Of stoves, literary giants, and rustic buildings: Riding the Tsugaru Railway Line
Dear readers, all of you who are reading this page page enjoy rail travel in Japan (which is the reason why you are here in the first place!)—is there a particular region you keep travelling back to, though, and do you remember when that happened?
For me, that would be the Tohoku area (東北地方 Tōhoku-chihō). I cannot deny that it was the Great East Japan Earthquake (東日本大震災 Higashi Nihon Daishinsai) and tsunami that sparked my interest in the region. My first trip up north was in June 2011 to help shovel mud and clear debris in Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture, but my first rail trip in Tohoku was a 3-day trip to see the cherry blossoms in May 2013, followed by an 11-day sojourn around all six prefectures in the summer of the same year, and yet another to Aizu-Wakamatsu in Fukushima Prefecture that winter. Ever since then, I have made at least one trip to Tohoku yearly barring last year (and fingers crossed that will not be the case this year as well!), as there is so much to explore in the area, from the scenery to the history—and, of course, the trains.
Apart from the major JR lines, there are also a good number of local railways in the Tohoku area—this is especially so in Aomori Prefecture (青森県 Aomori-ken), where apart from the JR Gono Line (五能線 Gonō-sen), Oū Main Line (奥羽本線 Oū Honsen), Tsugaru Line (津軽線 Tsugaru-sen), Ōminato Line (大湊線 Ōminato-sen), and Hachinohe Line (八戸線 Hachinohe-sen) lines, the rest are run by local railway companies. I am a big fan of the scenery of the JR Gono Line, so my explorations of that line led me to discover the Tsugaru Railway Line (津軽鉄道線 Tsugaru-tetsudō-sen), which branches off from JR Goshogawara Station (五所川原駅 Goshogawara-eki).
The Tsugaru Goshogawara Station house. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
The Tsugaru Railway Line, owned by Tsugaru Railway (津軽鉄道 Tsugaru-tetsudō), is a privately owned line that starts at Tsugaru Goshogawara Station (津軽五所川原駅 Tsugaru-Goshogawara-eki) in Goshogawara City (五所川原市 Goshogawara-shi), and ends at Tsugaru Nakasato Station (津軽中里駅 Tsugaru-Nakasato-eki) in Nakadomari-machi (中泊町 ), almost 21km away from the start point. It holds the distinction of being one of a handful of lines not established from one previously owned by Japanese National Railways (JNR)—it has been completely privately owned since the whole length was constructed and trains began plying the line in 1930.
Though ridership has decreased over the years, it still functions as an important means of transport for residents in the Oku-Tsugaru area, connecting them to the rest of Aomori via the JR Gono Line at JR Goshogawara Station. With the opening of the Hokkaido Shinkansen (北海道新幹線) in 2016, a regular bus service was also started between Tsugaru Nakasato and JR Okutsugaru-Imabetsu (奥津軽いまべつ駅 Okutsugaru-Imabetsu-eki) Stations in order to facilitate access to Tokyo and other major cities in the Tohoku region via the Tohoku Shinkansen (東北新幹線), although that was unfortunately scrapped last September and replaced by an on-demand taxi service two months later due to low demand.
Some of Tsugaru Railway’s seasonally decorated trains. (Image credit: 青森県観光連盟)
In addition to regular train services, Tsugaru Railway runs various trains along the line through the whole year to mark the seasons, one of the things that sets the company apart from other local lines. For instance, there is a windchime train (風鈴列車 fūrin-ressha) in summer where windchimes are installed to allow them to tinkle in the breeze that passes through the open windows and take passengers’ minds off the heat of summer, a suzumushi train (鈴虫列車 suzumushi-ressha) in autumn where plastic boxes containing crickets are placed in the train carriages, their singing entertaining riders through their journey, as well as a stove train (ストーブ列車 sutōbu-ressha) in winter, where carriages with coal-fired stoves allow passengers the opportunity to grill dried squid and drink sake while enjoying the snow-draped scenery of the Tsugaru Plains (津軽平野 Tsugaru-heiya) the line crosses.
