It's spring at last. Perhaps you want to find a special place to enjoy Japan's wonderful cherry blossoms, or perhaps you just want to spend some time enjoying all that nature has to offer as the weather warms.
Shizuoka's Oi River valley offers both, and is a perfect destination for a 2-3-day getaway. The beautiful scenery of the valley can be enjoyed from a traditional steam train, an ordinary train or Japan's only Abt-system cog railway. As you ascend the valley, the emerald waters of lakes formed by two hydro-electric dams only enhance the view. Stop off for some hiking and cross some of the suspension bridges that are also a popular feature of the area.
The Oigawa Railway Line begins from Kanaya Station, also a Tokaido Main Line station about halfway between Shizuoka and Hamamatsucho stations. Special two and three-day passes can be purchased that allow travellers unlimited rides on the trains and buses of the valley.
Oigawa Railways operates both ordinary trains and steam trains to Senzu, about halfway up the valley. The trains run every 30-60 minutes, reaching Senzu in just over an hour. When the train line opened in 1927, its steam locomotives pulled more freight than passengers, mostly timber and minerals from deep in the mountains.
In these modern times, the continuation of the steam train service is a major tourist attraction. There are only two to four steam trains a day and advance reservations are advisable. If you're travelling with children, note that in the summer season one of the steam trains is Thomas the Tank Engine. Fortunately, there is an English-language online reservation system to help you secure your seats.
Riding in a vintage train car pulled by a steam locomotive (SL) is always a treat, but here it's made all the better by the scenery. In addition to the juxtaposition of the river and the mountains, you will also see tidy little farms featuring rows of tea bushes, neatly trimmed to hedges and, in this spring season, lots and lots of cherry blossoms. On the train, the crew -- in vintage livery -- go out of their way to make your trip memorable with everything from harmonica playing and poetry recitation to sale of special SL bento box lunches and SL-related souvenirs.
The steam trains make just five stops between Kanaya and Senzu, while the ordinary trains stop at all stations. Given these limitations, I recommend trying to catch the earliest steam train possible and riding all the way to Senzu, making it your base for exploring both up and down the valley.
When you arrive in Senzu, confirm the schedule for the Ikawa Line (cog railway) to ensure that you have about an hour and a half to explore Senzu before continuing your journey. The steam locomotives and other memorabilia on display inside the station and in the small "SL Museum" next door are worth a few minutes of your time. Directly across from the train station is a tourist information center where you can get information on the valley's bus services and pick up a map for a walk in the Senzu area that takes you across the river to a hot spring, and brings you back again via the 145 meter-long Ryogoku Suspension Bridge.
From Senzu, ride the Ikawa Line cog railway to Sessokyo Onsen (currently the end of the line, as the last three stations on the line have been cut off by a recent landslide). The train's rack and pinion design allows it to tackle a number of slopes not manageable by ordinary trains, including a 9% grade just below Nagashima Dam. The scenery just gets more and more dramatic as the train also negotiates 61 tunnels and 51 bridges in just 25 kilometers.
Shortly before reaching Sessokyo Onsen the train passes over two bridges in short succession with a quick stop between them at an unmanned station called Okuoi-kojo (meaning "above Okuoi Lake"). Many passengers alight here and walk across the second bridge to commence a short hike in the area. I suggest staying on the train and starting your hike from Sessokyo Onsen to avoid a portion of the walk that follows the highway.
At Sessokyo Onsen Station, cross the highway and have a quick visit to little Yamabiko Museum, with its quaint exhibits on traditional life deep in these mountains. Then stroll alongside the river to the Minami Alps Sesso Great Suspension Bridge. At 240 meters long and 31 meters above the water's surface, this is indeed the greatest of the area's many suspension bridges.
It's also the start of a hiking course called "Love Romance Road", which leads you upstream through the woodland on the opposite side of the river and traverses a total of eight suspension bridges. Along the way you'll have a chance to stop for a soothing soak at the Wakagaeri no yu (rejuvenation spa). The trail ends in the village of Umeji; cross the highway bridge to make your way back to the station to return to Senzu (the last train of the day departs at 16:30). Or consider spending the night in Umeji; even this little village has a few inns.
On Day Two, from either Senzu or Oku-Izumi Station, catch a bus to Sumatakyo Onsen. The mineral waters of this onsen are famous for making women beautiful. Or just enjoy the many hikes in this area. Particularly well known is the Sumatakyo Promenade hiking course, that features the "Dream" suspension bridge and a mountain look-out with views deep into the Minami Alps National Park.
After busing back to Senzu, visit Otogi no Sato, an interactive museum dedicated to sound and music across the train tracks from Senzu station. Show their website on your smartphone for a 10% discount on the 500 yen admission.
Then board the train again to begin your trip back down the valley in earnest. On your trip up the valley, you probably noticed the 220-meter-long Shiogo Suspension Bridge, which spans the river near Shiogo Station. Now's your chance to cross this bridge, too. But be warned -- the topography of the area makes it a bit windy and the bridge often sways substantially.
The Oigawa Railway trains, their rustic stations and their beautiful natural backdrop, also frequently feature in movies. Among the better known movies featuring an Oigawa Railway station are the 1978 "Talk of the Town Tora-san", the 22nd "Otoko wa Tsurai yo" movie, and the 1999 "The Railroad Man (Poppoya)", starring the late Ken Takakura. The station featured in these movies is Ieyama, three stops further downriver from Shiogo. While the station building doesn't look like much (I think that was the point), it may be worth a stop in cherry blossom season to stroll along the nearby "Sakura Tunnel" and check out the local footbath, especially soothing after all your walking.
Your time in this beautiful valley will have given you a much greater appreciation for the rhythms of life in Japan's deepest mountain valleys and the power of the river waters than helped carve them.© Japan Today