The Tadami Line: Triumph after ten years of tribulations, but what’s next? (Part 2)
Welcome back dear readers to part 2 of this article on the Tadami Line (只見線 Tadami-sen)! I hope all of you are refreshed from having gotten up to walk around after all the curves and corners the replacement bus service between Tadami Station (只見駅 Tadami-eki) and Aizu-Kawaguchi Station (会津川口駅 Aizu-Kawaguchi-eki) took.
In the first part, we travelled from Niigata Prefecture (新潟県 Niigata-ken)’s Koide Station (小出駅 Koide-eki) to Aizu-Kawaguchi Station in the Aizu (会津) area of Fukushima Prefecture (福島県 Fukushima-ken). Let’s continue our rail journey to Aizu-Wakamatsu Station (会津若松駅 Aizu-Wakamatsu-eki), the terminus of the line in Fukushima, and explore more of the sights and experiences the Tadami Line has to offer tourists along the way!
Aizu-Kawaguchi → Aizu-Wakamatsu: Back on track
Aizu-Kawaguchi Station, with the mini-bus I arrived in parked in front. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
The third and final leg of my journey on the Tadami Line began at Aizu-Kawaguchi Station, also the station where more than half of the trains on the Tadami Line from Aizu-Wakamatsu Station end. Compared to the first leg, there are twice the number of trains, making it easier for travellers to get off and explore along the way. In addition, as the line approaches Aizu-Wakamatsu City (会津若松市 Aizu-Wakamatsu-shi), the towns get bigger, meaning there is more to see and do than at the small settlements along the way between Koide Station and Aizu-Kawaguchi Station.
A view of Tadami River and Kaneyama Town from near Aizu-Kawaguchi Station. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
Kaneyama Town (金山町 Kaneyama-machi), where Aizu-Kawaguchi Station is located, is famous for their local pumpkins. Called the Oku-Aizu Kaneyama Red Pumpkin (奥会津金山赤かぼちゃ Oku-Aizu Kaneyama aka-kabocha), not only are they visually striking with their deep, vivid orange skins, their flesh is also sweet and has a soft, flakey texture when cooked, making it both a feast for the eyes and the palate!
Due to their high sugar content, though, they do not keep for long, and are usually sold for only a month from late August, making this pumpkin hard to come by beyond its season. There are, however, many local products making use of this pumpkin that can be bought in various shops around Kaneyama, making it possible to sample the elusive pumpkin all year round!
The Swiss roll made with Kaneyama’s famous red pumpkin from Kanke Bakery. Note the flecks of pumpkin flesh in the cream. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
One such place is Kanke Bakery (カンケベーカリー), a small local business situated right across the road from Aizu-Kawaguchi Station. Selling a variety of handmade breads and cakes, one of their specialties is a Swiss roll that incorporates the pumpkin flesh into both the cake and its cream filling. Lightly perfumed with the scent of the pumpkin, the Swiss roll is not overwhelmingly sweet, and it goes well with coffee, which can be ordered at the bakery for those eating in! Its location also makes it ideal for one to grab a bun or two for a snack to enjoy while aboard the Tadami Line.
Kanke Bakery (カンケベーカリー)
Address: 473-2 Morinoue, Kawaguchi, Kaneyama-machi, Ōnuma-gun, Fukushima 968-0011
Nearest station: JR Aizu-Kawaguchi Station (JR会津川口駅)
Access: 1-minute walk from Aizu-Kawaguchi Station
Opening hours: 9am–7pm (Closed on Fridays)
The entrance to Aizu-Nakagawa Station, with the station building in the background. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
Since I had around 2 hours to kill while waiting for the next train, I decided to walk to the next station, Aizu-Nakagawa Station (会津中川駅 Aizu-Nakagawa-eki), as a quick search revealed there was a roadside station and onsen nearby.
Though the 2.5km walk looked short on paper, it is a completely different story in the winter chill! After walking for almost 40 minutes in the cold, the hot waters of the onsen at Nakagawa Onsen (中川温泉) were a godsend, and their warmth seeped into every nook and cranny of my body as I relaxed in the bath. Although Nakagawa Onsen only has indoor baths, its hot springs are straight from the source and undiluted, something uncommon nowadays. That I entered almost right after it opened also meant that I had the whole place to myself, which was another luxury.
