I proposed this trip out of interest in the Lightline, a light rail project described as the first new tram line in Japan in 78 years. Moreover, this year, 2023, is the 150th anniversary of the first railway in Japan.
The prominent role of high speed rail in Japan is well known, the Shinkansen or what foreign media calls bullet trains. United States Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel is something of a train buff and has commented about both high speed and conventional rail service in Japan in favorable posts on social media.
By comparison, light rail and trams have received little attention compared to their counterparts in North America and Europe. Light rail has been neglected in Japan and relatively few tram systems have survived.
My wife also came up with a third reason for visiting Utsunomiya: the Oya Quarry to the west of the city. As a social historian, I'm always interested in visiting industrial sites and workplaces. In addition, the Oya Quarry also has the attraction that it produced the stone for several iconic buildings in Japan.
Oya stone (大谷石) is igneous rock created from lava and ash. Although found only in a 24 sq km area around the town of Oya, it contains an estimated 600 million tons of reserves.
It is light, as stone goes, as the standard block for construction weighs 150 kg. Easily carved, it has an attractive texture, and various natural colors are available.
Frank Lloyd Wright brought Oya stone to international attention when he used it for the Imperial Hotel (1922) in Tokyo. There are reports that he bought a mountain in the Oya area just to have an adequate supply of the stone.
His choice was controversial because some thought the Oya stone would crumble in a severe quake. However, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 proved the naysayers wrong as the Hotel survived nearly unscathed.
The foyer and reception area of the Imperial Hotel was moved to Meiji Mura in Gifu Prefecture and reconstructed there. This remnant shows both Wright's genius and his appreciation of Oya stone.
The particular mine that has been turned into a museum began operations in 1919. It was originally worked with hand labor only, hollowing out a series of caverns ranging from 30 to 60 meters in height.
Inside the Oya mine, several of the chambers have colored displays that help give a sense of their colossal size. (©JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)
The Mine Today
During the last months of the Pacific War, the mine housed military aircraft production. Today it is used as a wedding hall, wine cellar, and concert venue.
Wheelchair access is limited. The caverns are reached by a long series of stairs. Movement between them also involves stairs.
Since seeing the Oya Quarry, I have come to realize how widely used this stone was, especially in kura (secure store houses) for the wealthy.
Souvenir items made from Oya Stone are available at the museum and from online vendors. We bought a coaster for our younger son. Its remarkable lightness is a reminder of one of the attributes that makes Oya Stone popular.
Bicycle rental is readily available in Utsunomiya. The city is noted for being cycle-friendly and hoardings outside the JR station were advertising an upcoming cycling event.
Noting the distance to the quarry and not being familiar with the route, we opted for a discount ticket (¥2000 JPY, ～13＄USD) sold at the tourist information center. That covered round trip bus fare to the quarry plus admission to it and the neighboring Oyaji (Oya Temple) that preserves several notable Buddhist sculptures.
The ticket allows for repeated use of the bus in a single day and showing it gets a discount at several shops.
Oyaji 大谷寺 garden. (©JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)
When we walked through the Oya Temple, on seeing the Senju Kannon carved into the cliff side, I immediately thought of the Bamiyan statues destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.
The resemblance is not accidental. The Senju Kannon is believed to have been carved by monks from what is now Afghanistan.
The temple preserves other Buddhist iconography carved into the cliff. It is a pattern that is unusual in Japan where ancient and modern stand alone statuary made from wood, stone, or in modern times, concrete is the norm.
Unfortunately, photography is prohibited. There are neither guards nor surveillance cameras to enforce this but I honored the prohibition.
The attractive temple garden, however, has no such restrictions and I took advantage of this.
Near the Oya Temple is the park housing the 27 meters tall Peace Kanon (平和観音). While the statue is not particularly notable, it is a good backdrop for selfies, as is the cliff that borders one side of the park.
Returning to central Utsunomiya after visiting the quarry, we were hungry and more than ready to sample the gyoza for which the city is famous.
We had received a map of gyoza restaurants at the tourist information center. It shows 70 restaurants that specialize in gyoza. We chose to follow the recommendation of the center staff and eat at a food court with restaurants specializing in gyoza.
Cafeteria ambiance. (©JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)
It is located in the basement of La Park Utsunomiya, a "mega store" in the Don Quijote discount department store chain.
Aside from having a confusing and, as it turned out, unnecessary net-based reservation system using LINE, the food court provided a tasty lunch at a good price.
Three different types of gyoza from three different restaurants plus rice, pickles, and soup totalled a little over 2000 yen for two hungry people.
