I’ve always loved trains. There’s just something about them, isn’t there? Not as blustery and self-involved as cars, nor loud and angry and expensive like planes, trains move with a gentle, rattling hum, ferrying the public to far climbs for a small fee.
Nowadays you have the smooth maglevs, which sound almost like gliding alien engines whirring by, but I’m a fan of the old single-car trains ricketing along rusting metal tracks that grow thick with untethered grass. There’s a magic, a mystery to them, even a playfulness, that modern trains can’t touch.
And along with trains themselves, I also love train stations. Not the crowded major metropolitan ones, but the out of the way stops, the places people barely go to, that the trains stop at for nebulous reasons. The more isolated, overgrown, and unkempt, the better. And if cars can’t actually reach them? Now that’s something special.
I started what one might call my collection of stations back before college. My first big “get” was the Corrour railway station in the UK, nestled in an unassuming area of peaks and valleys, the landscape surrounding a quaint white building with gray gabled roofs sloping downward. An unimposing loch idled next to the site, waiting to freeze over again during the long winter months. I was lucky to go during the warmer season with my parents, back when my dad was still alive. I don’t know if he was quite the train aficionado as I was, or if he particularly enjoyed being dragged into the middle of nowhere to see an uninspiring building and brownish green hillsides, but he did it, so I give him credit.
While he may not have been impressed, I loved it. I had researched the area beforehand quite a bit, and to actually stand there and look around, take in the air and sunlight, was mesmerizing. Almost like I had stepped through the looking glass of another world that had only previously existed in my head. I had to have more.
I began focusing spare time into it, charting out potential ways to travel cheaply around the country and the world, and figuring out which stations I wanted to see. It helped that train travel is reasonably inexpensive.
As I whiled my way through the UK’s list — going to places like the Altnabreac station in Scotland, or the Sugar Loaf in Wales — my real destination was Japan. Unsurprisingly, there’s actually a term in Japanese for disused and remote rail stations — hikyō stations, or “secluded” stations. There are websites devoted to them, unfortunately none in English, but I’ve done my best to try and map out which ones I want to see and document for myself. And Japan is packed with them, some so isolated it makes you wonder why they were even built in the first place.
One site in particular had a really active forum community. Although I couldn’t read most of it (there were only sparks of English here and there), there were usually hundreds of photos and videos posted from enthusiastic trainfans, which both sated my appetite and made me want the full experience all the more. After awhile on the forums, you can tell which people could speak English well enough and which ones just used the usual loan words here and there. One user in particular was active with the same screenname on another website devoted to trains, and he posted a lot of high-resolution photos as he traveled, which often had a lot more artistic merit than most.
I messaged him and began a casual conversation, learning he was actually an American who had lived there for a decade and change, and I knew what that was like. He had come upon his love of trains while commuting in and out of Tokyo every day. He gave me the skinny on some of his favorites, including the one I wanted to see most — Koboro, long considered the holy grail of hikyō stations.
Only a few months after my correspondence with the American transplant, I got the opportunity to go to Japan for two weeks on a cultural exchange program through school. It was open-ended and left me lots of time to plan for long train trips to isolated places.
I arrived in Kyoto in the early fall, mildly jetlagged but otherwise excited. I’d put together a fascinating itinerary that no one but me would find engaging, and I was fine with that. Countryside cafes, hills of rice and about a dozen different stations around Japan, all of them accessible through the extensive rail network webbing the island nation.
Throughout the first week and change, I saw, amongst others, Omori station — an old, ramshackle structure situated amidst rocky earth and ancient forest — the long-overgrown Kowada, and the simple slant roof of Tamoto, with thick fencing surrounding the platform and disappearing into the forest, making it seem like wild, unknown creatures might roam behind them.
And then there was Koboro. At Koboro station, there are no houses, no businesses, just forest and train tracks. The single path out of there, unpaved and guided only by some rope tied to trees, leads down to a quiet beach in a small cove, a makeshift shrine with statues of Buddha decorating the inside of a shallow cave underneath the cliff face, blue, clear water saturating the sand with gentle waves up the shore. Heavenly.
So I had peaked. There were no other hikyō stations in Japan that could compete with that one. There may not be any stations in the world either, so I felt a little melancholy with my conquest.