The community facility, Welfare Centre Yū-yū-Kan, within which Nakagawa Onsen is located. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
Situated within the grounds of a community facility, Welfare Centre Yū-yū-Kan (福祉センターゆうゆう館 Fukushi Sentā Yū-yū-Kan), Nakagawa Onsen’s cheap entry fee and accessibility make it a good place to stop by for a short soak if you find yourself in the same situation and have some time to kill while waiting for the next train on the Tadami Line!
Nakagawa Onsen (中川温泉)
Address: 1324 Okinehara, Nakagawa, Kaneyama-machi, Ōnuma-gun, Fukushima 968-0006
Nearest station: JR Aizu-Nakagawa Station (JR会津中川駅)
Access: 3-minute walk from Aizu-Nakagawa Station
Opening hours: 11am–8pm (Monday–Saturday), 12pm–8pm (Sunday)
The roadside station, Oku-Aizu Kaneyama. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
After warming up at the onsen, I decided to head to the roadside station for a quick look and an early lunch, since I would spend the next 1.5 hours aboard the train.
The roadside station, Oku-Aizu Kaneyama (道の駅奥会津金山 Michi-no-eki Oku-Aizu Kaneyama), though small, had a wide variety of local specialities, such as a range of oils and dressings made with locally-grown perilla, as well as hand-woven silver vine crafts. I browsed the offerings for a bit before entering the restaurant, Kobushi-Kan (こぶし館), for a quick meal of soba.
The takatō-soba at Kobushi-Kan. Though served cold, the hot white radish was stimulating enough to warm me up from inside! (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
While most would be familiar with grated wasabi as one of the condiments for cold soba, the soba eaten in the Aizu area of Fukushima comes with grated hot white radish (辛味大根 karami-daikon) instead of wasabi. This style of soba is called Takatō soba (高遠そば), after the town in Nagano Prefecture where one of the feudal lords of the Aizu Clan (会津藩 Aizu-han) hailed from. Though the grated radish lends a touch of sweetness masked under its pungent, spicy taste, it packs more of a punch than wasabi, so be careful not to add too much at one go!
Roadside Station Oku-Aizu Kaneyama (道の駅奥会津金山)
Address: 949-8 Kamiidaira, Nakagawa, Kaneyama-machi, Ōnuma-gun, Fukushima 968-0006
Nearest station: JR Aizu-Nakagawa Station (JR会津中川駅)
Access: 4-minute walk from Aizu-Nakagawa Station
Opening hours: 9am–5:30pm (Daily)
Writer’s note: The hours given above are the operating hours for the souvenir shop. The restaurant is open for meals between 11am and 3pm, and serves tea and light snacks from 9am to 11am, and 3pm to 5:30pm.
My next train pulling into Aizu-Nakagawa Station. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
Making it back to Aizu-Nakagawa Station moments before my train arrived, I spent the rest of the journey admiring the scenery beyond the window.
A good deal of the Tadami Line runs alongside the Tadami River (只見川 Tadami-gawa), making for picturesque views of the river with the surrounding mountains and forests, the scenery giving way to rice fields as we approached Aizu-Wakamatsu Station and the tracks moved inland.
The entrance of Aizu-Bange Station, and the platform from the train. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
At Aizu-Bange Station (会津坂下駅 Aizu-Bange-eki), things suddenly got a lot livelier as students fresh out of school boarded the train to go home, causing the train to become so packed some of them had to stand, not unlike a rush-hour train in the metropolitan areas. For a while the scene was not unlike what you would expect to find in Tokyo, with the chatter and laughter of the students punctuating the air.
The Taishō Roman-retro-styled Nanuka-Machi Station building. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
I got off at Nanuka-Machi Station (七日町駅 Nanuka-machi-eki), one station before the Aizu-Wakamatsu terminus. By this time, though, I had already spent close to 4.5 hours on the train and replacement bus, so it was time for a quick break and to stretch my legs before I set about exploring Aizu-Wakamatsu City.
The interior of the café-cum-antenna shop at Nanuka-Machi Station. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
The station building of Nanuka-Machi Station is rather quaintly retro-styled, and houses a café-cum-antenna shop within where one can enjoy a cup of coffee brewed with subterranean water from Mount Bandai (磐梯山 Bandai-san) and browse through locally-made souvenirs and knick-knacks from various parts of Aizu. Service at the café is remarkably relaxed, though, so ensure that you have enough time to spare before ordering anything!
