By Yuka Matsumoto / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterICHIHARA, Chiba — Acting on the urge to ride a train filled with the joys of spring, I visited Goi Station on the Kominato Railway in Ichihara, Chiba Prefecture. The local line, which celebrated its centenary last year, stretches for 39.1 kilometers between Goi and Kazusanakano stations in the center of Boso Peninsula.
The entire line is nonelectric, and runs on a single track. The station buildings are bursting with the charms of the era in which they were built.
My purpose was to board a tourist train run by the railway — I had seen a picture of a lovely locomotive passing through fields of rape blossom.
Known as Satoyama Torocco, the diesel locomotive — a restored steam train from the Taisho era (1912-1926) — operates between Kazusaushiku and Yorokeikoku stations. There are four passenger cars, each featuring a glass ceiling. Two of them have open sides, allowing passengers to get closer to the landscape the train passes through.
“Luxury trains are popular now, but we’re kind of the opposite,” Kominato Railway President Shinpei Ishikawa said.
According to Ishikawa, Satoyama Torocco is an alternative to trains that confine passengers in an enclosed space. The aim is to let people fully appreciate the views of the satoyama — the natural environment including hills, forests and swamps that serves as the journey’s main attraction.
Ishikawa, 45, was previously a bank employee. His grandfather also worked at the railway, and rose to the role of chairman. Ishikawa says he became inspired to create Satoyama Torocco after riding on a railroad maintenance vehicle. “I thought it would be wonderful to share that refreshing, breezy feeling,” he said.
Strong local support
The train ran at 25 kph through the tranquil spring landscape. A small truck running alongside the railroad overtook us. I felt the pleasant breeze on my cheeks as cherry petals drifted into the train. I could hear a frog croaking, and I saw a man wave to me as he planted rice.
No one aboard was glued to their smartphones; instead, the train was filled with smiles.
Satoyama Torocco has grown popular since it began full operations in 2016. The local railway company has stayed in the black, even as it works to streamline its business operations.
But the railway itself is not the only incredible thing about the company. Many local people, mostly middle-aged and elderly men, provide support on a voluntary basis. Some trim the bushes and plant flowers; others decorate the train cars and station buildings with illuminations during winter.
“We tidy [the area along the line] instead of relying on the company to do it,” said Yasuhiko Matsumoto, 75, who leads the volunteer activities.
Matsumoto, a former junior high school principal, started the volunteer activities more than 10 years ago, when discussions about whether to close a loss-making section that included Itabu Station, near his home, got under way.
Since then, Matsumoto has gradually won the support of other people as he works to restore barren parts of the satoyama landscape. Now, there is a volunteer group for each station, with each one working to maintain and improve the environment along the railway.
The Kominato Railway route is not short of attractive spots. On a hill overlooking Satomi Station, there is a cherry tree cared for by local residents. In front of Itabu Station, a former general store has been reborn as a gallery.
Tsutomu Suzuki, 86, started serving as an honorary stationmaster at unstaffed Tsukizaki Station this year. His father-in-law planted cherry trees along the railway after World War II. The trees have grown to become famous and familiar to many.
Elsewhere, I discovered a farmer’s market near Kazusaokubo Station selling locally grown vegetables. And in Ishigami, near Yorokeikoku Station, former railway employee Michio Kaneko and others have been planting rapeseeds in an unused 2.5-hectare rice field. They have even made a parking lot so people can come to see the flowers.
“I’d like to pass this scenery on to my children’s and grandchildren’s generations. My role is to hand it over,” said the 75-year-old Kaneko.
Efforts such as this have been fruitful. Young people in the area are making rapeseed oil using the local flowers.
Ultimately, Kominato Railway and many local people share the same sentiment about their area: “Hey guys, why rush so much? Won’t you slow down a bit?”
Their motto is: “The satoyama landscape brings a nostalgic future.”
The train whistle blew as we approached Yorokeikoku Station. Outside, Kaneko’s field of flowers spread out like a golden ocean as far as I could see. The passengers cheered.
It was a dreamlike scene.
Take the Sobu Line from JR Tokyo Station for about an hour until Goi Station. From there, it takes half an hour to reach Kazusaushiku Station on the Kominato Railway. The Satoyama Torocco train runs mainly on weekends, with two to three round trips a day. It takes about an hour to reach Yorokeikoku Station. Riding the train requires a basic fare ticket and an additional ¥500 ticket. To book, call (0436) 23-5584 (Japanese). Or for more information, call (0436) 21-6771 (Japanese).
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