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.


anyram said...

That was a beautiful story. Every time I hear/read something like that it makes me lament the loss of the small towns (in Japan and everywhere else). Glad to hear you found such beautiful books that could evoke such great memories in your friend's minds.

M.J. said...

Inspiring. We all have memories, but to have them sparked unexpectedly by friends unrealted to the moment is truly a gift. You did good!

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