Billowing black smoke the “SL Mooka-go” steam locomotive runs every weekend and on holidays. Your chest throbs as the steam whistle echoes through the rice fields in the countryside of Japan.
When you get off at the Mashiko station on the line, you can find chinaware you can use daily that is so good that they can make every day fun. Jump on a locomotive to find some dishes that are perfect for you.
A dynamic train ride with smoke billowing
The “SL Mooka” steam locomotive runs between the Shimodate station in Ibaraki and Motegi station in Tochigi on the local “Mooka” line on weekends and holidays. It winds through expansive rice fields in the Kanto area. This is in fact is the only steam powered locomotive in the Kanto region that is run regularly.
Every weekend train lovers clamor to get that rare picture of a steam locomotive still running. The normal train that runs on the Mooka line is diesel powered so there are no electric wires and such in the way making it perfect for the locomotive. The image above is of the locomotive bursting out of the morning mist in the winter. The line passes through rice fields so in the winter it doesn’t have to be early morning for the mist to thicken.
It’s a dilemma whether to ride the train or take pictures of it. It does one round trip a day so you get a chance to do both. You don’t have to ride it all the way down. You can only a small section if you want.
To ride the train you have to buy both a normal ticket and a special ticket for the steam locomotive (adults 500 JPY / kids 250 JPY). The train runs year round so its rare to sell out but during golden week or summer break seasons its suggested to buy beforehand. You can buy them at any JR East Midori no Madoguchi (Green window). You can also buy tickets from the train conductor on the actual train.
The biggest steam locomotive event!
Once at the end of the line at Motegi station in Tochigi Prefecture, there is a dedicated turn table that turns the locomotive around for the return trip. Normal trains nowadays have a operators room on both ends of the train, but locomotives only can go one way so it’s needed to turn it around.
It’s the big attraction of steam locomotive operations, as the train sits on a big turntable and is spun around so if you ride it to the end make sure not to miss it. Such a giant locomotive being spun around is impressive to say the least. If your kids like trains they definitely will have a ball watching this.
Disembarking at Mashiko the town of chinaware
How would you like to find some unique chinaware perfect for you by stopping at Mashiko, where many ceramic artists reside?
Chinaware from Mashiko is called Mashiko-yaki and its history goes back to the Edo Period. The area produces good clay and is close to Tokyo so it developed into a major producer of chinaware that people use daily. Currently there are 380 or so artists and around 50 different china shops.
For first time visitors, we recommend exploring the Jonaizaka area. There are old style houses renovated as shops and galleries, as well as workshops all around this area. Most people think as I did that Mashiko-yaki chinaware is thick and really tough, but when looking through these shops there are many that are delicate and elegant. Going through each shop you are bound to find the perfect set for your tastes. My personal favorites are these:
Toko(Tel: 0285-72-2081) * this is the shop pictured above. This shop uses a rice granary built in early Showa Period, they offer traditional Kasamayaki styles mixed with modern styled chinaware. The price is a bit high but you can find beautifully handcrafted pottery.
Moegi Jonaizaka shop (Tel: 0285-72-6003) This shop overhauls its stock every two weeks. They focus on younger and female artists. The biggest appeal is the china here is very seasonal. They aren’t cheap but not unreasonable.
Yamani Ootsuka (Tel: 0285-72-7711) They retain at least 100 artists’ works here at all times. “Chinaware is meant to be used”, is why these works are very affordable. They also have vases and adorable toothpick containers, and you can easily start filling your cupboards with such a selection.
Don't miss Satoyama which is just a small distance away
There are many small workshops and shops that have lots of personality which are a bit hidden away in Mashiko which has many small forests and hills. There are many shops that really show the artists nature, so finding chinaware that fits your aesthetic sense is not difficult.
Starnet, which is located on the outskirts of the central area is one I recommend visiting. Not only do they sell chinaware but clothes even organic foods, which motivate you to live life carefully.
Starnet Mashiko Town Mashiko 3278-1 Tel; 0285-72-9661 11am to 6pm Closed on Thursdays
As the year closes, jumping on a 2.5 hour steam locomotive ride that really adds to the travel atmosphere to find chinaware in the New Year should definitely be on your to do list.
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