Steam locomotive battle royale

Photos by David Krigbaum
Photos by David Krigbaum

Steam locomotive battle royale

by David Krigbaum

In Japan, as you drive through the countryside it is not uncommon to see trains running parallel, shooting by. Often these trains are the local commuter with school children and salarymen, the long-haul expresses or even the sleek, fast-moving Shinkansen. Then an archaic black engine with a hoarse whistle and trailing clouds of smoke, passes you by.

SL Hitoyoshi

The sight of steam-powered trains running down the tracks has mostly been consigned to the past. But, in Japan, about 10 train lines still run steam engines to quiet, rural getaways, offering the chance to enjoy the local scenery on a fun, rare breed of transportation. Three steam locomotives are just a few hours from U.S. military installations country-wide – the SL Hitoyoshi, SL Yamaguchi and SL Oigawa.

Each are different in what they offer and are great for different reasons. So, below is a breakdown of their features, a comparison of the steam engines themselves, the qualities and amenities, routes, stops and destinations to determine which one offers the best bang for your buck. The whistle is blowing, and the conductor is ringing her hand bell, so let’s get onboard this SL Battle Royale!

BEST: Steam Engine

SL Hitoyoshi’s 8620-series engine No. 58654 is the oldest on this list. Manufactured in 1922, it’s been running passengers around Kyushu for almost a century and is an example of Japan’s first domestically-designed and mass-produced passenger train engine. Fitting, as it’s also the most handsome with its polished engine and brass fittings. Age does not go before beauty, here they go hand in hand.

SL Yamaguchi runs two different engines from the 1930s, C57 1 and D51 299. Both are slightly longer and beefier in build than SL Hitoyoshi but clearly an evolution for pulling bigger loads further with the C57 designed for hauling passengers and the D51 for hauling freight. I rode the D51, called ‘degoichi’ (“D-5-1”) by rail fans, it is the most mass-produced Japanese steam engine of all time. These models were modern workhorses during World War II and these two examples are beautifully maintained.

If you want to ride a specific engine, SL Yamaguchi’s website shows which engine runs on which days, so you’re guaranteed to get what you want.

SL Yamaguchi

SL Oigawa is a bit different as they run four different engines on a rotating basis. The one I rode, C10 8, was built in 1930 and the class was the first produced by Japan Government Railways after nationalization. Not as large or impressive as the SL Yamaguchi engines or as handsome as SL Hitoyoshi, it shows a lot more wear than the rest likely because SL Oigawa runs almost every day. Unlike SL Yamaguchi there’s no announced engine running on any particular day so you get what you get. Riding on two consecutive days I got C10 8 twice.

Steam engines are like cherry blossoms, they’re all winners because they’re all steam engines.

BEST: Passenger Cars

SL Hitoyoshi has custom-designed sightseeing cars designed with modern comfort and nostalgic touches. Its café car has locally produced food and drink from Kumamoto like beer, non-alcoholic Kumamoto banpeiyu citrus cider and chestnut strips.

SL Oigawa

Passenger windows cannot be opened, and the smoke scent is only slightly noticeable, which is kind of a letdown. The train has an enclosed observation car at both ends for taking in the countryside.

The conductors were all energetic young women who shared information about the places we passed in the observation car. Since I don’t speak Japanese, one gave me an English map with explanations and tried to help me. When herding passengers back aboard after stops she rang a large hand bell like had been done by conductors in the past.

SL Yamaguchi takes a different track by reproducing classic passenger cars of the 1920s and 30s. Some modern touches have been added such as air conditioning and tables with USB outlets between passenger seats, but overall it feels right. Like SL Hitoyoshi the café car also offers local food and drink. This train also has a game room where passengers are invited to play by lottery. I got to try my hand at virtual coal shoveling, “tossing” virtual coal with a shovel into the furnace. The observation car also has an open platform which I preferred because I could feel the wind rushing by and could lean around the corner when taking pictures.

Unlike Hitoyoshi, you can open all the windows and take in all the smoke you desire, which going through tunnels is a lot. The degoichi is as smoky as a middle-aged salaryman. The tickets are all the same price, but passengers can also request seats in certain cars such as the 1927 or 1939 third class or the 1938 art deco “first-class” cars.

