Snowy wonderlands: Tohoku’s local lines in winter
When taking train rides on your holiday, how do you spend it? Some of you might take many photographs of the trains you encounter, in particular special trains like steam locomotives or the Joyful Trains. You are not alone—there are many such train enthusiasts in Japan, whose hobby is to take photographs of trains; they are called toritetsu (撮り鉄), and you can be sure to find them whenever there is a special train running on a particular line!
They are not the only kind of train fans around, though, there are also others, like me, who like viewing the outside scenery from inside the train while nibbling on an ekiben (駅弁 lunch box for eating on trains). The Japanese term for these enthusiasts would be noritetsu (乗り鉄)—enthusiasts who like to ride trains, as the kanji implies (nori means to ride, and tetsu is short for tetsudо̄, which means railway).
With so many local lines in Japan, both JR- and non-JR-owned, there is no shortage of trains to ride on and scenes to look at! Though Japan is beautiful in all of the seasons, I especially enjoy taking long train rides in winter, when the snow renders the surroundings into stunning scenes out of black-and-white ink paintings. Here are a few local lines in the Tōhoku region (東北地方 Tōhoku-chihō) managed by JR East I enjoyed taking!
The Kitakami Line (北上線)
An inbound train on the Kitakami Line awaiting departure at Hotto-Yuda Station. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
The Kitakami Line (北上線 Kitakami-sen) connects Kitakami Station (北上駅 Kitakami-eki) in Kitakami City, Iwate Prefecture with Yokote Station (横手駅 Yokote-eki) in Yokote City, Akita Prefecture. At 61km, it is not by any means a very long line, especially considering the size of the Tōhoku region and the other lines that run through it. Since its completion in 1924, the Kitakami Line has served many important roles, especially before the construction of the Tohoku Shinkansen and Akita Shinkansen.
Compared to its rather lofty past, the Kitakami Line is much quieter these days, nowadays serving almost exclusively students attending schools along the line, as well as locals who do not drive and rely on public transport to get around. The line timetable also reflects this—though there are a few rapid trains that stop only at major stations, the majority of services are local trains that stop at all stations. As such, train services are planned mainly around periods of the day with the most ridership, for instance before and after school and work, and as a result there are few trains during these two periods in the day.
In fact, during the day, there are only three trains departing from Kitakami between 8am and 5pm! While there are more trains from Kitakami (a total of 10 per day), there are only a total of six a day from the Akita side, with each train 3 hours apart besides the two departing between 6am and 8am. This does mean that one has to plan a little more carefully than usual if intending to ride the Kitakami line. I dare say the sights and experiences to be had, though, are well worth it.
The first outbound train of the Kitakami Line awaiting departure at Platform 0 at Kitakami Station. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
The first thing about the Kitakami Line that got my attention was how trains on the Kitakami Line departed from Platform 0. Despite my years of living and taking trains in Japan, it was quite possibly the first time I had come across trains departing from Platform 0. There are currently around 35 stations which have a Platform 0 in use.
The first time I saw the number 0 being used to label a platform, though, it just set off many questions in my mind: why 0? How would it be positioned in the station, given how most stations start with Platform 1? How would it even look like? My questions were answered when I made my way to the platform on the morning I was to take the Kitakami Line—Platform 0 is tucked away at one end of the station, and has a buffer stop at the end, the hallmark of all terminal stations. What struck me as interesting was that the platform was noticeably shorter than those for the Tōhoku Main Line, most likely because trains along the Kitakami Line do not ferry as many passengers, and thus require fewer cars.
Winter scenery at Kinshūko
A view of Kinshūko in winter. (Image credit: 西和賀町 / 橋本翔也様)
Though a good deal of the line runs near to or along Waga River (和賀川 Waga-gawa), the scenes that involve the most dramatic views can be found from around Wakasennin Station (和賀仙人駅 Wakasennin-eki) onwards, one-third way along the line. After construction of the Yuda Dam was completed in 1964, the lake that was formed as a result was named Kinshūko (錦秋湖), and it is till today one of the main tourist attractions of the Waga district in Iwate, through which the Kitakami Line passes. Trains run on elevated tracks along and across Kinshūko, and the sight of a train against the blue waters of the lake, with mountains in the background, is too gorgeous a scene to pass up on!
