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.

1 comment:

Tim said...

Nice post Scott - I never made it to Kushiro but I'd go back to ride the train.

I'm about to read through your most recent 3 blogs - what a treat.

And Maureen sure does look radiant in those Yosakoi shots.