The train to Yubari ran its final journey in 2019, just one year before we arrived in Japan. Yubari station had initially been constructed in 1892, so while I’m sad I missed what has been recounted to me as a very romantic journey through mountainside melon farms and forests, I have to admit 127 years is a pretty good innings.
The fate of Japan’s rural rail stations matches that of its rural population in general; aging and fast disappearing as the country centralises around the ever-expanding Tokyo metropolis. Yubari’s is no different, and the fact it stayed open so late is honestly quite surprising to me given the town’s population had crashed decades earlier. Still, the train is sorely missed. Posters commemorating the train’s “Last Ride” are still hung on the walls of the few restaurants in town.
Last week we met the wonderful lady who used to be Yubari’s assistant English teacher 12 years ago. Andromeda explained that she used to take the scenic ride all the way to Chitose airport – a convenience Ashlee and I could only dream of. At that time, she said, the town was most active and vibrant around the station area, where the (now defunct) ski resort and shrine reside. She smiled as she described what it was like walking between the handful of bars that dotted the surrounding streets, enjoying a night of merriment with coworkers and local friends before walking home to her apartment. Ashlee’s apartment is further down the mountain, closer to the town’s new hub, but still too far from anything to be within walking distance. Her car is a necessity of both her work and general Yubari life, a fact which makes my car-less existence in Nanporo – a small farming town about 100km away – feel all the more luxurious. There’s nothing in Nanporo I can’t walk to; a good pace and long legs will get you to the farthest corner within a half hour.
Yubari’s abandoned railways are all the more scenic for their lack of overhead power lines. Andromeda explained that, especially in the icy climes of Hokkaido, coaxing a train up a mountain wasn’t something electric engines dealt with particularly well. Besides, a powered railway would be a lot of infrastructure to put in place for a line that usually ran a single car with the driver up front. Just a big diesel taxi that only ran along one track, really. But then, in Yubari, the whole town pretty much runs along one long road anyway, so you wouldn’t miss much.
These days the old Yubari railway station is a cafe. I think it’s also supposed to be a visitor centre, but that role probably made more sense when the ski resort directly opposite it wasn’t an abandoned husk. Regardless, if you’re passing through it’s definitely worth a stop. The old folks that run the shop are really nice, and their son makes some damn fine cakes; sends them up to Yubari, fresh from his trendy pâtissier in Sapporo each morning. Or maybe each week. Time moves slow in Hokkaido’s countryside.