Moka Railway and “SL Moka”
8:00〜10:30 Left central Tokyo for Moka Railway
10:35 Board the SL Moka from Shimodate Station for Mashiko, Tochigi
11:40 Pick up a map at the tourist information centre in front of Mashiko Station, and go for a walk around town!
12:00 Lunch with Mashiko’s famous buckwheat noodles at Jonai-zaka Street
13:00 Enjoy pottery art work at Mashiko Museum of Ceramic Art
14:00 Buy your favorite piece of Mashiko ware! Mashiko Pottery Cooperative Selling Center
15:01 Return home from Mashiko Station. Board the SL Moka train to Moka Station.
15:19 See D51 model steam trains exhibited at the SL 96 Museum.
16:32 All things come to an end: the trip back to Tokyo
Interview: What draws people to SL Moka?

Did you know that  in the northern Kanto region, easily accessible in a day trip from central Tokyo, you can experience a ride in a steam locomotive train? The “SL Moka” (voiced in Japanese as “Mo-oka”) is a special train that travels mainly around Moka City in Tochigi Prefecture, on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays. The train is known for drawing crowds of photographers and railway buffs in the spring, hoping to capture photos of the steam train rolling past cherry blossoms and rapeseed flowers. The Moka Railway also serves as a gateway to Mashiko Town, which is the home of Japan’s famous Mashiko-yaki pottery. This time, we took a day trip outside Tokyo to ride a steam locomotive train (widely known as “SL”s in Japan) and visited pottery-related venues, both of which made for a perfect outing on a warm spring day.

Moka Railway and “SL Moka” 

SL Moka and countryside

Bucolic landscapes surround the Moka Line (Photo courtesy: Moka Railway)

The Moka Railway was launched in 1912. Passenger figures declined after World War II, which led to plans to discontinue the Moka Railway.  Following a series of discussions between local residents and authorities, the Moka Line reopened as a third-sector railway company in 1988. 

The Moka Railway connects a roughly 42-km line of 17 stations between Shimodate Station in Ibaraki Prefecture, and Motegi Station in Tochigi Prefecture. The entire ride takes only about 70 minutes. Four stations are staffed; Shimodate, Moka, Mashiko, and Motegi while the remaining stations are unmanned. One or two trains run every hour, making about 20 one-way trips per day. 

The “SL (steam locomotive) Moka” started operating as a sightseeing train in 1994, with a C12 model locomotive pulling the passenger cars. The SL Moka is a special train service that runs mainly on weekends and public holidays, with only one train per day. The outbound train from Shimodate Station leaves at 10:35 and arrives at Motegi Station at 12:06. The train reverses its direction and travels inbound from Motegi Station at 14:26, and arrives at Shimodate Station at 15:56. 

The Moka Line runs past Moka City, where you can go strawberry picking and visit the SL 96 Museum, and Mashiko Town which is famous for Mashiko pottery. The rail line is surrounded with bucolic fields blooming with rape flowers in early spring and cherry blossoms in late March, which can be viewed from inside the train. The rail tracks have no electric wires hanging above, making the trackside a popular spot for capturing photos of the steam train with seasonal flowers. 

How to ride the SL Moka train. 

tickets required to board SL Moka

An “SL Moka ticket”  is required in addition to a regular ticket. (Photo courtesy: Moka Railway)

Passengers need to buy two different tickets to board the SL Moka; a regular ticket covering the travel distance, and an SL Mo-ka ticket. Transportation IC cards such as Suica and PASMO, and credit cards can not be used to purchase tickets, so be sure to bring cash. The SL Moka train is free-seating, and you can board the train with a same-day ticket without making a reservation. 

【SL Moka fare】
Adults (junior-high school students and older): ¥500
Children (elementary school students): ¥250

*Regular tickets / SL Moka tickets can be purchased at staffed stations. If you board from an unmanned station, you can buy tickets onboard from the conductor. 
*For details, visit the official website of Moka Railway

8:00〜10:30 Leave central Tokyo for Moka Railway 

Standard seating on Moka Railway

Regular seats on the Moka Railway. One or two diesel cars travel along the single track.

