- A Trolley Train Journey to the Countryside! Enjoy the flowers through glassless windows
- 1. Walk through the Valley at Omama Station, the Watetsu Railway's train depot
- 2. Visit the Taisho-era Architecture of Kamikanbai Station
- 3. Enjoy Peach Blossoms & Bento Boxes at Godo Station
- 4. Head for the next station while strolling around Kusaki Lake, one of Japan’s 100 best reservoirs
- 5. Board the train for the former site of Ashio Copper Mine, an industrial heritage site
- 6. The final stop, Mato Station
- 7. Yama-unagi bento: a delicious meal at Mizumuma Station
The Watarase Keikoku (gorge in Japanese) Railway is a local line connecting Kiryu City in Gunma Prefecture and Ashio Town in Tochigi Prefecture in about 90 minutes. This time, we boarded the train from Kiryu Station for a roughly 44-km train ride. Even for train enthusiasts who have ridden and photographed countless railways, a journey on the “Watetsu (the railway’s abbreviated name)” is a great time.
Through this trip we uncover what makes this particular railway special, with a model itinerary that takes us to a famous bento box vendor, and a hot spring connecting directly into a train station.
A Trolley Train Journey to the Countryside! Enjoy the flowers through glassless windows
The tram on the Watarase Keikoku Railway (from hereon, “Watetsu”) offers views of the idyllic countryside, which further evokes the heart of a traveler. Cherry, peach and rape flowers come into full bloom in spring, delighting passengers with a colorful landscape.
The Watetsu railway operates two types of “torocco” trains. A “torocco” was originally a simple mining railcar, and the word now refers to casual tourism trains with open-air interiors. They will be referred to as "trolley trains" throughout our trip.
The two trolley trains operated by the Watetsu railway are called the “Torocco Watarase Keikoku” train and the “Torocco Wasshi” train. The former train travels between Kiryu Station in Gunma Prefecture and Ashio Station in neighboring Tochigi Prefecture, while the latter runs from Kiryu Station to Mato (pronounced Mat-ou) station in Tochigi. Both tram services travel through the valley and have up-close views of the hills and fields.
Torocco Wasshi train
Wooden tables and chairs inside the train, give off a retro, approachable vibe.
Trolley trains are characterized by glassless windows (The Torocco Wasshi train is fitted with glass during winter). Being able to enjoy the blooming flowers of spring without having to look through glass, is a special experience that can only be had on the Watetsu railway. Feel spring in the air that fills the hills and fields.
This time we boarded the Torocco Wasshi train from Kiryu Station. We spotted the railway mascot “Watetsu-no-Wasshi” (Wasshi of Watetsu) on the ceiling inside the train.
Ceiling of Torocco Wasshi train
Official merchandise of the Watetsu Railway is sold inside the train, including Wasshi stuffed toys, key chains, candy, and items made from Kiryu textiles. All of these make for nice travel mementos.
Shopping area inside the Torocco Wasshi train
The front of the first carriage has observatory seats for children, and is also fitted with a child-sized imitation driver’s seat. The train driver’s seat is something you do not get to see often, and it even makes grown-ups excited.
Now we will explore some of the must-visit spots of stations along the train route. Try an “ekiben” (boxed lunches sold at train stations), which are a popular element of Japanese train travel, and visit the former site of the Ashio Copper Mine in Tochigi Prefecture. Scenic old stations also make for enjoyable spots, so let us guide you through an in-depth journey along the railway.
The Torocco Wasshi train makes one round trip per day from December to March, in both the inbound and outbound directions, and two round trips from April to November. To meet your transportation needs, local trains, buses, and an on-demand passenger bus service called “denwa-de-bus” (“phone for bus”) operated by Midori City are available. Take note that the bus is available throughout Midori City, with the exception of Azuma-cho town.
*For details of Midori City’s on-demand passenger bus service “denwa-de-bus” (phone for bus) check here.
1. Walk through the Valley at Omama Station, the Watetsu Railway's train depot
The first leg of our tour began at Omama (pronounced “o-mama”) Station, which is two stations away on the trolley from Kiryu Station. Omama Station houses a train depot, which is where the trains are maintained and carriages are rearranged.
Permanent exhibit of a decommissioned train
Walk from Omama Station to the beautiful Takatsudokyo Ravine
We walked north from the station along the tracks, and about 5-minutes later, we reached a Buddhist structure called Hanetaki-doryoson, which enshrines the tengu, a Japanese mythical creature.
Ryoson is the god of childrearing, and is believed to help disturbed children get back on their feet.
Following the road, we walked right and spotted a triangular white bridge called Hanetaki-bashi.
This bridge leading to the Takatsudo Bridge next to Nagame Park is called Takatsudo Boardwalk, and goes through Takatsudokyo Ravine.
Takatsudo Boardwalk (Photo courtesy: Midori City Industry and Tourism Department Tourism Section)
The path is roughly 500m long. Visitors can walk down to the riverbed to view the beautiful ravine surrounded in lush greenery. You will easily understand why this place is listed among Japan’s 500 most beautiful and attractive paths. Despite being close to residential homes, the magical ravine lies just a few steps away.
