Friday, December 28, 2007

St. Albans

While talking with my friend Paul a few days ago, he commented that St. Albans, WV looks to be full of gloomy weather, signals, and coal trains, based on the past photos I've sent him from the area. That theme is continued this year (with the addition of Amtrak), although it will probably be the last time I'll see many of the old C&O cantilever signals. New masts, some with heads, already line the ROW. That being the case, I concentrated my photographic efforts of this visit on capturing them one last time. Their replacement may come as a blessing in disguise for my photography, though. Maybe I'll finally discover some new shots around here.

Traffic has been quite heavy. There were seven trains in the two hours I was out this morning, and the flow has remained steady throughout the rest of the day. The Coal River Sub (which joins the mainline here) has been extraordinarily busy, with the majority of traffic going west. There's still a good bit of eastbound coal, but most of it seems to be coming from mines further west of here, although a few loaded trains still come off the Coal River line heading east. The westbound drags off the Coal River Sub include the regular AEP trains to their John Amos plant, just a few miles west of St. Albans. Most of the others are system hoppers, probably heading to the Ohio River transloader at Kenova, or Canada, via Toledo, OH and the Great Lakes.

This is a shot I've been eyeing for quite some time, although I had originally envisioned a sunny, frontlit photo on a summer morning. The right combination of weather and trains didn't materialize in August, so I finally decided to try a night photo of the westbound Cardinal arriving at the Charleston station. The view is looking downriver from the University of Charleston's campus.

This nearly-perfect December sunrise occurred during a brief lull in traffic. Two trains ran just before the sky got light, and four more followed a little later.

Here's the first of those four, a westbound drag coming off the Coal River Sub.

Just west of town, the ex-C&O main begins climbing out of the Kanawha River valley for an overland shortcut to the Ohio Valley at Huntington. The grade is called Scary Hill, and sometimes required pushers in the steam era for particularly heavy westbound drags, but at 0.3%, I really don't think it's that scary.

Between St. Albans and Scary Hill, there's a long tangent, which US 35 crosses on an overpass. While chasing the previous train, I noticed the smoggy, layered hills and the tangle of wires, both of which attracted my interest. When another westbound drag showed up, I decided to try this shot.

Since Christmas fell on a Tuesday this year, Amtrak came through on the following morning. Knowing that CSX shutdown for the holiday, I was expecting this Cardinal to be right on time. It actually showed up a few minutes early. Dad joined me for this photo, before taking me out to breakfast at Shoney's.

Whenever I've been here for a holiday in the past, it's usually taken all of the following day for the post-shutdown traffic to trickle into town. Not so this year. AEP empties from the John Amos plant closely followed Amtrak, and by mid-morning traffic had more or less returned to normal.

The first train of this morning was a loaded AEP drag coming off the Coal River Sub. It's seen here climbing Scary Hill.

This going-away shot is taken from the same location, and shows the switch on the short branchline leading up to the John Amos generating station, where a rotary dumper empties an average of two unit trains every day to feed the energy needs of the Kanawha valley.

Back in St. Albans, a loaded train heads east on the main.

Immediately following the eastbound, a loaded train with a single AC6000 came off the river, crossed over to no. 1 main, and headed west.

That westbound drag met an eastbound empty train on Scary Hill, which is seen here passing the signal in front of the abandoned yard office, as it heads onto the wye and out Coal River.

Monday, July 16, 2007


At 12,000 feet, we dropped below the cloud cover. To my right, the Olympic Mountains rose nearly to eye level, green-gray and still flecked with snow, the first American land I had seen in nearly two years. I looked away, rubbed my eyes, and then dried my hands. We banked to the right over Puget Sound, and there was Seattle, skyscrapers and waterfront, close and inviting, a haven of safety and comfort for the weary traveler.

I wasn't staying in Seattle, though. I was taking a train to Portland, departing from the Tukwila station in the suburbs near Seattle/Tacoma Int'l Airport. Clearing customs was a breeze, for me at least. The Korean man next to me got a long interrogation from a smug officer who seemed a little amused at the man's limited English abilities. I wished I could pull the officer aside and tell him to slow down and use smaller words. I wonder whether U.S. customers officers have ever been interrogated in a language other than English?

I found a bus and rode out to the Tukwila station, giving advice about living in Japan to a Department of Defense family who was about to move to Tokyo for three years. I missed the stop, but realized it quickly and the driver kindly pulled over at the next traffic light. Just being able to make that request in English made my life quite a bit easier. I was feeling good. I was back in my own country. I had shared some of what I'd learned about Japan to eight very attentive ears. A service employee had done me a favor. And then I stepped off the bus.

The Tukwila Amtrak station is in the city of Renton, Washington, part of the suburban sprawl that has filled nearly every available acre between Seattle and Tacoma. It had been nearly two years since I had walked through American suburban sprawl. New hotels with ground-level restaurants, big, black parking lots and immaculate landscaping. Low-slung, single-story office buildings. Strips of bright, green grass separating road from sidewalk. It was all very new, very neat, very clean, and incredibly ugly. And this was America. I knew it, I recognized it, even remembered it and connected with it. But it held no nostalgia. With every step I recalled the mundane parts of everyday American life that bore or depress me. I could hardly wait to get on the train, into my comfort zone, and at least put that big pane of tinted glass between me and that crafted, sterile landscape.

I've felt a lot better since then, but there have also been times when I've felt just as bad or worse. I'm lucky right now to be in very favorable conditions for readjusting. I'm visiting some very good friends, seeing some beautiful places, eating the foods I've most missed, and doing some of my favorite things. When I can focus on those, I'm delighted to be back. Yet so many sensations and visualizations pound me from every angle. They're simultaneously foreign and familiar to me, and that's unsettling. Things I thought would bother me don't; the most unexpected triggers set off deep loomings.

Those loomings arise, I think, because so much of what bothers me is also so natural to me, so much a part of me. I'd like to go on, but I see I'm speaking far too much in generalities. I'm far too tired to speak in specifics right now. This is going to take some time.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Leaving Japan

This will be my last post from Japan, as I'm leaving tomorrow. There are a lot of things that have happened recently that I've wanted to tell you about: How Mo and I nearly climbed the highest mountain on the Shiretoko Peninsula. About watching the moonset over Karikachi Pass. About a crackling campfire, a ukulele, and good friends singing into the night. About a hidden gorge and a man with a garden in Tomakomai. About how Mo and I did climb the highest mountain in Muroran. Those stories will have to wait, though. I've run out of time.


