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Monday, April 30, 2012

Riding The Ghost Train Of Ohtawara On Foot

I've been sitting on this topic for about 14 months now. Sitting and searching for as much information as possible.

There is information - just not a lot of it.

I even tried getting my good friend Matthew to ask his father-in-law living in Ohtawara for data, but there just wasn't much information forthcoming. I appreciate the effort, though.

I'm talking about the train service in Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken, Japan. The one that ran east-west. The one no one talks about or has much memory of. The one I rode upon on a road trip of discovery.

When I lived Ohtawara in 1990-1993 as a junior high school assistant English teacher on the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme, there were three ways to get to my city of 50,000. You could drive via a highway, or you could take a train, or take a bus from a train station in a nearby town.

Via highway, you took the Nishinasuno-Shiobara interchange of the Tōhoku Expressway, as National Route 400 runs through the city.

I took it once when my bosses from the OBOE (Ohtawara Board of Education) office drove me to my home for the first time in August of 1990. I was sitting in the back of a white panel van with two of the office members and a tonne of luggage from Toronto. It was hot, wearing a three-piece suit and a tie, and there were no windows in the vehicle for me to look out of. I was uncomfortably stylish. Arriving in downtown Ohtawara, I had no idea of all of the beauty of the countryside that lay around me. It was over a year-later before I dared venture out on my own on a sight-seeing tour of my hometown (without the prospect of getting laid).

Aside from the highway, a visitor to Ohtawara could arrive at the Nishinasuno-machi (Town of Nishinasuno) train station and take a bus from there down southeast in to Ohtawara, or you could use the Nozaki-eki (Nozaki sation) train station actually situated in Ohtawara, but so far to the west that it just wasn't worth your while to use it if you lived in the downtown core, as I did.

I always used to think that that was it.

In the past, you could, walk, ride a horse or even ride a bicycle into Ohtawara... so lacking a horse and often too lazy to walk, I rode my bicycle around.

After the awe of the first year and being afraid of getting lost every time I left my home, I began to look around the rural city in my second year. Just getting comfortable in my surroundings, I guess.

I had noticed the Poppo dori trail - thanks to the exploration skills of Matthew and my ex-girlfriend Ashley - and would often ride along it at break neck speeds for no other reason than I enjoyed trying to not break my neck at excessive speeds.

The Poppo dori trail contained the remnants of a train station - and in fact the entire trail itself was completely refurbished in slate and tile, but maintained the illusion that a train line once ran here.

The Poppo dori trail running towards the viewer, with two paths.

One soggy day, I actually followed beyond where the Poppo dori trail ended - I had to walk, as my horse was in the shop - and discovered more of the train line path hidden from view as though it was a blot on the very face of Ohtawara's growth. 

This was the Toya Ohtawara train line. I have no idea when it started - perhaps the 1930s... perhaps earlier - but I do know that it closed in 1968.

Why? No clue. But I'd guess not enough customers and perhaps the building of the Tohoku Expressway to the west may have had something to do with it?

From what I can tell, the train line ran east/west following the Poppo dori bicycle path which consisted of two lanes - one for bikes and the other for walkers (and god help the bike rider, the dangerous dog walkers with chains stretched across our path).

There were two Ohtawara train stations: Ohtawara-eki (station) and Daikōmae-eki (station).

Daikomae-eki with the tiled  Poppo dori trail following the old Toya train line.
The image above is indeed a small covered waiting area of Daikōmae-eki, where riders could await the Toya passenger train. The ticket selling box is nowhere to be found. Neither are there any rails. Matthew and I would, on occasion ride our bikes through the covered area pictured above - though I never saw Ashley do it - too much of a lady.

The news is even worse for the Ohtawara-eki. All that remains of it is something called the Trial Supercenter, which sits where the station used to be. I don't even recall seeing this supercenter... hmmm... perhaps it is over to the east past Daikōmae-eki....
Until 1968, the old Ohtawara station used to sit where the tan building is now.
While on walk-about, I discovered that towards the east, the Toya train line went into a tunnel - now boarded up.

To get to it, I had followed this pathway (I guess I know what former train lines look like) though the backyards of the Ohtawara residents who must have been wondering just what the hell one of their local gaijin (foreigner) (Matthew was the other) was doing tramping around - but they saw me with my camera taking pictures so at the very least they had a gaijin sighting and no police were called.

Garbage strewn in a backyard beside the old Toya train track in Ohtawara-shi.
Every now and then, there would be a concentration of grey gravel rock - the ballast - on the ground where the train line had been, where one could use their imagination to see where the steel rails and wooden sleepers - railway ties - had been removed when the Toya train line shut down in 1968.