Beautiful ravine (Photo courtesy: Midori City Industry and Tourism Division Tourism Section)
2. Visit the Taisho-era Architecture of Kamikanbai Station
Because we had disembarked at Omama Station earlier, we used the on-demand bus to reach the next station, Kamikanbai. Besides calling by phone, bookings can also be made online, so using the bus is easy. Simply inform from which bus stop you wish to board, and ride the bus when it comes.
There are 12 unmanned stations along the route, and Kamikanbai is one of them. The station building was founded during the Taisho era (1912-1926) and is still in active use. Finding charming old wooden stations is an exciting part of local railway trips. Time passes quietly inside the station building and platform, both of which are recognized by the national government as tangible cultural assets.
The tram does not stop at this station, so if you wish to visit here by train you will need to take the local train from Omama Station.
Drawings and calligraphy work by local primary students are displayed inside the station
3. Enjoy Peach Blossoms & Bento Boxes at Godo Station
We boarded the local line at Kamikanbai Station for Godo Station. While we disembarked the trolley train at Omama Station on this trip, we would have arrived at Godo station in two stops if we remained on board. The view outside our window changed into a typical valley landscape covered with hilly fields. On our way to Godo Station, we spotted a small waterfall to our left after exiting a tunnel.
A small, yet beautiful waterfall
An announcement was made inside the tram before it slowed down to let passengers to view the waterfall. The train passed by a landscape that made us feel somewhat melancholic, then we arrived at Godo Station. It oozed with a retro feel similar to that of Kamikanbai station.
Peach blossoms have become a popular attraction of Godo station since they were planted in 2000. They bloom at around the same time of cherry blossoms, so it goes without saying that when the flowers are at their best, they create a spectacular sight. It is a picturesque sight that you won’t go home without some pictures of!
Beautiful peach blossoms and trolley (photo courtesy: Watarase Keikoku Railway）
The “Peach Blossom” train traveling through the row of blooming cherry trees （photo courtesy: Watarase Keikoku Railway）
Savor a bento box at the restaurant inside the train
“Ekiben”(boxed lunches sold at train stations) is a unique element of Japanese train travel that is not to be missed. Watetsu offers three popular ekibens; Torocco bento (¥1,000), Yamato-pork bento (¥1,100), and Yama-unagi (mountain eel) bento (¥1,080). Passengers can eat the Torrocco and pork lunch box at Godo station.
Yamato pork bento (¥1,100)
This time we ordered the Yamato pork bento. The pork was seasoned with a soya-based sauce and had an powerful flavor that paired well with the rice, and the maitake mushrooms added a chewy texture and flavor. Sampling local dishes makes traveling all the more special.
The lunch box came with a towel that doubled as a route map. The extra perk was a delightful treat.
In general, you need to book in advance for the ekiben. Call by phone to reserve a box, which is to be purchased when the train stops at Godo Station.
Otherwise, you can purchase the lunch box inside the Torocco Watarase Keikoku No.3 train when it travels between Omama and Godo Stations. Take note that a limited amount of lunches are available onboard, so it is still best to book by phone. For more details check here.
On another note, Godo Station houses a restaurant called Seiryu inside an old train car that used to service the Tobu Railway line.
Travelers can purchase ekiben lunches here without a reservation.
Restaurant Seiryu, located inside the station
Inside Restaurant Seiryu
The restaurant is housed inside two 1720 model DRC trains; the Moha 1724 and Moha 1725. Even if you are not a train buff, it is fun to dine inside a nostalgic train car!
4. Head for the next station while strolling around Kusaki Lake, one of Japan’s 100 best reservoirs.
Our stomachs were full by then, so we went to get some exercise and took a leisurely walk through nature. We headed for the next station, Souri. In roughly 2 hours, we walked through a route covering Godo Station, Kotohira tunnel, Warabe Bridge, Higashi park, Doyo-furusato-kan, Kusaki Dam, and Souri Station. Let us take a quick look at the must-visit spots along the way.
Watarasegawa River immediately appears after leaving Godo Station
We walked along the Watarasegawa River that runs in front of Godo Station, and enjoyed the rich nature landscape.
The Kotohira Tunnel, which was used until 1973, is about a 25-minute walk from Godo Station. Our hearts skipped a beat as we walked above the tracks where trains once travelled.
Rows of beautiful cherry blossoms lined the way from Warabebashi Bridge to the northern parts of Higashi-undo-koen.
Cherry blossoms can be enjoyed from above the bridge (photo courtesy: Midori City Industry and Tourism Division Tourism Section）
We walked further and reached Kusaki Dam. For those who want a shorter walk, we recommend riding the local bus. The Kusaki Dam controls the flow of the Watarasegawa River. In spring, cherry blossoms bloom around the dam and the large dam is visible beyond the cherry flowers.
Kusaki Dam (photo courtesy: Midori City Industry and Tourism Division Tourism Section）
A roughly 30-min walk from Kusaki Dam took us to the Tomihiro Museum, which showcases the work of Tomihiro Hoshino, an artist who became quadriplegic due to an accident. The museum opened in Mr Hoshino’s hometown in 1991.
