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Japan Hour

Road Trip on Oito Line (Part 1)

Nagano Prefecture's oldest tulip tree, a classroom in a train car, water fountains with "male" and "female" water and a luxurious hot spring hotel along Kashimagawa River are featured this week.

Our next train journey takes place along the JR Oito Line, which runs from Nagano Prefecture to Niigata Prefecture. Our aim is to find 15 famous spots recommended by the locals over three days. This local line used to be called Shinano Railway, which opened in 1915. After being placed under state control, the entire line was connected in 1957 and then became the Oito Line. It now runs between the Matsumoto Station in Nagano and Itoigawa Station in Niigata, spanning 41 stations and covering a total distance of 105.4km.

We start by travelling from Matsumoto Station to Hitoichiba, five stations ahead. The train journey takes about 15 minutes and we have until 12.25pm to find popular places around Hitoichiba. A family we speak to in front of the station suggests we eat at a Western-style restaurant Ikoi, which is famous for its omelette rice. However, upon reaching the place, we discover that it is closed. We then drop by a confectionery shop nearby. Its baked pudding, which is made using milk from a farm in Azumino, is very popular. 

We then head to a facility for kids, Paopao. A parent here recommends we check out the large tulip tree at a branch shrine. He offers to give us a ride there. The tulip tree, known as liriodendron tulipifera, is about 25m high and is more than 140 years old. It was planted as a memorial tree of the Onmin Elementary School during the Meiji period. The elementary school later closed down but the tulip tree remained. As it is considered the oldest tulip tree in Nagano Prefecture, it was designated a natural monument of Azumino City around 10 years ago.   

We are driven back to Hitoichiba Station by the same kind resident. We head to Hotaka Station, five stops away. During the 10-minute ride, we get to admire the magnificent view of the Northern Alps. We have two hours to explore the area around Hotaka Station as our next train is at 2.35pm. A local points us to a cafe near the station. It was opened nearly 10 years ago by a sculptor. His playful and unique artwork, created with used spoons, are displayed all over the reservation-only cafe. The owner has won various international art awards.

We next visit a wasabi shop to enquire about more well-known spots. We are told about a pork cutlet restaurant. Katsumian, which serves sardine dishes too. We order the recommended Katsumian set menu, which comes with raw sardines and fried pork cutlet pieces. The restaurant, which opened in 1991, uses sardines from Choshi, Chiba and Hokkaido. Pork from Nagano Prefecture is used for the pork cutlet. Raw bread crumbs are used to get a nice texture and the meat is fried in lard and blended oil until it becomes crispy. The sardine comes with vinegar soy sauce, while the pork cutlet is served with ground sesame and sauce. 

Next, we take the train to Shinano-Matsukawa Station, which is 15 minutes away. We decide to catch the 4pm train from here later. We rent some electric bicycles and start exploring the town. A farmer we speak to suggests we go to Totto-chan Square. There is a place here called Tomoe Gakuen, named after the elementary school where famous personality Tetsuko Kuroyanagi studied. A classroom of the original Tomoe Gakuen, which used to be located in Tokyo’s Meguro ward, has been reproduced using train cars donated by Nagano Electric Railway. The unique classroom is housed inside a train car.

In fact, Ms Kuroyanagi is closely connected with this town. Located near Totto-chan Square is a museum of picture book artist Chihiro Iwasaki. The cover illustration of Ms Kuroyanagi's best-selling novel, Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window, was drawn by Ms Iwasaki. Because of that, the museum asked Ms Kuroyanagi to be the museum director. Two years ago, Totto-chan Square, which was inspired by her novel, was constructed.

We ride back to the station and advance four stops ahead to Shinano-Omachi. We want to find accommodation for the night here. A resident mentions Omachi Onsenkyo, which boasts many hotels, one of which is Ryokusuitei Keisui. However, it is only accessible by bus. While waiting for the bus, which will come an hour later at 5.10pm, we enquire about more famous spots. 

A local we speak to tells us there are two water fountains along a street. The water comes from different sources, so one type of water is “hard” - nicknamed as “male” - and another is “soft” and termed as “female”. The “hard” spring water travels from the Northern Alps which are about 3,000m high. The “soft” hot spring water comes from a woodland, situated at an altitude of 900m. The names of “male” and “female” water originated from a legend where more baby boys were born in villages which used the “hard” water, while the villages using the “soft” water had more baby girls. Furthermore, it was believed that combining the two types of water brings luck in love. 

We finally take the bus from Shinano-Omachi Station to Omachi Onsenkyo, 15 minutes away. There are 10 hotels along the Kashimagawa River at the hot spring resort. Ryokusuitei Keisui has 77 Japanese-and Western-style rooms which are spacious and offer a great view of the river. 

After a relaxing hot spring bath, we have dinner, which comprises 15 dishes. They include Japanese beef and vegetables cooked in shabu-shabu style, char fish grilled with salt, gratin served in a hollowed-out apple, various types of raw fish and Shinshu buckwheat noodles. 


1)    Fans of famous author Tetsuko Kuroyanagi should visit Totto-chan Square
2)    Try the “male” and female” water from two water fountains near Shinano-Omachi Station


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