Saturday, April 27, 2013

Bantan Line – 播但線

Location Name: JR West - Bantan Line JR西日本播但線
Type: Railway Line 列車線
Location: Hyogo Prefecture, Honshu, JAPAN
Terminals: Himeji Station, Wadayama Station
Distance: 65.7km
Number of Stations: 18

The Bantan Line (播但線) and Kishin Line (姫新線) both leave from the same platform closest to the mountain side of JR Himeji Station (JR姫路駅). They are in the backwater of this vital station in the JR West system. If you imagine a parabola, Himeji Station is at the bottom. Rising up and to the left is the Kishin Line heading towards Tsuyama, Okayama (岡山県津山市). Rising up to the right is the Bantan Line which connects to the San’in Main Line (山陰本線) at Wadayama Station (和田山駅) in Asago, Hyogo (兵庫県朝来市). Both of these lines serve the suburbs and quasi-rural areas around Himeji feeding workers to places as far as Osaka, over 100KM away, on a daily basis. Once past the suburban portion, these lines act as conduits between the more important and heavily used routes while offering service to some of Japan’s bucolic rural landscapes.

Bantan is a connection of two kanji, the “ban” () can also be read as “hari” in Harima (播磨) which is the traditional name of the region around Himeji. The “ta” () comes from Tajima (但馬), the region just to the north of Harima/Himeji known for its beef production. If you look around, you will likely see both Harima and Tajima appear quite often in stations, companies and products; especially if you spend some time in Hyogo Prefecture.


The Bantan Line has a history going back to 1894 when the original line was built by the private Bantan Railway (播但鉄道). The railway was later purchased by the also private Sanyo Railway (山陽鉄道). During ownership by Sanyo Railway in 1906 the line was completed all the way to Wadayama Station. A few months later the entire Sanyo Railway was nationalized. It was then that the Bantan Line and the Sanyo Main Line (山陽本線) running from Kobe to Shimonoseki at the tip of Honshu among others became parts of JR West as we know it today. It is important to note that the current Sanyo Electric Railway (山陽電車) and the former Sanyo Railway are different companies. Sanyo (山陽) is a geographical term describing the south facing coast of Honshu from Osaka to Shimonoseki along the Seto Inland Sea.

Currently the Bantan Line is only electrified in the most used portion from Himeji to Teramae Station (寺前駅). The rural and quasi-wilderness section heading from Teramae to Wadayama is run using diesel trains. Because of this there are no local trains that run the entire length of the line, although most trains run on a relay system to reduce layover time. The Bantan Line also hosts the Hamakaze (はまかぜ) limited express train heading from Osaka to Tottori with stops at 5 stations on the Bantan Line, including Himeji and Wadayama.


I traveled the Bantan Line on January 6, 2013 leaving from Himeji around 9am. This was the second time I’ve taken this line, but the first time heading from Himeji and the first time in the daylight. The two car train was decorated in commemoration of the Gin no Bashamichi (銀の馬車道), a Meiji era 49km road for horse drawn carts connecting Ikuno to Himeji which was a predecessor to the modern highway in Japan. The two car conductorless train was not packed and I had more than enough space to myself. Be aware that the Bantan Line is not equipped for using IC chip smartcards like Icoca or PiTaPa, so you’ll have to pay in cash upon exiting the train or buy a ticket from a machine beforehand.

Leaving Himeji Station the line makes a long slow curve towards the mountains and offers a few views of Himeji Castle before leaving the main area of Himeji City. At Nozato Station (野里駅), the second station after leaving Himeji, there is an entertainment complex with a super sento and public park. Soon after that the tracks go under the Sanyo Expressway and the housing becomes more spread out with some newly built single family housing. Instead of being in a slope heading to the ocean like most of the area between Osaka and Himeji, the landscape becomes a wide valley bordered by low hills. Houses get bigger and some heavy industrial plants come in to view including a large Nestle plant.

