Why I travel by rail: The sights, sounds, and tastes (Part 2)
Of the reasons I mentioned previously, the stations have been of interest to me in recent years—not only are there hot springs and foot baths situated within or next to the station building, there are also a few with restaurants in them. So well-known are these restaurants that on my previous trip to Hokkaido last December, I planned a portion of my journey specifically around Kitahama Station (北浜駅) just to eat at Teishaba (停車場), the restaurant within—quite the challenge considering that there is a period of more than five hours where trains do not run along the Senmō Main Line which Kitahama Station sits on! Having an excellent seafood omelette curry while looking out at the fantastic view of the Sea of Okhotsk (オホーツク海), though, made it well worth the effort.
It is precisely because of its location along the coastline, as well as through the Kushiro Wetlands (釧路湿原 Kushiro-shitsugen), that makes the Senmō Main Line such an enjoyable ride—why, though, was it built this way, cutting through marshlands and running so close to the Okhotsk Sea? In the second half of my article, I will explore three other reasons why rail travel is such an enticing means of transport.
5. The past
A shot at Ishikari-Tsukigata Station on the now defunct section of the JR Sasshō Line (between Hokkaidō-iryōdaigaku-mae and Shin-Totsukawa Stations). (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
To me, trains are not just modes of transport to get from Point A to Point B—they are also harbingers of civilisation. Looking up the history of many of the local lines reveals that they were built in order to facilitate the movement of resources like lumber and coal through valleys or down mountains—it is through their development that local settlements around them begin growing, most of them to the point where such railways began carrying passengers in addition to cargo, thereby contributing to the development of the extensive rail network around Japan. One thing I like to do when taking trains is to ponder about why the line is located where it currently is—what was it used to carry? What kind of lives did the people living around here lead?
Trains are also memoirs of past prosperity. Although there were many lines that were built to transport resources, a good deal of them were forced to shut when the mines they were originally built to serve were closed, either because they ran out of resources or cheaper imports made it no longer feasible to continue extracting locally. This is also reflected in the timetable of many of the local trains, where their schedules essentially serve schoolchildren going to and coming back from school, and with hardly any services apart from the mornings and evenings.
Again, this is something I frequently find myself pondering over while in the train, especially when I pass by stations whose buildings are obviously too grandiose for the population they currently serve—in its heyday, what was this line like? How do the locals feel about seeing what used to be one of their major modes of movement wither and shrink, in some cases disappearing completely?
Trains in Japan have a long history—there are also many museums around the country dedicated to preserving these stories, including those in local communities showcasing artifacts of lines that used to run through them, so those who share the same sentiments may wish to seek out one or two on your next trip to Japan!
6. The present
Schoolchildren waiting to board a train at JR Mashū station on a school day morning. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
While the past of rail travel is something that one can only speculate about, perhaps the best way to find out more about what that line is currently like now would be to actually take it and see its current state for oneself.
One might be surprised to find out that it is not only in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya that trains are jam-packed during school-going and rush hours – I used to have that perception, but taking local lines like the JR Tōhoku Main Line (東北本線, Tohoku-honsen) and Aoimori Railway’s Aoimori Railway Line (青い森鉄道青い森鉄道線) in Aomori exposed me to the fact that trains along these lines can be just as crowded early in the morning! Admittedly part of it is due to the fact that most of the trains that run along these lines are rather short, coming in at two carriages unlike the 15-carriage trains on the JR Tōkaidō Main Line (東海道本線, Tōkaidō-honsen), but it was still an interesting experience to have to jostle for a seat with my luggage on these trains.
In addition, because the local trains largely serve their own community, the likelihood you will hear people speaking in their local dialect is much higher than in the city areas—the local language can be very different from standard Japanese as it is spoken, and some of them cannot be understood unless you are a native speaker of that dialect! During my ride with Tsugaru Railway, the attendant in-charge of the stove carriage spoke rapid-fire Japanese heavily accented in her locak Tsugaru dialect, peppered with vocabulary in said dialect, and it took all the Japanese I had (plus a little knowledge from watching “Amachan” (あまちゃん), the NHK morning drama (朝ドラ asa-dora) which featured Sanriku Railway) to decipher what she was saying. Similarly, when aboard the Akita Nairiku Line (秋田内陸線) operated by the Akita Nairiku Jūkan Railway (秋田内陸縦貫鉄道), the attendant was chatting with the passengers, mostly elderly folk, in the local Akita dialect, and it was interesting listening to it and trying to figure out what each word (or as much as I could catch of it) meant.
