parts of Japan.

 

JR East operates three SL train routes: SL Ginga (SL銀河) on the Kamaishi Line in Iwate Prefecture, SL Banetsu Monogatari (SLばんえつ物語) on the Ban-etsu West Line in Niigata and Fukushima Prefectures, and SL Gunma (SLぐんま) on the Joetsu and Shin-etsu Main Lines in Gunma Prefecture (群馬県). In this article, let’s check out at what makes SL Gunma special, and how railway history fans, hot spring lovers, and nature enthusiasts can enjoy a trip with this train!

 

The two steam locomotives: D51 498 and C61 20

While most SL trains in operation are C type trains, which were built for pulling passenger cars, there also exist the more powerful D type trains, which were originally built for pulling freight cars. Very rarely will you get a chance to experience riding these, but guess what? One of them, the D51 498, has been repurposed for the SL Gunma!

 

The D51 498 and C61 20. (Image credit: JR East)

 

Together with the C61 20, these two SL trains take turns to make the SL Gunma’s trips between Takasaki Station (高崎駅) and either Minakami Station (水上駅) (SL Gunma Minakami) or Yokokawa Station (横川駅) (SL Gunma Yokokawa).

 

The C61 20 was originally built for pulling passengers, so it gives a smoother and more comfortable ride. On the other hand, due to its origins as a freight-pulling train, the D51 498 has smaller wheels which let it handle uphill tracks better, but these also cause greater vibrations in the train, so passengers can really feel the “power” of the D51 498 when riding it.  

 

In the past, the D51 498 operated at a top speed of 85 km/h, while the C61 20 was capable of higher speeds—a maximum speed of 100 km/h. However, in order to protect these decades-old locomotives, both currently operate at about 60km/h.

 

Inside the SL Gunma

In addition to the two different steam locomotives, the SL Gunma also has two different passenger cars: the old-style passenger cars (旧型客車 kyūgata kyakusha) and the 12 series passenger cars (12系客車 12-kei kyakusha).

 

The old-style passenger cars were recently refurbished. (Image credit: JR East Takasaki Branch Office and JR East)

 

The old-style passenger cars were built between 1938 and 1955, but were recently refurbished in spring 2020, gaining warm wood-toned interiors that mimic the atmosphere of SL trains of the past. A new lounge was also installed, where passengers can purchase drinks, snacks, and souvenirs, and even rent card games and origami. The lounge also features box seats, which groups with children can reserve to use (for free) for 15 minutes on a first-come-first-served basis. Note: Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the sale of goods and reservation of box seat spaces are currently suspended.

 

 

The interior and exterior of a 12 series passenger car. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The 12 series passenger cars were built in 1978, and made with a striking blue exterior and pioneering features like air-conditioning and automatic doors. Back then, these features were considered advanced, and the 12 series passenger cars were the first to utilise them, making the 12 series passenger cars a model for passenger trains of the former Japanese National Railways (JNR).

 

C61 20 paired with 12 series passenger cars. (Image credit: JR East)

 

Depending on the day of operation, one steam locomotive (either D51 498 or C61 20) will pair with one type of passenger car (either old-style or 12 series), and run either the SL Gunma Yokokawa or SL Gunma Minakami route. Be sure to check the train schedule and timetable if you’d like to know what you’ll be riding.

 

Ekiben, the perfect companion for a train trip

Don’t forget to get an ekiben. (Image credit: マッコウクジラ/駅弁資料館)

 

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, dishes, or designs from the region that they are sold in. If you are departing from Takasaki Station, don’t forget to grab a special SL ekiben at Takasaki Station. These ekiben are made to resemble the SL Gunma’s steam locomotives, and are only sold on days that the SL Gunma is in operation.

 

There are two types of special SL ekiben, modelled after the two SL trains, and you can keep the box and chopsticks as souvenirs! The Joshu D51 (上州 D51) ekiben has bamboo charcoal rice to resemble the coal needed to fuel an SL train, while the SL Rokuichi Monogatari (SLロクイチ物語) ekiben features a spicy bibimbap to represent the power and heat of an SL train.

