Monday, October 02, 2006


The Port of Muroran, normally called on only by freighters and tankers, entertained a unique visitor last Tuesday. The Sapphire Princess, one of 17 ships in the Princess Cruise fleet, brought her 2,600 passengers and 1,300 staff into Muroran for a one-day visit. That’s nearly 4,000 people, or about twice the size of the town where I went to high school. The ship is so big that it could not fit under the Swan Bridge at the entrance of Muroran harbor, and had to dock instead at the Sakimori wharf. The city brought out a fleet of 30 buses to shuttle passengers from the industrial area of Sakimori over the Swan Bridge and into downtown.

The Muroran Tourism Office is housed in the old train station, in the heart of old downtown. The once-bustling waiting room is typically quiet when I drift in on an average weekday to once again browse the old black and white photos of Muroran’s busier days, but last Tuesday, it was transformed into an all-out festival of traditional Japanese culture. The people responsible for that transformation were the members of the Muroran Site-seeing Club, a dedicated group of volunteer tour guides who refuse to let this town go down without a fight. On Tuesday, they made a strong case that they are winning that fight.

Most of the passengers from the Sapphire Princess had boarded in either Whittier, Alaska or Vancouver, British Columbia, and had been sailing for nearly a month. They came from the U.S., Britain, Scotland, China, the Phillipines, and likely many others. They had come most recently from Russia, and were going next to Tokyo, then Nagoya, then across the Yellow Sea to Beijing. For those staying on from there, a tour of Southeast Asia would follow, eventually ending up back in Japan.

During my four hours at the Tourism Office and Sakimori wharf, I was often mistaken for a passenger. In fact, every tourist I met asked me where I had gotten on the boat, and a few of the volunteer guides were surprised to learn that, like them, I also live in Muroran. There were several of the volunteer guides who were not surprised by that at all, though. In fact, they already knew where I lived. Since the beginning of September, I have been teaching twice-a-month English classes to a small group of the volunteer guides.

I was handed this job by Ted, who lived in Muroran before me but left this summer, departed with his wife Barb for a short visit back to the States and then a round-the-world tour with the money they saved in Japan. Ted’s recommendation was nearly all I needed to get the job. Three of the ladies (nearly all the volunteer guides are female, including every member of the class I teach) took me out for lunch over the summer, and that “interview” was all it took to convince them of my credentials. (Whatever those may be.)

I entered this job thinking that I would be doing very well if they learned half as much from me as I expected to learn from them. A month into it, I have had to reduce those expectations. If they are learning even one-fourth as much from me as I am learning from them, then I am a far better teacher than I think I am.

When I arrived at the tourism office last Tuesday morning, they immediately swept me into the activities they were leading. In my first hour I had taken part in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, written kanji with brush and ink, and made my first attempt at Ikebana (with lots of help), a traditional form of flower arranging that focuses as much on empty space as the flowers themselves. In return, I had only to talk with the tourists and help the volunteer guides with tricky English questions.

In between, I stepped back, and tried to find a quiet spot in the shadows where I could simply watch. The tourists were generally giddy to “experience” everything they could about traditional Japan, and the women of the volunteer guides were clearly in their element, despite operating in their second language. I was quite proud watching them, and I beamed when I overheard tourists comment on what a warm welcome they had received here.

That evening I had a Japanese lesson, so I could not stay to watch the Sapphire Princess sail out of Muroran, into the twilight sky and onward to more exotic ports of Asia. I’m sure several of the women in my class were wishing they could be on board as they watched it go. I’d overheard them say as much many times that morning. Nor can I blame them, when so many of their husbands work the typically long hours of Japanese white-collar life, and their children are grown and moved to Sapporo, Tokyo, or even farther.

For my part, though, I had no such longings. Oh, I was polite enough when talking with the tourists, feigning my envy over their travels, but I couldn’t have been happier with this old steel city that I have come to call my own in these past nine months. And I think that’s because it’s started to call me its own, too. I have those ladies from my class to thank for that. More than once, in the middle of talking with a couple from Britain, or Scotland, or the U.S., suddenly I’d hear, from halfway across the room, a beaming voice call out confidently, “There, that young man over there, that’s my English teacher!”

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

All That is Wrong in Japan

Yeah, it's been a while. I know. For some time, I’ve been contemplating whether to make a “last post” and officially bring this little piece of blogging to a close. The only reason I didn’t do that is because every now and then, something interesting would happen, and I’d think “maybe I should put that on my blog.” I didn’t, though. I’ve been keeping busy with lots of photography and writing projects, but for the most part, I haven’t felt they translated very well to the web. Besides, I’ve been thinking it might be nice to polish some things up, submit them, and actually try to get some more “dead trees” publication credits and a little extra money. I haven’t done that yet, either, but I’m working on it.

So that brings you up to date on my thoughts of the last three months concerning this blog. That was still where I stood at 10:15 this morning as I walked into school for my third period class, and I likely would have done nothing more about it today, one way or the other, had it not been for what I learned at 10:25. That will follow presently, but first, I feel it necessary to back up and provide some relevant background information. I should add that the main point of this post has absolutely nothing to do with 9/11, but some controversial discussion of that topic is a necessary part of the background. Regardless of your views on that matter, I hope you will still consider this post in its entirety.

With the five-year anniversary of 9/11 last week came a heated debate on the email list serve of Hokkaido English teachers to which Maureen and I subscribe. The debate started when one member posted a link and a request for comments on the documentary Loose Change ( I have not seen the film and the only things I know about it are what I read very quickly on its homepage and what information I could glean from all the rants on the email list serve. The film examines ties between the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. government, apparently going so far as to say that the U.S. government could have been the perpetrator (please correct me if I am wrong in any of this).

That email, from a third-year member of the English teaching community, sorely touched the nerves of a newly arrived first year teacher, who replied with a rather patriotic post, stating that to even make such a suggestion made a mockery of the lives that were lost in the tragedy. That post did not sit very well with the mostly liberally minded members of the email group, and a real firestorm ensued.

I consider myself a liberal, but a pretty moderate one, and so I usually stay out of these melees, and in fact usually stay out of everything on this particular list serve, but something about this discussion spurred me into action. I think what it was, was that I largely agreed with the essence of the majority opinion, the one coming down so harshly on the first-year teacher, but that I largely disagreed with the ways in which that view was being expressed. A particular pet peeve of mine is when the content of a good argument is lost to poor form. That led to the following:

“On Questioning”

When I started teaching this spring, one of my biggest fears was how I'd handle questions from students about the many inconsistencies of the English language. I'm a private, part- time teacher, and have six high school classes each week on my own, with no JTE [Japanese Teacher of English] to back me up. I speak even less Japanese than my students speak English, so there was much reason for concern. I could see the scenarios in my mind. A dozen pairs of eyes fixed unwaveringly on me, alone at the front of the room, and struggling to come up with an answer they might believe.

"So not all verbs change to the past tense by adding –ed. Okay. But if meet changes to met, why doesn't read change to red? It sounds like red, but you say it's spelled r-e-a-d. Why?"


I lost sleep over these things back in April. I don't lose sleep over them anymore, though. I was surprised, pleasantly at first, at how rarely those questions come up. And when they do, a simple "that's just the way it is," always seems to suffice. It sure makes my job a lot easier.

It makes other things a lot easier, too. When nobody asks why, it's easy to dump concrete all over beaches and rivers to line the pockets of retired bureaucrats enjoying lucrative second careers in the high offices of construction companies. When nobody asks why, it's easy to set up an essentially one-party political system with little in the way of opposition. When nobody asks why, it's easy to reduce labor unions and consumer activist groups to feel-good societies with little real power. When nobody (within the cultural, anyway) asks why, it's easy for genki [Japanese for outgoing, excited, energetic] English teachers to rot away in their BOEs [Board of Education Offices] while students and JTEs alike long to have them in their classrooms.

I don't always agree with the questions some of my fellow westerners ask, and I don't always agree with the ways in which they ask them. But I'm glad there are people out there asking questions. It's a part of my culture, one that I'm proud of more often than not. And it's one that I hope, as an international ambassador on the grassroots level [paraphrasing the first-year poster], to impart on at least a few of the people I meet here.

I’ll repeat, the purpose of today’s blog post has nothing to do with 9/11, but it has everything to do with asking questions. That leads me to what I learned at 10:25 this morning. Please note that all names have been changed.

“Did you hear what happened on Friday?” Yamamoto-sensei asked me shortly after I’d entered the part-time teachers’ office.

“No,” I replied, maybe a little too curtly. I wanted to hear about whatever it was that happened on Friday, but not just then. I had a class in 20 minutes, and I had realized on the way to school that I had forgotten to transfer my comments about those students’ last presentations to the official comment cards that I needed to give back to them in class. I needed to work fast, and was in no mood to chitchat.

“Well, you know Kumada-kun,” Yamamoto-sensei began, a little too slowly for my tastes.

Kumada-kun is the best high school English student I teach here. He is the one exception to the comments I made about my students in my “On Questioning” essay. I have him once a week, in a class that I team teach along with Yamamoto-sensei. She has the class four times per week, every day except Wednesday, but I only help her on Tuesdays.

On my very first meeting with the class, back in April, I introduced myself and fielded questions from the students in English. The students were sitting in groups of three, and near the end of class, I roamed from group to group, trying to engage the students in conversation. I was quickly learning that while these students’ reading, listening, and writing skills were very high, their practical communication skills were, for the most part, pretty low. They answered my questions with single words, and seemed anxious for me to move on to the next group. None of them made any attempt to initiate conversation. None of them, save one.

“Do you like American punk rock music?” a voice with surprising confidence asked me from behind.

I turned to face a beaming young man with glasses and short hair that looked like he had just gotten out of bed.

