Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Steam Train Photographers, Cherry Blossoms, and Hot Springs

One of the most photographic locations for viewing Japanese cherry blossoms, quaint and magical steam trains, and picturesque onsens is Sakihanaonsen, (咲花温泉), a relatively-unknown village in Niigata Prefecture that has hot springs offering stunning views of rivers and cherry blossoms. Hanami (花見), or cherry-blossom viewing, is a quintessential Japanese experience. Photographing trains amidst cherry vistas is a goal of many Japanese train enthusiasts. 
Hanami from Japanese Ryokan Hot Spring
Every April and May, hot spring connoisseurs, flower lovers, train buffs, and photographers travel by car, boat, or steam locomotive to this tiny town along the Agano River. The main draw is the cherry-tree branches that form fragrant tunnels over the railroad tracks. The soft pink and tender-white blossoms stand out from the clear blue sky, and the sight of the antique coal-black steam train billowing steam while rushing under the flower tunnels, along with the sounds of its piercing whistles and massive chugging wheels, bring up feelings of adrenaline and memories of the “good ole days.”

Cherry Blossoms and Japanese Steam Train
On special occasions, Japanese train enthusiasts, who usually travel alone or in pairs, form large packs of mostly male members, known as densha otaku, (電車おたく), a term whose pejorative meaning is "train nerds,"  at prime vistas. They claim and mark their territory hours in advance of each train’s passing by chaining tripods to street signs, tying step ladders to tree trunks, or sitting and waiting all day in folding chairs. The quaint, famous steam train they wait for passes Sakihanaonsen twice a day only on weekends. Check out this professionally edited video of this locomotive, known as the Ban'etsu Monogatari.
Train Enthusiasts Under Cherry Blossoms Waiting for Steam Locomotive

More train photographers suddenly appear when the train’s arrival and departure approaches. Elbow to elbow, they politely jostle for space, closely scrutinizing and commenting upon their photography equipment. 
Densha Otaku/Train Enthusiasts/Train Nerds Waiting Hours for the Perfect Shot
When the train’s whistles scream over the mountain or through long tunnels before the train is visible, everyone quickly grabs their gear. Long lenses become longer, some as long as a meter, and some thicker than the average man’s thigh. The palpable enthusiasm is shared by all the members of this exclusive club. Excitement, though, turns into dismay. Yellow-capped school children suddenly run in front. They want to see the train, too. The photographers moan in mutual dissatisfaction. “Ack, that red jacket,” screams one. Another complains, “I’ve been waiting all day for a shot like this and those kids are interrupting.” Luckily, just before the steam trains enters their field of vision, the kids’ teacher, like a shepherd with lambs, moves them away from the photographers’ wrath and into safety. 
Quaint Japanese Steam Train Approaching Sakihana Onsen Village
With billowing pillars of grey and white steam, loud high-pitched toots, and a massive formidable presence, a train enters the softness of the cherry-tree tunnel. Wind from the train wheels churns up small clouds of fallen petals on the ground. More petals fall delicately upon the track in the wake of the train. Each camera clicks repeatedly, many at speeds of more than 1/1000 per second. The sounds of continually clicking cameras sounded like automatic weapons being fired by hunters at a mass animal migration. 

The uninjured train stops just briefly at the station, which is too small to even have an attendant or turnstile. Some photographers, conversing in specialized jargon about photography, jump on the train with their gear and head home. Others stay to wait for the next train coming much later, or they head to one of the several nearby hot springs for a just reward. 
The two Japanese baths that I enjoyed that day were both in wonderful Japanese ryokans that I am happy to recommend.  Satorikan (佐取館) is where my wife and I feasted on a healthy Japanese meal and then enjoyed the hot springs on the hotel top. From the baths, we could see the ambling river, the romantic train tracks, temporal cherry blossoms, and forested hills. Satorikan, like many Japanese ryokans, offers special deal that include gourmet food and several hours of access to all the facilities. In the evening, we ambled over to Bousenkaku, another ryokan, whose friendly owner we had met while walking, and were surprised to discover that this Japanese hotel has baths with three different colors and temperatures. The hot water has the same source and mineral elements, but as the water cools to different temperatures and mixes with oxygen, the color changes. Onsen bath waters come in an amazing variety of colors: red, grey, azure, yellow, and many more. For more information on the colors of hot spring waters, follow this link

Click here for a Japanese language explanation of the unique baths at Bousenkaku. By the way, this hotel is also pet friendly, but only the selfish humans are allowed in the baths. I plan to write more about the Japanese ryokans above, so please come back again.