 

Exclusive experiences for children

SL trains are a big hit among children. (Image credit: JR East Takasaki Branch Office and JR East)

 

SL trains are wildly popular with Japanese children, and due to Gunma’s proximity to Tokyo and other large cities in the Kanto area, the SL Gunma is perfect for families coming from these areas. The train even offers some fun activities and experiences for children to partake in, such as taking commemorative photos in a train driver’s outfit, or experiencing being a train conductor—even making live announcements on the train! Note: Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, these activities are currently suspended.

 

Compared to JR East’s other SL trains, which have routes that take 3–5 hours, SL Gunma’s routes are much shorter, taking only 1–2 hours. This shorter travelling time makes the SL Gunma a very popular and feasible day trip or weekend getaway. Let’s check out what we can explore on the SL Gunma’s two routes:

 

① For railway lovers: SL Gunma Yokokawa

The SL Gunma Yokokawa (SLぐんま よこかわ) runs between JR Takasaki Station and JR Yokokawa Station on the Shin-etsu Main Line (信越本線 Shin’etsu honsen), a trip that takes about 1 hour. I highly recommend this route for those who really enjoy railway history and hiking, as Yokokawa has many places to pique your interest.

 

Exterior of Yokokawa Station. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Before the opening of the Nagano Shinkansen (now Hokuriku Shinkansen) in 1997, trains would transit at Yokokawa, where EF63 electric locomotives would connect to the trains before they continued their journeys towards Karuizawa via the Usui Pass (碓氷峠 Usuitо̄ge). The Usui Pass had a steep 66.7% gradient, and was where Japan’s first Abt-system railway (rack and pinion railway) was used. After the opening of the shinkansen route, the railway tracks between Yokokawa and Karuizawa were abandoned, and Yokokawa became a terminal station.

 

Usuitouge Railway Heritage Park

Usuitouge Railway Heritage Park is a popular railway theme park. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Just a 3-minute walk from Yokokawa Station is the Usuitouge Railway Heritage Park (碓氷峠鉄道文化むら Usuitо̄ge Tetsudо̄ Bunkamura), a popular railway theme park that exhibits history about the Former Usui Line (旧碓氷線 Kyū Usui-sen) and showcases vehicles formerly used on the abandoned railway between Yokokawa and Karuizawa, such as an Abt rack locomotive, EF63 trains, and other retro trains.

 

In addition to learning more about the history and looking at the old train vehicles, visitors can also experience riding mini SL trains and open-air torokko trains, and even try out operating an EF63 electric locomotive train themselves!

 

Usuitouge Railway Heritage Park (碓氷峠鉄道文化むら)
Address: 407-16 Yokokawa, Matsuida-machi, Annaka-shi, Gunma 379-0301
Access: 3-minute walk from JR Yokokawa Station (横川駅)
Opening hours: 9:00–17:00 (March–October) / 9:00–16:30 (November–February) / Closed every Tuesday (except August) and during the year-end (29 December to 4 January)
Admission fee: ¥500/pax (middle school and above), ¥300/pax (elementary school), free for children below elementary school age
Note: Additional charges apply for riding mini SL trains / open-air torokko trains, and operating the EF63.

 

Usui 3rd Bridge and Abt Road

The Usui 3rd Bridge in different seasons. (Image credit: ググっとぐんま写真館)

 

While at Yokokawa, railway buffs should definitely check out the Usui 3rd Bridge (碓氷第三橋梁 Usui Daisan Kyōryō), an architectural marvel of a bridge made up of over 2 million red bricks. Built in 1892, this historic bridge was formerly used by trains travelling between Yokokawa and Karuizawa, and is affectionately dubbed Meganebashi (めがね橋 Glasses Bridge) as its four arches resemble a pair of glasses.

