If you’re a seasoned Japan visitor (or an adventurous first-timer), I would recommend trying the two least-known JR Passes: the San’in-Sanyo JR Pass, and the All-Shikoku Pass (for another post). The San’in-Sanyo JR Pass covers a vast area from Kyoto down to Fukuoka and the historical heartland of Japan. My post focuses on the least-visited prefectures of Tottori, Shimane, and Yamaguchi because these local places are where the tourist crowds thin out and the thick layers of history are well settled.
Winging the JR train maze from Tokyo to Kōfu, hometown of Nakao Takeuchi, creator of Sailor Moon, and Takeda Shingen, the legendary daimyo who nearly stopped Oda Nobunaga’s unification of Japan.
This month has been the month of ad-hoc weekend getaways. Last week, a friend who was returning to Canada gave me her last Seishun 18 ticket, which is a one-day JR train pass for all local and commuter trains. Since it had to be used by September 10, I had no choice but to go away, yet again, this weekend. Hard life right?
The past month has been a whirlwind of work, moving, travel, and processing the photos from my new best friend: a 2012 second-hand Fujifilm X100. I wanted to get out of Tokyo and go somewhere pretty. Taking out my map, I traced the Chuo Line out of Shinjuku to Kōfu. My knowledge of Kōfu ended at name recognition, and of the Chūō Main Line that it was one of Japan’s prettiest train rides.
The problem was that both Google Maps and my Japanese transit app, Y! 乗換案内, kept giving me express trains I couldn’t take. That meant I didn’t know where to transfer. Well, enough animes have characters taking local trains through blizzards without smartphones. Anime follows reality. If those characters could do it, I could find a way too.
Pro Tip: Use Hyperdia (English) and uncheck all the boxes except local trains. You will get the local transfers that a Seishun 18 ticket is valid for! (My thanks to Jessica Sugahara for the reminder).
The Chūō Line
Ever since 1889, Tokyo and Nagoya have been connected by the Chūō Main Line tracing through the Southern Japan Alps. The Chūō East Line section has views of the peaks of the Akaishi and Kiso as well as Mount Yatsugatake. The Chūō West Line parallels the old Nakasendō famous for the steep Kiso Valley and the preserved historical post towns of Tsumago and Magome (places I’ve also been and would recommend).
Pro Tip: If you want to take the full local Chuo route, take the trains from Shinjuku Station > Takao Station > Kōfu Station > Shiojiri Station > Nakatsugawa Station > Nagoya Station. Break up your trip into 2 – 3 days to enjoy the places in between.
With a fuzzy head and heavy lids, I set out at 7:30am and followed intuition from Shinjuku Station along the city’s Chūō Line out towards Mitaka and Takao. I didn’t know where I was going, but I knew I wanted a faster train. I estimated a 4.5 hour commute time to Kōfu.
After missing the first rapid commuter service, I took a faster one to a different destination, got off at Mitaka and transferred back to the train I wanted (you can do things like that in Tokyo). In order to avoid express trains, I searched smaller stations along the Chūō Main Line, and found a direct local Chūō train from Takao Station to Kōfu. This turned out to be pretty straight forward, after all.
Just minutes after leaving Takao Station, the train turns into the lush green folding hills. If you want a great view of the mountains and river, get your camera ready after Fujino Station. From Uenohara Station until Saruhashi, then again from Kai-Yamato Station to Enzan Station, the train will have brief moments revealing the river below the layers of mountains in the distance.
A typhoon was rolling into Kyushu and Tokyo was holding its muggy breath in anticipation for a storm that never materialised. In Yamanashi, the mountains warded off the billowing clouds in the distance, creating a ring of white surrounding blue skies in the Kofu Basin.
Some Kōfu History
**Food and coffee sections below the one**
The capital of Yamanashi Prefecture sits in a protective ring of mountains on a plateau just high enough where the air is sweet, but not harsh. The Kōfu area has been continuously settled since the Japanese Paleolithic period (40,000 – 14,000 BCE). In the Nara period, Kai Province was created and the “Kai-Genji”, or Kai branch of the Minamoto clan (the first shoguns of Japan) settled in the area. In 1519, the castle town of Kōfu was rebuilt as the stronghold of the Takeda Clan and continued to serve as provincial capital even during Edo Japan. Much of the city was destroyed by the US Air Forces in a major night air raid on July 6, 1945.
Takeda Shingen (武田 信玄), the Tiger of Kai, is the legendary rival to Uesugi Kenshin (上杉 謙信), the Dragon of Echigo. While the two clashed 5 times, only one was an all-out battle and both are remembered for their respect of the other. It is said Uesugi wept when he learnt of Takeda’s passing. Up until his death, Shingen’s military prowess was able to stall the juggernaut forces of Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga, the eventual unifiers of Edo Japan.
Shingen’s 24 retainers, or generals, are also popular subjects of Ukiyo-e and Bunraku. The love pact signed with one in particular, Kōsaka Masanobu, is still in Tokyo University‘s Historical Archive. As part of Japanese shudo, a blend of apprenticeship and brotherhood contract, Shingen pledged that he was not involved in, nor had any intentions of entering into, a sexual relationship with a certain other retainer.
