Do you like trains? No, it doesn't matter. You don't need to like trains to have your heart skip a beat when a real, working steam locomotive chug-a-chugs up to the platform like something out of a fairy tale. And then you get to ride it. Objectively speaking, the steam engine is one of the greatest inventions ever and riding the SL Yamaguchi-go through the unspoiled countryside of Yamaguchi prefecture is an experience worth flying to Japan for.
This locomotive was built in 1937 and has been carefully preserved, making it a popular tourist attraction. Head to the caboose and look out the back of the train, and you'll see that as you leave every stop, the people on the platform will wave goodbye. Make no mistake: they are just as enthralled as you are. But riding is more fun than watching. Say hello to your cabin mates and enjoy a box lunch!
Everything on the SL Yamaguchi-go is like a Victorian story book, from the hand-painted signs, to the cabins, to the huge clouds of steam puffing out of the engine in front of you. Stewards will roll by with snacks and lunches. Open the window to take some photos, but when the train goes into a tunnel, close the window as fast as you can! Gradually the interior gets smoky with steam, but it quickly clears up when the train leaves the tunnel.
The train runs from Shin-Yamaguchi to Tsuwano, the "Little Kyoto of Western Japan". You can stay in Tsuwano, which has a few historical attractions, or move along to another destination. But there is one attraction that beats anything in Tsuwano. No matter when you ride, you will notice there are more photographers standing on dirt roads in the fields taking pictures of the train than there are riders in the train itself. If you want to know why these maniacs like action photos so much, get off the train in Tsuwano, walk around for a while, and then find a place to take pictures of the SL as it makes the trip back to Yamaguchi. It is a thrill like nothing else.
The SL Yamaguchi-go fare starts from ¥660 and climbs the longer your journey is. It's unbeatable value for what is one of my favorite experiences of all time in Japan (not including the costs of getting to Yamaguchi from where ever you start). The train only runs on weekends and select holidays from March to November, and requires a special advance ticket which can be reserved at any JR counter in the country.