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 http://www.pripix.com/captain/melon.htm).

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.

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