Axed railroads signal nostalgia

by Eriko Arita

The Miyanoharu Line that connected Oita and Kumamoto prefectures in Kyushu was a scenic wonder when it opened along its entire route in 1954, winding for 27 km through mountains and valleys and across no fewer than seven bridges in the town of Oguni in Kumamoto alone.

But back when construction of the railroad started in 1935, Japan was gearing up to wage war in China and those beautiful, arched bridges are believed to have been made of concrete reinforced with bamboo instead of steel bars, according to Keisuke Imao, a freelance writer who specializes in railways and maps.

“If that really is the case,” Imao explained, “it would have been because the country lacked iron at the time as the United States had placed an embargo on exports to Japan.”

Later, during World War II, the government destroyed many iron bridges across Japan to use the metal for military purposes, Imao said, but the Miyanoharu Line bridges were spared because they contained none of the precious metal.

Nonetheless, in 1984 the train service operated along that line by Japanese National Railways was axed because it was an unprofitable business. Local residents in the town of Oguni, however, campaigned vigorously for the bridges to be preserved, Imao said. As a result, in 2004 the bridges were designated by the Cultural Agency as national cultural assets, while the town authorities have also preserved part of the railbed as a walking trail.

“I spent a day and walked the whole line, stopping at hot springs located nearby along the way,” Imao said. “It was a fun walking route.”

Like Imao, many railway fans enjoy visiting abandoned railroads and walking where the tracks used to be, and many write books about them or post their experiences on Web sites, complete with pictures.

A common thread that runs through such publications is the simple, heartfelt question: Why were so many rail lines closed down?

Well, between 1872, when the first locomotive in Japan ran between Shinbashi, Tokyo, and Yokohama — courtesy of British know-how — the national rail network continued expanding until the 1920s, afterward playing a key role in transporting troops, cargo and munitions during wartime.

However, as the nation’s postwar economic recovery picked up speed in the 1960s, private car ownership increased and more goods began to be transported by trucks on a growing network of roads and expressways. These trends conspired to drain the railways of both passengers and freight, with the result that many railway lines operated by private companies in local areas went bankrupt.

Then, in the early 1980s, the government axed many Japanese National Railways lines that were operating in the red. This was followed by the privatization of JNR into several companies in 1987, which only accelerated closures of local lines, according to the railway writer Imao.

In fact between 1978 and 1998, some 80 lines were abolished, Imao wrote in his book titled “Chizu de aruku haisenato” (“Walking the Tracks of Abolished Railways by Using Maps”). Finally, the overall toll on the nation’s 25,000 km of railways amounted to some 2,000 km, he said. As a result, he notes, many areas must now rely on infrequent bus services, while others have no public transportation at all.

The closure of railways also caused the collapse of many local towns, Imao said, explaining that shops outside stations lost customers and many closed. In their stead, huge shopping complexes sprang up in the middle of rice paddies.

Meanwhile, as railway lines have closed, nostalgia for their passing has grown and there are now many people whose hobby it is to visit what remains of those railroads and walk along the railbeds amid their reviving vegetation and wildlife.

But there is a sadness, too, at the social costs that often attended those closures.

“In the background of the enthusiasm for abandoned railways are the serious social problems those closures often caused,” Imao said.

For instance, railways in remote towns were more than mere forms of transportation, according to Kyoichi Yamada, a teacher at Buso Senior High School in Yokohama, who heads the railway club there. Since 1980, Yamada and his club members have published a number of books on railways, including on ones that no longer operate.

One of the books was about a line called the Notetsu — an abbreviation of Nokami Denki Tetsudo (Nokami Electric Railway) — which opened in 1916 in the Wakayama Prefecture town of Nokami (part of present-day Kimino).

In 1994, though, the private railway hit the buffers and ceased to exist. Nonetheless, the Buso railway club’s book commemorating the Notetsu has sold 2,000 copies to date, Yamada said. In addition, within a short time after the book’s publication, the railway club had received close to 1,000 letters from Wakayama residents who had read the book.

One of the letters said, “I saw off the final train of the Notetsu, saying ‘thank you and good-bye.’ I could not believe the Notetsu was gone forever.”

As a result, the railway club published another book compiling the letters, titled “Konnani Notetsuwo Aishiteita” (“We loved the Notetsu so much”).

“The railway was home for the people,” Yamada said, adding that, considering such bonds between passengers and trains, he believes it is important to keep a record of those that have gone.

The teacher said he also finds it an intellectual joy to walk along the abolished railroads. “Even though the tracks have been removed, I can see it in my mind,” he said.

His is an imagination shared by coutless other lovers of long-gone railways across the country.