After Shingen’s death, the Takeda clan was defeated under his son. Takeda’s fortified residence at Tsutsujigasaki was left to ruin and the center of Kōfu shifted to Kōfu Castle. During the Meiji Restoration, the Tsutsujigasaki ruins were declared a National Historic Monument of Japan and came under government protection. A new shrine was needed as part of the Meiji Government’s promotion of Shinto projects, the need to honour loyalists who served in the Boshin War that restored power to the emperor, and the soldiers of the Russo-Japanese War.
I originally took this photo because I wanted to remember this man who was working to clear the ditch as if immune to the mid-afternoon heat.
The lady in the craft shop just across the street closed shop just to march over and berate him. I kept eating my ice cream, and just when I finished, I heard, ‘Kiyotsukete-yo!‘ Please be careful!
Kōfu Castle has also gone through a tumultuous four centuries. After the Takeda Clan was defeated, the victorious Tokugawa clan that ruled Edo Japan took the castle. The 5th Shogun eventually moved to Edo (modern Tokyo), and the castle was kept by other retainers. In the Meiji Period, as the Shinto shrines were going up, the castle buildings were being torn down. The grounds were turned into testing facilities and part of it was levelled to make way for Kōfu Station. Since then, the remaining grounds have been opened as the Maizuru Castle Park and the towers inside were reconstructed using traditional building methods.
On one side of the train tracks a redeveloped tourist block called the Koshuyumekouji (甲州夢小路) has a quaint corner for shopping and relaxed eating.
Despite all the informative Japanese signs about what I could eat, I never figured out the name of the famous black-syrup soft ice cream place that I went into, but a quick google search returns 和カフェ 黒蜜庵 きなこ亭 (Cafe Kuromitsuan Kinakotei). The creaminess was perfect for the noontime heat, and the smokey aroma of the syrup didn’t make it too sweet.
One shop, Kurumu, caught my eye because it specialised in washi, Japanese paper. In the end, I couldn’t resist buying one or two.
Japan (and Taiwan) still use traditional seals as official signatures. Open a bank account or sign a document, and note the small yellow circle waiting for your red stamp. These carvings are backwards (to stamp upright). Recognise any characters?
On the south side of Kofu Station was a shopping street that was advertised in the local tourism office, so I went by to check it out. The area is really just a block or two, but has a charming mixed bag of old commercial developments and some newer trendy restaurants.
Nai! the shop-owner shouted briskly to my order for the summer vegetable special soba.
By 2pm, I felt like I really needed a lunch, but Kofu still being a semi-sleepy town, the more traditional restaurants were already closed for lunch. I found the noodle shop in a central alley with waving flags advertising its soba. I couldn’t tell if he just didn’t feel like serving, or they’d run out, or he didn’t want to serve a foreigner. It’s a shame I couldn’t couldn’t sit here for longer. That was the only menu item I wanted, so I wandered back out a bit amused at his memorably abrupt answer.
Well then, coffee it is!
I found Akito Coffee minutes after leaving the train station, following one of the Japanese stylised maps, and going in the wrong direction. I’ll do a proper coffee review, so below is a visual impression of the place.
The cappuccino was something like ¥350, and same with the variety of breads on offer. Price-wise, incredible to my foggy Tokyo brain. But the satsuma imo-bread is a must-try. The sweet potato sweetness shines through, the texture is dense and rich, and the top has smoked sesame seeds.
One thing I love about Japanese independent cafes is that they don’t shy away from showing that they like to learn from other respected brands. On that shelf included London’s Square Mile, Tokyo’s Glitch, Blue Bottle, and many more.
Their upstairs seating area is cozy and has a few window spots, tables to sit with friends, and the bar stools I took a photo of. I’ll put more photos in an ucoming review post.
In the meantime, visit their Facebook page. 🙂
Review upcoming, but this was darn good. I didn’t expect the cherry flavours to be so strong after ice dilution. The hand brew was excellently done!
With Akito and Terasaki, I noticed a similar aesthetic that had a blend of homemade and attention to detail. Both places preferred hardwood stools and plank tables. Perhaps even moreso at Terasaki, the Scandinavian influence was acknowledged in the book collection they had on a ledge.
I recommend giving yourself at least an hour to enjoy the ambiance and people watch from the windows.
No regrets about double caffination without lunch. Delighted to have stumbled upon these two incredible cafes.
With that, I took the quick 10-minute walk back to the train station, bought an eki-ben train lunch, and used my Seishun 18 ticket to get back on. I’d marked off all the stops with scenic spots on the train line and had my camera ready as we left the plains under the azure sky and headed straight for those ashen storm clouds hovering in the distance.
In the end, it took me 3.5 hours from door to door. I’ll definitely be back. A note to trekking fans – lots of great trails in the South Alps!
Thanks for reading!
If you liked this post, check out my photo essay of rural Japan in the village of Yahiko.