“Yes,” I replied enthusiastically. Maybe that was a slight embellishment of the truth, but I immediately wanted to give this student everything I had.

“Do you know Green Day?” he ventured.

“Yes, of course! Do you know The Offspring?”

“Yes!” His eyes sparkled.

“I like to sing one of their songs at karaoke.”


We talked until the end of class, and then I gave him my email address. He wrote me several times before he got busier with his classes and encountered computer problems. Even after that, he was the one student I could always count on to ask questions in class. He often challenged both Yamamoto-sensei and me with his probing queries, which we did our utmost to appease. For one week in June, he met me every day at lunch to practice interviewing for the EIKEN English comprehension exam. Three weeks later, he shared his joy at easily passing the pre-2nd grade interview, and his dismay at failing the 2nd grade interview by only two points. He shared these with me both in conversation, and by showing me the English diary he was keeping. I told him to come back again before the next test and we’d try again for that 2nd grade ranking. Following summer vacation, he even joined Yamamoto-sensei and me for lunch a few times in the part-time teachers’ office.

Now, in that same office, Yamamoto-sensei was explaining that on Friday, two of the girls in our class had complained to her about Kumada-kun.

“They say his questions in class distract them from learning the material.”

My own mind was still too distracted by the comment cards to react quickly and strongly enough to that statement.

She went on, “so I had to talk to him, and ask him to stop asking questions in class.”

By now I had forgotten the comment cards. I needed to think of something to say, strong enough, but still professional.

“I think that is very unfortunate,” I lamented at length. “His questions were often the best parts of our classes.”

“I know,” Yamamoto-sensei agreed. “Maybe I don’t like it either, but if he is distracting the other students...”

Many of the other students seemed to go through class half asleep. The only thing I could see Kumada-kun distracting them from was their naps.

“Well, I think he is an excellent student.”

She went on, “I think in America he would be a very good student, but maybe in Japan, he doesn’t fit in so well.”

“I really appreciate the questions he asks.”

“Maybe I prefer that way, too, but here, he cannot be a distraction to the other students.” She seemed genuinely sorry with the conclusion, but I knew there was little she could do, especially as a parttime teacher.

I was disappointed, but not surprised, with our 4th period class. Kumada-kun spent the entire class with his head down on his desk, not even following the worksheets. The one time I called on him with a very easy question, he replied curtly with, “I don’t know.”

I was facing a small moral dilemma at the end of class. Should I stay and talk to him, even though it might mean disagreeing with my superior in front of a student? I decided to do the western thing. In fact, it really wasn’t much of a decision at all.

“You look tired today.”

“I’m not.”

“Are you okay?”


“Look,” I said, sitting down in the desk next to him, “Yamamoto-sensei told me what happened on Friday. I am sad. I think you are a very good English student, and I do not want you to give up in this class.”

He looked at me, expression unchanged.

“Do you understand?” I added at length.

“Yes,” he nodded. He rehashed the events of Friday, then added, “so, today, I decide it is best for me to be quiet in class.”

“But you need to keep learning!” I rebutted. “Besides, in America, you will need to ask lots of questions.”

“This is not America. This is Japan, and I need to be quiet." The words came out robotically.

“I thought you wanted to study in America!”

“When I get to university, I hope to study in America.”

“Then you cannot give up in this class.”

He considered this for some time, then chose his words carefully, “Now, you come to give me encouragement, so I am happy.”

He didn’t look or sound very happy.

“I like the questions you ask in class, and I wish you could keep asking them. Unfortunately, this is not my choice.”

“So, you disagree with Yamamoto-sensei about this?”

“This was very difficult for Yamamoto-sensei. She did what she had to do. But you must do what you have to do. Keep asking questions!”

“I must be quiet in class.”

“So be quiet in class! But pay attention, then ask me questions. I hope you will still eat lunch with me sometimes, and I hope we can still study for the next EIKEN test together. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” he said, this time without hesitation. “Thank you for this,” he added. This time, I think he meant it.

“I am sorry for today,” he concluded.

“It’s okay.” I patted him on the arm, and then rose to leave.

“Ganbatte, kudasai!” I admonished as I left. Fight!

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Yosakoi Soran

In 1991, a student at the University of Hokkaido went to the southern island of Shikoku during his summer vacation where he saw the Yosakoi Festival. Yosakoi is a form of traditional dance from Kochi prefecture in Shikoku. The student was so impressed that he wanted to bring the dance back to Hokkaido and combine it with elements of modern dance and the traditional Soran Bushi fishing folksongs from Hokkaido. He formed a group of 100 like-minded students who next year put on the first Yosakoi Soran in Sapporo, featuring 1,000 dancers in 10 teams watched by over 200,000 spectators. The festival now draws over two million spectators, who watch over 40,000 dancers in more than 300 teams at 30 different venues. Like anything so successful, it has attracted corporate attention, and there are now advertisements from sponsors broadcast over loudspeakers between performances on the bigger stages, and a few teams even have corporate sponsorship. Most, however, are entirely volunteers, laborers of love including everyone from students to office workers who often pay for their own costumes and travel expenses. The teams usually consist of 40 to 150 dancers, and many practice multiple times per week for the entire year leading up to the festival.

It rained on Friday night and Saturday morning, but if that slightly thinned the crowds and made some mascara run, it had no visible effect on the dancers' spirits. Sprayed hair glistened and bright costumes glistened in the rain, the music blared, the taiko drums pounded and the soaked dancers jumped and twirled under the glow of the light stands and their own 1000-watt smiles. Even when the final team dance of the evening had finished, the band played one more song and dancers from several different teams circled the elevated stage in euphoric celebration of artistic expression.


Friday, April 28, 2006

How to be Popular in High School

Okay, I’ll admit it. I wasn’t exactly Prom King or Class President when I was in high school. I was more the quiz-team-and-chess-club quiet type, especially during my first two years. Oh, but I longed to be popular. I’d go to school dances and stand in some dark corner, secretly wishing to be slow-dance-necking with a cheerleader. I’d sit in the stands on Friday night football games and dream I was down there on the field, throwing touchdown passes and getting my name and picture on the front page of every Saturday paper in the fall.

My junior year, I decided to do something about it. I had about all the athletic ability of a watermelon, so the tried-and-true route to popularity in small town Ohio was definitely out. I began seeking alternate paths. I signed up for choir, joined more clubs, and got a part in the drama club’s fall play. What I lacked in athleticism and preppiness, I made up for in the shear quantity of my school activity involvement. By my senior year I was newspaper editor, president of a service club, and elected onto the student council. Still not exactly Prom King or quarterback, but it was a long way from the pimply freshman who didn't even know what table to sit at for lunch on the first day of high school.

It sure was a lot of work, though. I had fun, but along the way, some interests that were quite important to me but not so popular with my growing circle of high school friends got pushed aside. Ten years later, I finally discovered the secret of how to be popular in high school without even trying. It’s really quite simple for an American. All you have to do is graduate from college, move to Japan, and get a job teaching English at a Japanese high school. I finally completed that last step this month, and let me tell you, I’ve never been so popular in all my life!

The first day of classes at Hokusei High was Wednesday, April 12th. I found that I couldn’t take two steps in the halls without a dozen students yelling “hello” to me at the top of their lungs. Some of the girls are pretty shy and won’t initiate conversation, but if I speak to them, they quickly respond and then bust out giggling as soon as I’ve passed. More often than not, if I look over my shoulder in a crowded hallway or classroom, I’ll catch wandering eyes stealing a glance or even a stare.

I’ve found that I can even tell a joke here. Golden Week, a week-long holiday in Japan is next week, so we were discussing everyone’s plans in my Oral Communication classes this week. After telling one class about my plans, I moved on to a short listening exercise. I read a simple conversation of eight lines between myself and another teacher. The students had the same conversation on their worksheets, but missing six words. They had to listen and fill in the blanks with the correct words.

I made my first reading at a normal speed, just like I was talking to another native speaker. Maybe even a little bit faster. As I expected, this produced 13 silent, bewildered stares from my 13 students.

“Okay?” I asked the class confidently.

The stares continued. I think a couple of students may have even tried to look more bewildered, if that were possible. Finally, one girl in the back tentatively raised a hand.

“Again?” she pleaded in a small voice.

“Okay,” I agreed. “Faster or slower?”

A couple of her classmates joined in entreating “slower, slower!”

“Okay. Is everyone ready?” Scattered nodding. “H-h-e-e-e-y-y-y S-c-c-o-o-o-t-t-t-t, w-w-h-h-a-a-a-a-t-t a-a-r-r-r-e-e y-y-o-o-o-u-u-r-r-r p-p-l-l-a-a-a-n-n-s-s-s…” By this point, several students were giggling.

“Too slow?” I asked with a grin.

Another girl looked at me warily. “American joke?” she asked.

“Yes, yes,” I smiled, “American joke!” The whole class burst out in wild laughter.

It’s not always that easy, though. With another class, I tried “The Handshake Game,” a simple (or so I thought) game where the class sits in a circle. I turn to my right, shake the student’s hand and state, “This is a handshake.”

The student is supposed to ask, “A what?”

To which I repeat, “A handshake.”

The student then turns to the next person and repeats. After a couple more exchanges, I introduce a new gesture, like a high-five, a smile, or a wink. Or at least that’s what is supposed to happen. It took several minutes to explain the basic premise of the game, with several confused looks and pleads of “wakkanai” (I don’t understand) from the girl sitting beside me. We eventually managed to pass a handshake around the circle a couple of times, then I moved onto to high five.


“Low!” I held my hand close to the floor.

“High!” I held my hand above my head.

“One, two, three, four, FIVE!” I counted on my fingers.


Look of deepest contemplation.

“Low! High! One, two, three four, five! Highfive!”

The lightbulb goes on and we give it a try. Halfway around the circle, another girl turned to the boy beside her and declared, “This is a five hand!”

