Japanese Hot Springs: Delightful Japanese Steam Locomotive
SL Ban'etsu Monogatari ばんえつ物語
For the 2013 cherry blossom season (花見の季節), my wife and I decided to do something delightful. We had read tourist pamphlets advertising a fun steam locomotive, called the SL Ban'etsu Monogatari, which travels between Niigata-city and Aizuwakamatsu-city on the weekends.
It is an all-day return trip between the two cities. Many passengers, who don't even get off the train, have a great time riding the train back and forth, because there is so much to do and see onboard. The Ban'etsu Monogatari is a unique steam locomotive that is almost as indulgent of guests as a passenger cruise ship.
We boarded at Niigata Station to a lot of convivial celebration. In front of the train numerous passengers and passersby were standing, waving, and taking their photographs. Japan Railroad employees were wearing old-style train uniforms while posing with guests, explaining the train, and greeting everyone with wide smiles.
Before departure children were allowed to enter the steam engine car and pose with the fireman, sometimes called a stoker, whose job it is to feed the coal burning engine and maintain enough steam to move the locomotive. For children, the train is a whistle tooting, steam emitting, amusement park. For senior citizens, the Ban'etsu Monogatari is a blast from the past. For us, it was both.
My wife and I entered the train to find our car and seats. We had paid for economy seats, but our bodies comfortably sank into the cardinal-colored art deco chairs. The armrests were polished wood, and each seat reclined way back.
Two couples spun their seats around so that they could face each other. They were friends in their late sixties, and, even though it was early morning, the two men, looking very satisfied, immediately popped open two cans of Asahi beer. Their goal, they explained, was to spend all day enjoying the scenery, eating, drinking, and chatting.
Our destination was halfway between Niigata and Aizuwakamatsu where we wanted to explore a rural hot-spring village called Hanasaki Onsen while enjoying its famous cherry trees and relatively unknown hot springs. But before that, we wanted to get the most pleasure we could from the train, so we went reconnoitering.
Stepping into the next car was like stepping into a film made by the legendary Japanese animator and manga artist Miyazaki Hayao, creator of Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and Tonari No Totaro, among other imaginative works.
This train car was designed to look like a forest. Ivy and a sign were hung from the ceiling. The sign read "オコジョの森へようこそ！ なかよく たのしく あそんでね, which roughly translates as the following:
Welcome to the ermine's forest. Make good friends, enjoy yourselves and play together.
To promote these fun aims, a train employee, wearing a cute ermine animal costume herself, was loaning various animal hats to children and childlike adults. Manga style illustrations of animals in forests were on all seats.
There was also a poster with animals at one end of the car. Holes were missing where the heads would be so that photographs could be taken with one's own head becoming the animal's head.
Our next stop was the dining/food souvenir car, which served lunch boxes (bento) in packages shaped like trains. Train riders were avidly purchasing "forest teas" train-shaped candies, local sakes and beer.
The car was packed with customers. For many travelers, a big part of train travel is eating locally produced or designed food products that match the atmosphere or locality of the train. Since we had reserved a large lunch at a Japanese ryokan at our destination, we continued touring the train.
Many cars were different in style and shape. Half of the next one was designed for panoramic views through large windows. Seats pointed towards the windows for maximum exposure to the countryside vistas.
People in the other half of the same train car mingled, chatted, or made arts and crafts. Two train employees were standing behind a table with colored beads, strings, and other materials for crafts, all available for free. They encouraged and taught guests to make necklaces, bracelets, and other knickknacks.
Most train guests though stared out the windows, attracted by the alternating vistas of traditional homes, small farms, cherry blossoms, streams, bridges, hills, and forests.
Here and there, villagers waved at the passengers on the train and vice versa. Walking from the front of the train to the last car provided different perspectives.
All the time, the train swayed gently, so we accidentally bumped into others and everyone smiled or pointed out particularly interesting views. Strangers affably chatted.
Finally, our train slowed down as we approached our goal of Sakihana Onsen. Sakura trees, or cherry trees, had been planted many years ago on each side of the train track.
The trees grew higher than the locomotive, their branches spreading toward each other in the open air above the train, creating a tunnel of delicate cherry blossoms that floated down upon us as we stepped off the train onto the minuscule platform of Sakihana Onsen Station.
No train station staff worked there and no one was there to tell us where to go, so we just wandered in a state of wonder. The price for my pleasurable train travel to Sakihana Onsen was just 1,160 yen, or about $11 USD, an incredible bargain.
The author of this article blogs about Japanese hot springs at hotspringaddict.blogspot.jp.