Known for their speed, cleanliness and legendary promptness, the Japanese bullet trains or Shinkansen are admired by train buffs the world over. Much of the country’s railway system is fast and efficient, in fact, so no wonder it’s the envy of much of the rest of the planet. But there is one line that breaks with the trend: the Gonō Line. These trains may not be dirty or delayed, but they do take their time. Which is a quality that’s often overlooked, whether in Japan or elsewhere.
A little over 147 kilometres long, the railway was opened in stages between 1908 and 1936 and is located in the North-East of Japan, in the Tōhoku region. Our journey starts at Kawabe station, in the village of Inakadate, in Aomori prefecture. Here, in a small village where certain inhabitants create gigantic artworks by planting rice of different types in the fields, you’re far from the bustle of Tokyo and its crowds. By comparison with the sprawling station of Shinjuku, known for being the busiest in the world (with more than 3.6 million passengers per year), the station in this village of 7,800 inhabitants seems rather modest in size. However, this small white building is the starting point of a railway experience which you’ll remember for a very long time.
As well as various regular services that travel along the same stretch, the Gonō Line also plays host to a train that’s designed to induce a sense of wonder. Called the Resort Shirakami and sometimes nicknamed ‘the happy train’, this service travels at a speed of around 10 kilometres/hour so its passengers can take in the surrounding landscapes. And there really is a lot to take in, as the train travels along the west coast of the island on which it is located, passing several natural and cultural wonders on the way. One of the most impressive is no doubt the incredible rock formation of Senjojiki, where water and rock seem to be tangled in a kilometres-long embrace. Accessible by foot from any of the several stations located along the line, this geological feature was formed, experts say, by an earthquake several centuries ago.
Back on board the train, the atmosphere is very different to what you might have experienced in other Japanese trains. All those alongside you have decided to take their time travelling, so they can admire the splendour of the Japanese wilderness. But that’s not at all. As a BBC Travel article explains, a unique (and lovely) melody rings out at each stop and certain cabins can be rearranged so travellers can sit cross-legged and take in the views.
Now the train is approaching Furofushi Onsen, which could translate as ‘warm source of life/eternal youth’. Right on the coast, these baths have remarkable views over the sea, the warmth of the water combining majestically with the freshness of the marine breeze. You’d be a fool not to stop off here while journeying on the Gonō Line (though don’t linger too long, as you might miss the next train).
One other essential stop, further along the line, is the Unesco world heritage site of Shirakami-Sanchi. This area has the largest remaining forest of beech trees in south-east Asia, which is home to black bears, Japanese serows and more than 80 species of bird. While certain parts are off limits to the public, much of it is open and accessible, including the beautiful lakes of Juniko. Don’t miss the one known as Aoike, whose legendary blue hue changes with the seasons.
There are clearly lots of other worthwhile stops along the Gonō Line. If you have the time, we’d recommend stopping off as much as you can. This journey is so special that, according to the BBC Travel journalist, all travellers receive a certificate commemorating the trip. It’s an initiative that reminds us that we should be rewarding people who choose to take the train and travel slow. Just like, for example, when people choose a sleeper train over a plane.