National

All aboard: Exploring Japan’s abandoned train lines

by Alex Martin

Staff Writer

Admiring the decaying beauty of abandoned railroads is just one of myriad hobbies Japan’s railway enthusiasts indulge in.

But fueled by a broadening appreciation for the subculture and growth in train travelers, these rusty remnants of industrialization are gathering new steam as tourist attractions while serving as a reminder of how rural depopulation is slowly killing off one of the oldest forms of public transportation in the nation’s countryside.

The May issue of the bimonthly Tabi to Tetsudo (Travel and Railways) featured deserted railroads on its cover, a first since it was rebooted in 2011 under a new publisher.

“We wanted to show that these rail lines can still carry a purpose after going defunct,” said editor-in-chief Tomomichi Magara.

The cover story introduced readers to numerous sites scattered across the nation, including the Taushubetsu Bridge in Hokkaido. Erected in 1937 as part of an extension of a local train line, it fell into disuse in 1955 and is known as the “phantom bridge” because it gets submerged every summer when the water level in the lake it stands in rises due to melting snow and rainfall.

“There’s been interest in abandoned railroads for some time, but I think they really caught on as a tourism destination recently,” said Junichi Sugiyama, a railway journalist and author of train-related books who describes himself as a nori-tetsu (people with a passion for train travel).

From audiophiles obsessed with the sounds of engines, station jingles and announcements (oto-tetsu) to collectors of boxed lunches sold in stations (ekiben-tetsu), the nation’s trainspotters can be classified into a variety of categories.

Sugiyama said the fascination with trains was once considered a niche hobby embraced among fervent railway otaku (geeks). But their tastes and aesthetics became more widely accepted in the mid-2000s thanks to increased media coverage and prominent television celebrities sharing their love of railroads.

The culture may have found fertile ground here, in a country that’s world-renowned for its punctual train-centered transport system. “You can hop on a train for as little as ¥140. It’s a very approachable pastime,” Sugiyama said.

Among the throngs of train experts, fans of train-related ruins (haisen-tetsu) are known for paying homage to railways that went derelict due to historical, economic and geographical factors.

The recent trend, however, appears to target a wider audience by focusing on entertainment rather than nostalgia.

In April 2017, 15 groups from 12 prefectures gathered in Gifu Prefecture to create the “Lost Line Association” to promote the recreational use of defunct railways to revitalize their aging rural communities.

A nonprofit based in Kamioka, a former mining town that’s now part of Hida, Gifu Prefecture, that played a central role in forming the organization, had a proven track record.

After the Kamioka Railway discontinued services in 2006, the group began offering rail-bike tours, fastening mountain bikes together to ride along part of the tracks. Prices for tours start at ¥3,000 and the attraction has been a hit, drawing around 40,000 customers a year.

Yukako Taguchi of the Kamioka Machizukuri Network, which operates the service, said most of the clientele are not rail buffs but regular tourists looking for fun activities while traveling through the region known for its rich history and hot springs.

While other municipalities and railway preservation associations visit Kamioka in search of clues to emulate its success, Taguchi said many elements come into play in determining the fates of similar ventures.

“We’re flattered that we’re considered a role model, but each location has its own set of hurdles to overcome, including financial feasibility, safety, local support and accessibility,” she said.

The Takachiho Railway in Miyazaki Prefecture also received a new lease on life after it closed in 2005 following extensive typhoon damage. Amaterasu Railway, the company that took over management of the rail line, decided to provide visitors sightseeing rides using carts that run on the deserted tracks. The activity now draws around 100 customers on a regular day, with that figure climbing sixfold during vacation season.

Izumi Iihoshi, a spokeswoman for the company, said the attraction receives a surprising number of overseas travelers.

“We see a lot of foreigners, mostly from China and Hong Kong. It seems our service is advertised on travel websites and magazines for foreign tourists, as well as via Facebook posts,” she said.

Nationally, the number of train users has been growing as large cities attract more residents despite an overall fall in the population. The most recent transport ministry data shows the total number of train travelers stood at 24.36 billion in 2015, compared to 23.12 billion in 2012.

The surge in overseas visitors is also helping push up the figures. In its latest earnings reports, subway operator Tokyo Metro Co. and East Japan Railway Co. both noted the growth of foreign train users, a trend that’s expected to continue.

Japan attracted a record 28.69 million overseas tourists in 2017, and the government wants that figure to hit 40 million by 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

But packed trains are mainly limited to urban centers.

Like Kamioka and Takachiho, many railways connecting graying rural communities have been terminated as increased car ownership and migration to cities leads to dwindling passengers.

According to the transport ministry, 71 out of 96 regional railway operators — which excludes shinkansen and other routes run by the previously state-owned Japan Railways Group — logged current account deficits as of April last year.

Nationally, 39 train lines covering 771 kilometers shut down between 2000 and 2017. While new rail routes have been built, the total number of stations in Japan has dipped to 9,474 in 2016 from 9,514 in 2001.

Symbolic of the struggles facing rural train lines may be the March 31 closure of the Sanko Line, West Japan Railways Co.’s 88-year-old route linking Shimane and Hiroshima prefectures.

The closure of the 108-km line marked the first time a route measuring over 100 km closed in Honshu since the split and privatization of the Japanese National Railways in 1987.

The Sanko Line’s termination appeared to have struck a chord among locals and fans of the scenic railroad, perhaps best known for Uzui Station, which sits on a bridge some 20 meters high and has been called the “station in the sky.” Over 3,000 people gathered to ride on the railway on its final day of operation.

Ippei Morita, a self-confessed nori-tetsu, said he decided to return to his hometown in Shimane after learning of the Sanko Line’s demise. Now he works with a group trying to turn a portion of the tracks into a railway park.

“Depopulation killed the Sanko Line, and that reflects how the region is losing its energy,” he said.

“We need to use whatever resources we have to breathe some life back into the area.”