It started raining yesterday. A light rain that comes and goes from heavy gray clouds blowing low in the sky. Tonight after dinner, the drizzle subsided, so Mo and I took one last walk up the hill from our apartment to my favorite view in Muroran. It's only a five minute walk.

"When we think back on our time in Japan," I began, " we must always be very proud of ourselves for choosing to come here, for living here, and for finding things to sustain us in that time. It's okay to be frustrated with ourselves for the things we didn't do and the language we didn't learn, but we have to remember that no matter how much Japanese we learned or how attuned we became to the cultures and customs here, we would always remain outsiders. So we must always be proud for coming, and proud for the things we did manage to learn and do. Despite the frustrations and challenges, we still found ways to make this life our own. Indeed, enough that our decision to leave was incredibly difficult. We must never forget that when we look back on this time."

From the top of a small hill, you can see the train station, downtown, Mt. Sokuryo with its brightly lit TV antennae, the entire harbor, and the Swan Bridge twinkling in the distance. The ferry from Aomori had recently arrived, and trucks were still streaming out of the lower decks. It would be going back in a couple hours, and it was exhilirating to think that, had we wanted to, we could have gotten on it. Even more exhilirating was the thought from looking at the station, the thought I get everytime I pass it. That I can get a train there and, literally, ride almost anywhere in Japan.

"I'm glad I've ridden all the lines in Hokkaido," I told Mo, "but I'm also glad that I haven't ridden all the lines in Japan. It helps sustain my sense of wonder."

For several minutes, we looked in silence at the view before us. The lights, the cars moving slowly along the streets, the dark forms of the hills outlined by the lights' reflection in the clouds, the clouds themselves rolling onward through the sky.

"From all we can see before us, what's your favorite memory of it?" I asked Maureen.

She thought for a few moments, and then replied, "Two. Going to the Port Festival and seeing the fireworks in August when I first arrived, and walking up Mt. Sokuryo for the first with you in the winter."

We looked at the lights again, until she asked, "How about you?"

"I don't know if I can narrow it down to one moment, or even a few. Living here has been like working a giant jigsaw puzzle. Every discovery is like finding another piece that fits, and each one is incredibly exciting. The puzzle is far from finished, and never would be, but it's more complete than it was when we started."

As we turned to go back to our apartment, I looked back one last time, to the lights along the harbor and glow from the steel mills coming from behind the nearest hill.

"I always smile when someone comes here for the first time and remarks on how ugly Muroran is."

"Me, too," Mo agreed. "Because we know that's not true."

"We know this place a lot better than that. It's not a perfect place that you could ever describe as a paradise, but I think I like it better for that."

"Does such a place even exist?"

"I don't know," I replied. "Maybe for some people, but not for me. When I think of Muroran, I think of it with a sense of longing. I think I like it more for that. I think one of the worst sentiments in the world is the Not In My Backyard Syndrome. It lets people forget too easily the costs of convenience. Muroran doesn't let you forget that. But it still reminds of the beauty that's out there, too."

We paused again on the steps of our apartment. "The last place I lived that I felt as connected to the landscape as I do here was the year I lived in town in Dresden with Mom and my stepdad. I rode my bike and walked everywhere that year. That was half my life ago. I hope I find another place that I can feel as connected to the geography as I do here."

Mo heartily agreed. I only hope it doesn't take another half of a lifetime.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Matador Travel

Great news! My recent post about high school baseball in Japan has been picked up by Matador Travel, an online travel website. It's now a featured article in their "Sport" section, and be seen at:

Matador Travel is a new, online community of people who are passionate about traveling, experiencing, and exploring the world. There are some great articles on their site, so take some time to have a look. Membership is free.

Some of my favorite articles on Matador include:

Mango Village and the House of Oz
Huayhuash: A Convergence of Change and Resilience
My Chinese Clown

Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Last Coal Train in Hokkaido

It’s 8:00 on Monday morning in Kushiro and the station is humming with the morning commute. Business suits and school uniforms pass in a steady stream from the ticket gates to the exit doors. In the men’s room, three high school boys stand in front of the mirror, liberally dousing their spiky heads with aerosol hairspray. Westerners may laugh, but in a country where appearances are valued so highly, it’s common to find both genders toting combs and compact mirrors. It’s a matter of pride.

Outside, buses come and go from the central terminal every few minutes, and the sidewalks are bustling. It’s enough to give this blue-collar city of 180,000 a healthy glow. That glow fades quickly, though, if you linger in front of the station past the morning rush, or if you venture very far from the station at all. The streets aren’t exactly deserted; they’re just a little too quiet. At 10:00 I pass a garbage truck equipped with speakers playing a merry tune. Inside the cab, three young men sit stoically in the front seat, eyes straight ahead, blank expressions cast in stone.

The people I pass on the sidewalks are mostly of retirement age. From the spring in their steps, it’s clear they are out walking because they want to be. They smile and return my greetings, and a few even take the initiative and wish me “good morning” first.

Going down a long hill, I pass two murals in the concrete retaining wall. They depict the two industries on which Kushiro – and indeed, Hokkaido – was built. One shows a fishing boat and men casting nets. In the other, miners dig for coal with pneumatic drills and haul it away in railcars.

In the mid 1960s, coal production in Hokkaido peaked at 20 million tons. Four decades later, that number has fallen to zero. There’s still coal in Hokkaido, sometimes in veins running two to three meters thick. It’s the demand that’s vanished. Cheaper coal is readily available from China and Australia, and Japan relies on Middle Eastern oil for the majority of its energy needs.

In the wake of mine closures, shrinking towns drift on an ominous sea of uncertainty. The tourism pipe dreams of the 1990s have busted in the recession of the new millennium. The droves of tourists simply never showed at places like Canadian Frontier World and Swiss Alpine Village.

The last coal train in Hokkaido isn’t even connected to the national rail network. It runs on 8km of orphaned track on Kushiro’s aging eastside. The coal it hauls came out of the earth a few years back. The mine closed in 2003 and all that’s left is the stockpile. When it’s gone, the wheels will stop turning. For now, they roll once a day, just before 9:00 every morning on a single trip from the mine to the harbor and back.

