By Chris Barnes
There are many ways to enjoy Niseko and its surrounding environment. One that is on offer only between the middle of September through the first weekend of November is a roll down the old single track of the Hakodate Main Line in a well-preserved and active steam train.
The SL ("Steam Locomotive") Niseko train was introduced in autumn 2000, as a way to stimulate tourism in the area and it seems to have done the trick. The train runs on weekends only from Sapporo through Otaru via Kutchan and Niseko before stopping in Rankoshi and running in reverse back to Sapporo. Based on how the reserved tickets disappear very quickly once put on sale, the campaign seems to be a success.
If you can not get your hands on reserved seats, you can still enjoy the most scenic part of the trip. Reserved seats apply only for the leg between Sapporo and Kutchan Stations. The leg between Sapporo and Otaru, mostly a multi-track mainline commuter leg on which the train is actually pulled by a diesel locomotive, is not worth riding in any event, but the steam locomotive takes over from Otaru.
The train arrives in Kutchan, traditionally a maintenance and switching hub with a decommissioned roundhouse, at about 11:40 a.m. and then lumbers along the Shiribeshi River in the shadow of Mt. Yotei for about 30 minutes to Rankoshi. Seating is unassigned on this last leg, as a large number of passengers disembark in Kutchan and Niseko to participate in local lunch and hot spring tours that are part of their reserved seat packages while the train makes the 90 minute round trip run to Rankoshi and back.
Eating your own lunch on the train as it rolls along the autumn landscape, particularly in the first two weeks of October when colorful foliage is at its peak, is a delightful way to spend the middle of the day. Look out for trainspotting photographers along the way who have strategically set themselves up along the tracks to capture you and your iron horse as you roll by.
The antique carriages and the period-specific uniforms of the conductors add to the mix, but the train is more than thrilling to watch from the outside, so take notes of where those trainspotters stand and grab a look of your own if you decide not to ride.
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Cliff has lived, studied and worked in Japan for over 20 years, almost matching the amount of time spent in his home of New York. His time in Japan has spanned from student to salaryman, lawyer, investor and inn-keeper. Always an avid traveler, Cliff has experienced and continues to experience a full range of destinations in Japan, from camping on mountain outcroppings to indulging in the luxurious pleasures of centuries old ryokans, and has enjoyed witnessing the nature of travel in Japan evolve with his own perspective.