Thursday, March 20, 2008

Trains from a bygone age in Oigawa valley

Japanese people take their hobby seriously, especially when this hobby is train. One famous competition tests the knowledge of the official express train time-table for the whole country. Some extremists will camp for hours near a railroad with a tripod and a zoom lens to take a shot of an unusual formation. There is a great variety of train designs as the numerous companies in Japan usually order a specific model for each of their special service, such as the famous Narita express service between Tokyo and the airport. Railway modelers in Japan also have a great time there, as models are quite cheap, and built to high standards. Salesmen in specialized shops will very seriously advise the customers on their purchase to ensure the result is realistic.
We will go to a railway trip in Oigawa (大井川) valley in Shizuoka (静岡) prefecture, midway between Tokyo (東京) and Nagoya (名古屋). The Oigawa river flows from the Japanese Southern Alps in a narrow valley to the Pacific Ocean 168 km later. Its crossing was one of the back spots of the old Tokaido (東海道) road. The modern history of the valley is centered on hydro-electric power. The railroad we will travel on today was built during the 1920s to move construction material for the dams. The whole line was opened in 1954, just before the Ikawa dam entered into service.
In the sixties, the end of dam construction and the extension of the road network meant traffic declined on the line, and the company only survived thanks to public subsidies. In the seventies, the Japanese national railways retired steam locomotives. The Oigawa railway company (Dai-tetsu大鉄) bought two used steam locomotives (called SL in Japan). Since 1976, they have been powering tourist services on the line. The company was inspired by the « Brienz Rothorn Bahn », which maintained a full steam service on its line. In the 1980, thanks to the numerous tourists, the Oigawa railroad was back in the black. The economic crisis in the 90s meant hard times again for the company, which survived thanks to subsidies from the Central Japan Electricity Company.
Today, the Oigawa line is the only one to ensure an almost daily steam train service, with up to 3 services a day. The train travels on the 40 first kilometers between Kanaya (金谷) and Senzu(千頭). The formation is powered by one of the 5 steam locomotives in service. The coaches are also old, and give a good idea of the limited comfort of train transport decades ago. Before boarding, you may buy a “loco-bento”, an elegantly packed lunch with a steam locomotive decoration, to make sure not to get hungry during the travel. This is a pleasant trip, first traveling through the tea fields, then near the river in the narrow valley. The sound of steam, and the oil smell gives a special flavor to the trip.
Once arrived to destination, it is worth spending a few minutes looking at those beautiful machines now forgotten, but which were the true engine of the industrial revolution. Those locomotives burn wood or coal in the firebox, and the heat is transmitted to the boiler where it heats water and generates steam. Steam is then heated a second time “superheating” to reach more than 300 degrees and a higher pressure. Then, the steam goes to the piston, where the power is transmitted to the wheels through the rods, a superb mechanism that is entirely visible. Steam locomotives do not have a gear box, and so need large wheels in order to reach high speeds. Our train in the Oigawa valley is quite slow, but the superb “Mallard” British locomotive reached around 200km.h in the 30’s.
You will probably find the trip to Senzu is not enough. You can continue the journey on the second section of the line. A small electric train drives on the narrow and steep track up to the Ikawa (井川) terminal. This is an impressive journey through the mountains, with a beautiful scenic bridge crossing the Nagashima dam lake (長島ダム).
Oigawa valley does not have the tourist infrastructure of nearby Izu Peninsula (伊豆半島), but you may want to combine the pleasures of the steam locomotive with a hike to nearby mountains, and, to make it a full “steam-oriented” day, a visit to the Onsen in the valley. This is definitely worth a full week-end.
Accès to Kanaya from Tokyo : Board the Tokaido Shinkansen Hikari (東海道新幹線ひかり) service to Shizuoka. Be aware that only one Hikari per hour stops in Shizuoka. At Shizuoka, you should change to Tokaido line (東海道本線) bound for Hamamatsu (浜松) and stop at Kanaya (金谷). 6490 Yens, About 2 hours.

Oigawa Railway Company (大井川鉄道):

Steam train service between Kanaya and Senzu: Y2370 (14.50 Euro) including Y560 of steam surcharge : the train leaves Kanaya between 10am and noon, all seats are reserved, reservation by phone, internet, or on the day of travel at the station. On weekdays, it should not be necessary to book. The schedule of steam services to Kanaya is not always convenient (departure from Senzu at 14:16 or 15:23 depending on days), but it is also possible to board a regular electric service on the way back. Last departure from Senzu at 19:56 on regular service
Ikawa line between Senzu and Ikawa: 5 trains a day, first departure from Senzu at 9:23, last departure at 13:45. Approximately 105 minutes. Last departure from Ikawa at 15:48. line site :

A bus service links Senzu station (千図) and Okuizumi station (奥泉) to the nearby SumataKyo onsens (寸又峡温泉). There are plans available combining a stay at the onsen, dinner, breakfast and steam train service for Y9980 to 11980 (60 to 72 Euros).

Model Train shop Tenshodo (天賞堂): 4-3-9 Ginza, Chuo Ku, Tokyo 〒104-0061 東京都中央区銀座4-3-9 TEL:03-3562-0025, open everyday except Thursday from 11:00 à 19:30. Access from JR Yurakucho station (有楽町) or subway Ginza station (銀座).


Kingindian said...

nice pictures and article
alos you have beautifull header
keep moving!

myarticlereview said...

very nice article. So complete! :D