I gave my forehead a hard “high five” with my right hand.

A couple days later, though, one of the boys asked me when we were going to play the handshake game again. “Next week,” I promised. That time, we got four different gestures all the way around the circle in a little over two minutes.

I’m lucky that I’m so popular by my very nature, and luckier still that I’m I didn’t grow up here as a shy, intellectual boy secretly dreaming of popularity. In a Japanese high school, my method for gaining popularity would have never worked. At the end of the first day of classes, I went to a student body assembly where all the high school clubs and sports teams demonstrated their activities for the entering class of first-year students (sophomores). Each club and team was assembled in the rear of the gym, where they sat together until it was time for their demonstration. As the presentation continued, I began to notice that no students were moving from one club or sports team to another. The students here are involved in one club, and one club only.

But what if you like both art and karate? Pick one (and only one). Want to be a multi-sport athlete? Forget it. Ever wondered what goes on in an English club meeting? If you’re in the badminton club (or any other club, for that matter), you’ll just have to keep wondering. The promotion of broad, diverse interests has no place in a society still intent on producing the kind of specialized factory workers that brought the world Toyotas and Hondas that run for 200,000 miles and more.

I know what you might be thinking now. “But Scott,” you’re thinking, “soccer season only lasts a couple of months. Can’t those kids do something else for the rest of the year?” Ah, if only that were the case. But no, in Japan, soccer is a year-round sport. All of them are. One of the English teachers at Hokusei is also coach of the soccer club, which won the Hokkaido tournament last year.

“How often do the kids practice?” I asked him.

“Oh, every day!” My question seemed to surprise him.

“And how often do they have games?” I continued, undeterred.

“Three big tournaments every year, plus training games.”

“How many training games?”

“About a hundred.” That’s two games a week. Every week.

During the drive to Ikeda to ride the Chihoku Line, I had discussed with Dustin and Judy the “otaku” phenomenon in Japan. “Otaku” is one of those words that doesn't quite have a direct English translation, but “freak” is a relatively close approximation. As a rail-enthusiast, I could be considered a “densha otaku” in Japanese. “Train freak.” However, it would seem my passion might be a little low key by Japanese standards. There are many different kinds of “otaku,” and almost all of them spend nearly every free minute of their adult lives dedicated to the pursuit of one interest, and one interest only. Dustin and Judy told me of artists who might spent 30 years perfecting a single sculpture of Buddha, of gardeners who spend a lifetime meticulously arranging the stones and pruning the trees of their tiny gardens. How such specialized, lifelong interests could arise suddenly made sense during the high school club presentations.

To the English teacher, such thinking producers a real challenge. Students become such a part of their activity, and their activity becomes such a part of them, that they have trouble describing it. Think of your commute to work everyday. The first few times, maybe you noticed the faces of the kids walking on the sidewalk, the gaudy billboard beside the road, the boarded up restaurant halfway between your home and your office. But make that commute everyday for a year, for five years, for 10 years, and then let me ask you about your commute. I bet you’d tell me that it takes 25 minutes, maybe the route number, and not one thing more. Such is the response I get from asking students about their club activities.

“Kana, do you play any sports?”

“Yes! I’m in the tennis club.”

If I wait to hear more, I might as well be waiting to hear from a turnip. There is nothing more. Kana has probably played tennis for half her life. She practices everyday, and goes to four big tournaments every year. But there’s no reason for her to tell me any of this. It’s so much a part of her life that she takes the details for granted. Furthermore, as was explained by Terry, the other native English teacher at Hokusei, the structure of tennis club is the same for every other high school student in Japan as it is for Kana. If Kana goes to four tournaments every year, you can bet that every other high school tennis club member in Japan goes to four tournaments every year. If Kana has practice at 3:15 on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and 4:15 on Mondays and Wednesdays, it’s a decent bet that most other high school tennis club in Japan practice at about those same times. There is absolutely no reason for Kana to divulge the details of her tennis club involvement, since everyone else in Japan already know the details of tennis club.

It doesn’t stop there. The second lesson for my second year (junior) classes was about family. First question: Who do you live with? The majority of the students in both classes answered simply, “I live with my family.” Only with continued prodding did I get any details, but then they ranged from “my mother and my father” to “my mother, grandmother, and younger sister,” to “my mother, my father, my two younger sisters and my two older brothers.” I didn’t stop there. Like the miner seeing the first flash of something shiny at the end of a dark tunnel, I kept digging. “Your mother and father, what are their names?” Looks of horror greet me. “What are their names?” Finally the answers come, slowly and timidly. Discovering their occupations takes every bit as much effort, and I’m exhausted at the end of class.

My mother, who’s been an elementary school teacher since before I was born, often tells me that she feels like a full-time cheerleader in class everyday. I’m finally beginning to understand that, and sometimes the fatigue, combined with my coming from such a different background, causes slips in the classroom. I caught myself a little too late when I suggested to one class that they include in their descriptions of a family member the color of that person’s hair. Not so many options for that here.

Yet the stories are so different, and beneath the matching uniforms and identical schedules, my students are as unique and different as any other group of 16 year olds anywhere in the world, and that individuality shines out in their faces, in their hair styles, in their colorful shoe laces, designer pencil cases, cell phone ornaments, and nearly every place else it’s given the opportunity to do so.

“Marina, where did you go for spring vacation?” I asked a cute second-year girl in the front row of one class.

“I went to Otaru,” she answered in a quiet, sweet voice.

“Oh, Otaru is very beautiful! How did you go there?”

“I went by train.”

“I like that train ride! I enjoy looking at the ocean.”

“Me, too!” she beamed at the connection we shared.

Maybe that’s why I’m so popular here. I’m so obviously different from everyone else, yet there are still things we have in common. I think for the students, behind their shyness and downcast eyes, they are incredibly excited to see someone so different from them, and even more excited at the prospect of having something in common with me.

Friday, April 14, 2006

In a Galaxy Fading Away

Hokkaido will lose 140 kilometers of railway this month. On April 20th, the Hokkaido Chihoku Highland Railway will make its last runs, ending 95 years of rail service to many rural communities, small towns and agricultural valleys of eastern Hokkaido.

The north-south oriented line was completed in 1911, making it among Hokkaido’s first railways. At the time it was a mainline linking Ikeda, a city near the Pacific coast, with Abashiri, across the island on the Sea of Okhotsk. Twenty-one years later, in 1932, a new, more direct line was completed between Abashiri and the more populous western part of Hokkaido. That leads me to believe that the Chihoku line between Ikeda and Kitami lost a great deal of its importance as a trunk line. It retained, however, significant importance as a feeder route, serving rich timber- and farmlands. Signs outside the town of Honbetsu proclaim it to be Japan’s number one bean producer. There’s even a small shrine dedicated to that crop beside one of the railway stations.

With time, however, the freight business either dried up or shifted to trucks, leaving only the patronage of a small population base to support the railway. In 1989, JR Hokkaido sold off the Chihoku line, creating the Hokkaido Chihoku Highland Railway. The new operator took significant measures to improve service and cut financial losses, immediately increasing train frequency by 40%, while acquiring newer, more cost effective equipment and further reducing operating costs by eliminating on-board conductors. The operator also brought the line a facelift, adopting the “Galaxy Railway” nickname and decorating its stations in stars and Zodiac signs, while applying festive, cartoon paintschemes to some of its trains. Service continued to improve, including a daily express that cut travel time between Kitami and Ikeda by over 45 minutes and provided direct service across JR tracks to Obihiro.

Improved service and image can only go so far, though. The fact remains that the Chihoku line traverses very sparsely populated countryside. There is a Japanese website ranking the 200 most remote, off-the-beaten-path railway stations (hikyoh eki) in the country. Of the 33 stations on the Chihoku Line, eight make the list, including four that rank in the top 30.

Ridership remained low. In 1998, the line averaged only 361 passengers per day per kilometer, ranking it last out of all rural lines in the country. By contrast, JR Hokkaido’s target for rural lines is 2000 passengers per day per kilometer. Operating expenses in 1998 on the Chihoku Line exceeded revenues by nearly 500 million yen. (Source: “Railway Operators in Japan 2,” by Shuichi Takashima, Japan Railway and Transport Review, September 2001.) Despite strong support from the communities it serves, including over 160 high school students who ride it every school day, the Chihoku Line announced its closure last March.

Since learning of the line’s imminent demise two months ago, I had been plotting ways of getting there. When I found out that Maureen’s musical rehearsal in April was only half an hour from the line, I had my chance. I contacted Dustin, an American teacher in Muroran who has admitted a certain interest in Japanese railways. I’m working to further corrupt him, and thought this to be an excellent opportunity. He had an office party on Friday evening, but was free for the rest of the weekend. “Do you mind leaving really early on Saturday?” I asked. He didn’t mind at all. He even convinced Judy, a British teacher also in Muroran, to tag along.

At 3:45am on Saturday, the three of us were abruptly roused by all three of Dustin’s well-synchronized alarm clocks going off at exactly the same time. We were pulling out of the driveway within 25 minutes, and were only a little disturbed to see a man out walking his dog at that hour. A fabulous sunrise on the highway near Tomakomai gave us all a good feeling about the trip.

There seems to be a certain Japanese – or, perhaps human – fascination with closures, abandonments, last runs, and all layings to rest of the works of men. The station agent at Ikeda, the southern terminus of the Chihoku Line, opened the train for boarding half an hour prior to the scheduled 9:55 departure, a full twenty minutes earlier than usual. On this line that has ranked dead last in ridership nationwide for so many years, we could only find two seats open seats. Fifteen minutes before departure, it was standing room only. And still more passengers kept coming.

“You’d think they’d add another car,” Dustin said of the one-car train.

“It might be that they don’t have another car to add,” I replied.