The SL Moka train makes one round trip per day on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays throughout the year. If you want to take photos of the steam locomotive in action, it is best to use the local train lines too. The 10:35 SL Moka train from Shimodate Station is recommended for day trips. If you want to take photos of the steam locomotive train from the outside as it runs across the tracks, we recommend disembarking at one of the stations along the Moka Railway and waiting there.
As a side note, the best spot to capture rapeseed flowers, cherry blossoms and the steam train all together in a single shot is a road by the rail tracks near Kita Moka Station. 

Below are two travel plans from central Tokyo for Shimodate Station, both of which require train transfers. 

【Plan 1】Akihabara Station 〜 Shimodate (discounted fare for IC cards  ¥ 2,142)
Akihabara Station - 9:00 departure   Tsukuba Express Rapid Express, bound for Tsukuba

Moriya Station - 9:32 arrival 
Moriya Station - 9:43 departure Joso Line rapid train, bound for Shimodate 

Shimodate Station - 10:28 arrival

【Plan 2】Shinjuku Station 〜 Shimodate (discounted fare for IC cards ¥1,694)
Shinjuku Station - 8:39 departure JR Shonan Shinjuku Line, bound for Koganei 

Oyama Station - 0:02 arrival 
Oyama Station - 10:07 departure JR Mito Line ・bound for Tomobe 

Shimodate Station - 10:27 arrival
Mount Tsukuba seen from the train

Mount Tsukuba’s two peaks. Mount Nantai and Mount Nyotai

This time we took the route leaving Shinjuku Station for Shimodate Station, and switched to the JR Mito Line at Oyama Station. As we approached Shimodate Station, where the Moka Line begins, we spotted Mount Tsukuba in the distance. The 877m-tall mountain is one of the famous peaks of the Kanto Region (the area surrounding Tokyo). When Mount Tsukuba came into sight, the train was almost near Shimodate Station.
Shimodate Station platform

Shimodate Station is shared by the Mito Line, Joso Line and Moka Line

Once we arrived at Shimodate Station, we moved to platform No. 1, from where the Moka Line departs. Transit cards like Suica and PASMO cards are not accepted on the Moka Railway, so we used the fare adjustment machine on platform No. 1 which doubles as the JR Line exit.

IC card machine

We exited by tapping our IC cards on the platform machine.

10:35 Board the SL Moka from Shimodate Station for Mashiko, Tochigi

Platform seat for station staff

Seat reserved for station workers. Ordinary tickets and SL Moka tickets can be purchased here when entering the Moka Line platform.

After moving to platform No. 1, we purchased ordinary tickets and SL Moka tickets from the station staff. Our train was the SL Moka leaving Shimodate at 10:35, and arriving at Mashiko at 11:34. If you want to take your time to look at the steam train or take photos, it is good to arrive early at Shimodate Station and watch the reattachment process of the steam locomotive trains. 

The SL Moka is free-seating, but it is not very crowded outside of peak tourist season. It was not very busy on this day either and there were many empty seats. The seat arrangements are mostly box seats. 

Inside the SL Moka

Inside the SL Moka (Photo courtesy: Moka Railway)

At 10:35, the train finally began pumping its engine.
The train passed through the city area before we knew it, and the view outside soon changed to the countryside. Being a sightseeing steam locomotive train, we thought the SL Moka would be slow. Surprisingly, it traveled much faster than we had imagined. The distinct sound of the train whistle went off every once a while, giving the proper feeling of an SL train. About 30 minutes later, we arrived at Moka Station, which was midway to our destination. 

Around Orimoto Station

7-8 minutes after leaving Shimodate Station.  The steam locomotive passed near Orimoto Station

The SL Moka stops at Moka Station for 10 minutes, giving passengers enough time to step down onto the platform to take photos of the train. The steam locomotive train sometimes blows out smoke even during stops at stations. 
Moka Station and SL

The SL Moka leaving Moka Station (Photo courtesy: Moka Railway)

After taking photos to our hearts content, we boarded the steam train again and it left Moka Station. The train continued traveling into the city area. Not far from Kita-Moka Station is a scenic 400-500 m long stretch named “Kita-Moka sakura nanohana hanamichi (flower path of cherry blossoms and rapeseed flowers)”.  As the train passes this area, it will be surrounded in the spring time by a scenery of cherry blossoms and rapeseed flowers. Rapeseed flowers can be seen on the left side of the train’s moving direction, and cherry blossoms to the right. In fall (around October), blooming cosmoses replace the rapeseed flowers and bloom vibrantly.