The run is a model of efficiency, as the roundtrip, including unloading at the harbor, takes less than half an hour. The 24-car train has an engine on each end, and before it even comes to a stop at the docks, a brakeman cuts the train in half. The lead engine pulls its half onto one unloading trestle, while the rear engine shoves its half onto the other one. A dockworker on each trestle pulls a lever that dumps the coal from two cars at a time in a matter of seconds. Once the two halves are emptied, they quickly rejoin and head back to the mine.

With so little work to do, it's a wonder why there’s such a rush. I’d like to think it’s a lingering pride in a profession that once identified the whole island. I’m only guessing, and optimistically at that. I never talked to any of the workers, but their smiles and waves told me they were glad I was there, glad I had taken an interest in what they do. Such reactions most often come from pride.

I don’t know how much coal still waits at the mine for the 8km trip to the docks. I do know that it’s disappearing at the rate of 720 tons per day, and that’s it not being replaced. When it’s gone, the proud eyes of those railway, dock, and mine workers will have to look elsewhere for their identity.

Even in the long days of summer, twilight comes early in far eastern Hokkaido. A thick bank of fog has rolled in off the Pacific, and even though it’s not yet 7:00, the light in the sky is already fading. I’m in a bus with three other passengers rolling down Kita Odori, the main road leading out from the station. Businesses line both sides of the street, but most of them are closed with metal doors rolled down over their windows. Some have just closed for the evening. Others have been closed for much longer.

Back at the station, the evening commuter rush is already winding down. I find myself walking behind two high school girls wearing warm-up jackets. Printed in English, the backs of the jackets read, “Kushiro Commercial High School.” Commerical high schools in Japan are akin to vocational high schools in the U.S. They’re geared towards practical employment skills for students not planning on attending university. Ahead of me, the girls share a joke, laugh, and pull out their cell phones. Walking behind, I remember the words of Caz, the English teacher I stayed with during my first visit to Kushiro, a year and a half earlier. She worked at many of the lower level high schools in Kushiro, including Kushiro Commercial.

“Most of my students don’t have much to look forward to after graduation. A few might escape to Sapporo, but many will end up here, behind the counters of grocery and convenience stores.”

When the last coal train in Hokkaido comes to a final rest, it will close the book on an industry that once brought hope, prosperity and pride to Kushiro. The hope and prosperity may be gone, may even have been false from the beginning, but the pride remains. I hope a little of that pride can be preserved. There’s room for some tourism in Kushiro – the nearby Kushiro Wetlands already attracts a lot of visitors – although tourism certainly can’t be the panacea that saves the city.

The coal train runs through a park with a lake, and comes right alongside the ocean. The mine buildings and shops are still in good repair, and many of the locomotives are quite unique in Japan. With just a few passenger cars, the line could offer a pleasant ride between the mine and the harbor. If the proud eyes of the railway workers can welcome a camera-toting foreigner, surely they could also welcome buses of their curious countrymen, and share with them a bit of the history and the pride of their city.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Shiretoko: Bus Tours and Brown Bears

By the time the overnight bus from Sapporo arrived in Utoro, Maureen and I comprised half the passengers. Most of the riders on the less-than-half-filled bus had gotten off in Shari, an hour earlier. Utoro is a fishing and tourism village on the west coast of the Shiretoko peninsula, in far northeastern Hokkaido. Shiretoko comes from the indigenous Ainu word for “the end of the earth,” and that’s an apt description where Japan is concerned.

The peninsula juts 80km into the ocean and is a mere 25km wide at its base, getting narrower the farther out you go. The coastline is rugged and rocky, with countless snowmelt-fed waterfalls cascading down the steep cliff faces and snow-capped peaks rising over 1600m (more than a mile) along the peninsula’s towering spine. There are no roads to the tip of the peninsula, and pavement ends about halfway out. Winters are brutal here, and the one pass linking the eastern and western sides of the peninsula is only opened from mid-June to mid-October.

Peak tourist season in Shiretoko, which is a national park and world heritage site, doesn’t begin until mid-July, and then lasts but a scant two months. Some of the park’s best natural features are only accessible during peak season, a fact that our guidebook failed to mention. Or rather, I should say, a fact that didn’t exist when our four-year-old guidebook was published. That was the year the park achieved world heritage status, and many regulations were summarily tightened.

After pitching our tent in the Utoro campground, Maureen and I caught the first bus of the day out the peninsula to the famous Shiretoko Five Lakes. From there we had planned to visit Kamawakka-no-taki, a hot waterfall and natural hot spring, whose warm waters offer a sweet reward for the half hour hike up from the road.

However, upon arrival at the Five Lakes, we were greeted by signs and barricades at the trailhead: “Bear Alert: All Area Closed.” Shiretoko is home to about 600 Hokkaido brown bear, a less-vicious relative of the grizzlies found in North America. We didn't see any bears at the Five Lakes, though. Nor did we get to see the Five Lakes, either. We only got to see one of them, and it from a distance, on the observation deck at the end of a short boardwalk by the visitor’s center.

With the trails closed, that boardwalk and the visitor’s center comprised the entirety of the Things To Do at the Five Lakes. Nor could we carry on to the hot waterfall, as the access road was closed for another 3-1/2 weeks. And yet, despite all this, the tour buses still paraded through the parking lot, discharging their passengers in droves. One group after another filed out the boardwalk for a group photo at the observation deck, then stopped for ice cream at the visitor’s center, took yet another photo beside the Bear Alert signs, and then promptly filed back onto their buses and drove away.

I was quickly becoming disgusted by it all. As another wave of buses rolled into the parking lot, I turned to Mo and barked, “Why do they keep coming? Don’t they know there’s nothing to see here?!?!”

She was disappointed, too, but she helped me calm down and remember how bus tours operate in Japan. Bus tours in Japan are typically sold months in advance as part of all-inclusive vacation packages from Sapporo, Tokyo, and all over the country. They’re painfully short, painfully expensive, and every moment of the trip is planned down to the minutest detail. Many Shiretoko tour packages from Tokyo last only two or three days, including the flights and bus rides. But then, so many Japanese only take a few days’ vacation every year – or few years. With their time so short and their disposal income relatively high, it makes sense to pack in as much as possible on a well-planned tour. It just doesn’t leave a lot of room for flexibility if the trail around the Five Lakes is closed to bear activity.