A Kitakami Line train running on the red bridge across the snow-blanketed Kinshūko. (Image credit: 西和賀町 / 橋本翔也様)
The first time I took the line, I was awestruck by the beauty of the scenery—the red of the railway bridge across the Waga River further stood out amidst the snow capping the mountains and blanketing the frozen surface of Kinshūko, not unlike a black-and-white ink painting where one’s eyes are drawn towards a sudden splash of red on the canvas.
Though this sight can be partially experienced from inside the train, toritetsu fans who wish to capture a image of a train and the red bridge together may wish to head to a vantage point along National Route 107 (国道107号線 Kokudō-107-gō-sen), a 30-to-40 minute walk from Yuda-Kinshūko Station (ゆだ錦秋湖駅 Yuda-Kinshūko-eki), for an opportunity to snap a photo or two!
Enjoy onsen at Hotto-Yuda Station
Hotto-Yuda Station, one of the major stations along the line. The door on the left with the blue curtain is the entrance to the onsen facility. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
Arguably the most interesting experience to be had along the line can be found at Hotto-Yuda Station (ほっとゆだ駅 Hotto-Yuda-eki), one of the few staffed stations along the line, including the two terminals. What makes Hotto-Yuda Station so unique is that it comes with an onsen facility within the station building, the first ever in Japan. The onsen facility was built in 1989, shortly after the former Japanese National Railways (JNR) was privatised and JR East took over operations of the Kitakami Line.
Originally named Rikuchū-Kawashiri Station (陸中川尻駅 Rikuchū-Kawashiri-eki), the station was renamed Hotto-Yuda in 1991, two years after the onsen facility was built. “Hotto” is the Japanese pronunciation of “hot”, and “Yuda” came from the nearby hot spring village, Yuda Onsenkyо̄ (湯田温泉郷).
The traffic light-time telling system on display inside the onsen facility at Hotto-Yuda Station. (Image credit: 西和賀町商工観光課)
Hotto-Yuda Station is only one of a handful of less than twenty stations in Japan where train users can enjoy a hot soak almost immediately after getting off. Other than being the first, what sets it apart from the rest, though, is that there is a traffic light installed in the bathing area that acts as a timer to alert users of when the next train is coming. The green lamp lights up at 45 minutes before, the amber lamp at 30 minutes before, and the red lamp at 15 minutes before. This system can be found in only one other place in the whole of Japan (at Minami-Kodakara-Onsen Station in Gifu Prefecture).
I did not know about this feature before taking the Kitakami Line, so imagine my surprise when I stepped into the bathing area only to see traffic lights mounted on the wall! It is definitely a unique way of telling how much time one has left before the next train, and much easier to make out in the mist of the indoor baths than a numerical clock.
Address: 40-53 Kawashiri, Nishi-Waga-machi, Waga-gun, Iwate, 029-5512
Access: Within JR Hotto-Yuda Station (JRほっとゆだ駅)
Opening hours: 7:00–21:00 daily
Yokote, the city of kamakura
Mini kamakura at the Yokote Kamakura Festival. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)
Unlike its more bustling counterpart in Iwate, Yokote is a fairly unassuming city. While Kitakami Station is also a shinkansen station, with trains stopping almost hourly while plying the route between Tokyo and Morioka, Yokote Station no longer has any limited express or express trains stopping at it. Instead, only local trains on the Ōu Main Line stop here en route to Akita Station further up north. The city, though, is famous for its kamakura (かまくら), little snow huts made in winter, and so beloved are the kamakura of Yokote that the city holds a festival dedicated to them every winter!
During the Yokote Kamakura Festival (横手の雪まつり Yokote no yuki-matsuri), held on the 15th and 16th February every year, around 100 kamakura made by craftsmen are on display in Yokote City, and there are many events to be enjoyed over the weekend the festival takes place. For those of you who are planning to visit Yokote at another time, though, do not fret, because you can still get to have a look at a kamakura, as well as experience what being inside one feels like!
