If there’s one thing that gets carriage-loads of people enthused, it’s trains — especially in Japan, where everyone loves trains. So, combining a wide range of Showa Era kyusha with a summer matsuri (festival) and organizing it at the most famous train line in Chiba Prefecture — that’s a guaranteed recipe for success.
To get an early Sunday jump on the crowds, we drove down late Saturday night, stopping at a konbeni to enjoy the onset of cool mountain air. Kanto has had a long, hot, and wet summer, so it was refreshing to be in the countryside smelling fresh-cut rice fields rather than roasting under an oppressive sun.
The next morning, with a short drive to the matsuri planned, we decided to take the scenic route and stop for some photographs along the way. Local temples and bamboo forests made for a nice diversion from the previous busy work week in Tokyo.
In one roadside parking area a Honda Insight gave off a neglected appearance with grass sprouting underneath it. However, with greenery growing like crazy in Japan all summer, this is possibly just a week or two of growth.
Isumi City’s “Everyone be Happy” Matsuri starts at Kuniyoshi Station on the Isumi line, runs the length of its main shotengai (shopping street), and finishes 200 meters further north in a supermarket car park.
Scattered along the way are the usual matsuri attractions: kids bobbing for toys, beer, yakitori and yaki-ika, beer, onigiri, a pachinko-style games hall, roasted corn, omiyage, takoyaki, nihonshu, freshly barbecued oysters, beer, soba, beer, and a few beer stalls.
The local medical center was designated the parc ferme, and we watched with interest as a number of interesting and obscure kyusha arrived: a yak-style Crown Super Saloon, a well-worn but burbling S35 Daihatsu Hi-Jet, and what appeared to be an unrestored Isuzu Gemini sedan.
A rare KE17 Corolla Coupe was nicely presented, slightly lowered on period alloys. Who knew at the time that this humble machine would spawn 11 generations and go on to become the best selling nameplate in the world? Happy 50th anniversary, Toyota Corolla.
Soon, a slammed Isuzu Bellett 1600GT gingerly scraped in and parked next to a very nicely restored Toyota Publica 800 convertible.
A Crown utility truck, Nissan Gloria Super Deluxe, and a crystal blue Crown sedan made up a great collection of notable Showa-era machines. After registering, and being given our bag of welcoming goodies — an event map, stickers, drinking glasses, a bag of high-end local rice, and some nori osembei — we were given strict instructions (this is Japan after all, where everything has rules), and allocated to one of the two main parking areas and a specific location to park to join the matsuri.
While the supermarket car park was the larger of the two nominated kyusha venue, I was pleased to see they had allocated the lightweight Honda S800 to the parking area adjacent to the train station. I love trains, and especially the one-man diesel cars of the Isumi- and Kominato-sen that run through the Eastern reaches of the Boso Hanto in Chiba-ken.
Not only have the rolling stock been kept in largely original form and color, but the countryside they traverse has both the romance and the beauty expected of a small train line in rural Japan. The area is often described as one of the inspirations for Miyazaki’s movies, and you can easily imagine the forests of the area full of hidden chibi-Totoro.
Here, there is no express. Only the the slow local train runs, and mostly on a single track with passing trains having to wait at parallel-tracked stations. There is a proper name for this, but not being a 100 percent train otaku, I cannot remember what it is.
Both the Isumi- and Kominato-sen run through quiet valleys, single track bridges, quaint tunnels, open rice fields, and most stations are simply elevated platforms. The Isumi-sen is lightly branded with a Moomin theme in some places, and the Kominato-sen with a few Totoro murals as well.
For the matsuri at Kuniyoshi Station, the local taxi company had appropriately parked a period 310 Bluebird taxi in front of their main office. Peering inside it was also apparent the only thing that had changed in the drivers’ breakroom since the Bluebird was new was perhaps the calendar.
The Aladdin toyu-heater in the center of the room was a fitting period accessory, but a considered necessity in rural Japan even in these modern times. Notably, replacing it would require three new machines: a new heater or some sort, a stove to heat water for tea, and a humidifier.
Here, instead, placing a large kettle on the top of the heater fills the room with steam to combat the dry winter air, and ensures a ready supply of continuous hot water is available for making tea. With the price of toyu half that of gasoline, a heater like this keeps the room toasty warm all day on one tank.
Outside, under an increasingly dark sky, a set of three-wheeled trucks — a Mitsubishi Leo, Daihatsu Midget, and Mazda K360 — took pride of place next to the train line.
A B10 Nissan Sunny on a set of ubiquitous Hayashi Street alloys, a nearly extinct Kurogane Baby micro-truck, a steelie-shod Mitsubishi Debonair Executive made up an eclectic array.
Along with Mazda B360 and Cony 360 truck (forget those cheesy Nurburgring stickers, we want an Expo ’70 sticker!), they made up half of the collection on display in the station parking area.
There were even a set of Showa-era fire tenders restored and on display. Meanwhile, the local fire department arrived in their fully equipped modern Hino to give sirened rides to the children.
The local shotengai though was where all the food and drink action was. The trains, including the special full restaurant car, continued to deliver more day-trippers, and one visitor drove his ratty Hakosuka Skyline to do some supermarket shopping, seemingly oblivious to the matsuri going on around him.
With the onset of some heavy rain we took refuge in a cafe for some fat toast, jam, and coffee, but before passing a forlorn Suzuki Cappuccino. I managed to saturate my lens as I grabbed a photograph in the rain.
Of all the cars, trucks, police cars, fire engines, trains, and motorcycles present, the pick of the day for me was likely the well restored Toyota Levin. Sitting nicely on a new set of Toyota rally-inspired, period-style TOM’S Igeta wheels, it was not only a perfect representation of Showa-era Japan, but also a prime example of my preferred taste, old mixed with just the right amount of new.
While this year’s matsuri had been subjected to a little rain, the warm weather and location still managed to gather hordes of people. One of the attractions of the area is simply that it can be reached by train, and throughout the day carriages arrived, full of people eager to enjoy the matsuri and Showa Era nostalgia.
Next year’s matsuri will be held in Golden Week, and while many similar events across Japan are difficult for foreign tourists to access, the close proximity to the train line at Kuniyoshi makes this a great day trip from Tokyo.
With a late afternoon commitment and the rain clearing, we hit the road. Running the S800 out to redline continuously, first through the tunnels and twisty bits of Chiba, then the straight line run on the Tokyo Bay Aqualine and Umihotaru. Soon enough we were back in the megalopolis that is Tokyo.