I sent my unseen friend the pictures I took — he was eager to know what the area looked like through my eyes — and expressed my longing for more and greater hikyo stations. He said he understood, and asked if I was really serious about finding one.
Naturally I said yes. I was not expecting him to actually know about a station I didn’t, as I had been researching them on and off for years, but I’m always up for being surprised.
In Northern Japan, there’s a station so remote, so isolated, he wrote, that the train only goes there once a month. It doesn’t appear on official maps or any train schedule.
Then how, pray tell, did he know about it? He said his cousin worked for the train company there, and his cousin knew some people that knew some people, etcetera. The important thing was that he knew how to get on this train, which still accepted passengers, if you knew when and where to get on.
He gave me detailed instructions, which I won’t repeat here for reasons which will become obvious. The main thing was that I needed to be at a certain station that Thursday at 5:20 AM. If I waited there just a few minutes, a train would come heading north and stop to let me on. As long as I had a valid ticket to ride, they wouldn’t stop me.
The trip would take about an hour, and I would know the moment I was on unfamiliar tracks — Because the mountains really start to crowd around you.
And I have to warn you, he said, the return service is only 20 minutes after arrival. So if you don’t get on, you’re stuck there. You don’t want to get stuck there — it’s not a good place to be at night.
I prompted for more info, but he said he had to go and left it at that.
What I should have done was ignore it, have fun the remaining days of my trip, and go home. But I figured that the guy had been on the level when he spoke with me before, why lie now? Besides, the worst that could happen was a few hours wasted on a wild goose hunt.
And so when Thursday’s sun started to crest the horizon, I was already seated at the appointed station, waiting patiently for a train to arrive when nothing was scheduled for at least another hour. Only the mossy ground peeking through the cracks in the platform and the incessant humming of the cicadas kept me company.
Uncharacteristic for my luck, the train arrived just as promised. It looked like any normal railway car, a single length for a small assortment of passengers. The only distinction was the lack of the characteristic green and purple lines that were painted around the exterior.
The car hissed to a stop and the doors promptly opened.
The first strange thing was there were no other people, just me. The conductor’s cabin was obscured by shaded windows, leaving no view of who was behind it. I briefly stuck my head back out the door to find the exterior windows around the cabin were similarly blacked out. I considered jumping back off, but my rational side informed me that it was likely just nerves and the early hour, and I sat down.
Moments later the doors closed and we were off, disappearing into the tunnel that ate the tracks ahead of us.
The ride kept mostly to the expected route, one I had traveled on twice before during my station-to-station pilgrimage, and I found that comforting. Maybe it would just take me to a normal station out in the middle of nowhere, and that’s why my forum friend didn’t want me to get stuck. I certainly wouldn’t want to stay at any of these stations overnight, and it had nothing to do with being creeped out. Well maybe a little.
After we passed the third station without ceasing and entered yet another tunnel, there was a sudden shuddering bang and the entire tracks shivered. I was shifted around in my seat and nearly fell off. Outside the dark tunnel hid any hint of what had happened.
Now I started to feel nervous. That had never happened before, and I had gone through these tunnels a few times without incident. Maybe it was the train itself, or something on the tracks?
But when we emerged from the tunnel, I knew something had to have happened, because we exited to a place I had never seen before. The train tracks were perched on a narrow strip of land with steep hillsides of cold granite leading to a misty valley below. Surrounding us were jagged mountaintops that held no green or signs of life, the craggy stone looming above like robed men around an altar.
I took out my phone and pulled up the maps. I’d feel better if I could get some information on where we actually were. The GPS icon pulsed for a few moments, attempting to find a signal in the sky and failing. My reception briefly showed four bars until the phone caught up with itself and dropped it down to zero.
I stood up and walked around the inside, hoping that holding the phone a few more feet in the air would somehow grant me a signal. But despite moving around with my handheld dance partner, nothing came from it, and I eventually sat down, defeated.
I didn’t know where I was, I didn’t know where I was going, and I had no cell reception in case of emergencies. My nerves were starting to edge.
There wasn’t much time to panic though, as the train rounded a bend and the mountains opened up and approached my destination. The tracks curved with the mountains and pulled up to a small platform, barely large enough to fit the length of the train, as the familiar clanging bells signaled the arrival. The brakes hissed as we stopped and the doors creaked opened. The red flashing light on the edge of the concrete platform slowed to a stop.
