Full steam ahead

An old-time train jour­ney in Ja­pan

Paradise - - Contents - See to­bu­japantrip.com.

At one point, I pass a group of chil­dren be­ing given in­struc­tion in tra­di­tional sword­play.

To a train fan, there’s noth­ing more ex­cit­ing than the hiss of a steam lo­co­mo­tive, and the peal of its whis­tle. Even more so when the train is about to carry you through a pic­turesque area of Ja­pan.

I’m about to board the SL Taiju, a loco that worked on the north­ern is­land of Hokkaido from 1941 to 1974. Re­cently granted a sec­ond life in the Nikko re­gion, north of Tokyo, it runs 35-minute trips be­tween the hot springs town of Kin­u­gawa Onsen and Shimo-Imaichi.

Ar­riv­ing at Kin­u­gawa Onsen for an 11.08am de­par­ture, I’m not the only steam fan who wants a piece of the Taiju. Be­fore the loco is con­nected to its 1960s car­riages, Tobu Rail­way makes a big show of pre­sent­ing it to the pub­lic on the turntable out­side the sta­tion.

At 10.30am a crowd gath­ers as the strik­ing black lo­co­mo­tive, with a disc bear­ing its name in Kanji char­ac­ters, pulls onto the turntable. It hisses and steams as it’s slowly turned, and an an­nouncer ex­plains its fea­tures.

Even­tu­ally we board, then head off past low green moun­tains on a cool hu­mid morn­ing. Trundling steadily south, the train passes houses and forests, with the blue-green Kinu River ap­pear­ing be­low us. Fur­ther on, we pass rice fields, and pass be­neath canopies formed by Ja­panese cedar trees.

One of the Taiju’s stops is Tobu World Square. This re­mark­able theme park is packed with scale mod­els of build­ings from around the world, built on a gen­er­ous scale. As I walk through the grounds, Tokyo’s lofty Skytree Tower looms above me, as do New York’s Chrysler Build­ing and Em­pire State Build­ing.

Fur­ther around, there are im­pres­sive repli­cas of Egypt’s pyra­mids and the Sphinx, lead­ing to the Europe zone where I spot, among oth­ers, the Colos­seum and the Eif­fel Tower.

In the Asia sec­tion there are many more icons, in­clud­ing Beijing’s For­bid­den City and the Taj Ma­hal.

Tobu World Square’s nearby sis­ter at­trac­tion is Edo Won­der­land, a his­tor­i­cal vil­lage ded­i­cated to Tokyo’s golden age from the 17th to 19th cen­turies.

Dur­ing that era, Tokyo and its sur­rounds ex­pe­ri­enced a great flow­er­ing of cul­ture, and the vil­lage repli­cates daily life via cos­tumed ac­tors, shops, restau­rants and shows.

En­ter­tain­ment aside, Edo Won­der­land is a beau­ti­ful place to walk through.

Many peo­ple are dressed in the cloth­ing of the era, in­clud­ing vis­i­tors who are en­cour­aged to hire an out­fit. At one point, I pass a group of chil­dren be­ing given in­struc­tion in tra­di­tional sword­play.

My fi­nal stop is the Toshogu Shrine, within Nikko’s World Her­itage area, ded­i­cated to the shogun (mil­i­tary leader) who ini­ti­ated the Edo era.

Built over sev­eral lev­els in the mid­dle of a for­est, this com­plex is both grand and tran­quil. Its build­ings are edged in gilt paint, and con­tain a wealth of de­tail in their in­tri­cate colours and stat­u­ary.

The day ends with a soak in one of the re­gion’s fa­mous ther­mal baths, known as onsen. This trip be­gan with the ex­cite­ment of the steam from a train – now it’s end­ing in re­lax­ation, amid steam from the hot springs be­low.

All aboard ... this steam lo­co­mo­tive runs trips to the hot springs town of Kin­u­gawa Onsen, north of Tokyo (above); Tobu World, where the world's great build­ings are du­pli­cated in minia­ture (be­low).

Edo Won­der­land ... a his­toric vil­lage where vis­i­tors are en­cour­aged to hire and dress in tra­di­tional cloth­ing.

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