Watarase railroad … the little train that can.

Moving from Matsumoto to Nikko can take about 4 hours at best, using a mix of JR Limited Express and Shinkansen. Options are to Nagano, then looping back to Tokyo, then north to Nikko; or to Tokyo via Otsuki, and then to Nikko. The trains are so efficient that after a while they can feel sterile, and lack an exciting mood.

After a lot of digging around I found a longer but more interesting route that mixed Limited Express, Shinkansen and local services to get me across country to Nikko. This included changing from the Nagono-Tokyo Shinkansen at Takasaki, and catching a local service to Kiryu. Here, I changed to ride the popular Watarase tourist Railroad linking Kiryu and Tsudo. A local bus would link Tsudo to Nikko.

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For the train tragic like me, the Watarase Railroad generally runs a single-car diesel train along a line that used to serve the now-closed Ashio copper mine. The route follows the picturesque Watarase River valley and finally steep gorge country, serving some very small villages and isolated rural folk. Absolutely spectacular and strongly recommended.

Tsudo is the access point for exploring the disused copper mine site and processing plant. Apparently it is very popular. Not sure why by the looks of the rusted industrial skeletons that once were the core of a thriving community.

The single-car meant that I was able to stand at the front with the driver, pretending to be in control of the train. Just like a kid. Whoopee!

At the passing station of Azuma, a few of us passengers bought produce from a local vegetable stall. Others took the chance to take photos of our train and the arriving passing train. Talk about train-spotters! This place was also the step-off to access the Tomihiro Art Museum.

Rocking back and forth, half a dozen passengers, looking up and down the line through the centre of the single carriage, the Watarase River slowly passing by – this is an exquisite experience.

Can the contrast to the conurbation of Tokyo be any starker? A 16-car Shinkansen with 1,000+ passengers hurtling along at 300 kph, or a single-car wobbly with a handful of passengers, struggling to reach 60 kph?

And I must thank the Nikko SGG (Systemised Goodwill Guides) for alerting me to the actual bus times, otherwise the internet timetable would have left me stranded at Tsudo for about 6 hours!

(Thursday 4 August, 2011)

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