I debated whether to get off at all, but this was too bizarre to just sit here in the train staring at the choir of dead mountains surrounding the area. I took a breath and stepped outside.
The mountains had become less claustrophobic, yet somehow more imposing. They widened out from the narrow train route and instead circled the station in the distance, a deep, foggy chasm separating the station from them on all sides.
Despite the increasing daylight, the valley seemed hidden in shadows, clouds filtering and obscuring the sun and leaving a pale, nearly bluish hue to the air.
The station itself was connected to the platform by a curved, wooden bridge. Painted red long ago, time had worn away chunks of it and the wood to the colors of a rotten apple. The changing seasons, having inflated it and shrunk it for eons, made it look like it had been built before there were even people around to build it. Below the bridge was another drop into the inky blackness, with no bottom visible, just the cover of fog.
Across the bridge was the station building. Built atop a huge mound of granite and crumbling stone, it was wide and also once a vibrant red. The slanted roofs jutted out over each floor with missing tiles and decades of haggardly leaves from unseen trees piled haphazardly on them. In front of the imposing structure was a neglected garden with a dead cherry blossom tree, dried and ancient, sitting amidst piles of rounded, puck-sized stones. The sides and probably back of the building almost seemed to align almost perfectly with the steep slopes of granite that held it aloft. I doubt I could have walked along the perimeter without falling.
I had a sudden strong desire to go back into the train. I turned just to see the doors clap shut.
I walked up to the front window and knocked on the dark glass.
“Excuse me? Sir?” I tried thinking back to any Japanese phrases that might be useful. “Su-sumimasen?”
I knocked again.
“Please could you open the door?” I couldn’t think of any other words. “Please?”
I considered trying to pry open the doors, but didn’t know if that would do any good. And maybe the operator was just unable to hear me for some reason, and then I could get in trouble for damaging the train. Besides, the information had been good so far, which means I would leave in 20 minutes, so I shouldn’t worry.
I turned around and stared down the peeling red structure. I didn’t know if I wanted to go inside, but I felt strange out in the open, like I was being watched by something, or many somethings, hidden in crevices of the jagged stone teeth encircling me.
I cautiously approached the bridge and stepped on it hesitantly with one foot. It creaked, but felt very solid. I took a chance and walked across, making sure not to look down over the edge into the fuzzy darkness below. Aside from the slight give that all old wood has, it didn’t budge.
I passed under the partial overhang of the crooked branch from the empty cherry blossom tree. A chill went over my body, but there was no wind. I noticed then that there were also no animals around. I didn’t hear birdsong, or gentle rustling as little creatures scurried, or even the evidence of life around me — everything seemed dead and desiccated.
I reached the front of the building, two steps leading to the massive double front door, which only had one remaining door still hanging firmly, the other having collapsed and buried itself under a layer of dust on the wooden boards.
I walked up the steps and stood gawking at the short tower. There was an intricate latticework of figurative carvings lining the underside of the bottom roof. They somehow looked menacing, the eyes of each character and creature seeming to follow me as I moved. The paint on them had long since crusted off, leaving flecks of sun-bleached colors sticking to them like tar.
As I passed through the absent door, a wind brushed past and blew dust halos in front of me. The interior was a large, single space, all black, as if there had been a fire that cindered that room alone. The entire space was symmetrical — two “steps” surrounded the entire perimeter and descended to an open floor of dark sand. In the center was a large, rusted copper pipe with an open maw on top. The copper had long been exposed to the elements and had shifted to a sickly green.
It was then that I noticed them — the clothes. Spread out radially from the center, sets of clothes were laid down as if their owners had simply vanished and left them behind to drift to the floor. Aside from a few char marks and ravages of dust, the clothes were completely untouched. I looked down and jumped back when I realized I was standing on top of a blue-striped shirt with a red cap and shorts, just big enough for a young boy to wear. His still-tied shoes had tumbled over the edge of the stairs and fallen to the charcoal sands below.
I don’t know how to describe it, other than to say this place was wrong. This wasn’t a place people should be, this wasn’t where I should be.
But then there was the sound — soft at first, ringing quietly before me. I froze and held my breath, listening. It was a voice, coming from the pipe.