The kamakura on display at the Yokote Tourism Association. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
Over at the Yokote Fureai Center Kamakura-Kan (横手ふれあいセンターかまくら館), a 15-minute walk from Yokote Station, there is a corner where a kamakura is permanently on display at -10 degrees Celsius. For a small fee of ¥100, visitors are able to enter the kamakura and have a look inside. As the kamakura is lined with grass mats, and slippers are provided, there is no fear of slipping on the ice, and one can experience for oneself what it is like to be inside a kamakura, complete with a miniature replica of a stove on which mochi are grilled, just like in an actual kamakura!
Apart from the kamakura, there is also a theatre room where videos showcasing what Yokote has to offer can be viewed on a big screen, as well as a souvenir shop where local goods and products can be purchased, making it a good stop for those visiting Yokote!
Yokote Fureai Centre Kamakura-Kan (横手ふれあいセンターかまくら館)
Address: 8-12 Chūō-machi, Yokote, Akita, 013-0023
Access: 15-minutes walk from JR Yokote Station (JR横手駅)
Opening hours: 9:00–17:00 daily
Writer’s note: The Yokote Tourism Association is holding a Facebook live streaming of a virtual tour of its kamakuras on 13th and 20th February – for more information, as well as the Facebook link, please click here.
The Hanawa Line (花輪線)
Araya-Shinmachi Station on the Hanawa Line, one of the few where trains can pass each other. (Image credit: kimagurenote / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The next line in this article also has both terminals in Iwate and Akita Prefectures, the same as the Kitakami Line. The Hanawa Line (花輪線 Hanawa-sen) connects Kōma Station (好摩駅 Kōma-eki) in Iwate with Ōdate Station (大館駅 Ōdate-eki) in Akita, though trains operationally start from Morioka Station. If you’d like to ride the Hanawa Line from the Iwate side, you can easily access it from Morioka Station, a shinkansen station where both the Tohoku Shinkansen and Akita Shinkansen stop at. Trains depart Morioka, pass through the Iwate Galaxy Railway (IGR) Line to Kōma, where it directly continues on to the Hanawa Line.
Unlike the Kitakami Line which is named after its terminal station, though, the Hanawa Line is named after Kazunohanawa Station (鹿角花輪駅 Kazunohanawa-eki), one of the major stations on the line, named after the former Hanawa district (花輪町 Hanawa-machi) of Kazuno City where it is located in.
Like the other local lines featured in this article, the Hanawa Line now caters almost solely to local residents, barring the winter sports enthusiasts who frequent the ski slopes along the line. However, while the Kitakami and Yonesaka Lines (米坂線 Yonesaka-sen) still have rapid services plying them, the Hanawa Line has only local trains running its nearly-107km length, with just seven trains departing Morioka, and eight trains departing Ōdate. That said, the Hanawa Line still serves an important function as a rail link between Northern Akita and Iwate, as well as a means of transport for school students.
Winter scenery on the Hanawa Line
The scenery along the Hanawa Line in winter. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
As its other name, the Towada-Hachimantai Shikisai Line (十和田八幡平四季彩ライン), implies, the scenery along the Hanawa Line is beautiful all year round, as trains on the line run alongside the Yoneshiro River (米代川 Yoneshiro-gawa) in Ōdate, meander through the mountainous Hachimantai (八幡平) area between Akita and Iwate Prefectures, and pass through crop fields in Iwate en route to Kōma Station. Being situated in a mountainous area, there is plenty of snowfall along the line, and looking out to see snow-capped peaks and forests blanketed in white as the train makes its way through what seems like a tunnel of snow is a captivating sight from within the train.
The Yoneshiro River as seen from the Hanawa Line, and a level crossing as seen from within the train. (Image credit: kimagurenote / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Of particular highlight is the scenery that can be captured on camera. Hachimantai is home to many mountains, including the grand Mount Iwate (岩手山Iwate-san), the prefecture’s tallest mountain, and the pride of the Iwate people. As the train travels along the Iwate segment, Mount Iwate can be seen from within the train, offering travellers ample opportunities for pictures!
A train on the Hanawa Line passing through snow-covered rice fields, with Mount Iwate in the background. (Image credit: JR East / Go Takahashi)
Alternatively, shutterbugs can aim for pictures of the Hanawa Line with Mount Iwate in the background from various locations in Hachimantai City along the line—these spots also have rice fields and other fields nearby, making it possible to capture, say, a picture of the trains cutting across snow-covered rice fields against a backdrop of Mount Iwate!
