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.


Tim said...

Great stuff Scott - I'm in the midst of a bike/hike trip myself - a nice break to pop into a library and read your blog. Thanks.

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