Maureen and I didn’t see any bears, or even any hints of bears, at the Five Lakes. We later learned that the closure was due to a single bear sighting three days earlier, and that any bear sighting around the Five Lakes results in an automatic four day closure of the hiking trails. The staff at Shiretoko N.P. aren’t taking any chances. Even though we didn’t see any bears, we did see plenty of bear merchandise.

It was easy to feel bitter toward the whole situation after the long, expensive train and bus ride from Muroran. Especially when I had recently read that it’s been a full nine years since anyone has been killed by a bear anywhere in Japan. But as my irritation subsided and I began to think more objectively, I realized that could very well be the direct result of such cautious policies as the one at Shiretoko.

We caught the very next bus going south, back toward Utoro, but disembarked at the nature center to see what we could find. The trail to Furepe Waterfall was open, and the weather cleared just in time to give us a stunning view of the falls with the mountains towering in the background. We lingered for half an hour at the observation deck, enjoying the sun, the sound of the surf, and sea gulls gliding in the narrow bay below us. In that time, we shared our spot with exactly five other hikers. The falls were only a 20-minute walk from the nature center, but that seemed far enough to keep the tour bus patrons away.

From there we continued by bus to another waterfall, Oshinkoshin, south of Utoro. This one was right beside the road and packed by a steady stream of bus tours. We found an old road leading to a view at the top of the falls where we escaped the crowds, but in doing so missed the next bus back to Utoro. I suppose I should also add how that was also due to my misreading the timetable. It was over an hour until the next bus, and I was resigned to walking. Maureen, however, took matters into her own hands and within a few minutes managed to flag down a friendly local man who gave us a ride straight back to our campground.

The entrance to the campground was closed, and we had to wait with several other campers for about half an hour while park staff tracked down a baby bear that had somehow gotten into the campground, despite the high, electric fencing surrounding the property.

The next morning, we boarded the [i]Fox 2[/i] site-seeing boat for a ride out to Cape Shiretoko, the windswept tip of the peninsula. Our guidebook advised against the expensive boat tours, arguing that the money could be better spent on bike rentals, local bus fare, or kayaking, but with so much of the park currently inaccessible, we reasoned it was one of the best ways to still see a lot of the park. We were not disappointed.

The captain spoke English and the mate carried a pair of high-powered binoculars. Thanks to her sharp eyes, we spotted three different bears foraging along the coast, as well as an eagle. The small boat was able to stay close to the shore, giving us better views of the wildlife and the breathtaking waterfalls. We shared the waters with a few other site-seeing boats and several fishing boats, the latter operating out of tiny, seaside hamlets wedged into peninsula’s steep cliffs. The fishing villages have no roads leading in or out of them, and are accessible only by boat.

As we bobbed in the rolling waters out from the cape, I looked back down the long, wild peninsula, and thought of those bears searching for food along the coast. We are visitors in their home. Sometimes being good guests means not building roads everywhere, and closing others for much of the year. Even if that makes the bears habitat that much harder to see, there’s a part of me that’s happier knowing they’re still out there, running free and largely undisturbed. I think that’s worth the annoyance of missing out on a hike or two.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Sayonara Tour -- Prelude

I leave Japan in 22 days. After making a life here for the past year and a half, it's hard to believe it will all end so quickly. Before leaving, there's time for one more trip, and I'm departing presently. Today, I'll take a train to Sapporo, where Maureen will meet me after she finishes work. Tonight, we're taking the night bus to the Shiretoko peninsula in far northeastern Hokkaido. Shiretoko is a national park and world heritage site. Since receiving world heritage status, tourism has increased dramatically, but we're hoping to get off the beaten path, at least for a little while. On Sunday, Maureen will return to Muroran and go back to work on Monday, but I'm taking a slower path home.

By local train, I plan to travel from Shiretoko to Furano, where I'll rejoin Maureen next weekend for the Hokkaido English Teacher's summer meeting. Along the way, I hope to stop for camping and photography in the Kushiro Wetlands, along the coast, and on Karikachi Pass. After the meeting in Furano, Maureen and I will get a ride home in a friend's car. If all goes according to plan, that will be July 1. Look for more updates after that (unless the weather is bad and I find an internet cafe en route). I leave Japan on July 12.


Well, it seems I couldn't even make it a month into this "revival" of my blog without lapsing into nearly two weeks of no updates. For a guy without a job, I certainly manage to keep myself busy. Since his retirement 21 years ago, my grandfather loves to say that he doesn't know how he ever had time to work. I think I know what he means.

Two weekends ago, June 9-10, was the 16th annual Yosakoi Soran festival in Sapporo. Last year, both Maureen and I watched it and loved it. She loved it so much, in fact, that she decided to join a local team in Muroran and perform this year. Since the end of last summer, she has met with the 40 or so other members of Muroran Renaissance almost every Thursday evening for two hours of practice. For the two months leading up to the festival, she has also practiced with them for another two hours on Monday evenings, and for marathon 7-1/2 hour sessions on Sundays.

Each team creates and learns one dance, about four minutes in length, which they perform several times over the course of the festival. Maureen's team performed a total of 12 times on Saturday at six different venues, and 5 times on Sunday at three venues. Some of the locations are stages, while others are parades on closed-off streets. Different dance formations are required for both formats.

In their division, Maureen's team qualified as "semi-finalists." That's something like "honorable mention," since they don't actually compete in any semi-finals. That was the team's goal this year, so everyone was quite pleased. One of Maureen's students is a member of a team in a nearby city, which also qualified for the semifinals. Their team had practiced almost every evening. At school the next week, the student told Maureen, "I'm so disappointed. We spent all that time and didn't even win."

Of course, there are about 300 teams, and only one of them can win. This year's winning team came from Shin Kotoni, a suburb of Sapporo, and was in fact the same team that won last year.