Futaarayama Jinja (Shrine)
Our appetite had been increased by climbing the stairs to this shrine said to have been founded 1600 years ago.
Utsunomiya was a castle town with two parks on former castle sites, one with some reconstructions. Nonetheless, the city seemed to lack the concentration of shrines and temples that characterize other provincial cities of this type.
Matsugamine Catholic Church (松が峰教会)
We both found this church more interesting than the shrine. It was designed by the Swiss architect Max Hinder (1887-1963) . He is the same architect who was also responsible for several buildings on the Jochi University (Saint Sophia) campus in Tokyo.
His design makes use of Oya stone not just for the exterior but in a variety of the internal furnishings.
The exterior as well as the alter of Matsugamine Catholic Church are made of Oya stone. (©JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)
It was well worth seeing. There are no admission charges and no restrictions on photography.
The LRT Lightline
The Utsunomiya-Haga Light Rail, or Lightline, is variously styled a tram, streetcar, or light rail in news reports. Trams and streetcars have a decidedly retro image, something like the Arakawa Line in Tokyo.
While the Lightline does have a segment where it runs in the middle of a main street, most of its route is off-street on a dedicated right of way. The train sets are modern and high tech, similar to those used in North America and Europe.
Japan has seen substantial construction of heavy rail both conventional and high speed, monorails, and train-like transportation systems using rubber tired carriages. But there has been no other light rail since the advent of the Toyama system in 2006.
The Lightline started operation on August 26, following numerous test runs including one which ended in derailment, design changes, and speed limits.
The 14.6 km line cost ¥68.4 billion JPY ($460 million USD) representing a cost overrun of 50%.
The Lightline extends east from Utsunomiya station through a part of the city that has one of the largest shopping malls in Japan and a campus of Utsunomiya University. After crossing the Kinugawa (Kinu River) it passes through an area of industrial parks, public schools, and stadia, eventually terminating at the Haga Takanezawa Industrial Park.
A Light Rail Line Exceeding Expectations
A one way trip end to end takes about 50 minutes because of speed restrictions that may be lifted in the future.
The only scenic portion is a segment either side of where the Lightline crosses the Kinugawa. The tracks are elevated and there is a good view of the river and farms along it. There is a stop within this segment for a park on the site of a long gone castle.
Ridership has exceeded predictions and there are plans to extend the line westward to the Utsunomiya terminus of the Tobu Line.
In 1993 when Utsunomiya first started considering new transit systems, the goal was dealing with traffic congestion. However, in subsequent years, the Lightline project was coupled to other goals. Those include reduction of greenhouse gasses from fossil fuel consumption as well as "compact cities" that are better equipped to provide services for a smaller and more elderly population.
Both the station and the interior of the cars are barrier free design. (©JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)
This latter goal is evident throughout the Lightline system. The carriages are barrier free for entrance and exit as well as for movement between carriages. Moreover, the stations provide roll on roll off access for wheelchair users.
Bus-rail connectivity is one aspect of this.
Utsunomiya is served by direct commuter trains from Tokyo Station (JR Ueno-Tokyo Line) and from Shinjuku (JR Shonan Shinjuku Line). Travel time is roughly 110 minutes in either case with the same fare of 1980 yen.
It is also possible to use the Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo or Omiya. This reduces travel time to 48-56 minutes depending on the particular train but raises the cost to 4490 yen.
Going from Tokyo in the morning and returning from Utsunomiya in the evening also means the commuter trains are relatively uncrowded. Using these trains rather than the Shinkansen yields a saving of ￥5020 JPY ($33.50 USD) for the round trip.
With only a single day in Utsunomiya, I cannot address the quality of life from personal experience. Everything I have heard and read about the city has, however, been positive. It promotes itself as welcoming new residents, both domestic and foreign.
The official website also has guides and pamphlets in Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, and Thai. In addition, also has simplified Japanese language materials with furigana (readings for kanji written above them in hiragana) aimed at foreign residents learning the language ab initio.
My wife and I both came away with the same impression – that Utsunomiya would be an attractive place to live for anyone with a job that did not require daily commuting to Tokyo (possible but expensive) or a business address in that city.
- Taking On New High Speed Challenges As Japan Celebrates 150 Years of Railways
- [Hidden Wonders of Japan] Meiji Mura: The Story of Japan's Modern Past Captured in Architecture
Author: Earl H Kinmonth
Photographs by EH Kinmonth. You can also find other stories about Tokyo and nearby areas by Dr Kinmonth at this link.