After Mizoguchi Station (溝口駅) the line turns to single track and begins to climb the side of the mountains and passes under the Chuo Expressway. By the next stop, Fukuzaki Station (福崎駅), there were only 3 people in the rear car with me and the front one had only 45% of the seats filled. Past Fukuzaki Station I doubt that many people commute by train into Kobe or Osaka for work. Traveling on the valley gets tighter and tighter while the number of buildings gets smaller and smaller--gaudy pachinko parlors being the constant.

The morning’s weather was overcast and the view is limited by a low, dense fog. A farmer’s fire in the far distance brings just a hint of its smoky smell into the train. The hint of campfire smelling smoke mingling with the cold winter air was intoxicating. I had one of those moments of clarity about why I enjoy this somewhat odd hobby.

At Niino Station (新野駅), one stop before Teramae, there are only 5 people in the train. The landscape is mostly rice fields with traditional houses built along the sides of the hills to allow as much of the scarce flat land to be used for agriculture. The valley closes in along the Ichikawa River and the electrified part of the line ends.


Teramae Station is the main station in the rural town of Kamikawa (神河町). Connected to the station is a small community center that is decorated with images of the local mascot Kamin (カーミン). Opposite the tracks from the station is a gravel or ore processing and loading area for container trains and further on beyond that is the river. There is a small market and very rural looking shopping street also nearby.


Right after leaving Teramae a huge mined out mountain comes into view on the riverside. I recommend sitting on the eastern side of the train for the best views. The non-electrified section of the Bantan Line is longer, 37.9km of the entire 67.5km length, but the travel time is much shorter as there are only 5 stations compared to 12 on the electrified portion. This is the dramatic part of the ride. Great tree covered hills above and a fast flowing river below. If you look carefully you can see where some sections of the mountains have been logged and replanted. Some spotty snow and ice is still visible from the train. The river looked like it would be good for fishing in the right weather.

Coming into Wadayama the valley widens and more houses are noticeable. Eventually a few pachinko parlors appear then the signs of the modern Japanese city and the chain store signs that come with it appear across the river where the heavily traveled roads are. Wadayama is a major station with most amenities within a short walking distance. There is an old JR water tower and train shed across the tracks that have become the image of the station. The station building itself is somewhat modern with rounded corners and a small park along the tracks. I took a 30 minute or so walk to get to the local super sento which I thoroughly enjoyed. The area right around the station has many old buildings and small streets to explore. Most of the major shopping is along national highway across the river however.


The Bantan Line is not one of the most dramatic or interesting rides in the JR West area, but it is very enjoyable and has a few highlights. The old water tower at Wadayama, the riverside ride just north of Teramae, and the mining apparatus visible from Teramae Station all are worth checking out for train fans. Getting there and back in a day is easy for someone looking for an easy train trip to get out of the city and can be made part of a loop returning via Fukuchiyama, to Kyoto, Osaka, or Kakogawa. My loop went as follows: Sannomiya - Himeji - Wadayama - Fukuchiyama - Tanigawa - Nishiwaki - Kakogawa - Sannomiya.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Nagasaki City on a Rainy Day


If you've never made it down to Nagasaki, I cannot recommend it more. It's a great place to get lost walking around the backstreets. Amazing food everywhere. Easy transportation to and from the many historical and cultural sites. It seemed that it would be very easy for non-Japanese speakers to navigate also.

Photos: Nagasaki City / 長崎市

Friday, April 05, 2013

Matsuura Railway - Nishi Kyushu Line 松浦鉄道西九州線

Location Name: Matsuura Railway - Nishi Kyushu Line 松浦鉄道西九州線
Type: Railway Line 列車線
Location: Nagasaki and Saga Prefectures, Kyushu, JAPAN
Terminals: Sasebo Station, Imari Station, Arita Station
Distance: 93.8km
Number of Stations: 57

Photos: Matsuura Railway / 松浦鉄道

The Matsuura Railway (松浦鉄道) loops around the Kita-Matsuura Peninsula in the western portion of Kyushu through Nagasaki and Saga prefectures. The line was originally called the Matsuura Line before the break up of the JNR in the late 80’s, but is now called the Nishi Kyushu Line (西九州). It is currently run as a class 3 railway and owned by Nagasaki Prefecture and local transportation and industrial interests.