A taste of torimeshi at Ōdate
The Hanazen factory, which has an attached restaurant, as well as the Hinaijidori torimeshi ekiben. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
One experience that is hard to find elsewhere would be freshly-made ekiben at Ōdate Station, home to Hanazen (花善), a local ekiben company which originally started as the bentō corner of an inn in 1899. While most ekiben companies produce a range of different ekiben, Hanazen produces a few variants of only one type: torimeshi (鶏めし), in which rice is cooked in a savoury broth with chicken and burdock and served with other side dishes. Deceptively simple, it is testament to its quality that Hanazen’s torimeshi ekiben has consistently won awards at ekiben competitions held by JR East since 2014, and has been featured in media over and over. So delicious is their torimeshi that Hanazen has even opened a branch in Paris in 2018.
While most ekiben are made elsewhere and carted to stations to be sold, as Hanazen sits right next to Ōdate Station, ekiben bought there are made upon order, which takes from 5–10 minutes. While being able to buy an ekiben within the station does further add to the travel experience, a freshly made, still slightly warm ekiben further elevates that experience and makes it even more memorable.
Hanazen’s hinaijidori torimeshi (比内地鶏鶏めし Hinai-jidori-torimeshi) ranks as one of my top three ekiben, and I find myself buying it over and over again when at Akita, even though there are still many other ekiben I have yet to try! Its secret lies in the chicken used, hinaijidori (比内地鶏), a locally bred chicken that is considered one of the top three tastiest varieties of chicken in Japan, along with satsuma chicken from Kagoshima, and kо̄chin from Nagoya.
Address: 1-10-12 Onari-chō, Ōdate, Akita, 017-0044
Access: 1-minute walk from JR Ōdate Station (JR大館駅)
Opening hours: 6:30–18:30 daily (restaurant: 10:00–14:30 (last order))
Switchback at Towadaminami
The platforms, and station building, of Towadaminami Station. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
Another unique experience to be had along the Hanawa Line is its switchback at Towadaminami Station (十和田南駅 Towadaminami-eki). A switchback, also known as a zig zag, is used as a way for trains to climb steep slopes with as little use of tunnels as possible. One of the most famous switchback in Eastern Japan occurs at Obasute Station (姨捨駅 Obasute-eki) in the mountainous Nagano Prefecture, which you can read more about here.
However, unlike the switchback at Obasute, the one at Towadaminami is instead for trains to reverse their direction before proceeding onwards with their journey, rather than to climb an incline. This is because there were originally plans to further extend the line to Kosaka Station (小坂駅 Kosaka-eki), so the rails were laid as such in order to facilitate later works.
The first time I took the Hanawa Line, I had no idea that the train would switch directions at Towadaminami, so imagine my confusion when I was suddenly facing the rear end of the carriage when the train started moving again, despite facing the front end just minutes ago! As there are few lines which make use of this switchback system nowadays, though, the Hanawa Line definitely makes for an interesting experience. In the least, you will know the reason why all the other passengers suddenly start rotating their seats to face the other direction once the train pulls into Towadaminami Station!
The Yonesaka Line (米坂線)
A train departing Minami-Yonezawa Station on the Yonesaka Line en route to Yonezawa, and the exterior of the station. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
While the other two lines featured in this article are all in the Tōhoku region, the last to be showcased starts in the Tohoku region but ends in Niigata Prefecture. The Yonesaka Line (米坂線 Yonesaka-sen)—connecting Yonezawa Station (米沢駅 Yonezawa-eki) in Yonezawa City, Yamagata Prefecture with Sakamachi Station (坂町駅 Sakamachi-eki) in Murakami City, Niigata Prefecture—is yet another local line featuring spectacular views in winter.
The Rapid Benibana awaiting departure at Oguni Station. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
Unlike some of the other lines featured in this article, there is still a rapid service that runs on the Yonesaka Line between Niigata and Yonezawa Stations, making it relatively easy to ride this line with both these stations accessible from Tokyo via the Jōetsu and Yamagata Shinkansens respectively. Called the Rapid Benibana (快速べにばな Kaisoku benibana) after Yamagata’s prefectural flower the benibana (紅花 safflower), the service only makes one round trip per day.