The buckwheat flour muffin set I ordered. By the time the muffin, topped with cream and raspberry jam, arrived, I had already finished off two of the three shortbread cookies that came with the coffee… (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
Aizu Furusato Antenna Shop Eki Café (あいづふるさとアンテナショップ 駅カフェ)
Address: 5-1 Nanuka-Machi, Aizu-Wakamatsu City, Fukushima 965-0044
Nearest station: JR Nanuka-Machi Station (JR七日町駅)
Access: Within Nanuka-Machi Station
Opening hours: 9am–6pm daily
Factor in the 2 hours I spent in Kanayama Town, a one-way trip on the Tadami Line will easily set you back by half a day. Sometimes, though, all you need is a relaxed trip away from the hustle and bustle of the city, which is exactly what the Tadami Line offers with its scenic views and rustic charm!
Afterthought: What lies in store for the Tadami Line (and other local lines)
A train bound for Aizu-Wakamatsu silently making its way one winter morning. (Image credit: nodoca / CC BY-ND-NC 2.0)
Although the Tadami Line being restored after more than a decade is good news to us rail enthusiasts, the difficult part is what awaits the line after the initial buzz and tourist rush fade away.
A shrinking population and ever-increasing motorization have led to the ridership of the Tadami Line to decrease by more than half over the last 30 years, and this situation is unlikely to improve as Japan’s population keeps graying. The decreasing population also means that there are fewer school-going children, who form the bulk of the passengers taking the Tadami Line—in fact, so reliant is the line on the school-goers that the train timetable almost exclusively caters to their needs, with train services focused mainly in the morning and evening, and only one or two trains in the middle of the day.
These problems are faced not only by the Tadami Line, but also by other local lines all across Japan—in fact, all the lines mentioned in the first paragraph are suffering the same issues, even lines popular with tourists like the Gonō Line and its Resort Shirakami (リゾートしらかみ) trains.
The tracks of the Tadami Line running through Kaneyama Town between Aizu-Kawaguchi Station and Aizu-Nakagawa Station—and heading straight into the future? (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
Critics opposed to the restoration have pointed out that insisting on the Tadami Line being connected by one set of rails as necessary to its function is but a shared fantasy, given how its utility as a mode of public transport is handicapped by the number of services, and argue that the ¥8.1 billion spent repairing the line, as well the ¥280 million to be spent on its upkeep yearly, could be put to better use.
There is much sense in that comment—while there are currently seven round services on the replacement buses between Tadami Station and Aizu-Kawaguchi Station, that number will be halved to just three when trains resume operations along the same interval this month. Although this number is comparable to the frequency of trains before 2011, locals who have become accustomed to the current frequency of replacement bus services will no doubt find that the Tadami Line has become more inconvenient, and they may switch to other modes of transport, defeating the very reason why the line was repaired in the first place.
On the other hand, with the Kesennuma Line (気仙沼線 Kesennuma-sen) converted almost entirely to a BRT network after the 2011 quake and tsunami, services are now four times as frequent as they were previously, and this has definitely made it easier for residents to go about their daily lives.
The “en-musubi”, or “tie of romance”, wrapping train that I took from Koide to Tadami. A play on “koi” in “Koide” and “ai” in Aizu (both words mean “love”), I hope the Tadami Line will connect more than just lovers after it resumes operations… (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
Considering how data made public by JR East in July this year revealed that all 66 local lines it manages are in the red, it is understandable that they were hesitant about restoring the Tadami Line as a train line initially.
Perhaps one could view the upcoming reaction to the full resumption of the Tadami Line as a sort of test scenario for JR East on how to repair local lines should something similar occur again in the future—and it already has, with the torrential rains this August.
As I wrote in my article on why I take trains previously, what we can do as travellers is to play our part by taking the trains as much as possible. Sounds easy on paper, but in reality it is much harder than you would expect, especially when services are as limited as they are on such local lines. Given how we want to make the best use of our limited holiday time, it makes no sense to wait 2 hours for a train when we could just rent a car and drive around. Yet, it is precisely this sort of thinking that causes money to be taken away from these local lines, and even though we end up upset when we read about yet another local line slated for abolishment, we need to ask if we have played our part in ensuring the continuation of these lines.
While I personally do hope that all the other lines mentioned in this article eventually resume operations fully as train lines, what is ultimately needed is the numbers to show railway companies like JR East that there is a demand for train services along those lines.
To that end, I’ll be sure to repeat my journey along the Tadami Line once Japan reopens her borders—and I hope that you, dear reader, will join me along the way too.
Header image credit: nodoca / CC BY-ND-NC 2.0