The train pulled out right on time and began its three-hour run through the countryside. We stopped at nearly every station, the facilities ranging from forlorn wooden platforms without a building in site to modern, multi-story buildings that double as community centers in the towns they serve. The promotional literature on hand was quick to point out such good citizenship, but we could find nothing regarding whether the stations could remain opened without the support of the railway.

There were few if any passengers getting on or off at most stops, but nearly every platform had at least one photographer documenting the moment. Some had several. Midway through the run, Judy was shocked to notice that one man in a small, white SUV seemed to be following us, taking photos at one location then racing ahead of the train to another spot.

“Do you suppose he’ll follow us all the way to Kitami?” Judy asked in disbelief.

“And probably all the way back, too,” I returned.

“Is he crazy?” she quipped. “Who, in their right mind, goes flying around following a train all day?”

“Well, me, for one, if I had a car,” I replied without the sheepishness that usually accompanies such a response. For once, my way of thinking was the majority.

Returning on the southbound train that afternoon, we managed to secure three seats together by rushing the platform the moment boarding was announced. The train was just as full, if not a little more so, and we found a middle-aged Japanese man standing in the aisle beside us. He introduced himself, in very good English, as Go Yukawa and struck up a conversation.

“Where are you from?” we asked him.

“Yokohama, near Tokyo.”

“You came all the way from Yokohama just to ride this train?” Judy’s mouth stood agape.

“You still don’t get it, do you?” I chided her.

“Well, I think I’m beginning to get it, but it still astonishes me.”

Returning to our Japanese friend, I asked, “How long are you staying here?”

“I flew up from Tokyo this morning. I fly home tonight.”

“You must like trains!” Even I had trouble hiding my shock over that.

“Yes,” he agreed. “And you?”

“Oh yes, very much.”

“I was hoping to take lots of photos today,” he said, pointing to my camera, “but it is too crowded. I come here to memorize this run, memorize this railway…but all I memorize is too many people.”

At the end of the run, back at Ikeda, we rushed to the front of the train with Yukawa-san to take photos in the four minutes before his connecting train left for Obihiro. We lingered for a bit in the sunset light after most of the other passengers had left, and drove a bit north into the countryside to watch the next northbound roll off into the fading light and explore Samamai, the first station north of Ikeda and number 72 on the hikyoh eki list.

“Obihiro is well-known for their butadon,” Dustin told us as we entered the city.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Grilled pork over rice. It’s very good.”

“That sounds great to me. I’d love to find an out-of-the-way, local place to eat dinner.”

“Hey! I think that place right there had a sign for butadon,” he exclaimed, pointing over his right shoulder.

I couldn’t see anything even resembling a restaurant, but he turned around and pulled into a wooden shack with a small sign out front. Inside, we found a single table and a small bar in front of the kitchen area, which appeared to be in front of the owners’ living quarters. A smiling, wrinkled woman brought us steaming bowls of grilled pork over rice in a sauce that was delicious beyond words. She gave us tea and miso soup free of charge, then took our photo with a small Polaroid camera, which she added to her guestbook that Dustin signed for all three of us (the joke at Dustin’s school is that his Japanese is better than all the Japanese teachers in the English department – and it’s only a half-joke).

We followed a steaming creek up to an onsen where we soaked with a night view of Obihiro, then enjoyed free lodging generously provided by Maureen’s musical group. We also had Sunday morning free while the performers rehearsed. I was thinking of how I’d like to return to the railway and take some more photos, but decided I’d better not push Dustin and especially Judy too far.

As we piled into his car, he turned and asked what we wanted to do.

“You’re driving,” I told him.

“I’m just along for the ride,” Judy added.

“Well, I was thinking I might like to go back and get some photos of the stations on the railway.”

“That sounds fine to me!” I replied, trying unsuccessfully to conceal my enthusiasm.

“I’ve come this far with you crazy guys,” Judy said. “I might as well get the full experience.”

After visiting several of the nearby stations and even photographing a pair of trains, we found ourselves at the Ashoro station wondering where to go next. There was time to explore Obihiro, or time to explore more of the railway, but not time to do both.

“Do you want to find your station?” Dustin asked.

As part of the Galaxy theme, the railway has labeled certain stations with the twelve signs of the Zodiac. Despite the crowds, I had managed to snap photos of the signs at Dustin’s and Judy’s stations on the previous day, but had missed my own.

“It’s a quite bit further north,” I replied. “We don’t have to find it. I just want to buy a key chain here, and you guys can decide where we’re going next.”

Judy was the first to speak when I returned from making my purchase.

“We’ve been talking,” she told me, very matter-of-factly, “and we’ve decided that we need to go find your station.”

I beamed. “I love you guys!”

My station, Aeries, was Kamitoshibetsu, a log structure in a sawmill town where an old siding once used to load lumber onto flatcars now rusted in the weeds between the station and the mill. I couldn’t have been happier.

There was another hikyoh eki nearby, and Dustin endeavored to find it. Along the way, we crossed a stream on a road bridge parallel to a bridge on the railway. Looking at the railway bridge, Judy exclaimed, “Oh, that would be a nice shot, right there!”

I glanced at the timetable but said nothing.

Dustin found Sasamori station, number 30 on the list, near the end of a dirt road with absolutely nothing else around. It is served by nine trains daily, five one way and four the other, and none of us could figure out why.

Looking at the schedule posted on the simple wooden platform, I remarked, “There’s a northbound coming soon.”

Dustin glanced at his watch. “We probably should start heading back.”

“C’mon! It’s only twelve minutes.”

Dustin looked at Judy.

“Let’s get the man his shot!” she returned. “You’ll share the photo, won’t you?”


“Okay,” Dustin agreed. “Where do you want it?”

“Either here or back at that bridge.”

“Oh, the bridge is a better shot.” Judy made the decision.

As the single car rolled across the bridge and into history, I wished that Yukawa-san could have been with us. Not on the crowded trains, but out here in the towns and countryside along the line, did I fix my memories of the Chihoku Line.

We returned to the musical rehearsal just in time for me to get some photos of the cast teaching one of their dances to several local kids, and thereby earn at least a little of our free lodging from the night before. When they were finished, we found Maureen, loaded her and her stuff into the car with us and all of our stuff, and chased the setting sun back towards Muroran.

“So where are we going for our next trip?” Dustin asked me on the drive home.

“Well, I’ve been thinking of riding length of the Hidaka line sometime.”

“Oh, that would be nice!”

“Where’s that?” Judy asked tentatively.

“It runs southeast from Tomakomai right along the coast. Ocean on one side, horse farms on the other.”

“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” she began, “but let me know when you’re going. I just might want to tag along.”

Thursday, April 06, 2006

David Plowden

One of my favorite photographers is David Plowden, who has been exposing 2-1/4 inch square B&W negatives for about half a century. A love of trains, particularly steam locomotives, is what first made Plowden pick up a camera. Once the steam locomotives were gone from North America, he largely stopped photographing trains, but he by no means stopped photographing. He turned his attention instead to all things America, particularly where ever the hand of man was at work. From the steelmills of Gary, Indiana to the grain elevators of eastern Washington to small towns across the country, Plowden has created an artistic documentation of American life, often of the vanishing variety. His square-format photos use simple, straight-forward compositions emphasizing lines and patterns to convey powerful messages, sometimes of what is there, sometimes of what isn't. I've been thinking a lot about his photos recently as I've been trying to photograph the industrial landscape of Muroran and the small towns of Hokkaido.

Though in his seventies, Plowden's work is by no means finished. His latest book, A Handful of Dust: Photographs of Disappearing America, is due out next month. Check out his website,, for more information and to see some of his photos.

Plowden was also a man who knew when to put the camera down. He did just that on a night in the late 1950s while riding in the cab of one of the last steam-powered trains on the Great Northern Railway. His recollection of that night ride, published in the introduction to A Time of Trains, is one of my favorite pieces of railroad writing.

"Out on the prairie in the night, all the way to the outskirts of Minneapolis, the world was ours. The night, the stars, the 2505, the whistle and Brown were all that mattered. We were The Fast Mail, The Midnight Special, and all those night trains whose whistles stir the imaginations of those who hear their incantations."

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Yubari Coal

Train travel in Japan is expensive, and there’s simply no getting around that. There are, however, a few ways to soften the blows. One is the “seishun juhachi kippu,” which literally means “student 18 ticket.” Despite the name, anyone can buy one, whether student or salaryman, Japanese or foreigner. For 11,500 yen (about $100US at the current exchange rate), you get a pass that is good for unlimited local train travel on any five days during school holiday periods. More than one person can use the pass, and it need not be used on consecutive days. The three yearly school holiday periods for which it is good are mid-December to mid-January, early March to mid-April, and late July to early September.

I bought a pass for this spring period and quickly got more than my money’s worth when Maureen and I used it to travel to and from the HAJET meeting in Furano. That cost us a total of four days (one each to go and come back), or 9200 yen. Bought at normal prices, the same four local tickets would have cost us 16,800 yen. There’s a catch, though, and that catch is time. The seishun juhachi kippu is not the way to travel if you’re in a hurry to get somewhere. The 240-km journey to Furano takes six hours by local train, a blistering pace of 40 km, or 25 miles, per hour. But if you have the time, and enjoy traveling for the sake of travel, then it’s a hard deal to beat. The trains stop at every station, the slower pace gives you time to take in the countryside, and you’ll see everyone from high school students in their black uniforms to tiny, hunched-over grandmothers with shopping bags riding the local trains. Indeed, when I toured eastern Hokkaido in early February on a rail pass that was good for travel on all trains, including the high-speed expresses, I often found myself looking for a local train.