 

The Usui 3rd Bridge is Japan’s largest arched brick bridge, and is an Important Cultural Property, together with other structures of the Former Usui Pass Railway. After the introduction of electric trains, the bridge and the Abt-system railway track were abandoned in 1963, and are now part of the 6km-long Abt Road trail (アプトの道 Aputo-no-Michi), a nature trail following the abandoned Abt-system railway of the Former Usui Line.

 

Enjoy scenic views along the Abt Road trail. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

The Usui 3rd Bridge is about a 100-minute walk from JR Yokokawa Station along the Abt Road trail, and I highly recommend walking instead of taking a taxi or bus. The Abt Road trail passes by many picturesque bridges and tunnels, as well as local scenic spots like Lake Usui, which make for great photos. Autumn is a wonderful time to visit the Abt Road trail, as it turns especially beautiful when the surrounding trees turn various shades of yellow, orange, and red!

 

Usui 3rd Bridge (碓氷第三橋梁)
Address: Sakamoto, Matsuida-machi, Annaka-shi, Gunma
Access: 100-minute walk along the Apt Road trail or 15-minute bus ride (seasonal operation) from JR Yokokawa Station (横川駅)
Admission fee: Free

 

Abandoned Railway Walk

Go on an Abandoned Railway Walk. (Image credit: JR East Takasaki Branch Office)

 

Die-hard railway history fans mustn’t miss the exclusive Abandoned Railway Walk (廃線ウォーク Haisen Uōku)! Started in 2018 by the Annaka City Tourism Association, this special tour leads participants on a hike along the Former Shin-etsu Main Line New Line (旧信越本線新線 Kyū Shin’etsu Honsen Shinsen) tracks between Yokokawa and Karuizawa. Some sections are usually off-limits to visitors, but participants of the Abandoned Railway Walk will specially be allowed to walk along these tracks, so it’s definitely a special treat for railway fans.

 

Normally, the regular tour departs from Karuizawa, but passengers of the SL Gunma can enjoy a special edition of the tour that departs from Yokokawa Station and matches with the arrival of the SL Gunma Yokokawa. You can view a map of the route here (Japanese only).

 

Toge no Kamameshi, Yokokawa’s iconic ekiben. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

For lunch, participants will be able to try the famous Toge no Kamameshi (峠の釜めし) ekiben, an iconic ekiben of Yokokawa, which originated back in the days when trains transited at Yokokawa Station on the way to the Usui Pass. Connecting the EF63 electric locomotive and the train took several minutes, so vendors used this time to sell ekiben to passengers waiting on the trains. Even today, Toge no Kamameshi is still a well-loved ekiben representative of Gunma, and easily recognised by its unique earthenware container.

 

Abandoned Railway Walk (廃線ウォーク)
Access: Departs from Yokokawa Station
Tour fee: ¥6,500/pax (includes tour fee, lunch, event insurance)
Additional information: Participants are required to have a helmet and light (headlight or flashlight). Please bring your own, or rent them at an additional cost.

 

② Discover Gunma’s rich nature: SL Gunma Minakami

While the SL Gunma Yokokawa runs on a line rich in railway history, the other route, the SL Gunma Minakami (SLぐんま みなかみ), runs on a line rich in nature. The SL Gunma Minakami runs between JR Takasaki Station and JR Minakami Station on the Joetsu Line (上越線 Jо̄etsu-sen), a trip that takes about 2 hours.

 

Stations that the SL Gunma passes by have special station signboards, like this at Takasaki Station and Minakami Station. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Gunma may be a landlocked prefecture, but it has stunning mountains and high-quality hot spring resorts, many of which can be easily accessed along the Joetsu Line. But before we check out these scenic places, let’s take a look at a special event that takes place at Minakami Station.

 

Railway turntable

On days that the SL Gunma operates, keep an eye out for this incredible sight at Minakami Station: the SL train being rotated on a railway turntable.

