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Japan Hour

Road Trip on Hokusei Line (Part 1)

This week, we travel on Sangi Railway’s Hokusei Line in Mie Prefecture and visit interesting places recommended by the locals.

This week, we travel on Sangi Railway’s Hokusei Line in Mie Prefecture and visit interesting places recommended by the locals. The local train line connects Nishi-Kuwana Station in Kuwana City and Ageki Station in Inabe City. It runs on a narrow-gauge track; it is over 30cm narrower compared to JR and other main railways. The short railway line only has 13 stations over a distance of 20.4km. It takes just 50 minutes to travel across the entire track.

Sangi Railway was originally built to connect the prefectures of Mie and Gifu. It currently operates the Sangi Line, created in 1931, and the Hokusei Line, established in 1914. Railway operator Kintetsu had handed over control of the Hokusei Line to Sangi in 2003.

We first purchase a one-day pass for 1,100 yen at Nishi-Kuwana Station. We ride on a retro train to Umamichi Station. This small train chugs along like a toy train along the narrow track, which resembles a thread weaving through town, at an average speed of around 20km/h.

We alight at Umamichi, walk around and look for people to ask for recommended spots. We meet a lady who tells us about the Hashiriizan Kangaku Temple. With its over 100 cherry blossom trees, it is known as a beautiful cherry blossom spot in spring. The temple is said to have been built by Japanese monk Gyoki during the Nara period. There is a statue of Kannon with 1,000 arms here, built in the late Heian period.

Next, we board a cute yellow train at 10.40am and head to Nishibessho Station. We reach after less than five minutes and decide to spend about an hour here before catching the 11.40am train. A local resident suggests we check out an iron casting factory owned by Mr Tsujiuchi. Kuwana is known as an iron casting town. It started with Tadakatsu Honda making guns here during the Edo period.

The Tsujiuchi Iron Casting factory has a history of more than 500 years. The bronze torii at Kasuga Shrine, for example, was made by Mr Tsujiuchi’s predecessors. Now, many products such as manhole covers and parts for industrial sewing machines are manufactured by the company. At the factory, Mr Ito shows us some in-house manufactured goods. They include novelty coffee grinders; most of the parts are handmade including the blades and even the exterior is painted by hand. Mr Ito also demonstrates how melted iron is poured into a mould and then cooled.  

We return to the station and take the 11.40am train to Hoshikawa, three stops away. At Hoshikawa Station, we meet another person with the surname Ito. Ms Ito gives us tips on where to eat lunch. She mentions a restaurant, Yohachi, which serves delicious eel. Mie Prefecture is known for its eel and Kuwana has its own brand of eel, Kiso-sansen. Ms Ito drives us to the eel restaurant but unfortunately, it is temporarily closed. She then suggests Yakko Sushi, but that too is closed on this day. So she drives us back to Hoshikawa Station, where we see a sign for “Ito Seafood”. The Ito Fish Shop next to the station sells fresh fish and handmade ready-to-eat food such as sashimi. We order the gingko fish and Japanese tiger prawns and have our lunch at the staff’s resting area.

After this, we board the 1.20pm train and go to Nanawa Station, which is surrounded by nature. We plan to catch either the 2.20pm or the 2.50pm train from here. We drop by a shop to enquire about famous spots nearby. The owner, Kura-chan, mentions a huge tree called Kurogane holly, which is seen as a guardian tree of Nanawa. She also tells us about the Tachi Bee Farm, a honey shop.

We decide to go to the honey store first. Established in 1912, it produces natural domestic honey and is currently managed by the fourth-generation bee keeper. The staff would travel around Japan with the honeybees searching for flowers. They produce and sell honey made from acacia, clover and even mandarin orange flowers. In fact, the most recommended product from Kuwana is honey taken from flowers of the Kurogane holly tree, mentioned by Kura-chan earlier. Locally, it is also known as Fukurashiba and its flowers are called either Fukuraki or Fukurashi.  

We then go to see the famous Kurogane holly tree, which is designated as the city's cultural property. Believed to be over 300 years old, the tree has really tiny flowers. Its trunk has a diameter of more than 3m.

Next, we board the 2.50pm train and head to Anoh Station. Once we arrive, we ask a local about inns or hotels in the area. We find out there is no accommodation nearby and we are advised to head back to Nishi-Kuwana. So we take the 3.35pm train and return to Nishi-Kuwana Station. We go to Kawashiwaya, which sells a Kuwana speciality, Yasunaga mochi. We ask the shop owner to recommend an inn nearby. We are told there are no inns but a Station Hotel with a large bath on the top floor. So we head there to try our luck at finding a room for the night.

1) Many local railway lines have one-day passes which offer unlimited train rides
2) Kuwana is known for iron casting and has interesting products such as novelty coffee grinders


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