Detouring from Sapporo to Furano

There is something ineffably magic and romantic about catching a train that other forms of transport cannot hope to replicate. So it is of great sadness to me when a railway line closes.

I know I’m not alone with this sentiment and it is in evidence during my adventures today.

It is not just the Yubari Line facing closure in Hokkaido. Their proposed map of lines under threat includes some major connections along with other branches more substantial than Yubari.

The Sassho Line is one such stretch where the closure of the non-electrified section has already been negotiated with the local government, though I’m not aware of a set date. Right now there is only one service a day. I intend to be on it.

I have lots of other rides planned for today, almost twelve hours on eight or so trains, eventually ending up at Furano in the centre of Hokkaido. The other two won’t be joining me. After yesterday’s adventures they are going directly to Furano.

My first train, to Ishikari-Tobetsu, departs at two minutes to seven from Sapporo station, which is still mostly closed when I arrive. The electric train is carrying commuters through the suburbs before entering the bucolic rural surrounds made especially pretty by the clear early morning skies.

There’s a big rush across the platform at the Ishikari-Tobetsu terminus as passengers change trains to the single diesel KiHa 40 rail car waiting to run the rest of the line. I stand at the rear of the train as the driver will be also collecting tickets at the front exit.

With a gentle roar of the engines we set off.

Most passengers get off at the next stop, Hokkaid┼Ź-Iry┼Źdaigaku, the end of the electric line and the future terminus of the Sassho Line.

Then we trundle off along this quiet rural line. Besides us is the main road with trucks and cars overtaking us. I can see why it would be cheaper and easier to replace this train with a bus. The numbers aboard would fit and it would be faster and more flexible without the need to pay for a whole separate infrastructure.

That doesn’t mean I want it to happen. There’s no romance in a bus.

I’m in no hurry, just happy to chug along past the farms and the forests, leaves yellowing in the autumn season.

The train comes to a stop along the line and the driver makes and announcement in Japanese which I can’t understand. I hear a notification from my phone. The JapanOfficial app has a warning of a magnitude four earthquake in 0 minutes, which isn’t much help. I wonder if that’s why we stopped. Not that I felt anything. The train ride itself was much bumpier.

These warnings are possible as Japan is seeded with detectors of the initial P (primary) waves which travel faster than the S (secondary) waves responsible for most of the damage. The system sends out warnings, hopefully giving enough time for trains to stop and to find a safer location.

After a minute or two we are off again.

Many stations look abandoned, paint cracking on their waiting room exteriors or temporary fences erected around their single platforms, replacing collapsing structures. Ishikari-Tsukigata has a passing loop where we wait for another train to pass, which surprises me as I thought we were the only one. Passengers pile out to take photos and collect a stamp from the station.

Then off we continue along our way. Here is this little line through farmland and the odd collections of houses, not even towns. It feels like a line going nowhere, but I love it all the same. I think of a poem I wrote earlier, one that guides this trip through Hokkaido.

Lonely train through a quiet place
Take your time, no need to race!
Wind whispering through the reeds
Bending to its silent needs

Along the fields made of dust
Past the towns becoming rust
Platforms devoid of people now
Nobody around to tell you how

The trains came to take them away
Children left to elsewhere play
To cities tall and full of light
Never knowing the stars at night
Nor hearing peace amongst the noise
So busy playing with their toys

Yet here I am in their wake
The slow path I choose to take
Wandering this decaying land
I hear myself and understand.

Our route now parallels the main line north to Asahikawa, another reason why this line is facing death. The locals haven’t given up the fight though.

As we pull into the terminus of the line at Shin-Totsukawa we are greeted by young children handing out hand coloured postcards. A little boy giggles crazily at the sight of me. My white skin, hairy legs or the packs on my front and back? I don’t know, but I smile back.

Apparently the children, from the day care centre at the hospital across the road, have been doing this since 2011.

Standing in front of the small station building are a couple dressed in bright green shirts sporting “Save the Shintotsukawa station” on their backs. The afro haired man holds a dog dressed in a station master’s costume.

Good luck!

I linger in the tiny station waiting room, put a station stamp in my book. The Japanese love their stamps, but I generally have not bothered. It seems wrong not to this time.

Many of the enthusiasts riding the train will probably return on it back to Ishikari-Tobetsu, or at least photograph it as it leaves. I have a different path to follow and much further to travel. On perusing the map I see that the major interchange station of Takikawa is only a few kilometres away and have decided to walk the distance.

I dare not delay any longer, though the souvenir cafe across the road looks tempting and I wouldn’t mind visiting the facilities. With around twenty kilograms of bags on my front and back I farewell Shin-Tokotsukawa station for what is likely to be the last time and set off under the clear warm skies.

