Few things conjure up images of the lost romanticism of times long gone quite like the steam locomotive. Something about these magnificent mechanical contrivances--the way the whistle howls, the steam hisses, the fire burns within their bellies, and the heavy black smoke billows out--that make them seem alive.
When a friend of mine told me that he had recently been to Tsuwano on business, I looked the town up on GoogleMap and, seeing what I liked, immediately made plans to go there myself. And, discovering that the isolated town was connected to civilization by steam locomotive made the decision to go even easier. I had never traveled by "SL", as the Japanese call them, so I would be killing two birds with one stone.
The Yamaguchi-gô (山口号), travels daily from Shin Yamaguchi station (Yamaguchi prefecture) to the small town of Tsuwano in neighboring Shimane prefecture. The trip to Tsuwano takes just under two hours; the return, a little over an hour and a half.
One thing nice about this particular train is that they have done their best to make you feel that you are traveling back in time. Each of the cars is designed to match a past era.
The Meiji Era (1868 - 1912) car, for instance, looks like this on the inside:
The Shôwa Era (1926 - 1989) car we were assigned to looked like this:
The Taishô Era (1912 - 1926) car had this interior: The funny thing about actually traveling by steam locomotive is that you soon learn why these trains have almost completely been replaced by diesel and electric trains.
First of all, the train jerks constantly as if the wheels are not quite gripping the tracks. For those who suffer from motion sickness, traveling by conventional train is recommended.
Secondly, steam locomotives are not fast. At one point, I looked out the window and noticed that our train was being passed by a Toyota Prius of all things.
Thirdly, they are dirty. Very, very dirty.
Throughout the trip thick clouds of black smoke and ash passed by the window obscuring the view. Early on in our journey, we passed by many homes which had laundry and futon hanging out in the sun. I wouldn't be surprised if it all had to be washed again after our train passed.
And the smoke is not only outside. The inside of the train, thanks to passengers--including myself--opening up the windows, smellt like a barbecue as thick smoke drifted through the entire length of the train.
In spite of all that, I still recommend riding on this train if you are ever in the area. The only caution I would add is that if you take the SL both to Tsuwano and back to Shin Yamaguchi, you won't have much time to see the town. (Less than three hours which passes much faster than you'd think.) Better to ride the Yamaguchi-gô to Tsuwano and then return on one of the express trains that depart later in the afternoon. Or spend the night, and return on the SL on the following day.