Let’s take a two-day railroad trip starting out from Ueno Station, which is one of the railroad terminals in Tokyo, and going around Northern Kanto as well as Aizu in Southern Tohoku. This is a journey full of contrasts, traveling through the center of the Kanto plain, following valleys, and providing magnificent views of mountain ranges and lakes from the train windows. You will be able to enjoy “ekiben” (a type of Japanese lunch box unique to the nation’s railroads) and spend a night at a Japanese-style hot spring hotel in the heart of nature. There is no time to feel bored when you are experiencing the rich diversity of Japan’s railroads. It’s time to set off!
See the famous places of Ibaraki from a train window
To begin with, take the JR Joban Line from Ueno Station and head to Mito. On the limited express (“Super Hitachi”/”Fresh Hitachi”) departing every 30 minutes this journey takes approximately one hour, or roughly two hours if you choose to take a regular train.
The journey initially takes you through residential districts in the Tokyo suburbs, but after a while the open Kanto plain becomes visible from the train windows, and in the distance on the left-hand side you will be able to see Mount Tsukuba. As the train approaches Mito, on the left you will see the Kairaku-en Garden famous for its plum trees in early springtime, and on the right you will have a view of Lake Senba, which is a place for the relaxation of Mito residents. The train then slows down as it pulls into Mito Station.
Valley journey on the JR Suigun Line
From Mito, we take the JR Suigun Line to Koriyama, which is the final stop on the line and the centerpiece of our journey. Don’t forget to buy an “ekiben” at Mito Station. The choices available include “Hitachi Province Travel Delicacies”, “Gyu-ben” (beef lunch box) and “Buta-ben” (pork lunch box). Make sure that you do not board trains bound for Hitachiota, as these heads towards a different line en route.
About 50 minutes after departing from Mito, you will see a clear stream on the right-hand side. At River Kuji, which leads into the Pacific Ocean, the train crosses the river many times over so that confusingly it becomes visible on the left and right in turn. The train goes through many tunnels and gradually pushes through into the mountains.
About 1 hour 15 minutes after leaving Mito, you will arrive at Fukuroda with its log-house style station building. After the train arrives, a bus departs from the station bound for “Fukuroda Falls” (one of Japan’s three most famous waterfalls).
Beyond Hitachi-Daigo, it is a good idea to stop off at Yamatsuriyama. The valley like a miniature garden and the rugged rocky mountains are most unusual. In front of the station is a red suspension bridge, and it enjoyable to take a stroll around this area. You could also try some salt-cooked sweetfish at the sightseeing center located at the front of the station.
Refreshment in hot springs nestled among the mountains
After passing through Yamatsuriyama, the mountains will gradually fade into the distance as the train moves away from the visually pleasing Yamatsuriyama area and on through quiet scenery of flat terrain mainly filled with open paddy fields as far as the eye can see. What you are seeing is the quintessential Japanese rural landscape.
The journey on the Suigun Line ends after 3 hours, finally arriving in Koriyama. Get off at the Bandaiatami hot spring resort 15 minutes from Koriyama, and stay at a hot spring hotel close to the station. Relax up here in the mountains by warming yourself as you listen to the water. The next morning, take a local train on the West Ban’etsu Line to Aizuwakamatsu, a journey lasting about 1 hour 15 minutes. This central city in the basin of the Aizu District, which is located in the western part of Fukushima Prefecture, retains a charming old-style townscape.
Beautiful scenery of lake and volcano
The train to Aizuwakamatsu travels through the vast basin after crossing through the mountains around Bandaiatami. On the left you will see Lake Inawashiro, which is one of the area’s popular tourist destinations. You might like to stop off at Inawashiro and a take a stroll along the lake shore.
The next spectacular sight visible from the train windows is that of Mount Bandai. According to records, this large volcano had a major eruption in the second half of the 19th Century. Mount Bandai should be visible on the right as it is located on the north side of the track, but as the track zigzags its position seems to move from the left side to the right side and back again, which could make you feel dizzy.
After approaching the basin and merging with the line from Niigata direction, you will arrive at Aizuwakamatsu. The town’s symbol is Aizuwakamatsu Castle, and there are many other historical landmarks here from the end of the Tokugawa shogunate around the middle of the 19th Century. The town is crowded with tourists thanks to its status as the setting for historical television dramas. For a hot spring hotel you could try Higashiyama Onsen, which is about 15-20 minutes from the station by car. Here you can buy all kinds of souvenirs, including folk crafts such as Akabeko toys, sweets, and local sake.
Enjoy ramen noodles and steam locomotives
If you have time on the second day, try visiting Kitakata, “the town of kura (traditional Japanese storehouses for valuable commodities) and ramen noodles”, by taking a 15-minute train journey right through the paddy fields in the direction of Niigata. Appreciate the unique appearance of the streets in this town, many of which feature “kura” as symbols of the local merchants’ wealth. For lunch, you will no doubt want to try the famous local Kitakata ramen, a commoners’ dish with thick noodles in soy sauce-flavor soup.
On weekends from spring through to autumn, the “SL Ban’etsu Monogatari” steam locomotive runs on the line from Kitakata back to Aizuwakamatsu. Traveling aboard a retro-style steam train is great fun.
For the return journey, take the West Ban’etsu Line to get back to Koriyama and then head straight for Tokyo. It is a good idea to use the Shinkansen to get back to Tokyo, as it takes only around 1 hour 20-50 minutes to arrive at Ueno or Tokyo. Various trains run on Japanese railroads, and such journeys where you can view natural scenery rich with diversity will surely leave you with happy memories.
JR East Pass Special
The JR East Pass Special is a three-day flexible pass on sale from April 1 to June 30, 2013. The JR East Pass Special can be used on any three days during the first 10 days from the date of issuance, and it permits use of the Shinkansen Line and Narita Express any number of times. As well as Kanto, you can also use travel freely to Tohoku or Niigata. The JR East Pass Special is price at 15,000 yen for adults (7,500 yen for children).
Seishun 18 Ticket
This ticket was initially aimed at students around 18 years of age, and it can be used to freely ride regular trains (local trains and Rapid Service trains) on all JR lines. The period of validity coincides with long school holiday periods, and the ticket can be used five times during a given period (one use is valid for one person on one day, so it can be used in a variety of ways, for example covering five people traveling together on one day, traveling as a pair on one day and then three days alone, and so on). There is no age limit, either, so even adults and the elderly can make use of this ticket. The Seishun 18 Ticket is priced at 11,500 yen. The station attendant should stamp your ticket at the start of a day of use. Also, the ticket must be checked by a station attendant each time, as it cannot be inserted into the automatic ticket gates.
There are many other economical tickets available in each region of Japan, details of which can be found at the links provided below.
Profile of Takashi Noda
Born in Nagoya in 1952. Graduated from the Graduate School of Waseda University. After teaching languages at a metropolitan high school for many years, took early retirement and became a travel writer. Mainly focused on writing European and Japanese railroad travel journals. Director of Japan Travel Writers’ Organization (JTWO). Sixteenth work – “100 Famous Japanese Railroad Views” (Heibonsha) – to be published in March 2013.