By ERINA ITO/ Staff Writer
November 9, 2022 at 10:30 JST
The odds are stacked heavily against him, but Mason Buskirk is continuing his drive for a resumption of operations on the JR Hisatsu Line in Kumamoto Prefecture, especially a beloved steam locomotive.
The efforts of the 27-year-old American have won praise and admiration from residents in this prefecture as well as other railway enthusiasts around the country.
His campaign started in 2020 when Buskirk noticed that a steel bridge on the JR Hisatsu Line had disappeared.
The bridge was washed away after torrential rain caused the Kumagawa river and its tributaries to overflow in July 2020.
Later that month, when Buskirk had volunteered to remove mud and help in the recovery effort in nearby Hitoyoshi, he checked on the railway line.
The missing bridge devastated Buskirk because one of his favorite hobbies was to ride the SL Hitoyoshi on the line and enjoy the passing scenery and chats with other passengers.
Despite living in Japan for only a year or so, he had ridden on the steam locomotive at least 50 times.
He wondered how much time and money would be needed to restore the bridge.
LOVE OF TRAINS LED TO JAPAN
Born and raised in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania, Buskirk became interested in trains when his mother read “Thomas & Friends” books to him.
He was particularly fond of steam locomotives and often begged his parents to take him to the Strasburg Rail Road in Pennsylvania, home to one of the oldest steam locomotives in the United States.
When he was in his teens, Buskirk started collecting train-related magazines and books.
His first encounter with Japanese railways was through “Steam Locomotives of Japan,” a photo book his parents gave him for his 18th birthday.
Railroad photographer Naotaka Hirota published the book in 1972 with English text.
Buskirk fulfilled his long-held dream of studying in Japan in 2016 when he enrolled at Rikkyo University in Tokyo to learn Japanese and other subjects.
He joined a railroad club at the university and rode steam locomotives in various areas of Japan, including the SL Banetsu Monogatari connecting Niigata and Fukushima prefectures and Oigawa Railway Co.’s Thomas the Tank Engine in Shizuoka Prefecture.
But he was particularly fascinated by the SL Hitoyoshi.
RELOCATING TO KUMAMOTO
Kyushu Railway Co. (JR Kyushu) introduced the SL excursion service on the Hisatsu Line in 2009. The train, featuring wood-based, retro-themed cars, was a steam locomotive built in 1922. The model was Japan’s first mass-produced passenger locomotive.
Buskirk took his first trip on the SL Hitoyoshi from Kumamoto Station to Hitoyoshi Station in autumn 2016. At that time, he became mesmerized by the landscapes of Kumamoto Prefecture.
He returned to the United States the following year but came back to Japan in spring 2019 to live in Kumamoto.
He wanted to make Kumamoto his permanent base because of its rich nature, many hot springs, great food, warm-hearted people and, above all, the SL Hitoyoshi.
He now works at an English preschool in Kumamoto.
JAPANESE RAILWAY SOCIETY
Buskirk also joined the Japanese Railway Society (JRS), an organization founded in London in 1991 that currently has about 180 members in 10 countries.
Members include “toritetsu” (train photographers), “noritetsu” (train-riding enthusiasts) and “mokeitetsu” (model train fans).
Stephen Turner, 58, who lives in Tokyo's Ota Ward, is a noritetsu who was born in Britain and came to Japan more than 30 years ago.
According to Turner, who works in the financial sector, the JRS is a rare forum where overseas train fans can exchange information in English with no language barrier.
With the average age of members increasing each year, Turner was pleased to welcome Buskirk to the group and has been overwhelmed by the young man’s passion.
The society’s main activity is publishing its “Bullet-In” bulletin several times a year.
Immediately after the July 2020 torrential rains Buskirk contributed a six-page article in the autumn issue, using photos and text to introduce the charms of the SL Hitoyoshi. He also explained what Hisatsu Line stations were like before and after the disaster.
“The next stop en route is Sakamoto Station … that maintains its original architectural style” from the Meiji Period (1868-1912), he wrote.
“Later, at Shiroishi and Isshochi, passengers are afforded a 10-minute layover where they may alight and purchase souvenirs or take pictures of these very old and idyllic stations,” he continued.
"An opportunity to talk with the driver and fireman ... can be taken if you know sufficient Japanese.”
FULL RECOVERY SOUGHT
Two years after the flooding disaster, most operations on the Hisatsu Line remain suspended.
The problem is that the railway line has long been unprofitable mainly because of the declining population.
JR Kyushu has questioned the wisdom of spending large sums to restore such a money-losing operation.
JR Kyushu President Yoji Furumiya recently announced that SL Hitoyoshi will end its service in March 2024.
The steam locomotive has run on the Kagoshima Line since May last year, but Furumiya said it has become difficult both technically and financially to continue operating the aging train.
“I know nothing lasts forever, but I felt like I was losing a friend,” Buskirk said.
He remains unbowed.
He has frequently interviewed members of a civic group that is calling for a resumption of Hisatsu Line. Their efforts are promoted through the JRS bulletin and other channels.
Inspired by Buskirk, locals are also calling for the restoration of the line.
Madoka Kubo runs a budget hotel near Hitoyoshi Station and opened Rail World Hitoyoshi, a model train and diorama shop, in one corner of the hotel after the flooding disaster.
She described Buskirk as earnest and good-mannered, and said he is beloved by many locals and rail buffs of all ages.
Kubo said he is a valuable asset to the community because he can promote the charms of the Hisatsu Line to the world in English while understanding the innermost feelings of the locals.
“We want to work together with Mr. Buskirk and restore the Hisatsu Line and Hitoyoshi,” she said.
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