Cosmos flowers and SL Moka

The same area is covered with blooming cosmos flowers in autumn (photo courtesy: Moka Railway)

Roughly half of the passengers got off at Mashiko Station. Mashiko Station apparently attracts many visitors because the SL Moka train runs during hours convenient for tourists.  
If you continue to ride on the SL Moka to the last station, it arrives at Motegi Station at 12:06. We did not go to Motegi Station this time, but it attracts many railway fans who come to watch the train cars reverse direction on the railway turntable.
Turntable at Motegi Station

Turntable at Motegi Station (Photo courtesy: Moka Railway)

11:40 Pick up a map at the tourist information centre in front of Mashiko Station, and go for a walk around town!

Mashiko ware in front of Mashiko Station

We spotted a huge Mashiko ware vase in front of Mashiko Station

There was plenty of time until the SL Moka train headed back, allowing us to take time exploring the areas around Mashiko Station. Outside Mashiko Station’s charming wooden building, you will find the Mashiko Town Tourism Association immediately to your right. You can pick up town maps, as well as pamphlets for restaurants and pottery classes there, so be sure to drop by. The station also has bicycle rentals (¥800 per day) and coin lockers (¥300).  

The town center, where the pottery shops are located, is about 1.5km from the station. Some of the studios stand further away so it is best to rent a bicycle or leave heavy luggage behind in the lockers.  

【Mashiko Town Tourist Association Information】
Address:〒321-4217 1539-2 Mashiko, Mashiko Town, Haga-gun, Tochigi Prefecture
Opening hours :8:30〜17:15
Access: Walk from Mashiko Station(about 1 minute)

*Visit Official website here

12:00 Lunch with Mashiko’s famous buckwheat noodles at Jonai-zaka Street 

We walked for 15 minutes from Mashiko Station. Pottery shops stood here and there along the street, but their numbers increased after we passed Jonai-zaka Street. Jonai-zaka is considered to be the center of Mashiko. After climbing the gentle slope, we began noticing tourists around. It was close to lunchtime so we decided to try a “soba” buckwheat noodle shop standing by the road. Mashiko is actually a producer of buckwheat, and has a buckwheat mill. 
”Ueno” serves homemade buckwheat noodles

We visited “Ueno” which serves homemade buckwheat noodles. The noodle shop has been in business since 1966.
Inside Ueno

The shop has a retro Showa-era vibe

We ordered the soba (buckwheat) noodle set, which was reasonably priced at ¥1,100. The meal consists of a bowl of either cold or hot buckwheat noodles, or thick “udon” wheat noodles, paired with a small rice bowl topped with tempura or pork cutlet. The buckwheat noodles are homemade, and the water is drawn from a local spring. It was a very satisfying meal.  
soba set

”Soba” buckwheat noodle set of hot noodles and a small-sized rice bowl with tempura

【Ueno (homemade soba buckwheat noodles) Information】
Address :〒321-4217  114 Jonai-zaka, Mashiko Town, Haga County, Tochigi Prefecture
Business hours:11:00〜19:00
Closed:Monday (open if Monday falls on a public holiday)
Access: about a 25-minute walk from Mashiko Station

13:00 Enjoy pottery art work at Mashiko Museum of Ceramic Art 

Mashiko Museum of Ceramic Art is a spot worth visiting if you’re a fan of earthenware or ceramics. Climb the slope just outside Ueno noodle shop and about 5 minutes later you will reach the Mashiko Museum of Ceramic Art at the top of a hill. A park stands on the hilltop, and houses castle ruins. 
Exterior of Mashiko Museum of Ceramic Art

Mashiko Museum of Ceramic Art has a calming atmosphere.