A regular train on the Tsugaru Railway Line arriving at Ashinokōen Station. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
Furthermore, various one-day event trains, like a beer train and highball train where people can enjoy cold drinks on a round trip between both terminal stations, are also conducted infrequently, highlighting Tsugaru Railway’s efforts to increase ridership and attract tourists from other regions. Such special rides certainly do pique one’s curiosity, which I can attest to—in fact, my main reason for wanting to ride the Tsugaru Railway Line was the stove train, after finding out and reading up about it! There are very few trains offering such experiences nowadays, one of them being the SL Fuyu-no-Shitsugen (SL冬の湿原号 SL Fuyu-no-shitsugen-gō) that plies the JR Senmō Main Line (釧網本線 Senmō-honsen) between JR Kushiro Station (釧路駅 Kushiro-eki) and JR Shibecha Station (標茶駅 Shibecha-eki) in Hokkaido. Hailing from a country where the two modes of weather are sun and rain, I have always had a soft spot for winter and snow, and given my penchant for open-air hot spring baths in winter, stove trains sounded like something completely up my alley!
My first time taking the Tsugaru Railway Line was in November 2017, after travelling up to Goshogawara from Noshiro Station (能代駅 Noshiro-eki) in Akita Prefecture in the morning via the JR Gono Line. The night before was spent in a local drinking hole with newly-made friends (never underestimate the power of nomyunication (ノミュ二ケーション), or drinking communication!), so getting up in the wee hours of the day to take the first train out was a little bit of a challenge! I was soon brought to my senses by the cold winds and snow that blew into my face as I trundled towards the station.
While the ride on the Gono Line was an enjoyable one as always, as I was making my trip in late November, before the stove trains started running in December, I had resigned myself to the fact that I would not be able to take the stove train this round. As luck would have had it, though, the train that I had planned to take that day had two stove carriages coupled to it! I remember asking the station staff at the platform if the carriages could be ridden, or if they were just being sent to another station to be coupled with another train. To my surprise, he replied in the affirmative, adding on that the extra fee for usage of the stove train carriage could be paid on board later, and that only one of the two carriages was in use. Not wanting to miss this godsent chance, I boarded the stove train carriage.
The interior of the stove train, plus the sake available onboard. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
The first thing I noticed was that the interior was fairly dated—that was to be given, though, since the three stove train carriages, which are normally coupled to a regular train when in use, are modified from old JNR cars that were produced between 1948 and 1955. Stepping into the carriage made it feel as if I were travelling back in time to the 1960s and 1970s—perhaps this was how people travelled in trains in the snow countries back then? The retro design of the coal-fired daruma stoves (ダルマストーブ daruma sutо̄bu) installed further added to that sensation. Originally used in trains in Hokkaido from 1922 as a way to keep passengers warm, the stoves eventually fell out of favour when more modern and efficient ways of heating were devised, compared to the stoves, whose rounded shape meant that they were only able to heat their immediate surroundings.
As I took in the sights about me, the train attendant entered the carriage, calling out to me cheerfully, “Sir, would you like some dried squid and sake?”
Even though almost all sightseeing trains and Joyful Trains have attendants on board to sell merchandise and make announcements to the passengers, the only other railway I have taken so far where attendants are present on the regular local services as well would be Echizen Railway (えちぜん鉄道 Echizen Tetsudō) in Fukui Prefecture, so I was pleasantly surprised by this.
Train attendants heating up squid on the stove. (Image credit: 青森県観光連盟)
As I was getting off halfway along the line, though, I had to decline her offer of dried squid, which takes a few minutes to grill. I was under the impression that it was do-it-yourself, but looking at travel blogs written by others who have taken the Tsugaru Railway revealed that the attendants deftly heat it up before cutting the squid up with scissors and passing the bagged shreds to customers. In retrospect, there might have been enough time (and I could always save the remaining squid for later consumption), but the stove had not heated up fully by then, so it was a risk I was not willing to take, considering I would be alighting in around 20 minutes. I did, however, purchase a small bottle of sake, a local brew made by Rokka Brewery (六花酒造 Rokka Shuzō) in Hirosaki (弘前市 Hirosaki-shi). Again, looking back, it might have been possible to heat the glass bottle the sake came in on the stove to warm its contents up, but that was something that did not cross my mind three years ago. (It does mean that there are two more things to do the next time I take the Tsugaru Railway in winter though!)
