Mr. Sato visits a virtually abandoned station that continues to operate in Yokohama.
Hardcore fans of our Japanese writer Mr. Sato will have learned by now that he is actually a country boy from the rural prefecture of Shimane. Far from the trappings of urban life, it is not uncommon for him to come across an “unmanned” station in the community surrounding his hometown.
These are stops along a train line that have so few passengers getting on an off that they don’t justify the cost of human staff. So instead the railway sets up automated ticket machines and hopes everyone plays fair. In this way, many country folk view train stations as utilitarian only, except for the odd sentimental time that they stay open to help a single person get to school.
▼ Deep in the heartland of Japan, stations sometimes offer little more that a roof during bad weather, if that.
It wasn’t until moving to Tokyo that Mr. Sato realized that in major cities a station can also be the cultural center for a community. Whether decorated by the glitz and glamour of fashion outlets or drenched in the aroma from lines of food stalls, it’s easy to see an area’s character by the activity around its station.
So it was with surprise that Mr. Sato heard about an unmanned station in the Greater Tokyo Area. Located in Yokohama’s Tsurumi Ward, it’s called Kokudo Station and services the Tsurumi Line which runs along an industrial stretch of Tokyo Bay just south of Haneda Airport.
Yokohama is well-known as a bustling city, so when Mr. Sato approached the station, the quiet atmosphere surrounding it made him feel as if he were somewhere else.
A gaping entrance such as Kokudo’s which ran under the elevated tracks is usually full of storefront lights and echoing with the chatter and clanging of businesses. However, the entrance to Kokudo Station was ominously dark and quiet like an abyss.
Kokudo Station was first built in 1930 and after surviving a violent a tumultuous part of Japanese history, it was converted to an unmanned station in 1971. Inside were some relics of that era trapped in time. Shop signs with outdated printing hung here and there but none of the businesses they advertised were still running.
The only people working in this cavernous corridor were the cleaning staff, preserving these modern ruins. There was no talking to be heard, just the footsteps of these custodians amid the electric buzz of vending machines, automated ticket booths, and fluorescent lighting.
Mr. Sato stood and wondered to what end these people were occupying themselves day after day, maintaining this unused space. All along the walls sheets of wood boarded up doors that haven’t opened or closed in a long time… Maybe they never have?
One might assume that this location was the site of some heinous tragedy to keep people from occupying its space all these years, but Kokudo Station has no such stigma. It’s as if the station had a life force of its own, and it was dedicated solely to keeping people away.
Mr. Sato occasionally ran across other visitors to Kokudo Station. These weren’t customers though. They were like him, armed with cameras to document this peculiar black hole of Yokohama. They could also have been movie buffs though, as this location was used by Akira Kurosawa in his 1949 film Stray Dog.
Making his way to the elevated platform, the bright sun of the afternoon stung Mr. Sato’s eyes and the sounds of life in the city gradually crept back into his ears. Although there was no specific reason Kokudo Station was the way it was, Mr. Sato could assume why.
These days stations are constantly getting upgraded with better earthquake protections or improved access for physically challenged people such as elevators. The railway companies have no incentive to invest in stations like Kokudo where nothing happens, and as a result no one wants to set up shop there either. For decades this vicious circle of mutual indifference has continued.
As he waited for his train, Mr. Sato wondered if people will ever clear the bleakness out of Kokudo Station. Anything is possible, but he learned that stations don’t make their communities around them, the people do. If no one steps up to revitalize Kokudo Station, either in the public or private, nothing will ever change.
There is always a risk involved in taking action, but if we don’t take it we face the stagnation and gradual decay of our surroundings.