That trip to Furano still left me with one day on my pass, and with the spring travel period expiring after this weekend, I needed a good way to use it. I had considered a trip over length of the Hidaka Line on the island’s south-central coast, but at the last minute decided instead to go to Yubari. I went there and back yesterday, a trip that would have cost me 5460 yen at regular fare. In total, I got 22,260 yen worth of travel for my 11,500 yen seishun juhachi kippu.

A little about my destination: Yubari is a city in the mountains of central Hokkaido. It’s home to a modern ski resort and luxurious spa hotel, a small amusement park, the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival in late February, and some of the finest melons grown anywhere in Japan. None of those, of course, were this eccentric traveler’s reason for going. I went to see the Yubari Coal Mining Museum. It was that underground black stuff that brought the city to prominence long before visiting Japanese tourists began shelling out $100 and more for a single cantaloupe. (Don’t believe that? Check out

The American Lyman Monroe, hired by the Japanese to survey the coal deposits of Hokkaido, discovered coal in the mountains around what would become Yubari in 1888. Monroe found three separate coal beds with thicknesses averaging three to five meters and as large as seven meters. (By contrast, many coal seams in my native West Virginia, which boasts the second-highest coal production in America, are only one to two meters thick.) The first mine at Yubari opened in 1890, and the remote valley swelled to a population of over 50,000 by the time the first national Japanese census was conducted in 1920. The region continued to expand as mining activity increased, first to fuel the Japanese war machine for their Pacific theater of the 30s and 40s, and then to feed the national recovery effort that followed. Yubari achieved the status of city in 1943, and the population peaked at 116,908 in 1960. In that year, the region produced over three million tons of coal at 17 mines. Production peaked four years later at four million tons.

And then the Japanese government cut the floor out from under its coal industry. Realizing that cheaper coal could be imported from neighbors Australia and China, combined with an energy policy shift toward oil, the national government began sweeping demand away from Hokkaido mines. By 1975, the population of Yubari had dropped by more than half to 50,000, while coal production had fallen even more sharply to one million tons, with only five mines still opened. The last one closed in 1990, even with a seam of coal taller than me still exposed at the valley floor.

Today the population is just over 13,000, and judging from the size and glitter of the hotel beside the train station, it’s not difficult to guess where most of them work. What was difficult for me to guess was just exactly where this coal museum might be. I wasn’t able to find a map online, but I imagined a large train station in Yubari with a map and tourist information. Maybe even in English. That seemed reasonable for a place that makes its living on tourism.

What I learned yesterday, though, is that most of those tourists don’t come by train. Yubari is located at the end of a single-track branch, 16.1 kilometers from a junction with the Sekisho mainline. And by single track, I mean single track. From the mainline junction to the end of track, there is not so much as one siding. Service is provided by one-car diesel railcars, which simply run to the end of the line, stop, reverse direction, and head back down the valley. Not so long ago, there was a several-track yard in Yubari, where long trains of loaded coal hoppers once departed a few times daily. Today, the tracks don’t even make it to the site of that yard and original station (which has been preserved, albeit without tracks). They stop about two kilometers short, at a tiny new station in front of that spa hotel and ski resort. I didn’t know any of that when I arrived, though.

My first indication that my plans might be flawed came when I stepped off the train and the driver asked to see my pass. That meant that there was no agent waiting inside the station to check my ticket. In fact, there was no one in the one-room station at all, save the four other passengers exiting the train with me, and one old woman waiting to board. Neither were there racks of brochures nor an English map of the city. My internal navigational system told me that I hadn’t passed the mining museum yet, so I started walking further up the valley, through a quiet downtown filled with closed businesses and colorful movie billboards from the film festival.

Fortunately, my internal navigational system was working a little better than it did for my interview in Shin-Sapporo, though it required a good bit of faith on my part. Only after walking all the way through downtown, past the highway garage and past something that looked like a school, did I finally arrive at the mining museum. I knew I was at the right place when I spotted the 50-ft high orange headhouse rigging.

The woman at the front desk didn’t speak English, but she called over a young male co-worker from another part of the museum who spoke a little.

“This museum costs 800 yen,” he helpfully explained. I knew that much, but I have learned the best way to get help in my native tongue here is to play the part of totally clueless. Not that I have to try very hard to pull that off.

He then gave a very detailed explanation of what route to follow through the museum, even though the big arrows on the floors and walls made that pretty clear. He seemed quite concerned when he came to the part that the exit of the museum was located some distance from the entrance, and that it would require walking back to my car in the parking lot outside since the shuttle bus doesn’t run in the winter.

“That’s okay,” I explained, “I don’t have a car.”

“Oh!” he was shocked. “How did you come?”

“By train, then walking.”

More shocked looks, both from him and the woman as he explained to her what I had just said. There followed a mad rummaging of papers behind her desk, him entreating my patience until they found what it was they were looking for.

What they were looking for was the train schedule.

“The next train leaves Yubari at 16:22,” he explained with no small amount of consternation, pointing to the schedule.

It was just after 13:00, so it seemed I would have plenty of time to see the museum. Besides, there were trains at 18:17 and 19:24, too, if I wanted more time. Trying to reassure him, I pointed these out on the schedule.

“I don’t mind taking a later train if I need more time.”

That really threw him for a loop.

“No, no! You have plenty of time. You might spend one hour, maybe one and a half hours at most, in this museum.”

Apparently he was afraid I’d get bored waiting for that next train. Or maybe he didn’t want me to see anything of the town beyond the museum. I tried to reassure him.

“I might want to get some dinner before leaving.” That didn’t seem to help.

Finally, and mostly to appease them, I paid an extra 100 yen on top of the mining museum’s 800 yen admission for a combined ticket that included the “Lifestyle” museum beside the exit to the mining museum. Thanking them, I followed their pointing hands to the museum entrance, carrying the one useful thing they had given me, an English “Guide Book of the Yubari Coal Mine Museum.”

That book proved essential, since the museum displays were only in Japanese. The guidebook didn’t correspond very well to the exhibits, but it provided enough information to give me some idea of what I was seeing.

The museum itself was quite good, beginning with a ground-floor exhibit of the metasequoia trees that grew on Hokkaido, were buried in volcanic eruptions or mudslides, and compacted over ten million years to form the thick seams of Yubari coal. The metasequoia wasn’t the only “coal tree” exhibited in the museum. Upstairs, in the second floor exhibit of coal and its uses, was a cartoon painting of a big, leafy tree with large lumps of coal lying at its base. Two children pointed gaily at the coal, while up in the branches, small pictures depicted the many uses of coal. The cartoon occupied an entire wall, and is remarkable to me, because, if I read the “Engrish” guidebook correctly, it once appeared on the textbooks of all Japanese school children.

The remainder of the second floor focused on the more local history of coalmining in Hokkaido, including several large, black & white photos of miners. The most striking was a poster-sized enlargement showing a naked miner scrubbing himself in the employee bathing room. His body was mostly clean, but his face was still coal-black.

More hints to the hard life of the mines came from the guidebook. Given what I've heard about Japanese tendancies to cover-up ugly pieces of history, I was surprised to find a section entitled, "The compulsory labor period of the world war II." It explained how during the war, with so many of their men off fighting, the Japanese brought Koreans and Chinese to Hokkaido and forced them work in the mines. The wording was careful, despite the awkward grammer of the translation, but it could not hide vestiges of cruelty: "The many compulsory workers distributed to sites inside shafts that wasted by the defect of material and impossible production, forced to be engaged in dangerous works under the severe guard."

At the end of the second floor, I boarded an elevator to take me to the rest of the museum on the basement level. Light and sound effects helped give the impression that I was riding several hundred feet below the surface, instead of just a few dozen. It was chilly when I stepped out, the constant, dank coolness of underground. The floors, walls and ceiling were dark and the lighting was sparse, coming only from widely spaced incandescent bulbs. Dioramas depicted the various stages of labor and mechanization in the mines. The earliest miners, of the 1890s, wore only light clothing with sandals of rope on their feet. A model of a female miner stood with one of those practically bare feet in a pile of coal lumps as she wielded a pick-ax in her hands. Later miners wore safety boots, hardhats and respirators, and dug into the coal with big drilling machines. In that section, motion sensors detected my presence and set into motion several machines and conveyor belts, creating a pounding, mechanic din in the otherwise deserted hallway. I shuddered at trying to imagine eight hours every day of listening to that.

From there, I donned a hardhat and headlamp, and stepped into a preserved mining shaft for the conclusion of the museum. More motion sensors switched single bulbs off and on as I passed, keeping the tunnels in front of and behind me quite dark. I walked beside replicas of the gigantic electric cables that were once strung all throughout the mountain tunnels of Yubari, beside dripping water and on springy wooden floorboards that compressed under each step. I often had to duck to keep from hitting my head on the lighting fixtures dangling from the log-lined ceiling, which I imagine was higher than most of the tunnels. More displays showed various mining techniques, and then around another dark corner, a white glow came down from above, which I followed up a sloping ramp to daylight.

The English-speaking guide was waiting for me when I got there, and he directed me into the “Lifestyle” museum. The most impressive display there was a scale model of Yubari in its busiest mining days, its hills lined by miners’ housing. Overhead lighting simulated the passing of a day, complete with red sunset, while the tiny buildings glowed warmly with nightfall. I’d read about those houses in my guidebook:

“Coalminer’s houses were divided into two classes also. The houses for staffs were constructed at the place in comparatively better environment; many of them were wide and had each bathroom. On the other hand, the houses for mining workers were constructed closely along the slope of the valley, one house was for 10 families or 20 families, bath, water supply and lavatory were common, these were different from houses for staffs clearly.”

The most poignant exhibit was upstairs, which displayed the living quarters of one miner and his family. Each family occupied one room, approximately 12 x 15 feet, in one of those 10- or 20-family houses. That space was their living room, kitchen, dining room and bedroom. The exhibit home was brightly lit and clean, but the walls were papered in newsprint and there was no hiding the close quarters for the family of four.