The daruma stove, and a pail of coal next to it. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
As I was the only passenger in the stove car at that point in time, the locals all taking the normal train the cars were coupled to, the attendant struck up a conversation with me, asking questions like where I came from, what brought me to Aomori and Goshogawara, where I was going to, and so on. It was then that I was exposed to the Tsugaru dialect (津軽弁 Tsugaru-ben), and it was quite the introduction.
Those of you who have been exposed to Japanese will know that in addition to the standard Japanese that is taught and spoken across the whole nation nowadays, there exists many dialects in the different prefectures, not unlike the relationship between Chinese and the various dialects like Hokkien, Cantonese and what have you. While there are some dialects, mostly those within the same area, that share similar vocabulary and expressions, the good majority of them are so different that it is often very hard for two people from different prefectures in different areas to understand each other’s dialects. To further complicate things, there are some prefectures like Aomori where there are different local languages in the same prefecture (the Tsugaru dialect in the western side, and the Nanbu dialect (南部弁 Nanbu-ben) in the eastern side, due to historical differences), such that even two people from the same prefecture cannot comprehend what the other is saying!
While the attendant was speaking more or less in standard Japanese (probably because her role meant that she had to deal with tourists from all over Japan and elsewhere), thankfully, it was her accent, heavily influenced by her local dialect, that made it difficult for me to understand what she was saying. If you ask me, that is part of the charm of Tsugaru Railway, though—while of course it makes things easier to understand if everyone spoke Japanese in the standard accent and intonations (and Tsugaru Railway could have easily gone that route as well), the fact that they chose to do otherwise is a reflection of the pride they have in their local culture, and also indicates their great appreciation for their domestic ridership, which is more important for their survival and continued existence than tourist numbers, since the attendants are there on every train, not just the special ones.
The train I took awaiting departure at Kanagi Station. Note the design of the stove train carriages. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
In addition, while there is no lack of restaurants and shops selling local foods and produce, there are only so many chances one has to encounter locals speaking their native tongue when visiting any part of Japan; Tsugaru Railway, though, has brought that chance to visitors when they take their trains, further adding to the experience and making it an unforgettable one. The fact that I still remember looking out on the snow-covered Tsugaru Plains that day from inside the carriage, the crackling of the stove’s flame and the attendant’s Tsugaru dialect still resounding in my ears, is testament to the above, and it makes me want to take the Tsugaru Railway again to experience the journey once more, this time in its entirety.
It is not only the special trains and the experiences they offer that are a draw for Tsugaru Railway—there are many other sights and sensations to be had that the railway provides access to. For starters, there are many old buildings, some over a hundred years old, that can be found dotted among the communities along the line, with some of them even designated as Important Cultural Properties (重要文化財 jūyō-bunkazai) and Registered Tangible Cultural Properties (登録有形文化財 tōroku-yūkei-bunkazai), highlighting both Aomori’s and the central government’s decision in recognising the significance of such structures, as well as the need to preserve them for future generations to enjoy. Two such buildings are Shayōkan (斜陽館), the birth house of Dazai Osamu (太宰治), a famous Japanese author best known for “No Longer Human” (人間失格 Ningen shikkaku), and the former station house of Ashinokōen Station (芦野公園駅 Ashino-kōen-eki).
The exterior of Kanagi Station. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
Shayōkan, also known as the Osamu Dazai Memorial Museum (太宰治記念館 Dazai Osamu Kinenkan), is today a museum dedicated to remembering the author and his life, and is a leisurely 10-minute stroll from Kanagi Station (金木駅 Kanagi-eki), the only manned station along the Tsugaru Railway Line apart from the two terminals, and 20 minutes from Tsugaru Goshogawara Station. Built in 1907 by Dazai’s father, Tsushima Gen’emon (津島源右衛門), Dazai stayed in it from his birth until 1923, when he and his family moved to Aomori City (青森市 Aomori-shi) in order for Dazai to pursue his secondary school education there. Used again briefly for a year in 1945 after he and his wife and children fled the war, it was remodelled into an inn in 1950 after Dazai’s death. Though popular with fans of the author, who would flock there to enjoy a stay in his ancestral home, the inn was forced to close in 1996 after amassing an enormous debt. Kanagi Town (金木町 Kanagi-chō) stepped in to purchase the building from the inn operators and reopened it as the memorial museum it is today two years later.