SL Oigawa

SL Oigawa is the only one which exclusively uses original passenger cars from the 1930s and 40s. This is the real, no-frills deal. You open the windows wide for air conditioning and food only comes from a lady rolling a cart down the aisle. No observation car though as this steam engine is also a cheater- it has an electric engine pushing from behind, which is probably why it produces so much less smoke than SL Yamaguchi.

Occasionally the conductor will also walk through and play the harmonica to entertain passengers.

I came to ride a train like its 1945 and this delivers exactly that experience. Smooth, worn wood everything; low seats designed for a 5’2” Japanese person and not a 6’ American, open windows and no modern conveniences whatsoever. This is your great-grandfather’s train ride. (But SL Yamaguchi comes in at a very close second.)

MOST: Scenic Route

Hitoyoshi Route

SL Hitoyoshi’s 2-hour ride mostly follows the fast-moving Kuma River through a green mountain valley in scenery that would be at home in America’s Appalachians. It has a few stops including two tiny stations that have changed little since Meiji was emperor more than a century ago.

SL Yamaguchi’s 2- hour-and-10-minute ride has the most pleasant scenery of idyllic fields and forests. It stops twice long enough to stretch your legs and take pictures of the still steaming train at rest.
SL Oigawa’s 1-hour-19-minute ride mostly follows the Oi River through the southern Japanese Alps. It has one stop at a small century old station, but I didn’t have enough time to go through it and look around.

WINNER: SL Hitoyoshi
While SL Oigawa’s scenery is similar to SL Hitoyoshi, the Oi River changes between being majestic and being little more than a stream surrounded by a very wide expanse of gravel whereas SL Hitoyoshi’s Kuma River is always wild and beautiful. The two old station stops also gave Hitoyoshi a leg up. Yamaguchi is a distant third by comparison.

BEST: Destination

Yamaguchi Destination

It may be about the journey and not the destination when riding a steam engine, but where you’re going to crash for the night is worth considering. Both Hitoyoshi and Tsuwano (SL Yamaguchi) are rural historic resort towns designed to receive tourists but are not over-run with them. Both have preserved traditional Japanese districts, memorable temples, shrines and are connected to historic Japanese figures. For lodging, in addition to standard hotels both have traditional ryokan with long histories of their own.

Senzu (SL Oigawa) is a very small mountain town with hostels, small inns and minpaku, which are like bed and breakfasts. There’s not much to see in town, unless you love Thomas the Tank Engine, but it’s the jumping off point for hiking and taking the local vintage sightseeing trains further up river, past the dam, where the river is still full and beautiful.

WINNER: Tie (SL Hitoyoshi and SL Yamaguchi)
After reviewing all of this there is no clear winner. All have their good points that make them worth riding and their locales worth exploring; as well as their relative downsides. The best thing to do would be to experience them all and decide for yourself which is Japan’s greatest steam train.

Grab a ticket
You can reserve SL Hitoyoshi tickets at any JR West Station in person. Tickets cannot be purchased online. SL Hitoyoshi departs from Kumamoto Station, which is 2.5 hours by car from Sasebo.

For SL Yamaguchi, reservations can be made in person at any JR West Station. I recommend booking early because seats can go fast, especially in the “first class” car. All tickets are the same price but that car has added demand. You can request whichever car you want to ride in.  The schedule can be found at the website, which also shows seat availability. SL Yamaguchi departs from Shin-Yamaguchi Station, which is 1.5 hours by car from Iwakuni.

SL Oigawa is independently run by Oigawa Railways of Shizuoka Prefecture.  Booking can be done online by visiting their website below and filling in the application form. SL Oigawa runs almost every day of the year thanks to their volume of rolling stock. It departs from the non-JR Shin-Kanaya Station, which can be reached by car or by taking a bus or train from the JR Kanaya Station. (Oigawa’s line to Shin-Kanaya Station is outside of JR Kanaya Station.) Shimada City (Kanaya Station) is about 3 hours from Yokosuka.

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