Having said that, there are only five trains a day, including the aforementioned rapid service, that ply the whole Yonesaka Line. While the Yamagata side of the line has six more trains that end at stations servicing local communities, the Niigata side has only one more train, the last service of the day, that ends at Oguni Station (小国駅Oguni-eki), the first station immediately upon crossing the Niigata-Yamagata prefectural border.
Snowy scenery along the Yonesaka Line
Some scenes from the Yonezawa Line in winter. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
Because the area surrounding the Yonesaka Line is mountainous, the municipalities which the line traverses experience heavy snowfall in winter. This is exceptionally so in Oguni, where the snow cover frequently exceeds 2 metres. I remember looking out of the window for a while after the train left Oguni Station and being fascinated by just how much snow had piled it—so much so that everything around me was white, and almost nothing could be made out. In addition, as the Yonezawa area is a basin surrounded by many mountains, the region also experiences much snow, thereby allowing riders the chance to see many snowy landscapes when travelling on the line during winter.
A snowed-in shrine in Yonezawa City. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
When I alighted at Minami-Yonezawa Station (南米沢駅 Minami-Yonezawa-eki) to walk around in the snow and explore Yonezawa City on foot, seeing the torii gates to a shrine standing in a deep layer of snow, as well as the roof of the old wooden building of Kojima Brewery thickly blanketed in white, somehow brought about a serenity and deep calm within me. It did get a little uncomfortable after a while, though, with all the snow entering my boots and melting inside, but for someone hailing from a tropical country, the chill of winter is perhaps best experienced this way, in the same manner the locals do.
Arakawa and the Asahi Mountain Range in the background as seen from the train. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
The scenes that left the deepest impression on my mind, though, were those I saw on the Niigata section of the line. As it runs alongside Arakawa River (荒川Arakawa), a major river flowing through Yamagata and Niigata before emptying into the Sea of Japan, picturesque views with the river on the left and the snow-capped peaks of the Asahi Mountain Range in the background can be had. In fact, most of the pictures I took while on the Yonesaka Line were from the Niigata section, testament to how breathtaking the scenery was (and made better with sips from a can of a local sake from Niigata!).
The Flower Nagai Line which the Yonesaka Line connects to at Imaizumi Station. (Image credit: kumazo / CC BY-SA 2.0)
One more experience that the Yonesaka Line offers, which the other two in this article do not, is the chance to take another line mid-way through it. Imaizumi Station (今泉駅 Imaizumi-eki) serves as a transfer station between the JR Yonesaka Line and the Yamagata Railway Flower Nagai Line (フラワー長井線 Furawā Nagai-sen). The Flower Nagai Line itself runs between Akayu (赤湯駅 Akayu-eki) and Arato (荒砥駅 Arato-eki) Stations, both within Yamagata, so those who would like to further their local line experience may change trains to explore more of the rustic rural scenery Yamagata has to offer! I have yet to take the Flower Nagai Line myself, so this, together with another ride on the Yonesaka Line, is definitely on the cards in the future!
A train on the Kitakami Line running on elevated tracks across Kinshūko. (Image credit: 西和賀町 / 橋本翔也様)
Just like how the mountains reveal different facets of themselves as the seasons change, the scenery along such local lines also shows many sides of itself throughout the year, and this is one of the reasons why I enjoy being a noritetsu so much—there is something indescribably enjoyable about looking out at whitened landscapes from within a train and seeing snowflakes drift by, some sticking to the glass panes and remaining long enough for one to discern their shape before melting away.
For those of you who would like to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city and enjoy some peace and quiet, winter is definitely a good time to enjoy travel on local lines, and not just the three mentioned here! The Tōhoku region is home to a treasure trove of local lines, all with their own stories to tell and scenes to share. The next time you find yourself planning a trip to Japan, try penning in one or two local lines in Tōhoku, and be prepared to be pleasantly surprised by the sights, sounds and tastes they have to offer!
Header image credit: JR East / Go Takahashi