Shayōkan in the snow. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
The building, restored to its original appearance, is a grand two-storey wooden affair, made largely with Japanese cypress wood (ヒバ hiba), one of the main products of Aomori. Boasting a total of nineteen rooms, as well as a garden with a fountain, it is an interesting blend of both Western and oriental styles, making it a very unique structure. For instance, while the exterior and internal layout are traditionally Japanese, the furnishings of the rooms are decidedly Western, with staircases and armchairs and even carpets. Though the majority of the displays are in Japanese, with only a smattering of English, it is well worth the visit even if you are not a fan of Dazai’s works, if only to explore the house and experience such an interesting building.
Osamu Dazai Memorial Museum (太宰治記念館「斜陽館」)
Address: 412-1 Asahiyama, Kanagi-machi, Goshogawara-shi, Aomori 037-0202
Access: 7-minute walk from Kanagi Station (金木駅)
Opening hours: 09:00–17:00 (October–March) / 09:00–17:30 (April–September) (Closed on 29 December)
Admission fee: ¥600/adult
Old Ashinokōen Station house
The old Ashinokōen Station house, its red roof covered with snow. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
The old station house of Ashinokōen Station tells yet another story—used as the station building until 1975, when dilapidation meant that a replacement had to be built, it is the only original structure left standing from when Tsugaru Railway began operations along the whole line, and was preserved because of its beautiful exterior, with its red roof and unique pentagonal-shaped bargeboard, as well as its significance both historically and culturally, appearing in Dazai’s “Tsugaru” (津軽), written based on a trip to his birthplace, Kanagi Town, made while on a tour of Aomori.
Today, the old station house is used as a café, with a menu featuring specialties like horse meat curry—horse a famed product of Kanagi—as well as a coffee blend Dazai was said to have loved and frequently drank at a coffee house in Hirosaki. I was unfortunately unable to experience it for myself as the café is closed on Wednesdays, the day of the week I took the Tsugaru Railway, but I imagine it would be a wonderful experience to sit amidst the retro interior of the café and looking out at the scenery and passing trains while enjoying a cup of coffee or two.
A Tsugaru Railway train running through Ashino Park in spring. (Image credit: 青森県観光連盟)
Ashino Park itself is a famous cherry blossom spot in Aomori—with 1,500 trees in the park and along both sides of the train tracks blooming in late April, the place is a popular site for cherry blossom viewing, with the annual Kanagi Sakura Festival (金木桜まつり Kanagi Sakura Matsuri) held over Golden Week. The images of the orange Tsugaru Railway train passing through a tunnel of pink, as well the old Ashinokōen Station house standing amidst a shower of cherry blossom petals, are sights that I would like to see in person!
Ashino Park (芦野公園)
Address: 84-170 Ashino, Kanagi-machi, Goshogawara-shi, Aomori 037-0202
Access: Right outside Ashinokōen Station (芦野公園駅)
Admission fee: Free
Local food and flavourings
Towada bara-yaki. (Image credit: 青森県観光連盟)
Apart from the buildings, another local experience to be had is in the food. Aomori is known for its yakiniku (焼肉), grilled meat. Towada bara-yaki (十和田バラ焼), a specialty of Towada (十和田市 Towada-shi) where large amounts of onion and sliced beef belly are marinated in a soy sauce-based sauce and grilled, has won the top prize at B-grade cuisine (B級グルメ B-kyū-gurume) competitions multiple times, and one of the most beloved condiments in Aomori is yakiniku sauce, with every household having a bottle in their fridge. Though the Stamina-Gen (スタミナ源 sutamina-gen) series produced by Kamikita Nōsan Kakō (上北農産加工), affectionately referred to as Gentare (源たれ), is by far the most popular brand in Aomori, there is a wonderful handmade version to be found in a local supermarket in Kanagi.
The exterior of Shokusaikan Nakaya. (Image credit: marugoto Aomori)
Whenever I go on a trip in Japan, I always like to have a look at the local supermarkets to experience a little bit of what the locals’ everyday lives are like—for instance, what they buy, what the supermarket has to offer them, and so on. Shokusaikan Nakaya (食祭館中谷) is a small chain (if it can be called that), with only one other outlet in Goshogawara, apart from their main store in Kanagi. Though it looks like any other supermarket at first glance, what makes it so special is that it makes and sells many things that other places would buy wholesale from manufacturers, including pickles, traditional Japanese desserts, delicatessen items, and sauces.
