The SL Yamaguchi Steam Train, billowing almighty plumes of dense, oily smoke, is Japan’s most endearing historic train. Nicknamed The Lady, it’s a black iron locomotive built in 1937 that travels between Shin-Yamaguchi and Tsuwano in Yamaguchi prefecture. While Japan’s high speed train lines have pushed the limits of rail technology, the Yamaguchi steam train is a blast from the past, designed to slow down and enjoy. Riding the locomotive, waving goodbye to onlookers on the platform and enjoying the sound of its screeching air whistle is one of the all-time best train experiences in Japan.
The Steam Train Era In Japan
The C571 steam locomotive in Yamaguchi was widely used in Japan in the early 20th century, but by the 1950’s, they had fallen out of favour as newer electric trains were being introduced. Steam haulage was abolished in 1954 as the country sought to modernise post-war. In the 60’s, the Yamaguchi locomotive made its last journey, and was retired.
…Or so it seemed. In 1979, a restoration project brought the SL Yamaguchi back to its former glory purely for tourism purposes. The locomotive ferried tourists back and forth to enjoy the sights of the countryside, whilst appreciating the engineering masterpiece of this historic locomotive.
The Yamaguchi Locomotive Journey
The carriages arrive at Shin-Yamaguchi station, linking to the locomotive at the station as passengers rush to get photos of the engine. Inside, the cabins look very retro, themed after different eras of Japanese train-building history, as well as one European train-themed cabin.
The walls are beautiful, made of polished wood, with high-backed seats and fabric seat upholstery. Underfoot, the dark wooden floorboards creak, whilst the overhead rack is supported by ornate brass fittings. It’s a wonderful transportation back in time to another age.
The train takes 2 hours to complete the 69 kilometer journey, passing through rolling hills and over rail bridges through Yamaguchi and Shimane prefecture. Heading north from Shin-Yamaguchi, the train makes a small stop at Jifuku station. It’s a great chance to jump off the train, stretch your legs, and take a look at the driver’s cabin for some photos.
There are several tunnels that the train passes through, which makes an incredible sound with the windows open. But watch out, as soot from the smoking steam engine quickly blows into the cabin! When the train arrives at its destination in Tsuwano, you can also watch the train pull into the service yard for maintenance, and see it turn on the turntable.
Yamaguchi is a city of 200,000 people, located in the south west of the island of Honshu. It is sometimes known as the ‘Kyoto of the west’, and is known for its incredible temples, and as the jumping-off point for nearby historic towns such as Hagi, and Akiyoshi-Dai. The Yamaguchi locomotive is the pride of Yamaguchi city, and even features on its customised manhole covers.
Rurikoji Temple is one of the most popular sights in Yamaguchi, a five-story pagoda dating back to 1404, located on the edge of a picturesque water pool. The modern St. Francis Xavier Memorial Church is another interesting architectural sight. Yuda Onsen, known for the fable of a white fox who healed his injured leg in the hot water, is one the city’s best places to relax.
Arriving at the destination at Tsuwano, the feeling is very different from the large city of Yamaguchi. Tsuwano is a castle town known for its charming and beautiful red-tiled houses, walking streets lined with carp-filled waterways, and striking Taikodani Inari shrine. Tsuwano castle no longer stands, and only the base is visible.
Tsuwano has some very interesting events to try to attend. April sees the Yabusame Horse Archery display, in which riders trike targets with arrows whilst at full gallop, the the cheers of the crowd. In July, Tsuwano hosts the Heron Dance Sagimai, in which local dancers mimic the dance and wing displays of herons with impressive heron costumes.
Taking the SL Yamaguchi locomotive is one of the most enjoyable train experiences to be had in Japan. With the sound of the mighty engine, bell whistles and the smell of the steam engine, it truly is a remarkable experience. It’s a throwback to another age, before the comforts and conveniences of the shinkansen, and squashed Tokyo subway carriages.
The SL Yamaguchi locomotive operates on weekends and public holidays only, and doesn’t run during winter except for Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Tickets cost 1660¥ (830¥ for children), and must be purchased ahead of time from JR counters across the country.