Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Unexplored Country

Last Sunday, while I was in Tomakomai Station waiting for my train to Sapporo to arrive, I checked out the train line map above the ticket vendor's window.

I'm amazed by the Japanese train system. There are train lines all over the country, and you can see some beautiful country from the window of a train.

Riding a train was a pretty foreign concept to me before I came to Japan. My extent of train riding is when I rode on Amtrak once with my family to go down to Pocatello to visit my grandma for Christmas. We had to drive two hours to the station, wait for the late train, and then, partway through the trip, we had to wait inside the train while they cleared the tracks of all the snow on them.

Compare this to a train system that is calculated out to the second. As a general rule, late trains are unheard of (unless there is a suicide/accident/really bad weather). You can set your clock to the Japanese train schedule. Plus, being able to take a train around and see the country makes it easier for me to feel comfortable about looking around. Usually, I'm driving.

I look at train line maps to see what line goes where and what places the trains will stop at. This time, I noticed a station called Hariusu. It had a footnote next to it that said "kisetsu-eki". Literally translated, this means "seasonal station", but you have to be careful about literal translations sometimes. So, on Monday, I got on the Internet and did a little research.

It would seem that my literal translation was the correct one. Seasonal stations are stations where trains will only stop for a certain part of the year. The rest of the year, they fly right by. So I looked into Hariusu Station a little more and found that no trains stop there anymore, and it is considered to be a "rare" station by a certain group of people.

These people are known as "train freaks". They are knowledgeable to the point of annoyance about trains schedules, train lines, and train stations. You see these guys setting up tripods and taking pictures of trains as they pass by some spot on the line. They take tons of pictures of stations, tracks, and trains. They can tell the make and model of a train just by looking at it. I'd go on, but I've just realized that I fit a few of these descriptions and that worries me.

Hariusu Station is a popular place with these guys. When I tried to find out a little more about it, I found a reference to "hikyoh eki", which means something like "stations in unexplored regions" or "mysterious stations". Apparently, these are train stations in places where there is no viable reason for having a station. No houses around. Hardly any people using them. And I found a homepage that ranked the top 200 hikyoh stations in Japan. Fascinating stuff. Fascinating because somebody went all over the country taking pictures of these stations that are especially hard to reach. Fascinating because a whole heck of a lot of them are right here in Hokkaido. Fascinating because the number one ranked hikyoh station is very close to Muroran.

Koboro Station.

By train from Muroran, it takes about an hour to get there. But you have to time your trip very carefully, because only eight trains stop there a day (five trains heading west, three heading east). There's no way to get up to the road, and unless you pack a boat with you on your way there, there's no way to get back home if you miss the last train. Definitely not a place I would want to spend the night at.

But from looking at photos and reading up about it, Koboro Station sounded like the perfect place to go to get away from everything. You're surrounded by nature, and while there are a couple of buildings connected with the station, there's nobody around. There's a little path down to a rock beach, where you can sit and listen to the ocean and see some amazing cliffs around you. And there's nobody around. This was what I needed. I needed to get away from life here. I needed to not think about some of the difficulties I'm having with work. I needed to be alone.

So I checked the time table, packed a few things and headed out. I decided to go part of the way with Wasabi-kun, to see if he was okay or if the engine problem was really serious. The original plan was to drive out to Rebun, the station just before Koboro, park Wasabi-kun there, hop on the train, hop off at Koboro, walk down to the beach and relax for four hours. The I would catch the train back to Rebun and drive on home.

That was the plan.

One thing I forgot: it's REALLY cold in Hokkaido. It looked nice outside that morning, but there were some clouds off in the distance that had me worried. Plus, that area around Koboro is set down in a valley, and from the pictures I saw, it didn't look like too much sun actually got down in there. If the wind were to kick up, I could end up spending an unpleasant four hours outside.

Change of plans. I drove west to Oshamanbe, going over Rebunge Pass and looking down into the valley where Koboro Station is. I just drove around, doing a little exploring, taking some pictures, and relaxing. After I researched the train schedule a little more, I decided to catch a 2:30 train from Toya Station, ride for half an hour out to Koboro, get out, take some photos, check out the area, and catch a 3:30 train back to Toya.

Only a half hour...

I made the most of it. As soon as I hopped off the train, I made my way down the (fairly steep) path to the sea. Seeing the ocean open up in front of me made me grin like a little kid. I got down there, snapped some pictures, listened to the waves for a while, then boogied back up to the station, snapped a couple more photos, and then it was time to get on the train. I was pretty rushed, but it was the most relaxing 30 minutes I have spent in quite a while.

A little research on Koboro Station revealed that it first opened up in 1987, which is strange considering that the majority of the stations on the Muroran Line opened either in the late 1890's or in the 1920's. I could understand if the station had been built around the same time as the other stations. Maybe some people actually lived down there then. But 1987? Why?

Here's my guess. The train system in Japan was originally controlled and run by the government, under the name Japanese National Railways. As with many other government-run projects in this country, JNR became a bottomless pit for taxpayers' money. More and more money got dumped into useless projects and passenger-less lines. Finally, on April 1st, 1987, JNR was broken up into regional private companies known as Japan Railways Hokkaido, Japan Railways East Japan, Japan Railways Kyushu, etc. April 1st is the first day of the Japanese fiscal year. This means that March 31st is the last day. Koboro Station opened up on March 31st, 1987, the last day that JNR existed. Hmmm...

I'm guessing that some politician passed tax funds on down the line and someone decided to use them to build an unnecessary station. Bureaucracy moves slowly here, but once the gears start turning, they grind on until the inevitable completion of the task. Budget and environmental impact be damned.

So the incessant grinding of bureaucratic gears led to the completion of Koboro Station. It still is a really cool place to visit. I think I'll go back again when it warms up. Since this is Hokkaido, I think that will be in July.

After I got back to Toya Station, I got a phone call from one of the teachers at Pure Water Hill High. A few of the foreigners in town were getting together for a Thanksgiving Party, and would I like to come?

My mom and dad are reading this and thinking, "Does a bear..."

I was SO there.

Eight of us were there that night, eating, laughing, drinking, and having a really good time.

We had salad, mashed potatoes, yams, some shells and cheese pasta, and sushi.

Nothing says Thanksgiving like some freshly rolled sushi, let me tell you.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot. We had cranberry sauce.

As we say at the Kidd Family household, I was a happy camper.

I do miss Mom's Thanksgiving dinner, though.

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