Sunday, June 12, 2011

Matsumoto Dentetsu (Alpico Kotsu) - Kamikochi Line | 松本電鉄 (アルピコ交通) 上高地線

For a traveler, a landscape geographer and anyone who wonders what’s around the corner, Japan is one of the best countries to live or travel in. Despite it’s size, as compared to my birthplace in America, there is a such an outstanding variation in the landscapes both natural and cultural cramped into such a small place. What makes it even easer to explore is the abundance of public transportation thanks to it’s population density. The massive national railways, Japan Rail, of course, covers the most territory, but the complementary private railways are also quite interesting. In the major population areas around Osaka and Tokyo many private lines are in direct competition with JR, but in the rural areas these private lines feed into or supplement the JR lines. Some of them were even former JR lines that were sold off to local municipalities or companies. I’ve discussed the Miki, Hojo, Shigaraki, and Ohmi lines previously and rode on many more, but as I’ve been pouring over the Railway Mapple I’ve discovered many, many more of these lines that I never knew existed. More than I expected in fact.

The Front of a "Highland Rail" car with a sign promoting the local soccer club
Matsumoto Dentetsu 松本電鉄 or Alpico Kotsu アルピコ交通 as it has been renamed earlier this year is one of these spur lines that feed into the JR system. The single Kamikochi line travels west form Matsumoto in Nagano Pref. towards the popular ski and hot spring area of Kamikochi. I was given a chance to ride the line during a family weekend trip to see one of my wife’s friends from her study abroad program in Vancouver, BC. Thank you Yuko for letting me dork out on the trains for the afternoon, by the way.

The single line begins at platform 7 of JR Matsumoto station and ends 14.4km later at Shin Shimashima Station. Yes, 新島々駅, how’s that for a name. From the terminus hikers in spring and summer and skiers when there’s snow pack onto busses that take them further into the mountains.

Shinshimashima Station

After being dropped off by Yuko I was able to ride one way into Matsumoto from the terminus on the one-man train. Leaving Matsumoto station I had to show my simple paper ticket to the JR attendant as the majority of passengers went through the automatic turnstiles. It’s a testament to how well the public transit system works in Japan that it allows this dual use of the JR station by the private line.

At the beginning of the trip the train was only 15% full or so, but nearing Matsumoto it became quite packed leaving some people standing. Originally, I was worried that this line wasn’t getting enough ridership, but it seems the people from the suburbs, students, tourists and hikers can really fill up the two cars. The line hugged the southern hills that made up the valley that the train travels through. Sometimes the tracks would hug the slope of the valley as it passed around the houses and other development rather than travel through it. There were some uniquely placed stations thanks to this.

Matsumoto Dentetsu's platform at JR Matsumoto station
While not the prettiest of lines that I’ve been on, it was, for the most part, an enjoyable ride. I can imagine in winter with the snow on both sides the view must be quite magnificent as this photo from the Kamikochi line’s Wikipedia entry illustrates.

These third party lines give the casual traveler to the massive train dork a great affordable way to relax and experience the landscape and get to see a decent cross-section of the people who live in that landscape. Given the chance, I couldn’t recommend riding these local private lines more, the Kamikochi line included.


angryparsnip said...

ack !..... I so miss riding the trains in japan.
Great post today :)

cheers, parsnip

Scott Clark said...

Nice post--this is a line I'd really like to ride if I ever get over there.

David said...

Thanks for the comment Scott. I hope you can make it to Japan. Nagano, or where ever it's a fun way to travel.