Going up from the South and looping up clockwise, following my route, the line starts in Sasebo (佐世保). This port city is famous for its hamburgers and the home to a large United States Navy base. The station is quite large with elevated tracks. A single escalator in the northwestern corner of the concourse provides access to Matsuura Railway’s ticket machines and platform based ticket booth. 

I bought the ¥2,000 one day free ticket from the man in the booth, who went out of his way to get me one. I think you can buy them on the train, however. The “Free Ticket” (フリーきっぷ) offers one day on the trains allowing you to get on and off as you please. Traveling from Sasebo to Imari (伊万里) is ¥1,950 so it is worth buying if you plan to ride the entire line.

Initially, I thought this ride was going to be quite basic and I was only riding it to be a completionist. It turned out to be one of the most beautiful rail lines I’ve been on. 

The Matsuura line leaves Sasebo Station through a valley of buildings on an elevated track. The city is quite built up. Sasebo is a city much like Nagasaki in that the city is built into the mountains. Small tunnels open up into little valleys full of haphazardly placed homes. The train is elevated to a degree so you can look down on the little streets and houses. I thought it would turn rural much faster, but the city seemed to continue on and on into the mountains. This part of the line reminded me of Shintetsu and driving through western Kobe. 

It is on this first stretch that the line passes Sasebo-chuo (佐世保中央) and Naka-Sasebo (中佐世保) stations. Both names mean pretty much the same thing and the two stations are a mere 200m apart. This is the shortest distance between any two train stations in Japan--streetcars and cable cars excluded. I was on an express and didn’t even notice passing by Naka-Sasebo station.

At around Motoyama station the landscape becomes more rural/residential as the train crosses a many small valleys and goes through many small bucolic tunnels. Make sure to check out the very fun looking new playground and unique public toilet as you reach Kora Station (小浦).

I planned a layover at Saza station (佐々) and was very glad I did. The station itself is modeled after a log cabin and is very welcoming. Not much around the station as far as stores go, but it was fun to explore. The air had a natural fresh spring scent to it. Leaving Saza the tracks follow the river of the same name. The next train car I got on was much more packed and not as new as the first one I rode. There was a group of grandparents on a hiking excursion sponsored by the railway and a large group of young people all in black for a funeral as I later discovered.  Both groups piled out of the train at the same station in a mass exodus that was quite a sight to see. 

As the line reaches the tip of the Kita-Matsuura Pennisula the train makes a brief stop at Tabira-Hiradoguchi Station (たびら平戸口). Excluding the monorail in Okinawa, this is the westernmost train station in Japan. I didn’t realize this until I got on the train and saw a pamphlet advertising the fact. Just like Nishi-Oyama (西大山), the southernmost station, the train holds for a few minutes to allow us train people to snap a few quick photos. Be careful though, the train almost left with my bag, but not me on board!

From Tabira-Hiradoguchi the view gets a little boring. Coming into the namesake village of Matsuura, there are a few large factories and a power station to look at. There are no toilets in the trains so make use of the short stop at Matsuura Station if needed. Leaving Matsuura the landscape gets increasingly built up with stores and houses. Some nice views of the sea do pop up. Imabuku Station (今福) is lined with sakura trees which were in bloom when I passed by. Photographers along the side of the tracks were so close that the engineer had to blow the horn at them so they would move back to a safe distance.

The train pulls to a stop at Imari Station where the JR and Matsuura sides are bisected by a road. There is a supermarket, restaurants, and convenience stores near by. In the station is a very helpful tourist information desk that also sells local products where I picked up some omiyage.

After exploring around Imari Station, heading to a shrine with some beautiful sakura, and hiking up the hill to a highly recommended supersento, I got on the train for the last haul to Arita. This portion of the line goes through a pleasant valley bounded by some tallish looking mountains. At Arita Station the Matsuura train pulls into a far platform of the JR station. The building at Arita has a small staffed ticket booth for the Matsuura Railway along with the JR one.

I really enjoyed riding this line. There seemed to be a lot of community support for it. The trains were clean and the staff was cheerful. If you get a chance to ride this line, I would go for it.

Matsuura Railway - Nishi Kyushu Line 松浦鉄道西九州線 at EveryTrail