Just half an hour from Hiroshima by bullet train lies Shin-Yamaguchi Station. And it is from this station that you can take the famed Steam Locomotive, an artifact from the past, and have a delightful stay in the center of Yamaguchi prefecture.

Autumn SL Yamaguchi near Tsuwano
Autumn SL Yamaguchi near Tsuwano

The SL takes two hours to run from Shin-Yamaguchi up to Tsuwano. Tsuwano itself has a multitude of charms, ranging from a woodblock print museum to castle ruins to carp swimming along the waterways that run next to the sidewalks to a washi factory where you can try your hand at making traditional Japanese paper. But the ride up is fun as well, and there are a lot of places to stop and experience different aspects of Japan along the way.

SL Yamaguchi and Tsuwano River Railway
SL Yamaguchi and Tsuwano River

To begin with, you’ll probably want to stay in Yuda Onsen, a town famed for its natural hot springs. Legend has it that a white fox stopped here long ago to bathe in the springs, and there is a large white fox statue to greet you at Yuda Onsen Station. Finding a hotel or ryokan that has its own onsen is no problem in this town, but even if you stay at a hotel without one, there are many public baths that are available for a small fee.

With the accommodations taken care of, the next stop up the track is Yamaguchi City, the prefectural capital. Yamaguchi has a wealth of activities and sites to choose from, and there are many restaurants in the city that serve delicious food, including a place just opposite the station where you can try the Japanese take on Indian food. Yamaguchi also has a museum with exhibits that change regularly, the Francis Xavier Memorial Church, and many traditional Japanese buildings and sites.

Further up the line is Ato, a small town with an apple orchid. If you get there in the season (October or November), you can go apple picking in the orchards and have a tasty yakiniku barbecue lunch afterward. You get to keep the apples you pick, and there are many specialty apple products that are sold as well. Try some of the juice: it’ll be the best you’ve ever tasted!

The whole thing is tied together by the steam locomotive train, which is an adventure in and of itself. Coming straight out of the 19th century, this train ride is something that can no longer be done in America. The train has the original decor and ambiance of the late 1800s, and you can venture outside to stand on the caboose platform as the train is moving along. The landscape is gorgeous any time of year, but especially pretty in the fall. The SL is a fixture in the area, and farmers’ families will stand and wave as the train goes by. Truly, this is a glimpse of a period of Japan’s history that cannot be experienced anywhere else.