While taking this in, the English-speaking guide came up from below, tentatively sidled over, handed me a slip of paper, and disappeared without a word. On the paper, “The train leaves Yubari station at 16:22.” I looked at my watch. It was just after 15:00. I had stayed nearly two hours, which was apparently enough to make them nervous.

I took my time walking the quiet streets back to the station, taking photos along the way, especially after the sun came out. I arrived just in time to catch the 16:22 train, but instead of getting on, I watched it pull out of the station, and then setoff down the valley on foot to find dinner. The entire narrow valley was quite developed, as I had seen from my ride into town on the train, and I expected to have my choice of several eateries. It took me over a kilometer to find one, and it was closed. I passed the next station on the railway and still found nothing to eat, not even a red banner with the vertical katakana spelling of “ramen” that seems to show up on about every other corner. After three and a half kilometers down the main road, I came to my first opened restaurant. The staff didn’t speak much English and didn’t have an English menu, but after a few minutes I managed to order their chicken dinner set, which included tea, soup, rice, and a plate of sliced, raw chicken that I cooked myself at the gas grill in the center of my table. They also served ice cream, which was incredibly tempting, but I decided to pass and try to make the 18:17 train, which I barely caught after a brisk, uphill walk to the nearest station.

As the train glided down the dark valley under a dusk-blue sky, I tried to sort out my complicated thoughts on coal mining, an industry I’ve grown to simultaneously love and hate from watching coal trains in the narrow valleys of my native West Virginia, where the mines still hum to the tune of 150 million tons annually. There are some ugly stories there, from the labor wars that began in the 1920s, to the 12 men who died at a mine near Buckhannon in the first week of this year, to the scarred landscape being created in the wake of modern surface mining methods. Hokkaido might be lucky that its coal industry died before 20-story draglines could start taking 100-ton bites out of its mountains. Yet the empty houses and closed shops of Yubari tell their side of the story, too: even a healthy tourism industry can support only a fraction of the people that labor-intensive mining can.

Of course, like other developed countries, if Japan still had a coal industry, it wouldn’t be labor-intensive. But the mining jobs that remained would require skilled labor and thus carry wages that I have to imagine would be substantially higher than those paid to the service staff at the Mt. Racey ski lodge. And they would certainly be higher than those paid to the Chinese miners who now meet some part of Japan’s demand for coal. See page 98 of the March 2006 National Geographic for proof of that. And see pages 106-7 for the landscape that mountain top mining is creating in West Virginia.

The thing is, Japan still wants coal. It still gets coal, even though its citizens don’t have to go down underground and dig it, and its mountains don’t get ravaged in the extraction of it. But someone’s citizens, and someone’s mountains, do. Japan just doesn’t have to think about it, or at least not so much. Neither does a lot of folks in West Virginia, for that matter, where thick deciduous forests, carefully planned mine site locations, and plenty of “No Trespassing” signs keep the destruction out of site (and, hence, out of mind) for all but the most inquisitive or most affected.

I like coal, at least when it’s the cause of the long trains rolling through mountain valleys that I like to photograph. There’s an excellent chance that you like coal, too, whether you realize it or not. If you’re reading this from a computer in the States, there’s a 50% chance it’s because some coal is going up in flames at a generating station this very moment. But it goes at a price, a price that might not be completely covered by your monthly electric bill, and that’s to say nothing of the potential effects of the CO2 it pumps into the atmosphere. So think about that the next time you log on, or cool off in the AC, or pop in a DVD, or recharge your cell phone. I’ll be thinking about that, too, and adding to the equation my love for West Virginia coal trains, and the mountains they thread. And now I’ll also think about the black-faced miners of Hokkaido wearing rope sandals a hundred years ago, and the Yubari kids of today working the counter at the spa or moving to Sapporo because there aren’t any other jobs for them. And I’ll still be wondering.

Thursday, March 30, 2006


It will probably be the only time in my life that a pair of sneakers helped me get a job.

If you know much about Japanese culture, you probably know that the Japanese are a little finicky about their footwear. Shoes are not to be worn inside a home, although slippers are quite common and often provided for guests. (The slippers are invariably five sizes too small for western males, except for my buddy Schwartz, who has the smallest feet of any white guy I know. Naturally, he wastes those small feet by keeping them in America, instead of bringing them to Japan where they could really fit in.) Many restaurants have sections where stocking-footed diners sit at low tables directly on tatami (straw mat) flooring. Shoes are left either at the entrance or in the aisle. Slippers are provided for trips to the bathroom. When you get to there, you’ll likely be confronted by yet another pair of slippers (blue ones in the men’s room, red ones in the women’s room). You’re to trade your hallway slippers for these toilet slippers (often, conveniently labeled as such) while doing your business, then trade back upon exiting the bathroom. Even in the dressing rooms for public baths, where it’s assumed everyone will be naked, you’ll find toilet slippers waiting in the bathroom. Be careful you don’t wear them back into the dressing room, or you could really cause a stir.

Most schools have shoe rules, too. Slippers are still provided for visitors, but students and faculty typically have a separate pair of indoor shoes that they change into upon entering the building. Outside shoes can be just about anything, but inside shoes are often sneakers. It’s just like Mr. Rogers trading his wingtips for Keds at the beginning of every episode, although here, white Asics seem to be the norm among students. Faculty have more choice in the matter, and it’s common to see teachers in suits or dresses with anything from matching dress shoes to cross trainers to sport sandals on their feet.

I arrived in Japan from China with only my trail-worn hiking boots. I’d shipped sandals, brown loafers, and black dress shoes, but no sneakers since the last pair I had in the U.S. was nearly spent. My plan was to buy a pair in Japan, but I knew that would be tricky given the size differential. Coming home from Sapporo a few weeks, Mo suggested we look in the outlets near the airport, which look surprisingly like any outlet mall I’ve ever had the misfortunate of visiting in the U.S. It was uncanny, really. The layout was the same, the stores were the same, even the music was the same. The sizes sure weren’t the same, though. It took four stores before we found any size 12 sneakers, a single pair of silver Nikes for 4000 yen (about $35US). I’m not much of a Nike man these days, but I seemed to have little choice in the matter.

Since the weather still favors boots (unless you ask the college girls walking through snow and ice in 3-inch heels), I’ve been using my new sneakers as indoor shoes, mainly at the high schools where rehearsals are held for Maureen’s musical. But when I went to my first job interview here two Saturdays ago, I decided to bring them along. One of Maureen’s friends suggested it might be a good way of demonstrating that I’d learned something about the culture.

One thing that I’d already known for a long time about Japanese culture is the importance of being on time, which, here, means being early. My interview was scheduled for 1:30. I took a train that arrived at 12:50, giving me a full forty minutes to find my way from the station to the high school. My contact had suggested taking a cab, but had also given me directions by bus. With so much time, only a short distance to go, and a hot streak of foreign navigational confidence, I boarded the bus at the #2 platform per my instructions. From there, I was to ride down a hill to a lemon yellow school. The bus went down a hill, and there, on the left, was a school. It wasn’t quite lemon yellow, but its pale yellow exterior looked as if it could have faded from lemon at some point. I signaled the driver and exited. Inside the building, I found a lot of students who all looked a little too young to be in high school. One showed me to the teachers’ office, where a kind English teacher informed me that this was, in fact, a junior high. The high school I wanted was further down the street, down another hill to another yellow building. By now my time was getting tight. I walked quickly outside but just missed the next bus. Fifteen minutes of fast walking later, I was at a much more yellow school, but ten minutes late. I don't have a cell phone here, and didn’t pass a single public phone on the way. I wondered if I should even bother going in, but the security guard gave me a warm smile and pointed up the stairs.

There were several pairs of slippers at the edge of the foyer, and for a moment I considered them carefully. Then I decided that since I had bothered to carry my indoor shoes all this way, I might as well wear them, funny as it felt to be wearing silver Nikes with my black suit into an interview. Not that I really expected it to matter given my tardiness, especially after wasting a couple more minutes looking for the teachers’ room upstairs.

I walked into the office apologizing profusely, even seriously considered prostrating myself before the two young women and one middle-aged man who were waiting for me. They showed me into a conference room and completely dashed whatever slim hopes I had left by starting the interview with several aggressive questions about my lack of teaching experience and relatively short time spent in Japan. The one good thing my plight did, however, was help relax me. I knew I didn’t have a prayer, so I felt a little more at ease to answer honestly, candidly, and enthusiastically. I didn’t even flinch when the man asked me a question in Japanese. I simply explained that I didn’t speak very much Japanese and asked for the question again in English. I asked several questions about their school and English department at the end, apologized more, thanked them for their time and walked out, never expecting to hear from them again.

“How was the interview?” everyone wanted to know at dinner that night.

“I got there late.”

“Oh.” This said as if I’d told them I’d puked on the vice principal.

Three days passed with no word. On the afternoon of the fourth day, I was shocked to see a new email with the subject “Job Offer.” Following some discussion about the details of the arrangements, I accepted.

On Wednesday night, I attended my first event with my new co-workers, an office dinner party at one of the gigantic resort/spa/hotels in Noboribetsu. Rooms were reserved and I was invited to spend the night, with everything paid for by the school.

The dinner party served the two-fold purpose of honoring five retiring teachers and introducing four new ones, myself included. Everyone sat on the floor in front of individual, low tables, on which a considerable variety of Japanese cuisine was spread. I only recognized about half of what I was eating, but there was plenty of everything. There was also plenty of beer. Everything that I’d read and heard about the Japanese opening up over alcohol proved most true.

One young social studies teacher, who speaks only a little more English than I speak Japanese, had learned a few choice phrases from the Canadian teacher I was replacing. He introduced himself, raised a glass, and boldly proclaimed, “Let’s get pissed!”

