By MICHINORI ISHIDAIRA/ Staff Writer
September 23, 2021 at 09:30 JST
Shimonada Station in Iyo, Ehime Prefecture, is an unstaffed, single-track train establishment, which seems to be off the beaten path.
However, on a recent evening, a total of 50 individuals in couples and families showed up at the tiny station.
Just in front of the platform is a broad expanse of the Seto Inland Sea. Gazing upon the ocean from a bench, one feels as if time is passing slowly.
What the visitors sought most is the “magical hour” when both the sky and sea are lit up in a beautiful color gradation of blue and red.
A pair of female visitors who described themselves as college students were staring at the scenery with dazzled eyes. They said they were stunned by “such a beautiful sunset that can be enjoyed from this site very close to the ocean.”
It takes about an hour by train to travel to Shimonada Station from Matsuyama, the prefectural capital, and only a single train stops there every hour.
Despite the difficult-to-reach location, the students were rapidly shooting photos to record “the most picturesque landscape worth visiting.”
Shimonada Station is among a growing number of unstaffed stations nationwide that rail operators and residents are rediscovering as tourist spots and regional bases.
Having no staff members throughout the day, those train stops boast various attractions such as magnificent views and a camping site directly linked to a station.
Still, many challenges remain given the current situation facing unmanned stations at which ensuring safety and securing ways for disabled people to travel freely is difficult.
SHIMONADA BECAME UNSTAFFED 35 YEARS AGO
According to Shikoku Railway Co. (JR Shikoku), Shimonada Station was completed in 1935.
Although it once flourished with passenger traffic and also as a center for mikan fruit shipping, the station became unstaffed in 1986 amid the decreased number of riders resulting from the spreading use of automobiles.
The turning point came some 10 years later, when its image was adopted for the poster of the Seishun 18 flat-rate ticket for three consecutive years from 1998. A TV drama and commercial were set at Shimonada Station as well, earning the train stop the nickname of “the station with the most fascinating view of the setting sun in Japan.”
Photos shot from Shimonada Station have recently went viral on Instagram and other social media sites, spreading the station’s fame throughout Japan and abroad.
Hidekiyo Toda, 47, owner of the Shimonada Coffee cafe, which opened in front of the station building four years ago, said he was born near the establishment and grew up while immersed in the beauty of the oceanic scenery.
“There is nothing special around the station,” said Toda. “But people have begun popping up there to take in the changing view every day.”
Toda, who also runs a bridal business, remodeled a trailer into a cafe to welcome customers so they can “be bathed in the magnificent oceanic landscape over cups of coffee.”
Though unstaffed, Shimonada Station continues serving as a core regional facility where a local senior citizen’s group keeps the site clean and exchanges greetings with visitors.
“We have become aware that Shimonada Station is our treasure,” Toda said. “I want to revitalize the local community by working with many other people.”
UNMANNED STATIONS ON RISE
Transport ministry data shows there were 4,564 unstaffed stations across Japan in March 2020, accounting for 48 percent of all 9,465 stations. The figure rose by more than 400 over the last 18 years since official records were first kept in 2002.
With the passenger number on the decline due to the shrinking population, railway corporations are working toward more efficient operations of rail lines, leading to some stations becoming unstaffed during certain hours even in urban regions.
East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) is trying to cash in on the trend by taking advantage of stations with no assigned employees to promote local communities.
Utilizing unmanned stations is an urgent challenge for JR East, given that 40 percent of its 1,655 train stops have no staff members, which adds to maintenance costs. To address the issue, JR East started a project to lease out unstaffed stations’ buildings to companies and other organizations.
In November, Doai Station in Minakami, Gunma Prefecture, began offering a site for “glamping,” or glamorous camping, where accommodation tents and an outdoor sauna are available for visitors to camp at without troublesome tasks typically associated with the activity.
Kamiyonai Station in Morioka along the Yamada Line was upgraded in April last year under the theme of the Japanese lacquer--a local specialty--for residents to enjoy when they gather.
“Ordinary featureless unmanned stations offer a special value for residents,” said Shinichi Kumamoto, a senior manager at JR East Start Up Co., a JR East subsidiary responsible for the program. “We will make use of them as local exchange centers.”
Problems remain over unstaffed stations’ safety and passenger-friendliness. Most vulnerable to the difficulties are individuals with disabilities who need assistance to board and disembark from trains.
Railroad operators have been taking steps, such as introducing interphones to remotely controlled specialized devices to extend a helping hand to those passengers and dispatch staff for them.
But disabled citizens criticize the increasing number of “unmanned stations for being a stumbling block for freedom of mobility since we cannot get on and off trains at stations as we like.”
For that reason, Kyushu Railway Co. (JR Kyushu) last year began allowing municipal officials who have finished a training course to assist passengers in wheelchairs traveling on trains at Kawaminami Station of the Nippo Line in Kawaminami town, Miyazaki Prefecture. Only JR employees were previously eligible to offer the service.
Members of the town’s tourism association serve as ticket checkers at the unstaffed station, so JR Kyushu included the wheelchair passengers’ care in its outsourcing agreement with the municipality to allow officials to assist wheelchair users.
The transport ministry is looking to work out the guidelines specifying what rail operators should do for disabled passengers at stations with no staffers by setting up a panel consisting of railway firms and disabled citizens’ groups.
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