The Mashiko Museum of Ceramic Art, which opened in 1993, stands on top of a hill that overlooks Mashiko town. The permanent exhibitions showcase potters with close ties to Mashiko, such as Shoji Hamada, and Tatsuzo Shimaoka, who are both representative artists of Mashiko. Several times a year, the museum also displays works created by modern potters from Japan and abroad. 
cafe building

Modern building modeled after a traditional Japanese storehouse

Besides the exhibitions, make time to visit the museum cafe. For coffee or any available hot drink, you can choose from the displayed pottery mugs, the one you want to be served with.
Enjoy tea with cup of your liking

Take a coffee/tea break with a pottery of your liking. The cake set is ¥600.

【Mashiko Museum of Ceramic Art Information】
Address:〒321-4217  3021 Mashiko, Mashiko Town, Haga County, Tochigi Prefecture
Opening hours :February〜October 9:30〜17:00 / November〜January 9:30〜16:00(last admission :30 minutes before closing)
Closed : Monday (the next day if Monday falls on a public holiday) , Year-end & New Year period (December 25〜January 1), closed when exhibits are changed
Admission: General ¥ 600 / 65-years and older , Elementary and junior high school students ¥300
Access: Walk from Mashiko Station (about 25 minutes) 

*Visit official website here

14:00 Buy your favorite piece of Mashiko ware! Mashiko Pottery Cooperative Selling Center Mashiko Pottery Cooperative Selling Center

Mashiko Pottery Cooperative Selling Center seen from Satoyama-dori Street

We descended the hill where the Museum was located, and walked for about 2 minutes. We arrived just behind the Mashiko Pottery Cooperative Selling Center, which stands along the road. The center displays roughly 70 percent of the pottery works fired at Mashiko’s kilns, making it the largest shopping mall for Mashiko Pottery. The Mashiko Pottery Cooperative Selling Center boasts a large variety and volume of earthenwares, so make it your first stop if you are looking for something. It seemed that tour buses were parked at the spacious parking lot. 
As a side note, the Mashiko Pottery Cooperative Selling Center is the main venue of Mashiko’s Pottery Fair held twice a year. 
The restaurant opens only for lunch. The center also runs pottery classes that include hands-on painting sessions. (The classes do not run on Wednesdays, and finished pieces are delivered one and a half to 2 months after firing.) 

【Mashiko Pottery Cooperative Selling Center Information】
Address:〒321-4217   706-2 Mashiko, Mashiko Town, Haga County, Tochigi Prefecture
Opening hours:9:00〜17:00
Holidays:open year-round (excluding December 31 and January 1) 
Access:Walk from Mashiko Station (about 28 minutes) 

*Visit official website here

15:01  Return home from Mashiko Station. Board the SL Moka train to Moka Station.  

SL train and daisies

Daisies bloom along the railway from May to June (Photo courtesy: Moka Railway)

It takes nearly 30 minutes to walk back to Mashiko Station from the Mashiko Pottery Cooperative Selling Center, so be sure to set aside plenty of time to return to the station. We walked back to the station to make it in time for the train leaving Mashiko at 15:01. Buses are also available, but take note that they do not go all the way to the station.
There seemed to be fewer passengers riding the train compared to earlier in the day. This time we disembarked midway at Moka Station, instead of traveling to the Shimodate terminus. We dropped by the SL 96 (Kyu-roku) Museum which displays steam locomotive trains.

15:19 See D51 model steam trains exhibited at the SL 96 Museum.

Moka Station building

Moka Station, shaped like a steam locomotive, has been chosen as one of 100 best stations of the Kanto Region.

We arrived at Moka Station at 15:19. The station is uniquely shaped like a steam locomotive, with the SL 96 (pronounced kyu-roku) Museum standing next door.   
SL 96 Museum

The SL 96 Museum stands immediately to the right when you exit Moka Station to the east.

