Not quite the Hogwart’s Express, the red and yellow train is a lot closer to a child’s image of what a train should look like than, say, anything you see on the Midosuji line, and the loco does have a bit that could be a funnel if you believed hard enough. The enthusiasm of the waiting passengers bubbles over as the train pulls into the station and the guards wave them back from the edge of the platform. I’m in Kyoto, not King’s Cross, but the platform is full of kids waiting for a fantasy ride.
This is the Sagano Scenic Railway and the point of this train journey isn’t to reach any particular destination but the travelling itself, as the railroad runs from the bamboo forests of Saga Arashiyama to the open fields and farmland of Kameoka, passing through forested mountainside that surrounds the river Hozu.
In the late 80s, the JR Sagano main line, which serves the suburbs of Kyoto was re-routed but the part of the line that was snipped off, passing through some beautiful and varied countryside was considered too good to waste and the scenic railway was created.
The waves and smiles of station guards and tourists see us off as the breeze blows through the open windows. A little boy sitting on his mother’s knee opposite watches me intently as I sit on the sun-warmed wooden bench. We wind through lush green countryside before diving into a tunnel. Lanterns light the old red bricks that rush by, with the smell of oil from the tracks blowing through the carriage; the clattering getting louder as speed and momentum build until we burst out of the tunnel to an explosion of light and colour. Vibrant green trees cover mountains in every direction surrounding a valley with an emerald river flowing through. Boats are laden with tourists who wave up at us as they are carried downriver by the strong current.
The train stops at Hozukyo Station, where some passengers choose to stay. From here you can hike through the woodland, following a path leading down to the river. We pass other remote stations occupied only by folkloric statues of tanuki, wielding sake and straw hats.
As we grind to a halt at the final stop a horse grazes nearby. Here we are left to explore a lesser-known corner of Kyoto.
To return to Saga Arashiyama, you can opt for a guided boat ride back down the river Hozu. More boats are for hire by the Togetsukyo bridge in Arashiyama. There are many popular walking routes here, but if you would rather explore the area by bicycle, pay a visit to the bicycle rental shop near Saga Arashiyama Station.
KS took the Sagano trip in the spring when you can enjoy its delicate shades and fresh breezes, but this is a trip you can take any time of year except winter to enjoy the character of each season: summer is dramatic, more so the colours of autumn. The trip will be a little different each time you take it.
• The Sagano Scenic Railway runs between Torokko Saga and Torokko Kameoka. Return trips by boat are only for the passengers who travel from Saga to Kameoka.
• The Sagano romantic train runs from March 1st–Dec 29th of each year. It is closed on Wednesdays, with the exception of national holidays. Tickets are ¥600 per adult, and ¥300 per child.
• The timetable can be found on the official website: www.sagano-kanko.co.jp/eng