Week 40

It's Saturday, a little after lunchtime. Oliver and I have just gotten through with looking at lumber at a store called 'Doit Yourself,' which I pronouce 'Doight Yourself,' like as if it's some sort of imperative-cum-curse-word, an imprecation for ne'er-do-wells. It was impressive lumber.

Right now we're standing on this elevated berm, above some back-street Engaru houses below. We're standing on a little mound on top of this berm, and under the mound are train tracks, which extend on one side of the mound but don't extend on the other. The tracks lead to a kinda-far-off blinking Engaru Station. A bell sounds from down there but there's only one train in the station and it's not moving, not illuminated, not grumbling with diesel. From our vantage on the berm, we can see a good amount of the town, but I notice that we don't see any people. Down below, idling in a parking lot, is a Nissan X-Trail, but I can't see the person inside through the glare off the windshield.

We're standing on the last real remains of the old Okhotsk train line, the Nayoro Honsen, which came down the coast from the north, spurred off through Yubetsu and Engaru in one direction, and continued down to Abashiri in the other. It was closed at the beginning of the current era, back in 1989, with remarkable gusto, apparently: the haste with which they tore up the rail and built stuff on top is the stuff of legend, or so I'm told. Nowadays a person is at pains to find any real traces of the old rail line without going out of their way; and even off the beaten path it takes someone with a bit of an eye for these things (in my case, Oliver) in the passenger seat to fill in the gaps.

Maybe half a kilometer up from Engaru Station, the rail stops abruptly. Beyond is a long, low-grassy embankment that cuts off into woods, where from the road the rail-sleuther can see a band of thin, spindly trees among the denser brown growth -- younger trees standing among their older brothers and sisters, trees sewn after the iron had been torn up from the ground. The embankment gradually levels off with the land around it, the trees fall away, and what little archeological treasures remain cut lowly through backyards and across fields and through narrow stands of bushes delineating land boundaries. Outside Engaru proper, the no-man's-land before Yubetsu, where road construction has been in progress longer than anyone can remember, the embankment -- here little more than a mound a couple feet taller than the surrounding landscape -- bisects a grimy industrial park and disappears in a farmer's field, where the ground has been tilled and torn up, where that crouching earth has been erased by tractors and growth and farmers' hands.

North of here we move into a newer neighborhood, more of a small residential complex that makes up the hamlet of Kaisei, and Oliver says, "All of these houses are pretty new... this is probably where the old station was." When later I see a high-res slide taken from an airplane in the late 1970s, I find that Oliver is exactly right. But there are no remains of the late station here; the neighborhood has been totally renovated, and the ruins of the station are probably in a dump somewhere.

We head across the Yubetsu River and up into the hills, then into the town of Kamiyubetsu -- the first quasi-municipal area of the triplet-Yubetsu. It looks like we've lost the trail under the new grid of roads and buildings, under the industry of the past 20-some-odd years, under an enormous blue factory heaving smoke up into the sky, heaving dark steam and unsettling smells, smells belonging to the deaths of things that don't die. It's a neighborhood I've never visited before, which neighborhoods are at this point pretty few, but it looks distinctly non-Yubetsu-esque: lots of bare concrete and corrugated iron, atmospheric sediment just sort of hanging in the air. It feels a little bit like being at the bottom of some lake, a body of water full of strange unknowable life, but twisted, polluted, chemical. You know that scene in so many adventure movies where the heroes are in some kind of swamp, moving desperately slowly, everything tremendously quiet and still, and you can see the dragonflies hover in the air, you can see this greenish gas belched from the heart of a sickly-colored plant, the air so thick and choked with matter that you can't even really tell where air starts and swamp begins? It was like that, except more like New Jersey. Which is an unfair connection to make today, a sunny, green-grass, white-clouds, sprouting-orange-trees kind of day, but there you go.

Indeed, we're driving pretty slow at this point, barely more than idling, with no tracks in sight, when we catch off to the right some big pieces of machined, rusted-over metal sitting in an otherwise abandoned lot. You can tell by the size and weight of the things that these crusty reddish hunks can't belong on any old piece of machinery, because daily human machinery just isn't that big -- we're talking single pieces of steel the size of one of the smaller Toyota Hiaces, the size of my living room. These are pieces of a train. And then, below and around these big iron bones, we see smaller pieces of lumber -- not inconsiderable in size or number, admittedly: sad, dried-out railroad ties, and beside them, long red-brown rails. In the back hunch several massive broken heaps of concrete, two-ton crumbs left over from some prehistoric giant's lunchtime sandwich or something.

And it hits us then that we're on the train tracks, that the road was laid over the old line, and we're looking at the old Kamiyubetsu Station, we're looking at what remains of it: some guy's, some company's backyard in this cordoned-off miasmic part of town, everything gray and brown and dead and still, and it's in the warmth of Penelope's heater, in the cozy Bon Iver tunes from the speakers, that I come to know the despair of the forgotten.

Konomai is eerie, to be sure. Downright freaky, and a little sad, too. But it's a part of nature, now, and fifty years down the road it will be even more so. Gaia or Mother Earth or whatever is taking it back, which for what it's worth I think is pretty interesting, because it really highlights how much humans have to struggle not to go back to nature, and sets off this very cool divide between humans as from nature and as against it and just all kinds of English-major stuff. There is something to be learned at Konomai, something to be learned too at the abandoned Daisetsuzan Inn on Route 39, something to be learned at the old Horonai Coal Mine Substation, some aesthetic truth to be picked from the gaps between humanistic and natural engineering.

But there is nothing to be learned from the old Kamiyubetsu Station's still pieces. Humans dismantled the thing, said, "I don't need this anymore," and put up a fence around the remains, put up buildings and roads, pressed the remains and the memories into the dead ground, and left. And so with Oliver I sit there for like probably four or five minutes, trying desperately to get something back, to take something away from that place, but there was nothing left to take, because whatever people had taken it apart had taken everything with them, only left the bones, crumbling into sifting nothingness.

And then I wondered if this would happen to me, and then I remembered all of the people that no one remembers, all of the people that contribute in their own minuscule way to a vastly large number that can only actually be approximated, and then I went home and I had a beer.

Everything You Have Heard Japan JET Programme


Week 43

The first day of summer, coming surprisingly late to northeastern Hokkaido.


Week 39

I drove Penelope the AZ-Wagon around the whole perimeter of Hokkaido to see what else was out there.