I don’t know what compelled me to walk over there, but I needed to know, I needed to hear it. I walked down and felt the grainy crunch of sand under my feet. The sound repeated, gently rising into the air like smoke.
With some unknown reserve of curiosity, I forced myself to approach, and looked into the pipe. There was only black. The light barely clawed its way down before darkness swallowed it again. But I could hear the voice clearly now.
“Please…” It was a lilting, willowy thing, like a piano just out of tune.
“Help me…” The words were haunted and cold, a tired ache for someone, anyone.
I wanted to call out, to give them comfort, but my voice caught in my throat. I couldn’t speak, couldn’t move. I just stared into the cold, empty blackness of the pipe.
But when the voice spoke again, I felt my heart pause for a moment in my chest.
It was me.
It sounded like me, but didn’t sound like me, like an old echo, strained and beaten of all life and joy. It was my voice from the pipe, calling up to me to save it.
Then there was a scratching, moving. Something crawling, like a dozen limbs scraping and ascending the pipe, coming up at me.
“Please…” The voice was now a hissing wheeze, angry and menacing. “Heeeeeelp meeeeee.”
I couldn’t think, I just ran. I leapt up to the door and bolted out of it, adrenaline pumping me into a frenzied, focused state of awareness. I cleared the bridge in two long vaults and approached the train car. Somehow it was already dusk, like the sun had been cast from the sky.
If the doors weren’t open, I would break into them. If I couldn’t do that, I’d run down the tracks until I couldn’t see this cursed place anymore.
The doors were shut. I banged on them, I banged on them and screamed to let me in. Angry, frightened tears fell haphazardly and I began to punch the glass window, hoping to shatter it and crawl through the jagged hole to get in.
I glanced behind me. I don’t know what exactly it was, but in the alcove of the door, hidden by shadow, was a figure, staring straight at me. I couldn’t make out the features, and I didn’t want to — except for the eyes, two pinpricks of white reflecting at me from a dark face. I turned back and rammed my fist into the glass harder, forming a crack. I didn’t dare turn around, if I turned around I would see it right in front of me, I would see its hungry eyes and know I’d never see anything again.
“Pleeeeeeaaase…” came the increasingly distorted warble of the thing, more inhuman with each word. “Heeeeeeeeelp meeeeee.”
I banged harder and harder, willing the window to break. I could hear it, the limbs shuffling and scratching across the ground, approaching me. Closer, closer.
“Please!” I shouted, “help me!”
The doors suddenly hissed open and I dove inside. As soon as I crossed the threshold, they shut just as swiftly. The red train-light outside began pulsing with its off-tune bell, and the car shifted a bit as it began to move. I could have stood and looked out the window as it left, I could have seen what was there, what wanted me, but I knew that if I did, that it would never leave me, that I would never be able to shut my eyes without its face in my head. Its eyes.
I waited until the mountains once again crowded around me before crawling up and settling onto a seat. I finally felt the pain in my hand, blood pooling around the knuckles from cracking the glass.
It was dark by the time the train finally stopped. It ended at a station close to where I was staying, and then drifted back off into the night as soon as I exited. As it departed, I noticed the cracked window was no longer damaged, the train once again in the same condition as when I first saw it.
Standing on the platform, alone and cold in the chill night air, I collapsed and started to cry.
The next day I packed up early and left for the airport, opting to take a cab. Having not slept much, I managed to pass out as soon as we reached cruising altitude and stayed that way until landing. It felt safe with all those people there around me and the sun outside the windows, taking its lazy time moving through the sky. Much better than the dark.
I wish I had more information on where it was or what was there, but I don’t. My internet friend didn’t respond to my messages after that, and I didn’t see him post again on the forums. I don’t know what that means, if anything, but I try not to think about it too much.
I try not to think about that whole trip, actually. But it’s hard not to, especially when sometimes all you have is the dark and your own echoing thoughts. I wondered why I was able to escape, why the doors opened. Why was I nestled safely in a bed instead of a missing person?
Maybe whatever it was that was at that place just had its fun with me and let me go. Maybe I just got lucky. Or maybe…maybe…I’m still there, and don’t even know it.
But y’know the worst part, the thing that really tears me up now?
I really hate trains.