Our next two-day train journey takes place on the Kumagawa Railway, which runs through the Hitoyoshi Basin in the southern part of Kumamoto Prefecture. Kuma River, one of Japan’s three most rapid rivers, flows through the area. The line started as the Yunomae Line, which was used for transporting timber. In 1989, it was handed over to the current Kumagawa Railway, a third sector company. The line has 14 stations spanning a total route length of 24.8km. There are about 20 registered Tangible Cultural Properties along the line.
Kumagawa Railway’s trains are named Den-en Symphony, with red, brown and white train cars. There are five types of trains, inspired by the different seasons. For example, its tourist train was designed by Eiji Mitooka, who has worked on several famous trains, including Nanatsuboshi.
We start our trip from Hitoyoshi Onsen Station and head to our first stop of Sagarahan-Ganjoji Station by taking the 8.20am train. The ride lasts less than five minutes. A resident tells us about Ganjoji Onsen, where the water constantly flows directly from the hot spring source. We meet the facility’s owner, who tells us that the water is never recycled and can be drunk. This public bathhouse has been loved by the locals for more than 50 years.
We then go to a restaurant built next to the hot spring, called Sagarahan Den. It was previously a school for women to learn Japanese dressmaking and flower arrangement. The restaurant’s speciality is stewed soybeans, which have been soaked in hot spring water for a day. Buckwheat noodle soup is used as the broth of the stewed soybeans.
After this, we take the train to the neighbouring Kawamura Station at 10.25am. Once we leave Sagarahan-Ganjoji Station, the landscape changes. The train runs through the rural landscape before arriving at Kawamura Station at 10.30am. It is situated in the middle of rice paddies. A local here recommends we visit the Toshima Sugawara Shrine and eat at Tokumasu Shokudo. We head to the shrine on a bus leaving at 10.40am and reach in five minutes. The Toshima Sugawara Shrine is dedicated to Michizane Sugawara, the god of learning. Its head temple is Dazaifu. The Toshima Sugawara Shrine, with a gassho-zukuri style building, was registered as a national Important Cultural Property in 1995. The shrine is built on an island in a pond. Ten artificial islands were created in the pond. The main shrine was built in the Momoyama Period. It is popular among students as it is believed to bring good luck in passing exams.
We then go to Tokumasu Shokudo, which opened nearly 40 years ago. Its recommended dishes are ramen and chanpon. Its signature chanpon is made with pork bone broth and locally produced milk. After our meal, we return to Kawamura Station and catch the 12.30pm train to the neighbouring Higo-Nishinomura Station. During the short train ride, we enjoy the spectacular view of Kuma River, one of the three most rapid rivers in Japan, and the Kuma River Bridge Number Four, a registered Tangible Cultural Property.
At Higo-Nishinomura Station, some high school students suggest we visit Shinjo Bunka no Mori, where Hina dolls are displayed. We reach the place after walking for half an hour. A worker tells us that about 20,000 dolls can be found here. The company’s president, Mr Fujita, collected the dolls over a period of 20 years and displayed them at Shinjo Bunka no Mori to attract tourists to Hitoyoshi. The Hinamatsuri culture is very popular in the Hitoyoshi Kuma region. Every year, the city is decorated with Hina dolls in around 100 different places.
We return to Higo-Nishinomura Station and take the 2.35pm train to Okadome-Kofuku Station, three stops away. We reach the station in about 10 minutes. It is known as the “happiness” station. There is a bell here which people believe will bring you happiness if you ring it. There is also a mailbox which “delivers happiness”.
1) Fans of Hina dolls should visit Shinjo Bunka no Mori
2) Ring the bell at Okadome-Kofuku “happiness” station for good luck