1888: A “Matchbox-Like” Steam Train Starts Service in Japan

October 28, 1888

In Japan, the first line of the Iyotetsu (Iyo Railway) Company went into service in the Ehime Prefecture on the main island of Shikoku. The Takahama Line, covering 5.8 miles (9.4 kilometers) between the Ehime Prefecture’s capital city of Matsuyama and the port town of Mitsuhama, made its debut a little over a year after Iyotetsu was founded. (Iyotetsu was the first railway to operate in Shikoku and only the third private railway to exist anywhere in Japan.) For more than four decades, the trains serving the Takahama Line were steam-powered. The entire line was electrified, however, starting in 1931.

Just a few years after the trains began running on the Takahama Line, a description of those rides was included in the 1894 edition of A Handbook for Travellers in Japan (coauthored by Basil Hall Chamberlain and W. B. Mason). The handbook states, “This is a pretty little journey across the mountain-girt plain, in whose centre rises the wooded hill crowned by Matsuyama castle [dating back to 1603], which comes in view before reaching the intermediate station of Komachi [in Matsuyama].”

The Takahama Line achieved more enduring literary fame because of Natsume Sōseki (1867-1916), who remains one of Japan’s most admired and influential writers. During the mid-1890s and at a time before his writing career took firmer shape, Sōseki lived on Shikoku and taught at the Matsuyama Middle School (the present-day Ehime Prefectural Matsuyama Higashi High School). Sōseki used the Takahama Line as a means of transportation during that period in his life, and these trains became a part of his widely acclaimed 1906 novel Botchan.

The book, which is based in large part on Sōseki’s experiences as a teacher in Matsuyama, features as its youthful main character and first-person narrator someone named Botchan (meaning “young master”). Botchan teaches at a middle school in Matsuyama and rides on what is characterized in the novel as the “matchbox-like steam trains” of the Takahama Line. These trains – much like the book in which they appear – continue to be popular with the Japanese public. A diesel-powered replica of those steam trains was introduced in Matsuyama in 2001, and this Botchan Ressha (Botchan Train) has since become one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions.

For more information on Iyotetsu’s Takahama Line, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Takahama_Line.

A video of the Botchan Ressha (Botchan Train) in action is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I6vx47yyp-U.

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