The yakiniku sauce from Shokusaikan Nakaya. (Image credit: marugoto Aomori)
It is their homemade yakiniku sauce, that I first chanced across at an Aomori fair in JR Musashi-Sakai Station (武蔵境駅 Musashi-Sakai-eki) in Tokyo, that takes the cake—made with Aomori-grown apples and garlic (with each bottle touted to contain at least eight cloves) and other natural ingredients like mirin and sesame oil, and with no added preservatives, it is, as the label proclaims in the Tsugaru dialect, “tage umekkya~” (たげうめっきゃ〜), or “very delicious~”!
To be honest, part of the reason for my trip on the Tsugaru Railway was because I wanted to see what Nakaya is like (as well as to buy a few more bottles of the yakiniku sauce)—although it may not be as large (or as tidy!) as supermarkets in the metropolitan areas, its commitment to providing the best quality of service it can to its customers, as well as its dedication to making as much as it can by hand, has made it well-loved by residents of Kanagi. The yakiniku sauce, which Kanagi residents treasure, has definitely found a place in my heart, and going all the way up via the Tsugaru Railway to buy it was quite the experience, one that I would like to do again someday.
Shokusaikan Nakaya Kanagi Honten (食祭館中谷金木本店)
Address: 216-9 Ashino, Kanagi, Goshogawara-shi, Aomori 037-0202
Access: 7-minute walk from Ashinokōen Station (芦野公園駅)
Opening hours: 08:30–19:00 daily
A disused train at Kase Station. This train, dubbed the “Canvas of Dreams Train”, was painted by Katori Shingo of then-SMAP in 1997; he returned to repaint part of it twenty years later. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
The Tsugaru Railway Line is a gateway into a more rustic, laid-back world where time seems to flow a little more slowly. With its emphasis on incorporating aspects of the seasons into its regular trains during the corresponding periods, unlike other companies which have a penchant for turning those seasonal rides into special limited trains that demand additional fares, Tsugaru Railway has shown that it is just as attentive to its daily ridership base as it is to tourists, which explains why it has remained a transport mode of choice even in a time when more convenient bus routes are slowly eating into the share that railway companies occupy. Though it may not be very accessible, it is precisely because of this that it warrants a trip or two to experience what it has to offer —and that experience will be one that will not be forgotten for a long while.
Tsugaru Goshogawara Station sits right next to JR Goshogawara Station on the JR Gono Line, which has terminals in Akita Station in Akita and Kawabe Station in Aomori, though trains operationally go from there to Hirosaki.
To access from the Akita side:
- Take the Akita Shinkansen from Tо̄kyо̄ Station (東京駅) to Akita Station (秋田駅) (approximately 3 hours 50 mins), and transfer to the Ōu Main Line to Higashi-Noshiro Station (東能代駅), the start of the Gono Line, and 1 hour from Akita Station. From there, it is a 3.5 hour ride to Goshogawara Station (五所川原駅) via the Gono Line. Alternatively, take the Resort Shirakami from Akita Station, which stops at major stations along the Gono Line, including Goshogawara Station. Although there are usually three trains per day, the number of services varies according to the seasons, so check before planning.
To access from the Aomori side:
- Take the Tohoku Shinkansen from Tо̄kyо̄ Station to Shin-Aomori Station (新青森駅) (approximately 3 hours), and transfer to the Ōu Main Line to Kawabe Station (川部駅), the end of the Gono Line, and 30 minutes hour from Shin-Aomori Station. From there, it is a 3.5 hour ride to Goshogawara Station via the Gono Line.
P.S. For those interested in what a ride on the Tsugaru Railway Line looks like, the company has released a series of virtual train ride videos on YouTube, where viewers can experience what taking the line in both directions would look like, as well as enjoy the scenery from the train windows. For more information, as well as a message from the president of the company, one can have a look at the Tsugaru Railway homepage. Alternatively, the Tsugaru Railway YouTube channel has the current batch of videos, taken between autumn and winter, as well as the first round taken in spring and summer.
NHK World also has a documentary on Tsugaru Railway dubbed “Tsugaru Railway: Surviving the Coronavirus Pandemic”, and can be viewed for free at the link provided here.
Header image credit: Kevin Koh