For my part, I don't like to think of Yosakoi as a competition. "Festival" seems like a much better term. Yosakoi is special to me because it's a beautiful display of movement, color, and coordination. Nearly every team performs at a very high level, and almost all are made up of amateurs, practicing after work and on the weekends simply for their love of dance. They come from all over Hokkaido, Japan, and even the world, to perform, and the spectators come from just as far and wide to watch them. The crowds are big at every one of the dozens of venues, and everyone watches with rapt attention and respectful silence...until bursting into applause with the final note. If we need to have a winner and losers for that kind of spetacle, I'm willing to accept it. But sometimes it's a pretext I wish we could transcend, and simply perform for the love of the dance.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Quarry at Lake Kanayama

On the map, it looked like about 8 kilometers from Kanayama station to the Lake Kanayama campground. I’m normally not one to shy away from an 8K walk along the side of a lake, but considering how much walking I’d already done in the past few days, combined with all the camping gear weighing down my backpack, further combined with the knowledge that I’d still have a good bit of walking to do in the evening to take photos…well, this was one walk I wasn’t exactly anticipating with glee. After seeing off the one-car local train that had brought me to Kanayama station, I walked into the empty waiting room, rested my bulging pack in a corner, and stepped out the front door.

The overnight cloud cover was scattering beneath a bright blue spring sky, and the trees on the surrounding hills radiated a blinding shade of new green when the sunlight caught them. A scattering of buildings appeared down the road to the right, a short block or two of Kanayama “proper.” There was a small, empty parking lot in front of the station, and across from it a round metal sign hanging high on a post glinted in the sun and caught my eye. The sign marked a bus stop. I grabbed my map and checked the characters for the posted destinations. One of them was definitely in the direction of the campground.

A couple minutes after the advertised 9:46, a spotless minibus pulled up in front of the station. No one else had joined me at the round sign. The driver was an older man with a ready smile who didn’t even wait for me to finish asking (slowly) whether the bus stopped at the campground before assuring me that it did. A middle-aged woman sat in the front row, but otherwise I had my choice of the 20 upholstered seats with white lace covering the headrests. I dropped my bag into one and myself into another, and then noticed that the radio was playing an English song. “Wonderwall,” by Oasis.

Eight winding kilometers later, the bus stopped at the campground. I bid farewell to the other passenger and driver, who thanked me in English as I paid my fare: 100 yen, less than a dollar.

The expansive campground occupied a long swath of relatively level ground on the north shore of Lake Kanayama. Several vendors’ stalls lined one side of the road, and behind them was a large recreation center and bathhouse. Given their well-maintained appearance, I presume they have plenty of business in-season. It’s just that camping season in Hokkaido lasts a scant two months, so even though it was turning into an absolutely glorious spring Friday in the mountains, only one of the stalls was opened and the rec center was deserted except for a few workers.

Across the street, the campground looked like it could easily accommodate a few hundred tents, but on this day it was equally deserted. I checked in with the caretaker who pointed to the broad, grassy fields with not so much as another camper in site, and told me that I could pitch my tent anywhere I liked. Once that was accomplished, I pulled off my boots and socks, and reveled in the simple pleasure of walking barefoot through the lush grass. I waded up to my ankles in the lake’s cold, refreshing water and sat on the bank.

On the opposite shore, I could make out a small railway bridge through a break in the trees: the Nemuro mainline. It was once the mainline of eastern Hokkaido, but today it is a mainline in name only. In 1981, the newly-completed Sekisho Line opened up a 45-km shortcut and relegated the eastern third of the Nemuro mainline to secondary status. Today there are no freights and no express trains plying the south shore of Lake Kanayawa, just a handful of one-car locals that run nearly empty, except for the crowds of high school students in the mornings and evenings of school days.

I had ridden one of those local trains along the south shore earlier that morning, on the way to Kanayama station. I had also ridden the line 15 months earlier, and on those two trips I thought I had had a pretty good look at the lake and its surroundings. That was why I was shocked to see that, just behind the tracks, the face of one entire hillside had been scraped away. From across the lake, the quarry looked less like something that had been unearthed, and more like something that had been stabbed into the land. The sea of green extended to the horizon in every direction, except for that one stark hill.

The next morning, I was packed up long before the first buses were running. There was another train station near the quarry, and it turned out to be much closer than going back to Kanayama. Approaching the denuded hillside, I had hoped to at least find a prospering settlement, but of course I didn’t. Instead I found only the remains of one. Shuttered houses with overgrown yards lined the deserted, crumbling streets. A lone fisherman cast his line down by the lake, while on the hill above, a single haul truck prowled the quarry.

Outside the empty station, the Nemuro line split into two tracks around an island platform. Beyond them, four rusty sidings – some with rails dating back to 1930 – were slowly being reclaimed by the weeds. It has been a long time since any stone was shipped out by rail. So many extraction industries come with a promise of bringing prosperity to their surroundings. Eventually, though, the story always seems to end as it has at Kanayama, with abandoned buildings, displaced residents, and deep scars on the landscape that nature alone is left to heal.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

2500 Kilometers Later

There were only a few other people aboard the one-car local when it pulled up to the low, flat-roofed building that is the Esashi train station. There are no sidings or extra tracks at the end of the line, just the single stub of rails running into a pile of gravel and a steel buffer. The open field beside that one track told me that it hadn’t always been that way, but the weeds between the rails and the moldy ticket gates told me that it had been that way for a while.

Inside, I was surprised to find that the station was manned. An attendant sat behind the open window where only six of the one-car trains arrive and depart each day. The waiting room was neat and expansive, with racks of colorful travel brochures and three long rows of plastic chairs facing a kerosene heater. One woman sat on them.

My train had passed the high school shortly before pulling into the station, but downtown Esashi, a coastal town of 10,000 in far southwest Hokkaido, was still a kilometer distant. It was only 9:19 in the morning, and the last train didn’t leave until 7:00 in the evening, so I easily could have walked there, sought out some vestiges of the Esashi Oiwake folk music that had its beginnings in the town, or even caught a ferry to Okushiri Island, a 60 km ride off the coast.

In the end, I did none of those. I took a short walk past the convenience store, factory, and rows of apartment buildings clustered near the station, then got back on the same train that had brought me there. Almost as an afterthought, I walked back onto the platform and snapped a self-portrait with the station sign. I was already starting to dose in my seat when the train pulled out at 10:08.

That was how my journey ended, a journey of 2499.7 kilometers covering every active JR line in Hokkaido (and another 140 kilometers of a now-closed private railway). I’ve ridden nearly all of those kilometers twice, some a few more times, and some more times than I can begin to count. I’ve also spent countless hours and days exploring and photographing those lines, their surroundings, and the trains that run on them. That journey isn’t finished yet, and perhaps never will be. Far more than ticking off every kilometer of track, it’s really my main journey here…and everywhere I go.

