Dine on board a streetcar named Odensha in Japan
AROUND the time when red lanterns long associated with drinking establishments glow at dusk, Toyohashi Rail Road runs a special streetcar from Toyohashi Station in Aichi Prefecture.
It's a moving oden stall, aboard which passengers can enjoy oden (a hodgepodge of ingredients including fish cakes, eggs and vegetables stewed in broth) with drinks. So, the streetcar is called Odensha, a pun on the word for the winter delicacy and densha (train).
The streetcar runs daily from November through February, except for the New Year's holidays.
About 150 services, including those in daytime, are offered for its ninth season, but the Odensha has now become so popular that on the first day reservations were accepted, almost all seats were booked by not just customers living in the prefecture, but also those outside.
Up to 30 people can board per run, which starts from and returns to Toyohashi Station, travelling on a 5km route each way.
The journey takes about 80 minutes, including a short break along the way.
A special feature of the train is the handmade nature of the operation, with the involvement of railroad employees in the Odensha. When the service was inaugurated, for example, the staff bought all kinds of retort-packaged oden products available at supermarkets to compare before deciding which to offer on board the streetcar.
The Odensha's oden is served in a container that can warm the contents through a chemical reaction when an accompanying string is pulled.
Employees decided to use the container so that customers can enjoy hot food.
In addition, the Odensha has already been registered as a trademark to prevent the name from being used elsewhere.
The streetcar used for the special service was manufactured in 1955.
The railroad company decorated the single car with illustrations of an Odensha character and various oden ingredients on its body while red lanterns and a noren shop curtain are hung inside.
The company's female bus tour guides wait on customers while ready-made long dining tables that can be brought into the car from its entrances are used.
Employees remove these decorations when the Odensha season is over to return the car to its original look.
Toyohashi Rail Road started to offer streetcar services in 1925, which served as a main means of transportation for the city over the decades. However, the annual number of passengers dropped from 9.57 million in fiscal 1963 to 2.6 million in fiscal 2003, mainly due to the increased use of cars.
With an aim to boost demand among people who do not regularly use the streetcar, the operator first offered a "beer streetcar" service in the summer, which proved to be a hit.
The company then started the Odensha in 2007 as a winter treat.
Including this season, 24,000 customers will have enjoyed the Odensha service since it was inaugurated.
It has also helped to increase the number of customers for the beer streetcar, according to the operator.
The Odensha is the brainchild of Masahiro Toda, now a deputy manager of the company's general affairs department.
"We make almost no profit (from the Odensha)," he said. "However, it is now regarded as one of the winter attractions in Toyohashi, having become well known nationwide."
THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK