A gem, hidden in the mountains
At the end of non-electrified the railroad “Wakasa line” (若桜鉄道 / わかさてつどう), that is still regularly serviced by an old steam locomotive, you’ll find the town center of Wakasa (若桜 / わかさ), a village that, with quite a number of hamlets, streches out into the nearby valleys. It is surrounded by densely wooded mountains with peaks between 1,200 and 1,500 metres and is located about 30 km southeast of the prefecture’s capital, Tottori (鳥取市 / 鳥取市).
The little town never really gained historic significance, but in the old days its abundance of wood brought some splendor to it. From the Kamakura era (1185-1333) it is known, that Wakasa’s wood was brought down to the sea shore via the mountain rivers and shipped to Kamakura from there. During the Edo period (1603-1868) the cultivation of rice was intensified to meet the growing population’s demand. The plentifulness of the mountains’ waters offered the perfect foundation for it. But they also were the cause for terrible floodings (especially in 1815 and 1888).
Today Wakasa is mainly known for its steam locomotive, but also for its particularly delicious radish.
The tracks of the “Wakasa line” are just 19.2 km long. But since 1 Dec. 1930 they connect the town with the station of Kōge (郡家駅 / こうげえき) in Yazu (八頭町 / やずちょう) and from there it’s just a short ride to the prefectural capital. Until 1974 also freight was transported on this line, but in our days, it is just used for passenger trains. I’m writing so much about this railway, because Wakasa is particularly proud of its old steam engine type JNR class C12, of which between 1932 and 1947 as many as 282 were built. The specimen you can see here was built in the year Shōwa 13 (i.e. 1938) and is fully functional. Compared with that, the diesel locomotive from the 70s of last century, which you can also see here (type JNR class DD16), looks almost modern. People here are also very proud of their old railway turntable from 1930 that is still in operation today.
Location of Wakasa station:
However, even if you think that visiting Japan just for the sake of historic railways is not worth the trip (the more contemporary trains of Japan may in fact be much more impressive), you haven’t come to the wrong place at Wakasa. This little town is among the most charming ones, and – praise the lord – not one of those terribly obstructed ones.
There are two streets in walking distance from the station I would like to draw your attention to:
The Kura Dōri (蔵通り / くらどおり).
This rather romantic street is nestled between a long row of old warehouses (蔵 / くら) and the temple district of Shimomachi (下町 / しもまち) and its particularly quaint Buddhist temples Shōei-ji (正栄寺 / しょうえいじ) and Saihō-ji (西方寺 / さいほうじ), that look much older than the other buildings of Wakasa.
This part of town is the “result” of a devasting fire that happened in 1885 and destroyed major parts of it. Considering the consequence of the previous style of buildings and housing the construction of fire-proof “kura” was forced (not unlike what happened in Kawagoe around the same time). Also for the larger buildings of temples it became a regulation to leave more distance between the buildings and to the next street.
And something that might also find your interest: The whole Kura Dōri has been equipped with water nozzles in its pavement. These nozzles spray hot spring water onto the pavement, to keep it free from snow and ice in winter.
Parallel to the Kura Dōri runs
the Kariya Dōri (カリヤ通り / かりやどおり).
This is the main street of Wakasa so to speak. It gains its charm from its well preserved old town houses, quite a number of long established businesses and – among other things – a sake brewery. The cosiness of this street also is a result of the strict building code that was enforced after the big fire from 1885. One of the most breathtaking features are the streams of water flowing on either side of the street. In front of some house these water channels have been widened to form basins, some houses even used the streams to supply fresh water to basins in their entrances. And that is where the families keep gorgeous carps (they are, perhaps, so gorgeous, because they are generously stuffed with kitchen waste…).
Three of the buildings at the Kariya Dōri are worth a closer look:
First, let’s take a look at the tiny “Shōwa Toy Museum” (昭和おもちゃ館 / しょうわおもちゃかん):
It may not be a museum of international reputation, but if you are looking for toys, household tools and electric appliances of the Shōwa era (1926-1989) or if rummage around for old fashioned sweets is your thing, this is the place you might want to consider.
