Experience: Oigawa Steam Train

You might think I am deviating from the theme of tea, after promising more entries on Japan’s “green gold” last week. However, this unique experience will have you riding through some of Shizuoka’s most picturesque tea growing regions.

Kanaya is a small town on the Tokaido Main Line between Shizuoka and Hamamatsu cities. While there’s not much to the train station area today, in the Edo Period (1603-1858), the village’s position on the west side of the Oi River made it one of the only places to stop and wait for the river to become low enough to ford. (The shogunal government forbade the building of a bridge or ferry system, as a means of slowing any possible approaching army from the provinces.)  Travelers were forced to stop and wait in Kanaya and the town prospered. When progress (in the form of a bridge) arrived and there was no need to stop in Kanaya, the town turned to tea for money.

The Oi River just outside Kanaya
The Oi River just outside Kanaya

Those tea bushes are still around and make for some lovely scenery. One of the best ways to view them is from a seat on the Oigawa Railway. For 40 kilometers between Kanaya and the mountain hamlet of Senzu, an old-fashioned steam train carries passengers through those tea fields nearly every day of the year. It’s a relaxed, yet fascinating, journey into the mountains of Shizuoka. Conductors wander through the wooden cars, singing and telling jokes to passengers. Train bentos are available from the station, meaning you can snack on Shizuoka specialties (and top those sushi rolls with a train-shaped tube of soy sauce!). You can (carefully) hang out the windows and shoot pictures to your heart’s content or just sit back and (try to) get comfortable on the wooden benches.

All aboard! The Oigawa steam train prepares to leave Kanaya
All aboard! The Oigawa steam train prepares to leave Kanaya

If you’re on a day trip, don’t linger when you arrive in Senzu. Hop a bus and head out to the Sumatakyo Suspension Bridges, a series of rickety looking bridges that cross the turquoise waters of the Oi River. They sway scarily back and forth in the breeze but most of these bridges are thoroughly safe to cross (only one or two are clearly falling down and are, just as clearly, marked as such). Unless vertigo gets the better of you, this is a great way to get out and stretch your legs before taking a steam train back to civilization.

One of the Sumata-kyo Suspension Bridges
One of the Sumata-kyo Suspension Bridges

You can get more info on the Oigawa Steam Railway here. Reservations in English can now be made online.

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