Be it schoolchildren filling up the single-car train in the wee hours of the morning, or having the locals converse at machine-gun speeds in their dialect in the afternoon, taking local trains allows one to experience the local community up-close, something shinkansen and air travel cannot replicate.
7. The future
A shot of Numanosawa Station through the train window on the now-defunct Yūbari Branch Line of the JR Sekishō Line. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
Most of the points in both parts of this article so far have been about how fun travelling by rail is—the sobering reality, though, is that ridership rates have been decreasing yearly for the non-metropolitan areas of Japan. Nowhere else does one need to look at to figure out how dire the situation is than Hokkaido—due to decreasing populations everywhere but the Sapporo area, JR Hokkaido estimated in a report released in 2016 that if things continue at the current rate, their rail network might be halved in fifteen years’ time, even with the upcoming expansion of the Hokkaido Shinkansen (北海道新幹線) to Sapporo Station (札幌駅). Since then, it has taken steps to try and reduce losses, including reducing the frequency of train services, closing stations with few users (next spring, it is slated to close more than ten) and shutting lines that have had exceptionally low ridership, like the section between Rumoi (留萌駅) and Mashike (増毛駅) Stations of the JR Rumoi Main Line (留萌本線, Rumoi-honsen) in December 2016, the Yūbari Branch Line (夕張支線, Yūbari-shisen) of the JR Sekishō Line (石勝線) in April 2019, and the section between Hokkaidō-iryōdaigaku-mae (北海道医療大学前駅) and Shin-Totsukawa (新十津川駅) Stations of the JR Sasshō Line (札沼線) just this year in May.
This issue is not limited to only JR Hokkaido—some of the other rail companies have deemed that certain lines damaged in natural disasters are not worth restoring, again due to declining ridership rates and an overall decrease in revenue that makes the huge repair cost unprofitable. The JR Kesennuma Line (気仙沼線) between Kesennuma and Yanaizu (柳津駅) Stations, after suffering massive damage in the 2011 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and tsunami, was converted to a Bus Rapid Transit network by JR East, and JR Kyushu is planning to do the same with a portion of the JR Hita-Hikosan Line (日田彦山線) damaged by torrential rainfall in July 2017. The Takachiho Line (高千穂線) in Miyazaki (宮崎県), owned by Takachiho Railway (高千穂鉄道) and famous for its 105 meter-high bridge, the highest amongst all railways in Japan, was similarly abolished in 2008, three years after Typhoon Nabi washed away two bridges and halted operations along the entire line.
A glimmer of hope? A rainbow en route to JR Onnenai Station on the JR Sōya Main Line, one of the stations originally slated to be closed in spring 2021—the local community, though, managed to persuade Bifuka Town, where the station is located, to reverse that decision. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
As tourists, what can we do? The answer is to take the trains as much as possible—ensuring that there is money going towards the upkeep of the rail network, as well as adding to the ridership rate, will convince the rail companies, be they JR, private, or third-sector, that the rail network in its current state is worth preserving. Driving around in Japan may be the most convenient way to explore as many places as possible within the limited time one has while on holiday; given the plethora of passes the JR companies are offering, though, travelling by train is most certainly an attractive option, so the next time you are planning a holiday to Japan, do consider planning your itinerary around train rides!
A local train waiting to depart at Miyako Station on the Sanriku Railway Rias Line. This is one of the three trains donated by Kuwait after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in 2011 that devastated the portion between Miyako and Kamaishi Stations on the then-JR Yamada Line. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
To me, travelling is as much a part of the holiday as the actual time spent at the destination—a holiday is not only about what one does at a particular place, but also about how one gets and leaves there, and travelling fits right into that. Travelling by train allows one to experience the sights and sounds of the local communities more intimately and immediately. The next time you visit Japan, try hopping onto one and see what discoveries you make along the way! I guarantee your whole journey will be enriching and rewarding every step—rather, station—along the way.
Header image credit: Kevin Koh