Book lovers and trainspotters alike climb aboard the little engine that can't turn around.
Botchan, the little train that can’t turn around, is a tiny locomotive found in the small island of Shikoku that locals and tourists alike adore. It runs through the center of Matsuyama, the capital of Ehime Prefecture famous for Dogo Onsen, and exits as a reference to the city’s much-celebrated literary past.
Botchan is, in fact, an operational replica of the old steam engines that used to serve the city. The little green train is named after the title character in the Japanese classic novel Botchan by Soseki Natsume, widely considered to be the Meiji period’s greatest novelist. Inspired by the writer’s own time in Matsuyama, the 1906 book has references all over the city.
While not an original steam engine from the time, Botchan is a diesel-powered replica with its own charms. Botchan’s speed may seem laughable to passengers whizzing by on the newer trams now connecting the city but the little train that can’t turn is an endearing city attraction for adults and children alike.
Botchan’s route and main event
The train, with a stylish dark wood interior, goes from Matsuyama City station around Matsuyama Castle moat, past the central shopping avenue Okaido to Dogo Onsen station. And then it stops. Everyone gets off. The driver and train crew enthusiastically announce for passengers to follow them to the end of the line for the “grand” finale of the ride: the Botchan train-turning maneuver.
Hey, it’s the little things in life, right? Botchan is not on a circular route, so when it reaches either end of the route, the train crew must uncouple the passenger carriage, hoist Botchan up and spin it around by hand. The crew, in their historic uniforms, do this all smiles, even in the rain. And then the little sightseeing train is off again, back the way it came.
The single passenger carriage, described by Soseki in his novel as a “matchbox” has the capacity for just 36 passengers. The original trains were operating from 1888 and served the city for nearly 70 years. The sightseeing trains resumed service in 2001. There is also a Botchan Train Museum for those who want more of the train’s history next to Matsuyama City station.
Other references to the writer Natsume Soseki can be found all over the city, including at the Dogo Onsen, where the room he is believed to have stayed in has been dedicated to him.
For more on trains and other transport in Japan, check out our Japan 101 guide.