So that’s what I did after visiting Esashi, although not along the branchline with its smattering of one-car locals. I instead rode back to the junction with the Kaikyo mainline, where express trains and container freights roar through the Seikan Tunnel at the rate of three or four every hour. Maybe it comes from an American longing for distant horizons, but I feel a much stronger connection to those long-haul trains of the Japanese mainlines, than the puttering, all-stations locals of the branches, atmospheric as they may be.

Looking back on my railway roamings throughout Hokkaido, I’ve spent the vast majority of my time along the mainlines. There are five other stub-ended branchlines in Hokkaido similar to the Esashi Line, with one-car locals rolling out and back to distant terminals. I’ve done little more than roll out and back once on those lines myself. The places where I’ve lingered are the places where night trains glide along with their sleeping patrons between Hokkaido and Honshu, where expresses link distant cities with the populous interior, and where freight trains haul away the agriculture bounty of every harvest.

Along those lines, I’ve worn out the leather on two pairs of boots. I’ve slept in the waiting rooms of rural stations and camped in the hills to be in position for the sunrise. I’ve spent nearly-sleepness nights just to see the way the full moon glints off the winding rails. I’ve waded streams, dodged snakes, gotten stung by a two-inch wasp (no exaggeration), hacked through six-foot high weeds, and crossed mountain passes on snowshoes. And out there, along those steel rails, I’ve experienced moments of such complete sensory perfection that they defy both words and images to capture them.

Still, I ask myself why I do it. Why shiver in a tent when I could be in my warm bed beside my wife? Why eat instant noodles off my campstove, alone, when I could be dining and drinking with friends? Why trudge out the long kilometers between stations, heavy pack on back, just to find that perfect angle for a photo? Why sit on a hillside swatting black flies and mosquitoes when I could be writing at my desk or reading in a cushy armchair? Those moments of perfection are indeed great rewards, but even considering them, the equation defies conventional logic. And yet I’ve been asking myself these same questions for years now, and something tells me that I’ll keep asking them for all of my life.

James J. Hill, the man who built the Great Northern Railway across the northwestern U.S., said at his retirement, “Most men who have really lived have had, in some shape, their great adventure. This railway is mine.” For me, I wonder if there can be any one railway, or indeed any one entity of any shape or form, that can ever be my own “great adventure.” There are times I’ve doubted it, but at those times, perhaps I was looking in the wrong place.

Hill’s adventure was an outward one, embodied in a physical entity. But who’s to say that another man’s great adventure can’t be inward? For me, then, I think the great adventure of my own life is taking place inside myself. It’s my own journey to discover just exactly who I am, and what I’m capable of. That journey will last my lifetime, and even then, I don’t expect to arrive at a destination. But even an inward journey must follow some path. I’ve found none better than those parallel steel rails, stretching off to the horizon.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

One to Go

When I came to Hokkaido 18 months ago, I endeavored to ride all of the island's 2500 km of railway. I only have one line to go, a branchline to the coastal city of Esashi in the far southwest. I'm going there this week to ride it, as well as to take photographs along the nearby Kaikyo mainline, which goes through the Seikan Tunnel, beneath the Tsuruga Straights. So, I won't be online for a few days. Check back in a week or so.

War is Easy

Last night, Maureen and I watched The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise. If you're not familiar with the movie, it's a lot like Dances With Wolves meets the Meiji Restoration. Cruise plays an Army capitan, haunted by his part in a massacre of native Americans, who goes to Japan to teach fighting techniques to the new Japanese military, whose primary objective is to crush a rebellion led by samurai (aka the Sioux from Dances) in Japan's still-rural north. Cruise is captured and (predictably) takes to the traditional life in the samurai village. When given the chance to return to his old post, he instead chooses to help the samurai.

Historically, the movie dramatized the ideals of the samurai life while overlooking many of the realities, particularly those concerning the samurai of the late 1800s, the setting for the movie. At that time there had been some 200 years of relative peace within Japan, and many of the samurai were often little more than privileged, conservative aristocracy, whose concerns were as much about economics as honor. For a good overview, check out the following article on National Geographic's website.

Still, the movie was entertaining, featuring epic cinematography and dramatic battles. For both Maureen and me, however, the most enjoyable parts of the movie were the scenes in the samurai village of Cruise stumbling to his understanding of traditional Japanese life. There, the portrayals of culture differences and misunderstandings were accurate and well-done. Eventually, the entire village takes Cruise as one of their own. In the climactic, final battle between the samurai and the Japanese Army, one hardened samurai who was particularly slow to come around to Cruise gives his life for him by taking a bullet in the chest.

While the act was heroic and made for good on-screen drama, it also underscores a very tragic phenomena of human relations. That character in the movie learned to die for Cruise's character, even though he wanted to kill him in the beginning. So often, it is so much easier to die for something, than it is to live for it.

Regarding that same human condition, Dostoevsky wrote the following:

"...he was spoiling for immediate action, was prepared to sacrifice everything, his life itself, in an act of supreme devotion. Unfortunately, these young men often fail to understand that the sacrifice of their lives may be the easiest of all sacrifices, much easier, for instance, than giving up five or six years of their seething youth to hard study, to the acquisition of knowledge which would increase their strength tenfold in the service of that same cause, and in the performance of the great works they aspire to. But to sacrifice those few years to study often proves too much for them."

When two young boys come to blows in the school yard, it's because they're taking the easy way out. Resolving their differences with their minds becomes too difficult for them, so they instead turn to their fists. That much I know from experience. And in the moment of rushing at my tormentor, it did indeed seem so much easier than any other possible solution. Only afterwards, as one eye swelled shut and my bruises throbbed, did I began to realize the folly of my decision.

Tragically, as societies we don't seem to learn very much from these childhood encounters. Violence is still there, always looming on the horizon as the "easy" solution. Of course, it isn't easy, not in the long run, as all wounds need time to heal, and some of them never fully do. But it's all too easy to overlook all of that in the crucial moment when making the decision to strike. If you're wondering why, after millennia of human conflict, we're still having wars, it's because, at least for an instant, they present that guise of being the easiest solution.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

First Camping Trip

I’ve just returned from my first camping trip of the year, a single overnight in the mountains near Niseko, to the southwest of here. My muscles ache from carrying the heavy pack over rough terrain, my heels are blistered, there are about a dozen little cuts on my hands, and I’m trying hard not to scratch the countless places that now itch from various bug bites and leaf contact. And of course I’m eagerly anticipating my next trip, and hoping it will be longer.