 

Railway turntables are used to reverse the direction of the SL train. (Image credit: JR East Takasaki Branch Office)

 

Most modern trains have driver’s cabins and controls on both ends of the train, so drivers just need to walk to the other end of the train to change the travelling direction. However, for steam locomotives, this is not possible, and the entire unit needs to be rotated in order to travel in a different direction.

 

After the SL Gunma Minakami arrives at Minakami Station, its terminal station, it needs to be rotated on a special device, a railway turntable (転車台 tenshadai), so that it can travel back in the direction it came from. This rotation scene is something SL fans would be delighted to see. The railway turntable is located about a 5-minute walk from the station, and in the open space beside the turntable, another D51 train, the D51 745, is being exhibited, offering photograph opportunities.

 

SL Tenshadai Hiroba (SL転車台広場)
Access: 5-minute walk from JR Minakami Station (水上駅)

 

Hot springs

Gunma is home to many hot spring resorts, but four stand out as the representative, must-visit hot spring resorts—Kusatsu Onsen, Ikaho Onsen, Minakami Onsen, and Shima Onsen. Two of them, Ikaho Onsen and Minakami Onsen, can be easily accessed from stations on the Joetsu Line.

 

Ikaho Onsen

Ikaho Onsen’s iconic stone steps. (Image credit: ググっとぐんま写真館)

 

While Kusatsu Onsen and Shima Onsen are located deep in the mountains, Ikaho Onsen (伊香保温泉) is a hot spring resort that is relatively near the city area, making access convenient for visitors. It is famous for its 365-step stone staircase which runs through the centre of the town.

 

Did you know? It is said that Ikaho Onsen’s hot spring town was established during the Warring States Period (1467–1615) by warlord Takeda Shingen as a place for his soldiers to rest and heal, and since then, visitors have been coming to Ikaho Onsen to treat illnesses and improve their health. Even now, Ikaho Onsen is a quick and easy getaway from Tokyo, perfect for anyone looking to relax and rejuvenate at a hot spring resort.

 

Healing, iron-rich waters of Kogane-no-yu. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Ikaho Onsen has two main hot spring sources: the long-beloved Kogane-no-yu (黄金の湯 Golden Water) and the more recently discovered Shirogane-no-yu (白金の湯 Silver Water). The waters of Kogane-no-yu are originally transparent, but due to the high iron content, turn a reddish-brown colour after oxidising in the air. They are said to aid in the healing of wounds. On the other hand, Shirogane-no-yu has transparent waters that are gentle on the skin, and is said to be good for recovering from fatigue.

 

Ikaho Onsen (伊香保温泉)
Address: Ikaho, Ikaho-machi, Shibukawa-shi, Gunma
Access: 20-minute bus ride from JR Shibukawa Station (渋川駅)

 

Minakami Onsen

Minakami Onsen provides beautiful views of surrounding nature. (Image credit: photoAC and ググっとぐんま写真館)

 

Another famous hot spring resort in Gunma is Minakami Onsen (水上温泉), which is located upstream along the Tone River and overlooking the Tanigawa Mountain Range (another must-visit in Gunma).

 

Minakami Onsen is known for its outdoor baths (露天風呂 rotenburo), some of which offer stunning views of the surrounding mountains. The source of the hot spring waters is around the Tone River, and it is said that in 1593, temple priest discovered hot spring water welling up in a cave along the river.

 

Minakami Onsen (水上温泉)
Address: Yubara, Minakami-machi, Gunma
Access: 5-minute walk from JR Minakami Station (水上駅)

 

JR’s deepest station: Doai Station

Clockwise from top left: exterior of Doai Station, stairs from the underground platform, the underground platform, the above-ground platform. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Although the SL Gunma Minakami ends its route at Minakami Station, that is not the end of the Joetsu Line, and you can transfer to a local train to continue on along the line. One place to check out is Doai Station, just two stations away (an 8-minute train ride) from Minakami Station.

