“The train? Well, we never use it, we have a car“, says the 84-year-old ramen shop owner as she gently nudges three shrimps into a precise line on top of a bowl of salty ramen noodles. There is a poster of the Hanasaki railway line right next to her in the tiny shop at Cape Ochiishi in Eastern Hokkaido. It shows the tiny red train passing over the green plain that drops off into the Pacific Ocean.
The Hanasaki line runs just some 200 meters away from the ramen shop through the tiny hamlet of Ochiishi. More Ezo deer than cars seem to make use of the road. As the railway line continues towards Kushiro it runs precariously close to the coast.
Weather and wind set the rules here. Moments ago, sunshine and blue skies gave way to thick fog that turned the windswept place into a blasted heath where Macbeth might have met the three witches.
There is no other passenger waiting at Ochiishi station. The station is unmanned, and the waiting room chairs feature colorful cushions embroidered with the station name. The cosy cushions might well be needed, as the wait can be long. The train only passes every two to four hours – nine times per day.
The Hanasaki (blooming flower) train operated by JR Hokkaido connects the port towns of Kushiro and Nemuro in Eastern Hokkaido. This year, the 134.4 kilometer long line celebrates its 100th birthday.
When the line was inaugurated in 1921, it transported not only passengers but also kelp, salted salmon, peppermint, flax and other agricultural products. Now, the single carriage transports mainly train enthusiasts who want to visit the most eastern station of Japan, retired travelers with plenty of time on their hands, elderly couples on a day trip, high school students in school uniform, and some locals on a short dash to the next town.
Passenger numbers on the Hanasaki line have been declining for some time: From around 2.000 people per day in 1975 to less than 200 now. Dwindling user numbers are a common problem in the countryside on Japan’s Northern Island.
The JR Hokkaido railway company has repeatedly warned it will not be able to support half of the train lines that are currently operating. The Hanasaki line is one of them, as it is "difficult to maintain on its own," as the company puts it politely.
In 2018 JR Hokkaido was about to pull the plug on the train, but the city of Nemuro stepped in and drummed up support for its only rail connection. That year, Nemuro collected almost ￥300 million JPY (about $2.74 million USD) through Japan's tax donation program, Furusato Nōzei (hometown tax) that allows all Japanese taxpayers to support a regional municipality of their choice and help local governments fund regional projects and revitalization.
The initial goal was to collect ￥33 million JPY (a little over $300,000 USD) in the fiscal year of 2018. But the project turned out to be surprisingly popular, with more than 20.000 donors contributing to save one of Japan's most scenic train lines that gives passengers the feeling that they are traveling to the end of the world.
Again last year, the Nemuro Municipal Government raised over ￥50 million JPY ($455,000 USD) through crowdfunding in order to continue the Hanasaki Line. The city will also use the money to fund "first train trips" for kindergarten and nursery school children, hoping that the experience will foster a love for the special train among the youngsters.
"We want to ensure the continuation of the train line in the future by having children who have never been on a train before hold tickets in their hands, go through the ticket gate, and experience a train journey while gazing at the scenery out the windows," explains the Nemuro Municipal Government.
Nemuro faces the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean, and Japan´s easternmost train station sits halfway between the two oceans. Saying it is windy, would be an understatement. Seagulls scream as they fly over the eastern terminus of the Hanasaki line. There are no more stations ahead, so a single side platform is all that is here.
Nemuro station proudly exhibits historic photos of the Hanasaki line, commemorative stamps, brochures, posters and a PR video featuring the train journey.
As the train makes its way westward towards Kushiro, it passes through farms and fields. A red fox trots quietly around horses in a paddock, black and white cows are resting under trees, Ezo deer run past into the woods.
Then, the scenery changes again as the Hanasaki line gets closer to Akkeshi, a small town famed for its oysters. The train runs right through the remote Bekanbeushi Marsh. Fields give way to wetlands with reeds, ferns and sedges, and the air starts to smell of sea and kelp. The marsh is home to red crowned cranes, eagles, and all kinds of waterfowl. Slowly, the train rumbles along the shore of Lake Akkeshi, a brackish water that does not freeze in winter.
Once it passes through the tunnel at Beppo Station, the view from the carriage windows becomes urban again. At the outskirts of Kushiro, at Musa station, a woman stands on the platform. She has no intention of getting on the train, but she might be planning to do so. As the train departs for Kushiro, she is still writing down the train timetable on a white sheet of paper, fallen out of time like the Hanasaki line.
Author: Agnes Tandler
Find Agnes Tandler's observations and discoveries about Hokkaido and other parts of the Japanese archipelago here, on JAPAN Forward.