A Final Winter Stop
Jan. 19, 2016
Japan is known for its extensive and highly efficient railway system. The busiest stations serve millions of travelers every day. In Hokkaido, northern Japan, stands one of the quietest stations in the country. It's facing closure after reaching the end of its role in the community.
The Sekihoku Honsen railway line runs along the Taisetsu mountains in Hokkaido, northern Japan.
"The next stop is Kyushirataki," says a train announcement.
The station consists of a platform, a sign showing the name of the stop, and a waiting room. There is no staff on duty. The waiting room was built nearly 70 years ago. It's only around 5 square meters. A few people are enough to fill it. Trains stop at the station only four times a day. They run in the morning and evening to make it easy for a certain passenger.
That person arrives shortly after 7 AM. Kana Harada is a senior in high school. She goes to her school by train. Her father drives her to the station every morning. When she graduates with the rest of her class in March, the station will be closed for good.
"I've used the station for three years and took it for granted. I'll miss it when it's gone," Kana says.
The population of the area has dropped by half in the past 20 years. Now there are just 36 people in 18 households. That means the number of passengers using the station has also fallen.
Back when the station was built in 1947, forestry helped the area prosper. More families were having children. Residents asked that a station be built to help students get to school.
In fact, residents helped build the platform using materials from old railway cars. They logged timber from the mountain for the waiting room. As the years passed, many of the children who used the station grew up and went out into the world.
Now Kana is the only student using the station. There has often been talk of closing it down. But residents opposed the idea and asked that it be kept open until Kana graduates.
Norifumi Niwa and his wife Toshiko live nearby. For over 40 years, they've cleared snow to make sure children could get to school. Up to 50 centimeters of snow can accumulate in one night.
He used the station himself to go to high school. "It's emotional to remember standing on the platform to wait for the train during that important period of my life. I'm glad the station was here," he says.
For many children in the area, the station was where they started to plan their futures. "The platform has been used for 68 years now. I want to clean it up before it closes in March," Norifumi says.
During Hokkaido's harsh winters, temperatures drop to minus 20 degrees Celsius. Residents work together day and night to remove snow from the tracks.
Kana's father, Kiichiro, has been helping clear snow for 30 years. When he first started, there were a lot more children in the area.
"I want to clear snow so that everyone, including my daughter, can ride the train without worries. I'd say this makes me really happy, if that is not going too far," he says.
The start of the New Year means the station's days are numbered. On New Year's Day, Kana and her parents make wishes for the coming year. Kana is planning to become a nurse. She will leave the area to go to school. After years of looking after Kana, the community knows they're losing more than just their station.
As Kana prepares to leave home, she reflects on how important the community has been for her. "I've realized as I grew up that I have been supported by many warm-hearted people. I'm really grateful," she says.
On January 7th, Kana goes to school for the first time this year. Her father has been driving her to the station for three years now. But that will change before long. "I'm beginning to feel lonely, as there are not so many days like this left. I want to keep this image in my mind," says Kiichiro.
Norifumi Niwa has been taking care of the station for a long time. He had some words of encouragement for Kana on a special day -- her birthday. "Kana, you are leaving here, but I want you to love your home town and remember this platform," he tells her.
Even after the station closes, the community that came together around it will remain in people's hearts and minds.
Newsroom Tokyo anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya comment on the story.
Beppu: We heard Norifumi Niwa, who clears snow for Kana, also drives her from the station when her father is busy. Students in Japan graduate in March every year. So there are only 2 months left for Kana to use the station.
Shibuya: Well I guess some changes are inevitable. But surely Kana will always have the support of her community where ever life takes her.