*Check the official website here.
We suggest walking further to visit the cherry blossoms near Sun Lake Kusaki, an accommodation site run by the local government. (It is on the opposite shore of Kusaki Lake, which lies in front of the Tomihiro Museum.)
Dai-ichi Watarasegawa Bridge
As we walked further and approached the Dai-ichi (first) Watarasegawa Bridge, Kusaki Lake jumped into sight. This is an excellent photo spot, which many Japanese people have probably seen in photos showing the Watetsu train traveling over the bridge. The Kusaki Lake coastline is also where motorists catch a quick rest on their way to Nikko, in Tochigi Prefecture. Although it is not a major tourist spot, it is known for its beautiful autumn foliage, so why not take a long, leisurely walk around this tranquil spot?
We walked for about 2 hours and reached Sori Station. It was a long hike but we enjoyed the fresh air that filled the rich nature surrounding us, and we felt re-energized by our getaway from the hustle and bustle of our daily lives. Sori Station is a small station that looks like a log cabin, and right by it is “Sori Station Fureiai Park” built facing the Watarasegawa River.
5. Board the train for the former site of Ashio Copper Mine, an industrial heritage site
We boarded the train from Sori Station and headed for the former site of the Ashio Copper Mine, which is a well-known site in Japan along the Watetsu line. We got off two stations after at Tsudo Station.
On a side note, the most beautiful views from inside the train along the Watetsu Line are said to be found between the stations of Sori and the neighboring Haramuko, so do take a good look at the landscape from your window.
The Ashio Copper Mine is well-known in Japan for its long tunnel. The mine is currently shut down, and visitors can observe the tunnel as they learn about the mine’s history.
View seen until Tsudo Station
As the train approached Tsudo station, a mining facility (Tsudo dressing plant) appeared before us, blocking the view of our left window. It was a spectacular sight that set us aback. To our right, we saw the Tsudo power station with its collapsed roof and the Tsudo substation.
The train soon arrived at Tsudo Station, which is near the Ashio town center and is the closest station to visit Ashio Mine. Many people lived here until the copper mine was shut down, and it was said to be a lively area.
We headed for Ashio Mine as we let our minds wander to the past. We walked right after leaving the station and about 6 minutes later, we arrived at the former site of the Ashio Mine.
Ashio Copper Mine main gate
The gate of Ashio Mine is one that greets visitors with a vibrant palette of colors, making it very easy to find.
Behind the log cabin was a minecart boarding site, and we boarded on there to enter the tunnel. These small vehicles are designed for use inside the mine tunnel.
Entering the tunnel on a minecart
The tunnel measures a total of 1,234 km and is multi-layered, with 20 underground galleries on top and 16 below. As the mine is now closed, only certain areas can be accessed. In roughly 6 minutes we arrived at the final stop, and from there we walked further into the tunnel.
The mine tunnel was filled with cold air, and there were mannequins installed everywhere re-enacting mining work, which made for a very realistic scene.
Display of how miners worked in the tunnel
The displays showcase the mine’s 400-year history with easy to grasp details, ranging from the loin-clothes worn by mine workers during the pre-modern Edo period to the helmets worn during the Showa era.
Mine worker resting
The mine tunnel walk ended in about 20 minutes, and was followed by a short film, dioramas and mineral rocks exhibits
Mineral rocks from Ashio Copper Mine
If you have time to spare, be sure to visit the remains of the mine which are scattered around the Tsudo tunnel.
6. The final stop, Mato Station.
We boarded the Watetsu train again from Tsudo Station, and made it to the final stop, Mato (pronounced Ma-tou) Station. Japanese serow (a goat-like antelope) sightings are occasionally reported here, and perhaps Perhaps you too will encounter one by chance.
Train stop at Mato Station
The sight of this train stop device made us feel we had come to the farthest place.
Mato Station is in Nikko City, Tochigi Prefecture, and the bus stop in front of the station has buses bound for Nikko Station. A visit to Nikko is recommended after enjoying the cherry blossoms from the Watetsu train.
Also from Tsudo town, where we just visited, buses go to Nikko. On this route, many travelers are said to disembark along the way to visit attractions such as Nikko Toshogu Shrine and Chuzenji-ko Lake.
7. Yama-unagi bento; a delicious meal at Mizumuma Station
Mato Station is the last of our featured stations along the Watetsu Line. Although we boarded an inbound train to get to Kiryu, we suggest getting off at Mizunuma Station. Mizunuma Station has a hot spring on its platform, which is rarity even across Japan.
The ”yama-unagi bento” boxed lunch available at Mizuma Station
Travelers can sample the popular “yama-unagi bento” (which literally means mountain eel boxed lunch), which is rice topped with yam and chicken, and seasoned with a special sauce. The boxed lunch is available for takeout, making it an ideal meal to have on board.
A train journey in spring to visit the flowers in full bloom
The Watarase Keikoku Railway is scattered with old stations, all oozing with a wistful retro vibe. Did any of the stations leave you curious?
Board a trolley and embark on a trip that is sure to immerse you in a feeling of nostalgia. This railway route is full of nature to enjoy not just in spring, but also during the autumn foliage season.