I kept walking for about a half-kilometer through the backyards of homes until I came to a boarded up round-mouthed tunnel. I was stymied.

The former train line in Ohtawara leads east to a tunnel.

The rounded train tunnel implies a small locomotive on the Toya line.

If you look at the rounded tunnel mouth in the photo above - and then compare it to the staircase on the right of the photo.... that's one small looking tunnel. To me it implies that this may have been akin to a toy train... not your standard large locomotive, but rather one used to riding the spur lines... this may have been a narrow gauge train system!

I walked back to where I had parked my bike and went home.

The next day, I set out again. I went to where I thought the train would have entered the tunnel, and then parked my bicycle in a different location and again started walking east - but not where the train tracks would have been... I was a bit further south than where I suspected the track had been.

I kept my eye on the small mountain where the train would have entered, and walked northeast determined to discover where it would have exited the tunnel.

I found that the train came out of the tunnel and crossed a wide span where a small river flowed north-south. With the aid of Matthew yesterday, I believe it to be the Sabi Gawa (Sabi River). 

The train's tunnel can be seen through the bare trees, with the edge of the concrete bridge standing over the Sabi river.

For some reason, I decided to climb down into the plain, and walked gingerly along the very muddy field. My running shoes quickly became sucked into the soggy goo, making further exploration up the east side of the plain an unlikely event.

The train track's bridge would have run left-right across this muddy field.

Still... while I stood in the middle of the plain (see the photo just above), I visualized a steam engine - probably something small like an 0-4-0 wheel base - crossing a rickety old bridge  - the base where the train exited the tunnel was cement, however, but it is possible that the bridge was either cement or wood - and pictured it heading in to its final destination to the east at what I now suspect was Ohtawara-eki.

I say suspect, because on the eastern bank of this span, after walking back alongside a road, I attempted to look for the train tracks despite my squishing running shoes, but there was no evidence of a train line at all.

I had reached the end of the line of my quest.

I have no information as to how many times a day this train may have run.

In fact, while I have evidence to suspect the Toya train ran farther west of Daikōmae-eki, I can not state for a fact if it actually went all the way west to the current JR (Japan Rail) train line station of Nozaki-eki.

I suspect that it did. I know that traveling along the bicycle path beside the main road from downtown Ohtawara towards Nozaki Chu Gakko (Nozaki Junior High School) at the farthest western edge of Ohtawara, the damn sidewalks were incredibly wide. Wide enough for a set of trail rails, in fact. That's just a guess, however. 

And, if it did go to Nozaki, did it continue farther west - perhaps to link up with Nikko-shi or even beyond?

I have no idea. Those that I talked to back in Ohtawara-shi back in the 1990s had no clue - and that was only a little over 20 years earlier. How soon we all forget, eh. Sorry, my Canadian was showing. 

If anyone has the means, and the desire to help me find out more information on the Toya train line, I would appreciate it.

In the mean time, aside from the top three photos taken from Wikipedia, the rest of the photos are my own from those two day trips around Ohtawara-shi, my dear, old hometown.

Andrew Joseph


  1. The "Poppo dori trail"? That's weird. It's really weird that they'd pave over where the train was. Doesn't that cost money? Why not just leave it the way it was? And...since the population is so small, even if there is a highway, how could the train line be so unused? Aha! Do I smell a former government project that was funded by tax dollars (yen?) and built because of political favors (like the bridge to nowhere?) Still, Andrew, you lived in a weird place. I have no idea where Ohtawara is and, judging that there are no yakitori's along the former rails in your photos, can't imagine that I'll be going there soon. Thanks for the photo vacation though.... Kinda spooky!

    1. It's all about rails-to-trails ( Where I now live in Vermont, there is a former limited passenger train/milk run train line that is now a great bike/pedestrian path ( Glad they spent the money to convert the defunct train line to an accessible path that has awesome views of Lake Champlain.

  2. Quite often cities and or railways will rip up unused track and turn it into a scenic walking path. I've tramped along a few of those here in Ontario.
    It's really quite a pretty little trail for people to walk along and comes right to the door of a big temple or two.
    Yakitori? Man - we had yakitori in Ohtawara. Lots of tiny little restaurants - great food and low prices.
    There isn't a lot to do in Ohtawara - but there was a lot to do. Do inaka, perhaps, but it was my do inaka, and I loved every minute of Ohtawara.
    I'll post an entry on a couple of cool attractions and another walking tour I did on the south west side of town...
    Thanks, always, for writing, Mike.