What strikes me most is how quiet Japan can be outside of central Tokyo and Osaka. Even the traffic hums along more peacefully than its Australian equivalents. I walk along the deserted suburban streets, stopping to admire flowers and gardens, then meet the main road leading to the big bridge across the Ishikari river.

On the left corner prior to the bridge is a memorial stonemason, on the right a Seicomart kombini (convenience store). Again, so tempting to go in and grab a snack, but I look at the clock and I haven’t made as much progress as I would like.

Behind me, I hear the sound of the train departing from Shin-Totsukawa and turn around to watch it leave, glad that I at least got that opportunity to do so.

There are blooming wildflowers along the embankments and, on the eastern side of the river, a broad green grass and asphalt runway for gliders.

None are currently flying, but there is a wonderful view of the surrounds from the middle of the bridge, the river flowing lazily along without the snow meltwater.

Behind the aerodrome is Takikawa. I navigate through the backstreets using Google Maps, pushing myself to hurry as express trains and level crossing sirens can be heard along the main line.

Takikawa Station is much more substantial than its threatened cousin across the river. A glider sits mounted out the front. I race straight to the bathroom facilities, just in time.

When I emerge I still have ten minutes to wait, but am disappointed to find there is no cafe or convenience store inside or adjacent to the station. Just a few vending machines, and most of the time in Japan they only serve drinks.

I decide to try a hot banana latte, but only after ordering it wonder if that means banana flavoured coffee, especially as there is both hot cocoa and hot cocoa latte also available. Probably not, but I can’t get the image of coffee out of my head and discard the drink after a few sips. I am probably the only adult programmer in the world who hates coffee.

The comfortable Lilac Express arrives, late, and I jump aboard an unreserved carriage for the fifteen minute ride up the line to Fukagawa. It’s lateness means I am potentially in big trouble, as I have a tight connection to my next train.

We arrive in Fukagawa with barely a minute to spare and I race across the platform with a few other passengers and into the two car silver and red KiHa 54 diesel set.

The Lilac Express pulls out as I enter and I think I spot B and Alex riding in car 4. They later tell that I am correct, but they are facing the other way and do not notice me. The two of them are heading for that train’s terminus at Asahikawa and then on to the Furano line to its namesake city. I am taking the longer route.

This is the Rumoi Main Line, though it feels more like another branch line. The section beyond Rumoi to Mashike was closed in December of 2016, despite the terminus starring in its own movie Eki (Station).

Unfortunately I missed the opportunity to ride on that section, but I’m determined to ride on the remaining section today.

The line starts with some standard farmland scenery. I’ve seen a lot of that already today, but there are some agricultural factories along the way. Is it potato chips they are making? I’m not certain. Maybe I’m being confused by stations with Chippubetsu in their name.

As we move up into the mountains we meet forests and Autumn foliage, the line becoming very scenic.

There are station buildings, once ticket offices but now only waiting rooms, at many stops along the way. Some, like Fujiyama, are wooden, unpainted and looking destitute and unloved. Others, like Horonuka, utilise old two axle passenger carriages as waiting rooms. With Hokkaido’s cold winters shelter is a necessity.

The aforementioned Chippubetsu Station has well cared for flowerbeds and Halloween pumpkin decorations.

The most interesting of the station buildings is not actually an operational. Ashimoi Station, near Ebishima, was built as a film set for the Japanese series Suzuran.

I’m standing at the front of the train as if I were driving it, watching the tracks flow towards me.

The length of the journey is a tad under an hour and we arrive at the coastal city of Rumoi a little after midday. Though the railway line continues on into the distance buffer stops signal its truncation here. After a procession of tiny stops, Rumoi is a moderately large station with three platforms signifying that it once played a large role in the past.

Though my train is returning, I have scheduled an hour in Rumoi to have lunch and maybe even explore a little. Out to the side of the station I quickly spot Ekimae Kaiei, a small ramen joint apparently featured in the Michelin Guide’s Bib Gourmant.

I don’t care about such things, but it’s close, I’m hungry and I haven’t had a good ramen in a while.

Ekimae Kaiei sports an American flag on the outside, old US decor inside and 50 hits playing. I am motioned towards the counter, leaving my bags on the bench behind, and, listening to the other patrons, order a “special”. Shoyu is the other popular option.

The thick sauce is full of deep fried spring onions, like the toppings on an Indonesian meal, and thick sliced pork and it tastes great. I tried to convince B and Alex to join me here for lunch. They are missing out.

Ramen isn’t the kind of meal you linger over, however, so I have plenty of time left to explore the surrounds. Not much of interest is open. A “friends shop” is lonely, having run out of friends, or at least customers.

