Kumagawa Rail Road, which runs in the Hitoyoshi-Kuma region in southern Kumamoto Prefecture, boasts a tourist excursion train full of great ideas.
The popular sightseeing train, called Denen (pastoral) Symphony, was designed by famous industrial designer Eiji Mitooka, known for his work on the luxury sleeper train Seven Stars and express trains operated by Kyushu Railway Co. The train's interior features wood from local timber and paintings of musical notes, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 "Pastoral" plays for passengers. It usually consists of two or three cars and runs mainly on weekends and national holidays.
Kumagawa Rail Road connects Hitoyoshi-Onsen Station in the city of Hitoyoshi with Yunomae Station in the town of Yunomae. The 25-kilometer railway has 14 stations, including one named Okadome-Kofuku - the only station in Japan with the word "kofuku," or happiness, in its name.
Opened in 1989, Kumagawa Rail Road replaced what used to be the Yunomae Line, which began service in 1924 and was run by the now-defunct Japan National Railways.
When the decision was made to suspend the Yunomae Line in 1987, local communities called for railway services to be maintained. Eventually, municipalities along the line invested in a "third-sector" firm - an entity jointly funded by the public and private sectors - to operate the railway.
Kumagawa Rail Road has served as a means of transportation for students commuting to five prefectural high schools along the line, as well as elderly residents travelling to hospitals and shopping centres. However, the number of passengers has declined year after year due to the shrinking populations of local communities and other factors.
In fiscal 2015, the annual number of Kumagawa Rail Road passengers dropped to about 690,000, half of what it was when the railway opened.
The Denen Symphony sightseeing train debuted in 2014 in a desperate attempt to reverse the trend. The operator worked hard to find a way to attract passengers from all over Japan, and came up with the idea of asking Mitooka to design a tourist excursion train - an offer he generously accepted.
The company serves sweets and alcohol aboard the train on special occasions. The annual number of passengers on the Denen Symphony train has exceeded 10,000 for the past two years.
Kumagawa Rail Road has also received a boost from the popular manga "One Piece." The Denen Symphony train is now complemented by a car decorated with characters from the best-selling series, thanks to co-operation from the manga's creator, Eiichiro Oda, a native of Kumamoto Prefecture. The train is attracting many tourists.
After a series of massive earthquakes hit the prefecture and surrounding areas in April, Oda offered to do something to help his home prefecture. The Yunomae municipal government, which has been using manga to help revitalise the local community, jumped at the artist's offer.
The One Piece Fukko (reconstruction) Train, as it is called, displays action figures from the manga and features announcements by the voice actor for protagonist Monkey D. Luffy. The manga-themed train is slated to run until Feb. 26.
Finally, the beautiful scenery of the Hitoyoshi-Kuma region outside the train's windows - particularly the Kumagawa river, known for the clarity of its water - is another major attraction for the railway. There are many must-see spots along the line, including Shorenji Amidado, a temple designated by the government as an important cultural property, and Hyakutaro-Mizo Aqueduct, which is believed to have been constructed more than 300 years ago.
"If the railroad becomes defunct, there will be fewer interchanges [between residents and visitors], and the local communities will lose vitality," said Kumagawa Rail Road President Yuji Nagae. "By launching various projects, we aim to promote our attractions inside and outside the prefecture."
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