The museum exhibits steam locomotives and diesel powered trains, and is named after the 9600 model of steam locomotives, which is displayed indoors. The 9600 model is one of Japan’s representative locomotives of the Taisho era (1912-1926), which it is widely recognized today by its nickname of “kyu-roku” (which means 9 and 6 in Japanese). Other train types on display include a D51 model steam locomotive, and a blue colored “Suhafu 4425” model passenger train. 
D51 steam train

The coveted D51 type steam locomotive

Suhafu 4425

The Suhafu 4425 model was built in the 1950s and was used until the 1980s.

【SL 96 Museum Information】
address:〒321-4306  2474-6 Daimachi, Moka City, Tochigi Prefecture
Opening hours:10:00〜18:00
Holidays:Tuesdays(the following day if Tuesday falls on a public holiday), Year-end, New Year period (December 29〜January 3)
Access:Walk from Moka Station(about 1 minute)

*Visit official website here

16:32 All things come to an end: the trip back to Tokyo 

Local train making stop at Moka Station

We took the local train from Moka Station to Shimodate Station

Our trip ended with a visit to SL 96 Museum where we explored the appeal of steam locomotives. From Moka Station, we boarded a local train back to central Tokyo. On this day, we took the 16:32 train, which arrived at Shimodate Station at 16:58. The travel time between Shimodate Station to central Tokyo can take about 2 hours and 10 minutes depending on the number of stops along the way. 

When the days are long, a sunset walk around] Moka is recommended. The Gyoyagawa Riverside Park, which is about a 12-minute walk from Moka Station, is the perfect place to visit when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom around April. The riverside is covered with roughly 200 blooming cherry trees that are about 80 years old. The sun sets at around 18:00 at this time of the year, so if it is warm, why not go out cherry blossom viewing after dark and return to Tokyo later.

Interview: What draws people to SL Moka?

Before closing this article, the following is an interview with Mr Ataru Takemae, who is in charge of public relations at Moka Railway’s General Affairs Section.

“The SL Moka C12 model locomotive that is currently in service used to be displayed in a park. We bought the train and maintained it and it has been operating on the Moka Line since 1994. The same C12 trains actually serviced the line when it was run by the National Railway, so I assume that steam locomotives in action were a common sight back then. 
While there are other lines in Japan that use steam locomotives, those are largely ‘tourism trains’. The feeling that SL Moka gives off is much more like an active train service, and that may be one of its greatest appeals. The landscape outside the window is also varied, as it changes from views of the city to the countryside. As you can open the windows, you can actually experience the sound of the train whistle and the smell of the smoke.”

After riding the SL Moka ourselves, we were amazed by its powerful action, and the sound and smell of the billowing smoke.  You actually need to ride this train to share this amazing feeling. 
We asked Mr Takemae to recommend sections of the SL Moka that make it more fun to ride the train. 
“First of all, the roughly 3km straight track between Shichi-i and Mashiko, in the inbound direction. The train speed is quite fast, so you can see the train in “serious” action. Also, check out the steep slope between Motegi and Tenyaba, where the steam locomotive travels upward as it makes a chugging noise and spurts out smoke. 
Season-wise, the cherry blossom and rape flower seasons are certainly nice, but winter is also popular among train photographers because the lower temperatures create beautiful trails of smoke. In any case, I hope people enjoy the SL Moka at various seasons. 

SL Moka and winter landscape

The SL Moka running through snow-covered fields. A clear long trail of smoke can be seen behind the train. (Photo courtesy: Moka Railway)

We slightly regretted turning back at Mashiko after hearing Mr Takemae’s suggestions. Next time, we hope to travel until the last stop of Motegi, and ride the steam locomotive as it powers up the steep slope.

Enjoy the collaboration of cherry blossoms and rapeseed flowers, and take home some Mashiko-ware pottery!

The Moka Railway is a local line with few tourists passengers, which means you can take in views of a landscape teeming with daily life. It takes more than 2 hours from Tokyo just to get on the steam locomotive, but once you are on board, it is a fun experience that cannot be had near Tokyo. 
The combination of cherry blossoms and rapeseed flowers are wonderful if you visit during spring. We hope you also take a one-day trip on the SL Moka train, which is full of opportunities to discover Mashiko pottery ware and breathtaking views.