Later, one of the women who had interviewed me sat down beside me, beer glass in hand. After only a very little small talk, she began telling me all about herself without my even having to ask. That would never happen without the cover of alcohol. She also brought up my interview, and the fact that I was late.

“I honestly never expected to hear from you again.”

“We were all sitting around wondering where you were and what we were going to do to you if you did eventually arrive.”

“Why did you decide to hire me?”

“You were so sorry about being late, and we all agreed that you would be something fresh and new for our department.” Then she added, with a smile, “Oh, and your shoes. You brought indoor shoes with you. Everyone else we interviewed just wore slippers.”

All of the teachers I met were very welcoming and spoke openly with me. There are about six Japanese English teachers, most in the their mid-twenties to early thirties, making it very a young, energetic department. It is also a department undergoing some turmoil. Last year they had two native English speakers on their staff, one full-time and one part-time. One of those teachers left on bad terms. The other, the Canadian, left on very good terms. He was among the five retiring teachers being honored at the dinner, even though he had only been at the school for two years. The other four teachers were older Japanese with more than 30 years of service each.

Classes start during the second week of April, so I still have some time to prepare myself. The school is located in a southern suburb of Sapporo, and is about an hour and half commute by train. That doesn’t bother me, since (1) I like to ride on trains, (2) it will be excellent time for reading and writing, and (3) the school is paying for it. I will work three days most weeks, teaching very basic English to first year students, as well as conversation classes with third year students. All classes will be team-taught, meaning I’ll have a Japanese teacher of English (JTE) helping me at all times.

I’m excited, nervous, and anticipating lots of stories to come out of this. Wish me luck!

Friday, March 24, 2006

In the Land of the Rising Sun

Since the subtitle of my blog advertises photography, and since there's been precious little of that on here recently, I thought I'd share a few photos from this morning. Sunrise comes quite early to Hokkaido, since Japan is all one timezone with Hokkaido on the eastern end. They don't observe daylight savings time here, either, so at the summer solstice the sun will be popping over the horizon around 4:00am. I'm envisioning lots of nights camping on location to get sunrise photos. Fortunately, there are plenty of places to camp around here.

Since we're only in the first official week of spring, the sun currently rises around 5:30. This morning I rose at 4:00 for the hour walk up Mt. Sokuryozan. I met only one car on the winding road up the mountain, a minivan of teenagers with one hanging out the opened sunroof. It was surprisingly refreshing to see a group of Japanese teenagers out being a little wild. Not too wild, though. Even with J-pop blaring, the driver came down the mountain at a reasonably safe rate of speed.

I had the summit to myself. There are few things I like better than a solitary view of the world waking up.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Asian Toilets

This week marks my six-month anniversary with breaking the bonds of North America and embarking on this Asian adventure. The half-year point seems a good place to stop, look back, look inward, and reflect on these past 180-odd days lived so far from home. And what better place for reflection than the toilet? (Mature content warning: if you are not comfortable with openly discussing personal manners of a secondary nature – and by secondary, I mean going number two – I strongly recommend you stop reading now. You’ve been warned.)

Astute readers with very good memories might recall that I had some difficulty with finding toilet paper on the very day I arrived in the Beijing airport. My memorable experiences with Asian toilets by no means ended there. Let’s look at China first, that emerging superpower with a fifth of the world’s folks and an economy on pace to take over the galaxy by 2037. The first thing I want to say about Chinese toilets is that not everyone uses them. In the empty grasslands of Inner Mongolia, that should come as no surprise. On the street corners of Hegang, an incredibly industrial city of several hundred thousand in Heilongjiang province, it might. I should stress that in my 84 days in China, I did not, in fact, see anyone going number two on a street corner. Not that it would have shocked me if I had, especially towards the end of the trip, but I didn’t. In Hegang, however, what I did see was a young lad of perhaps two, pelvis thrust proudly forward, standing on a busy street corner at rush hour, naked from the waist down, letting fly a yellow stream for all to see. More disturbing, perhaps, was Mom standing approvingly alongside. I since came to realize that parents in China don’t dress their toddlers in diapers. Instead, they give them pants with a couple snaps in the crotch and no undies. Whenever nature calls, wherever nature calls, relief is just a thumb-flick away.

Although modesty does increase with age, such teachings nevertheless carry over into adulthood. Standing by the overpass at the east end of the Daban yard in sunset light found me composing glinty photographs of steam locomotives and trackworkers one brisk November afternoon. In my viewfinder I noticed some glint where there shouldn’t have been any. Zooming in revealed the low sun catching a golden arc emitting from the midsection of one of those workers.

Be careful you don’t judge the mature Chinese too harshly, however. One visit to nearly any public toilet very far off the tourist track would have all but the most reserved of travelers looking for the nearest bush. While western-style, sit-down toilets are becoming more common in cosmopolitan Chinese cities, the eastern-style squat toilets are still maintain a commanding majority. The ones that are plumbed and flush when you pull the chain aren’t so bad. Those, however, remain a smallish minority group within the commanding majority of squat toilets.

Get a surprisingly short distance out of Beijing, and the average public Chinese toilet looks something like the following. What you’ll find is a smallish, rectangular brick building with open doorways on opposite ends. It’s important to learn the characters for male and female, as they’re often the only distinguishing characteristics, cast in concrete beside their respective doorways. Fortunately, with a good teacher like Ron, learning them is easy.

“The one for female has crossed legs, while the male one has a little dangly thing in the middle.”

It’s all the more important to learn the difference, because the facilities in each side are sometimes identical. They’re often not particularly private, either. In the men’s side, there’s often, but not always, a concrete trough for number one. The whole thing will be cast at a slight angle so it all runs down to one end and drains through a little hole. The stalls, one to six of them, depending on the size of the place, are typically separated only by low brick dividers with not so much as even a place to hang a door. In the middle of the concrete floor of each “stall,” you’ll find a long, rectangular slot that you’re supposed to squat over. The slot is maybe six to eight inches wide and two feet long. The size is an advantage, because it gives you a pretty good-sized landing zone. It’s just that these same slots are also big enough to put a leg in, or to swallow a small child.

Four things that you won’t find in one of these bathrooms are toilet paper, electricity, a sink, and running water. That hole at the end of the urinal trough? It might drain to an underground tank, but just as likely it simply drains to the outside. The slots are often constructed over top of rudimentary septic tanks, but that is by no means a steadfast rule of construction. Some toilets are constructed over dirt holes in the ground. Others are on the side of a steeply sloping hill, where gravity is left to dispose of the waste into the grove of poplars that border the town. Or, in the case of at least one public facility in Jixi, another city of several hundred thousand in Heilongjiang, the building (of wooden construction) sits directly, unfettered, and unfiltered above a swift-flowing stream. Above it is a coal processing plant. Below it is crowded residential neighborhood. Naturally, you bring your own roll to these establishments. You also bring a flashlight if you plan on going by night, especially given the size of those holes.

The first time I hiked over the mountain to Lixin on the Huanan narrow gauge line, I didn’t find the wooden outhouse in back of the brick station building. The next morning, when my intestines had finished with the previous night’s eggs and potatoes, I simply found a likely spot in the wooded hillside above the station. This being early in my trip, I felt a little bad for not having a shovel to dig a proper hole. I needn’t have been so concerned. When I returned with Ron two months later, I found the outhouse in back of the brick station building, a three-walled box constructed of rough sticks. Nobody had bothered to dig a proper hole beneath it, either.

Nearly every traveler who spends much time in China comes home with a toilet horror story or two. One quiet day between trains, I asked Ron about his.

“My worst Chinese toilet story?” he repeated, no doubt surveying a lengthy list in his mind for the chart topper. “That would have to be from a trip I made a few winters back way up north to this little town in Heilongjiang where it got to 40 below at night and maybe warmed up to 20 below during the day. I walked into one of these toilets and I absolutely had to go right then. And when I got in there, what did I find? A solid sheet, several inches thick, of yellow ice on the floor. Here and there, little, frozen brown piles lay halfway sunken into the ice from where they’d been warm enough to melt it a little at first. (I warned you at the beginning, remember?) The one good thing about the cold was that at least the smell wasn’t too bad.”

Coming to Japan, I expected to leave such scenes behind me, and I did. I did not, however, completely escape memorable toilet moments. You may have noticed that I refrain from using the word “restroom.” That’s a habit I picked up from Ron. It seemed quite odd to me at first, saying “I have to use the toilet” all the time, no matter how grammatically correct it might be. It still seems a bit odd, even though I often say toilet now, myself. But the word “restroom” would definitely be something of a misnomer for many an Asian toilet, in China and Japan alike, as so many of them are quite far from being the restful reading place that lead so many American dads to half hour BMs.

The squat-plopper, as I have come to call the eastern squat toilet, does not hold the same commanding advantage over the western toilet in Japan that it does in China, but it does still hold something of a margin. With a little patience and enough exploring, however, the intrepid traveler to Japan can find a western-style toilet in most Japanese public establishments. Not in all of them, though. One of the most glaring omissions occurs on many of the trains here. If you travel in Japan, chances are you will go by the country’s extensive, extremely punctual railway system. If you travel very much, chances are will find yourself needing to go while on board. Likely as not, you will find yourself stepping up onto a small pedestal to squat over a porcelain basin. If you’re of a smallish stature, it might even go fairly well. If you’re closer to my size or, heaven forbid, larger, your knees will probably get jammed up against the wall and completely cover up the little metal bar they put there for you to steady yourself. And if you can’t steady yourself on the little metal bar, what you do is, you brace yourself against the sidewalls and start praying that the tracks are smooth and free of bumps for the duration of your business.

