Photo/IllutrationKoboro Station on JR Muroran Line tops the list of off-the-beaten-track stations on Takanobu Ushiyama’s website. Although Hokkaido Railway Co. once considered abandoning the station, the Toyoura town government regards the station as its core tourist spot and provides funds for maintenance. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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On the surface, the tiny and seldom-used Kowada Station in Shizuoka Prefecture does not look like much.

The platform is situated at a short section between two tunnels, and most of the surrounding communities are now under water thanks to construction of a nearby dam.

But Takanobu Ushiyama, 51, says “extraordinary scenes” can be found at such off-the-beaten-track stations called “hikyo-eki.”

“However small they are, all stations have their own history,” Ushiyama, who has written books on hikyo-eki, said. “All of them have been beloved by local residents and seen many people’s meetings and farewells.”

Although they are declining in number, hikyo-eki stations continue to capture the hearts of railway buffs and others seeking a quiet, peaceful environment to witness the history and culture of local regions.

At some places, the only way to get to the stations is by train.

Kowada Station on the 195.7-kilometer JR Iida Line, for example, is so desolate that the blowing wind and chirping insects are often the only sounds heard there.

But the station, which opened in 1936, was once filled with people seeking romance in their lives. Kowada uses the same kanji as the maiden name of Crown Princess Masako, and the station became known as a place where “visitors can succeed in love.”

But nowadays, the station sees very few passengers on weekdays.

The JR Iida Line, which connects Toyohashi Station in Aichi Prefecture and Tatsuno Station in Nagano Prefecture, features 94 stations that can be toured over six-and-a-half hours. It winds through a rugged mountainous area known as a “holy land for those who love touring hikyo-eki.”

Another popular hikyo-eki is Hattaushi Station, which opened in 1920 on the JR Hanasaki Line linking Kushiro and Nemuro in Hokkaido.

Hattaushi was coined after the words meaning “a place featuring deep water at the mouth of a river” in the Ainu language, according to experts.

Travel writer Shunzo Miyawaki depicted the landscape of huge moors around Hattaushi Station in his book “Shuchakueki e Ittekimasu” (Going to last stops).

“When the wind comes, Veitch’s bamboo leaves show their light green backs successively with a wave of the wind ascending the hill,” he wrote. “It was like a huge invisible beast striding leisurely.”

Ushiyama, a company employee in Hiroshima Prefecture, set up a website featuring hikyo-eki in 1999 and hit upon the word hikyo-eki with his friends.

He used to love riding a motorcycle on forest roads across Japan and sleeping outdoors. But he became unsatisfied with how he spent his time during the trips and decided to camp at unstaffed stations.

He said that visitors are wrong to think “there’s nothing here” just because there are no houses or shops around hikyo-eki.

“Extraordinary scenes” actually exist, but they are just not familiar to visitors, according to Ushiyama. “People today rely heavily on only what is already available to them.”

Ushiyama’s first book, titled “Hikyo-eki e Iko!” (Let’s go to hikyo-eki!), was published by Shogakukan Inc. in 2001. Its sequel, “Motto Hikyo-eki e Iko!” (Let’s go to more hikyo-eki!), was released in 2003.

In the commentary of the 2003 book, Takeshi Hara, a political history professor at the Open University of Japan, touched on why hikyo-eki are so appealing.

“Memories of modern Japan--the golden era of railways--are silently engraved on the stations,” Hara wrote.

Old memories accumulated at quiet hikyo-eki may bring out the inner poet in travelers.

Notebooks are typically prepared at the waiting rooms of remote stations, and they are always full of recollections and impressions written by those who visit there.

“People want to not only use them (notebooks) as evidence to prove they visited hikyo-eki but also to share their feelings with others,” said Koichiro Oho, 64, who studies railroad folklore and has authored “Kanto Local Sen Tabinikki” (Kanto local line travel diary) and other works.

Oho, who hails from Tokyo, was an elementary school teacher but retired early when he was 57. He currently lives along the Akita Nairiku Line, which is run by a public-private entity in a mountainous region in Akita Prefecture.

Hikyo-eki are struggling to survive, as rural populations continue to shrink and car ownership increases. Many local lines have closed down and the number of trains is dropping.

“Trains come and stop at any station when arrival time comes,” Oho said. “Not only travelers but residents living in local areas can feel a much stronger sense of safety than urban-dwelling people knowing that they are connected with other regions via the tracks.”

Oho also noted that railways are an essential transport means for local high school students and elderly residents.

“It is unreasonable to abandon rail lines only for economic reasons,” he said.