I spot a sign saying “Omiyage” or regional gifts and discover that it is a local products and tourist information centre. I love that every region in Japan produces something unique, or at least pretends to.

A recurrent theme for the centre was its mascot “Kazumo“. There was even a Kazumo room in the back looking a lot like a shrine and housing what must have been the Kazumo mascot costume. I ask an attendant what Kazumo was and she struggles to explain, pointing to various products.

Finally we work it out. Kazumo is modelled after a clump of yellow fish roe. Wakoko-chan is a hatchling attached to Kazumo’s back.

That has to be the weirdest mascot I’ve yet encountered, though not as creepy as Manbe-kun, who we encountered in Hokkaido last year.

I purchase some snacks and a little Kazumo to remember this encounter by, then head back to the boxy grey station building to await my train back to Fukagawa. An old lady mans a small soba noodles stand in the corner of the waiting room.

The journey back is just a reversal of the trip out to Rumoi, so I take the opportunity to sit and relax. So much of the time I’m standing at the ends of these rail cars snapping away. I need a break! The straight backed seats are not the most comfortable, but riding on these little trains always feels more adventurous than a big express.

We arrive at the terminus of Fukagawa and I have a little longer to wait before my next train. There’s a local produce store in the station building and their speciality is apples. I purchase a bag of four big apples as we like to end our day with a dessert of fresh fruit, often hard to find in Japan. Also some dried apple rings and apple chocolates. I like apples.

There are two (actually three, but one’s broken) rail routes to my final destination of Furano. B and Alex have already reached there via Asahikawa and the Furano Line, but I’m going to backtrack to Takikawa and take the Nemuro Line. So I have another brief interlude on a comfortable express before arriving at Takikawa for the second time today and transferring to another KiHa 40 diesel rail car for the ride.

Quickly this turns into a very pretty ride indeed, following the Sorachi River through autumn forests rendered green, gold and red and past pretty little streams.

We reach the town of Akabira and I am immediately surprised by the size of the station and the number of platforms and lines. It obviously once played a larger role in the railways than it does today. I’d never heard of the town before.

Akabira turns out to be another coal town that has declined with the cessation of mining, though not as seriously as Yubari.

We reach my final destination of the day, Furano, at around four-thirty in the afternoon, towards the end of the day. B has sent me photos of the view from the hotel there, telling me that they’ve been to the Furano Cheese Factory and learned to make cheese, followed by a bike ride around town.

But I’m not ready to stop yet. This train continues on the Higashi-Shikagoe. Once it would have gone all the way to Shintoku on the other side of Hokkaido, meeting up with the Sekisho Line. Heavy rains have washed away the line beyond Higashi-Shikagoe and it is unknown if it will ever be repaired or if the entire line will be closed. So I’m going to travel on as far as I can.

We leave Furano with the light fading. It takes 45 minutes to reach the terminus of Higashi-Shikagoe, a simple station with a waiting bus and crowd waiting to reach Furano.

Then we return to Furano and, after almost twelve hours of travel, my very roundabout railway journey is at an end for the day.

Our hotel, the Furano Natalux, is a short walk from the station and I am soon reunited with B and Alex, who have had a fun day indeed. It’s a nice hotel, to be expected for the price we are paying, but there is no time for me to relax as everyone is hungry.

B has found a shabu-shabu place, Sennari, just behind the hotel. The prices apparently haven’t been raised in 30 years, though the building is modern. We take off our shoes and sit low at the booth while our stock heats, then take turns dipping thin slices of beef, pork, vegetables and noodles into the hot broth. It’s both satisfying and delicious.

I try their home-made sakura (cherry blossom) ice cream. There are chunks of leaves in it and I can certainly taste the familiar flavour, though this is autumn, not spring.

Afterwards we go for a wander in the town, which is mostly closed at night except for a number of trendy eateries and a supermarket where we buy crackers for the cheese that they made earlier in the day.

B wants to have yakitori skewers at Torisei, which seems very popular, but we can smell the charcoal smoke from across the street and don’t want to deal with stinking jackets for the rest of the trip.

Once back at the hotel we have to do washing using their facilities, which means a very late night for me as the clothes take forever to dry even using a machine. We all go for the lovely indoor hot baths, then I am left alone downstairs in the lobby. They have a decent library of books, mainly design related. I find one of hand drawn and coloured pictures of train stations in Hokkaido and wonder how many I have visited or at least glanced at out the window. It should now be most of them.

Tomorrow should mark the end of my quest to travel all the railway lines in Hokkaido, with a ride up the Furano Line. After that it’s just a few minor suburban or regional lines. But that’s enough travel for one day.

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