One nice thing about the toilets on board the trains is that they’ll come with toilet paper. There will probably even be a couple of extra rolls lying in a mesh shelf up in one corner. If you anticipate further movements upon arriving at the station of your destination, and don’t feel too badly about stealing, you might want to grab one of those rolls. To the best of my recollecting, I have yet to find a public toilet in a single Japanese railway station that came stocked with TP. There will, however, be a vending machine just outside on a wall selling small packs of tissues for Y50-100. On the street corners of some larger cities, you can often find vendors handing out free tissue packets with an advertisement stuffed inside them.

Today I had the occasion to use the toilet at JR Hokkaido’s Sapporo Station, a towering new building completed in 2003 in the middle of the city. Of course there was no toilet paper, but I was prepared for that. I walked in, closed the door, hung my camera bag and coat on the convenient metal hanger, and set myself to the task at hand. With accompaniment. No sooner had I shut the door behind me than a little speaker in the rear corner of the room began playing running water sounds. It didn’t stop until I finished and the automatic flush mechanism activated and whisked everything away. It wasn’t the first time I had seen such technology at work. Some toilets here have heated seats, some can spray your nether-region with jets of water (warm or cold, your choice), some can even cover the smell by spraying puffs of heavily-scented air freshener. Many toilets are lavishing decorated, like ours for example, with smiling cartoons and cuddly creatures. My bowel movements at home are faithfully witnessed by several manifestations of a little white rabbit named Miffy, with black eyes, a small x for a mouth, and, quite conveniently, no nose.

The public toilets in Japan are also impeccably clean, made so by a sizeable staff of cleaning ladies, who still manage to unnerve me when they march right in, mop in hand, as I’m unzipping at the urinal. And just in case they should come in while I’m tending to more pressing matters in one of the stalls, or in case someone else should be doing the same in the adjacent stall, there’s a recording of running water playing so nobody will hear when my own plop hits the water. It won’t entirely hit the water, though. Instead, it will half hit the water and half hit the bottom of the bowl, sliding the rest of the way down and leaving a nice, brown trail since the water level of the toilets is kept quite low here. But I guess that gives the cleaning ladies something to do when I’m gone.

So what I was thinking in the toilet today as I was fishing in my right hip pocket for my pack of tissues, is I how I really wish they’d just cut the crap in these Japanese toilets and let us get to crapping. That’s what we’re there for, afterall, and I, for one, don’t need any recordings covering the sound of my own bodily functions. I don’t even mind smelling them. I wouldn’t mind a roll of toilet paper hanging on the wall, though.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Old Trains

I like books. I like to read books. I like to look at books. I like to walk through aisles of books. Warmwood aisles with the soft, incandescent glow of drizzly, main street afternoons. I like to pick up books and thumb their pages and wonder at all the possibilities they contain. You could probably say that I’m a bookaholic. In fact, you could definitely say that. I know that because yesterday I bought not one, but two books that I cannot even read.

A few days ago, I was on the third floor of Nagasakiya, the big department and grocery store in Muroran, waiting for Maureen to pick out the right tomatoes and cans of corn. I already know I can’t read any of the books there, but I still like to walk among them. Usually, I drift to the magazine racks where I never cease to be amazed by the quantity of quality railroad magazines. Half a dozen or more monthly titles on glossy, thick paper. The photography in every one of them could give the best American rail mag a run for its money.

Usually I stay in the magazines until Maureen finds me, but that day something compelled me to keep going. Displayed with cover facing outward on a shelf along one wall, I found a hardcover book of Hokkaido photography. I was about to pick it up when I noticed the writing on the spine of another title beside it. Capital “SL.” Those happen to be my initials, but in Japan that means Steam Locomotive. I pulled out a soft-cover, perfect-bound, 300 glossy, thick pages of black & white photographs of steam locomotives operating in Hokkaido. On the back cover I found the price: Y2500, about $22US. Not bad. Not bad at all. I was about to buy, when I noticed that the very similar book beside it was not, in fact, another copy of the same title, but a companion volume on the history of all Japan Rail operations in Hokkaido, also Y2500. Now I had a choice. I smeared greasy fingerprints onto several glossy pages of both, and in the end gave the day to indecision and took neither. Yesterday I returned and again gave the day to indecision. I bought both.

Late yesterday afternoon, I met Maureen at the Muroran train station for the hour ride to Tomakomai. In the morning, she had four classes at Tomakomai Nishi (west) High School. We were spending the night with the classes’ teacher, Hiromi Goto, her husband Fuyuki, a biology teacher at another Tomakomai High School, and their daughter, Kanako. As Usami-sensei is the capstone of Muroran’s international community, so is the Goto family the capstone of Tomakomai’s. Their home is always opened, where Hiromi weaves spells from her kitchen to make food mystically and unceasingly appear at the table, and the conversation (in perfect English) is bounded only by the necessity of sleep.

The black and white images in my new books captivated me, but I needed someone to make the stories in the photos come to life. So I packed the JR volume into my overnight bag. Reclining at the magic table after dinner, I turned to Fuyuki.

“I bought a new book today.”

“Really?” He looked genuinely intrigued, which is quite possibly his most natural expression.

I brought it the table. He began flipping through the pages.

“This is a good book,” he announced decisively.

I showed him the two maps printed side-by-side on the inside front cover. I didn't need any translator to explain their stories. The 1959 map of Hokkaido railways showed some two times more trackage than the 2002 edition.

“So many lines…gone,” he mused. “Coal mines closed, roads opened, people moved out of the country and into the cities…”

He stopped at a two-page spread from 1972 on pages 114-115. A woman stood at the door of a passenger train on a mostly empty station platform while a double-headed steam freight passed on the opposite track. Beyond the train, only trees and sky.

“I know this station,” Fuyuki exclaimed. “This is between Shin-Sapporo and Kita-Hiroshima. Before they were built, it was the first station south of Sapporo. Today, there are no trees. Just buildings. Endless buildings. But then, there were trees. I know this. I grew up by this station. I went there with my family all the time.”

He kept turning the pages. “Funny story here,” he said, pointing to a small photo of the nameplate on the side of a passenger train. Each car of Japanese trains carries a removable metal nameplate listing the originating and terminating stations of the train. “This was a very famous train running between Kushiro and Otaru. It was very popular with people who liked trains. So popular, that they began stealing the signs. They stole so many signs, that JR began using cardboard signs instead of metal in this train. They stole the cardboard signs. Finally, JR simply wrote the station names on pieces of paper. And people stole them, too.”

Page 230 also gave him pause. He pointed to a small photo in the top left corner. On a narrow, wooden platform, three women posed beside the station sign while three men snapped their photos. “I know this place, too. Kofuku, the name means ‘happiness,’ so this is Happiness Station. Many people traveled here to have their pictures taken.”

“Can you still go there?” I asked.

We checked the maps at the front of the book.

“No,” Fuyuki said shaking his head sadly. “The whole line is gone. It is a shame. The station was only five stops from the mainline [still active]. They should have preserved it and ran tourist trains.”

“What about this line?” I asked, pointing to a photo a few pages earlier of a one-car train crossing a towering steel bridge over a rushing river.

Fuyuki’s eyes skimmed the page. “No, gone,” he replied, shaking his head. “It used to go to one of the biggest coal mines in the Hokkaido.”

“What about this one?” I asked, trying again with a back-cover photo of a two-car train crossing a viaduct in front of a castle.

“Oh, I know this place!” Fuyuki’s eyes lit up. “This is Matsumae, site of the only traditional Japanese castle in Hokkaido. It is near Hakodate. You should go there!”

“Can we go by train?” I asked hopefully.

“I do not know…probably not.”

We found the appropriate chapter in the book.

“Maybe you can go there by train,” he said hopefully, looking up from reading the timeline. “Let’s see, freight service ended in 1982…no, no you cannot go there by train. All services were suspended in 1988.”

As Hiromi passed from the living room into the kitchen, Fuyuki stopped her.

“Scott brought a very good book.”

She took it and began turning the pages, half mindlessly at first, then stopping as a long-forgotten scene flashed afresh before her.

“I know this place,” she pointed excitedly to a mixed freight and passenger train steaming through a snowy valley. “Yes, yes, I have been there many times. This is very close to where I grew up, near Monbetsu on the Sea of Okhotsk. I rode this train many times. Of course, there have not been trains there for nearly 20 years.”

She turned the pages now with new purpose, carefully examining each one for a glimpse of her own past. She stopped again at the bottom of 232. A family waited on a non-descript platform to board a two-car local train, a picnic basket slung over the mother’s shoulder.

“I know what they are doing!” Hiromi exclaimed. “I know this station. They are getting on here to ride to the next station where they can pick wild vegetables. I did this often with my family. We did not have a car, you see, so we always traveled by train.”

And then it all clicked. I suddenly understood how these two people, with no special interest in trains, could get so excited over a book of old train photos. For these were not merely old train photos to them, not anymore than a photo of a 1963 Ford station wagon is just a picture of an old car to the American woman who rode in one a hundred times to Grandma’s house, a thousand times to school, and twice to Myrtle Beach.

There was one more photo that I had to know about. The bottom of page 65 showed a panoramic view of a short freight train curving along the side of a high mountain. I was afraid to ask, but I had to know.

Fuyuki’s eyes sparkled. “Ah, I know this place, too! This, this was the best of all, the best scenery anywhere in Hokkaido. I rode through here many times when I lived in Kushiro and would travel to Sapporo. Beautiful! I still like going there.”

“By train?”

“No, not by train,” the spark left his eyes. “Not anymore. This was Karikachi Pass, so steep they had to use a second locomotive to push on the rear, but it was replaced by a new tunnel in 1981. Oh, but to ride over it in the fall…”

His voice trailed off, but the spark caught and grew again. As his eyes turned back inside himself, back to journeys past, for a moment then the monochrome scene before me dissolved and reformed in the space before me, hovering there in the full color of our minds.