My big cheesy mug before boarding the steam locomotive in Tsuwano.
One of my fondest memories from childhood is watching Dad play with his Lionel model train set in the basement. Dad had a huge set-up — at least, it seemed huge to my 6-year-old eyes — and I remember watching with glee as the trains chugged all around the set, hauling little Lincoln logs from the lumber yard to the saw mill. Dad had this nifty-looking control panel with a throttle that you could pull to control the speed of the trains. There was even a feature you could turn on to make smoke come out of the train as it choo-chooed along.
Needless to say, Dad's a big train buff, and though his extensive train knowledge didn't really rub off on me, I do think trains are cool. So when Joe and I found out that a few rare steam engine locomotives were still in service in Japan, we made plans to go for a ride. The ride was, in fact, what motivated us to plan the trip to Hagi and Tsuwano in the first place.
So first, for those who don't know (and I didn't), here's a little background on steam engines. The first steam locomotive was built in 1804 (the year after Ohio became a state). Their popularity peaked in the 1930s and 40s, at which time Japan had around 8,700 steam locomotives on the rails. But diesel powered trains began to take their place after World War II, and by the 1950s most of the steam locomotives were gone. By 1976, there were none left on the tracks, according to the Japan Times.
The particular train we rode was the SL Yamaguchi C571, built in 1937.
The SL Yamaguchi C571
According to the Modern Transportation Museum, this train was affectionately nicknamed "The Lady" because of its beautiful style. It was the most commonly used steam locomotive of any of the steam locomotives run by Japan Rail.
The Lady came back into service in 1979 and now runs the 39-mile stretch of track between Yamaguchi and Tsuwano once a day, back and forth. The train's top speed is 68 miles per hour.
It was a lot classier than I expected it to be. Our car had large, plush blue velour seats decorated with stained glass at the top, chandelier lighting fixtures and classy brass type lamps and curtain rods. It even had air conditioners with decorative grates. I was impressed.
Stained glass lining the top of the seats
I was surprised to discover that each passenger car was different. The locomotive pulls five cars, each carrying a different historical period name with corresponding interior designs. The carriages are divided into Meiji, Taisho, Showa and Western styles and a viewing car, according to Yamaguchi Prefecture's website. Here are a couple of the other cars — definitely not as posh as ours.
The train left late afternoon and our stomachs started growling shortly after we pulled out of the station. Lucky for us an attendant pushed a cart down the aisle to sell snacks and souvenirs, and we snagged the last Japanese bento lunch. Joe even got a beer to wash it all down. Know what kind of suds you drink when you're ridin' in style on the steam engine train?
Malt liquor, baby!
It was a very pleasant two-hour ride through the countryside to Yamaguchi, with scenery of rice paddies, old Japanese houses and mountains. In a lot of places, residents of small towns would wave to the train as it went by and take photographs, which was charming.
We even crossed over at least one river along the way. That was a little bit of a rush.
Here's the video I took of the inside of the train. I really wanted to add music to it, "Love Train" or something, but I didn't because I figure YouTube would just delete it for copyright infringement.
It actually was somewhat difficult to get good pictures and video of the ride because the train rocked a bit, as though it were a ship on the sea.
We were pretty tired by the time we made it to Yamaguchi. Once we realized it would take a few more hours to make it home on the local trains, we opted instead to just take the Shinkansen bullet train, which got us back to Hiroshima in just half an hour. That ride came at a steep price — around $45 a piece I think — but we didn't feel too bad about it for one reason: we actually basically got a free ride on the locomotive! When Joe went downtown to buy the SL tickets in advance, the agent sold him the seat reservations for around $5 a piece, but not the actual tickets, which I believe run around $30. We thought we'd have to purchase the tickets themselves in Tsuwano, but when we tried to get them from the train station clerk, he said the reservations we showed him were sufficient. This really confused us and we asked him twice, insistently, if it was all we needed and he just kept saying yes... So... free tickets for us!
Though we hadn't planned it that way, it was pretty cool switching from the old fashioned train to the ultra-modern bullet train on the way home. The perfect way to ride home in style.
The bullet train. It travels up to 190 mph! It's awesome!