Esashi-sen (Kikonai – Esashi) Part I 江差線
NOTE: The Kikonai to Hakodate line (actually Hakodate Goryôkaku) used to be part of the full Esashi-sen, Goryôkaku - Kikonai - Esashi (79, 9 km long). From Kikonai there was also the branch to Matsumae (Matsumae-sen), closed on February 1, 1988. When the Hokkaidô Shinkansen was opened to Shin Hakodate Hokuto (March 26, 2016) it was no longer possible to take the Esashi-sen into Kikonai station. Therefore the Esashi-sen from Esashi to Kikonai closed on May 12, 2014. The rest of the line from Kikonai to Goryôkaku (and on JR to Hakodate) was taken over by the third-sector Dônan Isaribi Tetsudou (or "South Hokkaido Railway") on March 26, 2016. This section is electrified for through trains from the main island of Honshû via the Seikan Tunnel, though the Dônan Isaribi Tetsudô itself has only diesel cars.
In this page presenting the Esashi-sen only the now closed line from Kikonai to Esashi is covered.
0290 Esashi terminal, with a two-car train KIHA 40 835 + KIHA 40 1811. (2013)
map Esashi-sen A04
Oshima Tsuruoka 渡島鶴岡 Yoshibori吉堀
Shinmei 神明 Yunotai 湯ノ岱 Miyakoshi 宮越
Katsuraoka 桂岡 Nakasuda 中須田 Kaminokuni 上ノ国
The Esashi-sen (mountain pass section from Kikonai to Esashi) 江差線
Trains used to run from Hakodate to Esashi, first along the coastline of the Tsugaru Straits via Moheji to Kikonai, where they turned inland to cross the mountain range over to the Japan Sea (Nihonkai). A steep climb led up to the Inaho summit Tunnel, after which the equally steep descent began along the Amanogawa River to Shinmei, Yunotai and the valley floor. At Kaminokuni the line reached the sea, which it followed northwards to Esashi. After numerous closures in the 1980s this part of the Esashi-sen from Kikonai to Esashi was one of the few remaining lines on Hokkaidô to reach the Japan Sea.
When the Seikan Undersea Tunnel line from Japan's main island of Honshû was opened in 1988, trains emerged on Hokkaidô at Shiriuchi, where maintenance vehicles for the tunnel are kept (Shiriuchi was a station from 1990 to 2014). 11, 8 km from Shiriuchi trains from Honshû arrive at Kikonai. As long as the Undersea Tunnel was worked by 1067 mm gauge trains (passenger trains 1988 from Morioka - Hachinohe - Aomori, then 2002 from Hachinohe - Aomori and 2010 from Aomori, freight container trains from Osaka and Tokyo), the now electrified section of the Esashi-sen from Kikonai to Hakodate became part of one of Japan's important main lines.
Then on March 26, 2016, the Seikan Undersea Tunnel three-rail working began, freight trains continuing to use the 1067 mm gauge, while passenger services were turned over to the 1435 mm gauge Shinkansen, which provided direct services from Tokyo. Except for the Undersea Tunnel itself, Shinkansen trains operate over their own new track, so that the existing main 1067 mm gauge line from Kikonai to Hakodate now sees almost only freight trains. A sparse passenger service is worked by former JR diesel cars belonging now to the third-sector Dônan Isaribi Railway (also named South Hokkaido Railway).
The 42, 1 km long diesel-operated Esashi-sen mountain pass section from Kikonai over to the Japan Sea with its steep inclines was built in 1935/36. Freight services - often transporting wood and sea products - ceased in 1982. Passenger figures declined rapidly, with 253 passengers pro 1 km in 1987 against 41 passengers in 2011. When the large new Kikonai station was being built for the Shinkansen the Esashi-sen mountain pass line was cut off and closed to all traffic on May 12, 2014.
When I mentioned to someone from Esashi that this was a pity, the surprised reaction was that the direct and comfortable bus service from Hakodate was far superior to the railway.
Mention may be made of the replica of the Kaiyô Maru frigate seen from near the railway station at Esashi. The Kaiyô Maru was one of Japan's first warships, powered by both steam and sail and built in the Netherlands in 1863. It came to Japan in 1866 (via Brazil, South Africa, Indian Ocean and Ambon Island in the Banda Sea), carrying amongst others a group of Japanese youngsters who had been trained in the Dutch navy. During the war between the old feudal and the new Japanese government in 1868 the Kayô Maru was involved fighting the latter. It was last employed in the bombardment of Esashi, where it was wrecked in a storm. As from 1974 tens of thousands of items from the Kayô Maru were recovered by divers and are exhibited in the replica ship since 1990.