 

What’s special about this station? Well, it is known as the “mole station” (モグラ駅 mogura-eki), as one of the station’s platforms is 70m underground—the deepest for any JR station! When coming from Minakami Station, passengers alight at the underground platform, and need to climb up a 462-step staircase to get out. Be warned, there are no escalators or elevators at this platform, and it will take about 10 minutes to reach the exit. On the way back towards Minakami, the platform is on the ground level, so you can relax. Even if you are not a railway fan, it’s worth checking out this “mole station”.

 

Mount Tanigawa: Beautiful nature

The Tanigawadake Ropeway lets you enjoy fantastic views. (Image credit: 谷川岳ロープウェイ)

 

While in Gunma, visitors shouldn’t miss Mount Tanigawa, one of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains. The cable car to go up the mountain, Tanigawadake Ropeway, is just a 15-minute walk from JR Doai Station. Tanigawadake Ropeway brings visitors up to Tenjindaira—an elevation of 1,319m—from where visitors can set off on various hikes and walks. Even while on the 15-minute ride up, visitors will be able to enjoy breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.

 

Mount Tanigawa and Tenjindairai in different seasons. (Image credit: : 谷川岳ロープウェイ and photoAC)

 

Mount Tanigawa is exceptionally scenic during autumn, when the slopes are covered in fiery warm colours, with stunning vistas at every corner. Avid hikers can try climbing to the summit of Mount Tanigawa (1,977m), which takes about 2.5 hours to ascend from Tenjindaira. During winter, beautiful powder snow turns Tenjindaira into a skier’s paradise.

 

Tanigawadake Ropeway (谷川岳ロープウェイ)
Address: Yubiso, Minakami-machi, Tone-gun, Gunma 379-1728
Access: 15-minute walk from JR Doai Station (土合駅), or 25-minute bus ride from JR Minakami Station (水上駅)
Round-trip ropeway fare: ¥2,100/adult, ¥1,050/child
Operating hours: 
    April–November: 8:00–17:00 (weekdays) / 7:00–17:00 (weekends and public holidays)
    December–March: 8:30–16:30 (everyday) / 7:00–16:30 (weekends and public holidays in March)

 

Getting there

The D51 498 train. (Image credit: JR East)

 

Routes:

  • SL Gunma Yokokawa: JR Takasaki Station ↔ JR Yokokawa Station on the JR Shin-etsu Main Line
  • SL Gunma Minakami: JR Takasaki Station ↔ JR Minakami Station on the JR Joetsu Line

 

Takasaki Station is a 50-minute bullet train ride from Tokyo Station on the Joetsu Shinkansen and Hokuriku Shinkansen.

 

Due to the large amount of resources required to operate SL trains, the SL Gunma has an irregular operating schedule. Check out the timetable and schedule here. All seats on board this special train require reservations, which can be made here. Note: Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the SL Gunma is currently not running until spring 2022.

 

SL Gunma crossing a bridge over the Tone River. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The SL Gunma can be ridden for free with various JR East rail passes, such as the JR TOKYO Wide Pass, the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), and the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area). Depending on your itinerary and travel needs, all offer huge savings on rail travel! 

 

JR TOKYO Wide Pass

The JR TOKYO Wide Pass and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)

 

If you are mainly staying at Tokyo and want to take a ride on the SL Gunma, check out the JR TOKYO Wide Pass, an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 3 consecutive days at only ¥15,000. You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains like the SL Gunma online for free, up to 1 month in advance, on the JR-EAST Train Reservation

 

The JR TOKYO Wide Pass can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.

 

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)

 

If you are visiting Nagano and Niigata, check out the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata 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 ¥27,000, it is about the same price as a round-trip between Narita Airport and Minakami Station (~¥18,380). You can also make seat reservations for can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains like the SL Gunma online for free, up to 1 month in advance, on the JR-EAST Train Reservation

 

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.

 

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)

 

If you are visiting the Tohoku region, 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. The rail pass is only ¥30,000, and you can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains like the SL Gunma online for free, up to 1 month in advance, on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.

 

The JR-EAST Train Reservation. (Image credit: JR East)

 

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

 

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