I was excited before this trip, too, but also nervous. As I stepped off the train at a deserted station and started climbing the hillside, leaving civilization down below, I walked with the anxiety that each step was taking me farther from my comfort zone, and that I wouldn’t be returning to that comfort zone until the next morning – on the far side of night. After a long climb up into the woods, I cleared off a small patch of earth just big enough for my tent. I stayed busy exploring and taking photos all afternoon and evening, but then night descended and the wind rose.

When you’re alone on a mountain, there’s nothing like the wind to remind you of just how alone you are. It buffeted the tent, rising and falling through the trees and tearing at my heart with every gust. There are bears in Hokkaido, and even though there aren’t very many in southwest Hokkaido, and it’s been several years since anyone in Japan has been killed by one, every noise out in the forest still set me on edge.

I was expecting all of that, though. It’s always like that the first night I’m out camping, and even moreso on the first trip of the season. So why go at all? Camping simplifies things, removing distractions and heightening awareness. As the wind howled through the hills outside, I pulled out my harmonica (which I’ve recently started trying to learn again) and drove out the loneliness by filling the tent with the chords of “Oh Susana.” When I stopped, the wind had fallen, and down in the valley below, the peeping frogs of the flooded rice fields were sending their nightly chorus into the air. I read Dostoevsky by flashlight until falling into a restless, fitful sleep.

At home, I would have slept well. I also would have stayed up late in front of the computer, clicking away in my nightly search for answers and meaning online. In my tent, I made music, read a classic Russian author, and listened to the sounds of springtime in the night.

In the morning, I was tired, but at peace with my surroundings. No bears had come, although the wind had risen again and blew a small thunderstorm across the adjacent ridge just before dawn. By mid-morning, the fog had burned off to reveal another bright, spring day under clear blue skies. I returned to the deserted station and rode south to Niseko, where I spent the afternoon taking photos along the river, reading and playing more harmonica, before heading home in the evening.

Several high school students boarded the same train at Niseko. Three girls sat in front of me, talking and giggling, and occasionally glancing at me. One of them, the one who wore bright, checkered Converse All-Stars instead of traditional penny loafers with her school uniform, took out an English textbook and began reading aloud, checking the meanings of various words with her two friends. It quickly became obvious that this pretense of studying was simply a ploy to gain my attention. My policy in such situations is to not make the first move, although eventually I helped them along by noticeably chuckling at their “studying.” It was enough.

“Hello!” the girl in the bright hi-tops called out.

“Hello,” I returned. “Do you like English?”

“Yes I do!”

She rose from her seat and stood beside mine. We made introductions and remained like that, me sitting and she standing in the aisle beside me, for the remaining 20 minutes until her stop. We filled those 20 minutes with the kind of small talk that is so good for language practice. It was the same kind of predictably repetitious chitchat that I normally deplore, making it one of my main excuses for having studied so little Japanese. Here, though, it wasn’t deplorable at all. Maybe that was because I was so happy for some human contact after a night in the woods, maybe because she was willing to approach me despite my mud and sweat stained clothes and unshaven face, or maybe because she just seemed so genuinely interested in me.

As we approached her stop, she told me that she would write about me in her diary that night, and asked if I would tell my wife about her.

“Of course!” I shot back.

She then asked me to move across the aisle so she could waive to me from the platform as the train pulled out. Touched by the gesture, I was only too happy to comply. She and her two friends waived with both hands, and as the train began to move, I blew her a kiss through the window. She positively glowed, and blew two back to me.

The train was a lot quieter after that, rolling into the blue light of late evening. I was still smiling on the inside, though, and was for some time to come. I’m certain she was, too. What a wonderful exchange when two people can come away so much happier than they were before. I suddenly thought back to my previous post about living without a car here. With a car, I’d have been struggling to stay awake on a long drive home, instead of leaning back and staring lazily out the window. And I wouldn’t have met her.

Lest I forget, the main reason for this trip was to take railroad photos on the Hakodate Line, which was the original mainline between Sapporo and Hakodate. It’s since been replaced in that capacity by the Muroran Line, so that now, between Oshamambe and Otaru, the only trains on the Hakodate Line are a handful of one- and two-car locals. But these rails, laid in 1966, once felt the weight of double-headed steam express trains.

There is actually one train with some length to it, a six-car commuter run that comes directly from Sapporo in the evenings. I timed my camping trip to see it climbing into the mountains at dusk.

The Hakodate Line runs in the shadow of Mt. Yotei (1898m), locally known as “Ezo-Fuji,” or “The Mt. Fuji of Hokkaido.”

While waiting for a train to cross a bridge, I was passed by about 20 rafts of Japanese whitewater adventurers, all striking peace sign poses for my camera.

Monday, May 21, 2007


Top of the seventh, two outs, runners on first and second. As the next hitter steps in, the man on first takes a long lead. The midday sun shines down unforgivingly on the brown earth of the infield, and the pitcher looks intently to home plate, getting his sign from the catcher. With a nod he leans back and prepares to go into his windup. Then suddenly, with a deft flick of the wrist, he fires the ball out to the first baseman. The runner is frozen like prey in a cobra’s gaze. Realizing too late what has happened, he makes a mad dash back for the safety of the bag, only to be met with the hard leather of the first baseman’s mitt. End of the inning.

As the home team runs off the field, the pitcher and first baseman touch gloves and beam as if they’d just made the last out of the World Series. Several teammates come up to congratulate them, and the whole bench rises in a warm welcome at the dugout. Before sitting, the whole team huddles in preparation for their coming at-bats.

Up in the stands, I’m caught up in the team’s exuberance, but I’m also confused. To be sure, the pickoff was a good play, executed to perfection after who-knows-how-many repetitions in practice. Had it preserved a one-run lead, I would have understood the joy. But that wasn’t the case. Prior to vanquishing that runner from first, the pitcher had given up three runs in the inning, and his team now trailed by four. With only three innings left to bat, a comeback seemed unlikely. Had this been an American high school baseball game, the pickoff would likely have been followed only by a collective sigh of relief.

