Kaiyodo Hobby Train: Japan’s most curious rail journey
Amanda Huggins wins our weekly travel writing competition, and £250, for her tale of a trip on one of the world’s most eccentric trains.
Sharks and rays swim alongside turtles in an impossibly blue ocean beneath my feet, dinosaurs roam the Jurassic skies above, and scenes from alien worlds are captured in miniature within glass cabinets and Perspex bubbles. But this isn’t a zoo or museum, it’s the eccentric and enchanting Kaiyodo Hobby Train.
The carriages are decorated with sea life and prehistoric creatures, covering the floor, ceiling, seats and curtains. This tiny two-car train is transporting us along the Yodo Line between Kubokawa and Uwajima, through the mountain valleys of Shikoku.
The train is a travelling advertisement for the Kaiyodo Hobby Museum in Shimanto, home to more than 10,000 toy figures. It’s delightful, and entirely unexpected – something the Japanese would describe as Ureshii odoroki, or happy surprise.
We’ve taken doughnuts on board for a late breakfast, but our taste buds turn somersaults when we discover that inside each “doughnut” is a hard-boiled egg encased in vegetable curry. We have accidentally picked up kare pan, or curry bread. Not such a happy surprise!
The journey is two hours to Uwajima on the west coast. We follow the route of the winding Shimanto river, tilting around tight bends that tip the train into mountain tunnels, and occasionally we’re overtaken by graceful cranes. At the frequent tiny stations the train collects and deposits glossy-fringed schoolchildren glued to their smartphones and pensioners carrying bags of shopping.
Halfway through our journey a woman joins the train selling tea and snacks. We exchange names, and buy chilled green tea. Mitsuko points out scenery, chattering in Japanese, giggling at a narrow bridge without railings that spans the river below. We grin enthusiastically, although it appears tame compared with the vine bridges we have seen in the Iya Valley.
We nod and smile at miniature paddy fields glinting like emeralds, trees weighed heavy with Mikan oranges, and rice straw drying on splay-legged racks, creating the illusion of huge, shaggy cattle.
When our self-appointed guide is called back to her tea trolley I turn my attention to the guidebook and discover that our next overnight stop has a bonus attraction at the Taga Shinto fertility shrine: a large wooden phallus. Apparently the 6ft-long carving is carried aloft around Uwajima town on festival days, and I decide it’s worth a voyeuristic peek.
As I plan an itinerary, Mitsuko returns to offer us a gift of sweet bean paste balls. I examine them, but they are too small to conceal curry or boiled eggs. I take a bite as she nods. “Ureshii odoroki!” Delicious surprise! Mitsuko sums up our journey on the Yodo Line in just two words.
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