Open daily (except Tuesday) from 10 am to 5 pm.
Admisstion fee: adults: 200 Yen / children up to 12 years of age: 100 Yen.
Location of the Shōwa Toy Museums:
Are you interested in Japanese sake? Then pay a visit to the “Ōta Sake Brewery” (太田酒造場 / おおたしゅぞうじょう). This sake brewery that was founded in 1909 takes advantage of the high quality spring waters of Wakasa and still abides by the principle of “quality, not quantity” – annual production is limited to 10,000 standard bottles (1.8 liters = 一升瓶 / いっしょうびん).
The brand name of the brewery is known beyond the borders of the prefecture: “Benten Musume” (辨天娘 / べんてんむすめ).
And yet, in 1992 it looked like the final nail was put in the brewery’s coffin, when it became impossible to recruit enough sake brewers to continue production – due to the dramatic decrease in rural population. Only in 2002 production could be resumed, starting with a meagre 1,080 litres of sake.
Since 2010 the brewery is so proud of the fact that it uses local ingredients only, that it puts the name of every contributing rice farmer on its bottles.
Usually, I don’t engage in clumsy promotion of products on this website, but the brewer’s family was of such a hospitable nature, that I feel compelled to make an exception from the rule.
Location of the Ōta Sake-Brauerei:
Doesn’t sightseeing make you hungy? Well, then it’s time for a little something. Why not trying the “Dining Café Arata” (ダイニングカフェー新 / あらた) – assuming you love pork, because that’s the specialty of the place. The restaurant is splendidly accomodated by a particularly gorgeous but traditional town house.
Location of the restaurant “Arata”:
Diving into times even longer passed is an old Buddhist temple that also belongs to the community of Wakasa: The Fudōin Iwayadō (不動院岩屋堂 / ふどういんいわやどう), that dates back to the year 806 when it was founded as part of a larger temple compound (there are also sources mentioning that it was built in the Muromach period (1333-1392)). It is also reported that this temple was the only part that survived during severe destruction in 1581 (Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s invasion of Inaba). In the 50s of last century extensive restoration work was undertaken, and finally the temple was registered as an important cultural asset of the country. Furthermore, it is amoung the 100 most popular buildings of the prefecture. And there is a good an obvious reason for it: Its location! It was fitted into a cave 13 metres above the ground. Isn’t that extraordinary?!
But also have a look at the details: The Fudōin Iwayadō is also home to a small wooden statue that was carved centuries ago. Legend has it that it was Kōbō-Daishi (the founder of Shingon Buddhism) himself who carved it (hence, it must be more than 1,200 years old). It is said, that this little statue was miraculously spared when the temple was devastated, because it represent the God of Fire. Twice a year (on March 28 and July 28) holy fires (goma / 護摩 / ごま) are being held here, when the statue is displayed in public.
Right next to the Fudōin Iwayadō you’ll pass the also rather romanticly placed Iwaya Jinja (岩屋神社 / いわやじんじゃ) in front of a steep and rocky wall and surrounded by old trees. Just have a look at that mossy approach to the main building of the shrine.
Location of the Fudōin Iwayadō:
Don’t you agree: When in Tottori, there are quite a number of reasons for some side trips – especially, when it comes to this easy-to-reach village in the mountains. I’m sure you’ll fall for its charm and the hospitality of its inhabitants.
And if this has triggered some interest in Tottori in you, why don’t you have a look here:
– The town of white walls and red roofs
– Stucco plasterers of the world – watch out!
Tottori Sand Museum (砂の美術館)
-Travel Around the World in Sand
Tottori: Sand Dunes (鳥取砂丘)
– The Sahara, in the middle of Japan?
Tottori Folk Crafts Museum (鳥取民芸美術館)
– Have a look and be amazed – thanks to Shōya Yoshida