But it wasn’t an American high school game. It was in Japan, at a regional high school tournament in southern Hokkaido. There are two national high school baseball tournaments in Japan each year, one in the spring, and another in the summer. Every high school in the country can compete, and many do – about 4,000 each year. The road to the final stage, at Koshien Stadium in Tokyo, is a long one, with only one victor from each regional tournament being invited. At the end, a single national champion is crowned.

Those are much higher stakes than in the U.S., where there is no national tournament in any high school sport. Each state holds its own tournament, and most further divide the participating schools into a few divisions, based on their enrollments. With 50 states and an average of three divisions each, that’s 150 American high school baseball teams who can claim the title of champion each year. In Japan, there can be a maximum of two, although the Summer Koshien so overshadows its spring predecessor that in reality there can be only one. One in 4,000.

Japan is so enamored with the tournament that teenage national heroes are born every August on Koshien’s hallowed grounds. Current Boston Red Sox phenom “Dice-K” Matsuzaka was propelled to instant stardom by his epic performance in the 1998 Summer Koshien. American high schools take great care to preserve the health of their players, especially pitchers, who are so easily injured by the rigors of their position. U.S. high school games last only seven innings, and pitchers are limited to throwing a total of seven innings per week. There are no such regulations in Japan. Games last the full nine innings, and pitchers are allowed to throw as much as they’re physically able…and sometimes more.

On August 19, 1998, Matsuzaka, an 18 year old with a 95 mph fastball, pitched a complete game shutout in the third round of the tournament. The next day, he was the starting pitcher in the quarterfinal game. The game ended in a tie and went to extra innings. The tie was not broken until the 17th inning. Matsuzaka pitched every one of them, prevailing in victory after throwing 250 pitches. The semifinals were the very next day. Matsuzaka was given a “rest” in left field, but after seven innings, his team was behind, 0-6. Over the next two innings, they put together a furious comeback, scoring seven runs. Matsuzaka came in from left field and pitched the ninth to notch the victory. Still, the young hurler wasn’t finished. The final game was, once again, the very next day. Matsuzaka was standing on the mound when it started. Nine innings later, he had thrown the only no-hitter in championship game history.

For Matsuzaka, it meant his face on the cover of every sports magazine in the country, and a lucrative professional contract immediately upon graduation. His story, of course, is exceptional. The results are far different for nearly all of the other 80,000-some boys who compete in the tournament every year.

Both of the national tournaments, as well as the regional tournaments leading up to them, are single elimination. Lose once, and you’re finished, like March Madness for high school baseball. I understood that much, sitting in the stadium as the teams switched places between innings. But there is a crucial difference that I did not know: March Madness follows a 30+ game regular season. American high school baseball teams play about 20 regular season games before their state playoffs. In Japanese high school athletics, there are no regular seasons. I’ll say that again, because it took me a long time to understand. There are no regular seasons.

Back on the field, the home team came to bat in the bottom of the seventh and scored once, reclaiming one of the runs they had lost in the top of the inning. But then no one else scored again in the rest of the game. Had it not been for the three runs allowed in the top of the seventh, by the same pitcher whose pickoff play was so jubilantly celebrated, that one run in the bottom of the seventh would have tied the game and forced extra innings. As it was, the visiting team won the game, 11-8.

As I said before, when I watched that game, I did not understand that Japanese high school baseball has no regular season. I did know, however, that Japanese high school baseball has no off-season. Perhaps I should repeat that, too. There is no off-season. That fact was driven home to me by my year of teaching English in a Japanese high school. Every day -- every day after school, I passed the baseball team doing conditioning exercises in the hall. When the school year had started in April, that made sense. By September, I was beginning to wonder how long the “season” would last. By December, with the snow piled high on the baseball field, I was becoming perplexed.

I had several of the baseball players in class, and often greeted them as I passed them practicing in the hall. One day, in early winter, I pulled one aside.

“Do you practice everyday after school?” I asked.

“Yes! Everyday!” he replied enthusiastically.

“When is your next game?”

He thought about it for a moment, then replied, “In May.”

There are no three-sport high school jocks in Japan, no basketball players who pole vault during track season, no swimmers who show off their speed and conditioning in cross country meets, and no tennis stars who also don fencing masks. Japanese high school athletes play one sport, and one sport only. They practice it year-round, everyday after school and sometimes before school, too. Many teams require their athletes to give up their spring, summer and winter holidays to yet more practices.

For all their labors they get but one or two chances to shine each year, one or two single-elimination tournaments to pour out a year’s worth of nearly constant practices. The reward for the chosen few like Dice-K is huge. But for fully half of the participants in every tournament, their “season” lasts exactly one a game: a single loss.

For the good player on a bad team, there is no chance to bat .400 or lead the league in RBIs. There is one chance, and only chance, to prove yourself. It doesn’t matter how many homeruns you might clout in practice. If you go 0-for-4 in an opening round loss, then that is your only official stat line for the entire year.

The home team, whose season had just ended, was luckier than most in Japan. They had advanced to the third round of their regional qualifying tournament, winning two games and giving them more victories than fully 3/4s of all the teams in the country. When their pitcher threw out the runner at first, it may have been the only time in his entire “official” career that he would ever throw out a runner at first. And that after practicing first base pickoffs ad infinitum in the previous year.

After the game, the two teams met in front of home plate, lined up, turned, and bowed to each other. Then the home team ran to the bleachers where its fans still sat. They again lined up, bowed deeply to their fans, and shouted in unison, “Thank you very much!” I was already walking out, and gave only a few claps of cursory applause. Had I known then what I know now, I’d like to think I’d have been a little more respectful.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

A Fine Evening in Nagawa

After three days of rain, I awoke this morning to deep blue, cloud-dappled skies. Everything, including the air, had been washed clean by the rain. The hills are coming alive in their new green, and farmers are busy flooding their fields for the summer rice crop. After lunch, I caught a local train to Usu station, 45 minutes to the southwest, where I back tracked along the coastal roads. The wind was up and whipping little, white-capped waves along Volcano Bay, where I climbed a hill to a tiny shrine and watched a southbound freight motor by on the mainline.

From there, I joined the main road and continued towards Nagawa, and then climbed up to a hillside field overlooking the tidal plain. Here I present part of the evening parade in three movements, sunlight, twilight and starlight.