It’s easy to forget that, given its reputation for high-tech metropolises, Japan has large swathes of rural territory. The Japanese countryside can boast some incredible scenery, much of which goes unseen by mainstream tourists unprepared to head off the beaten track… or, in one particular case, in search of forgotten tracks.
Nowadays, the Shinkansen (aka Bullet Train) allows visitors to reach and experience some of the less-visited parts of the country, while passing through some beautiful territory – albeit at a very rapid pace. Older iterations of Japanese rail services used to have much wider coverage of the isles, though. These rural networks, particularly in the northenmost isle of Hokkaido, provided a local network that enabled workers to move easily around the island.
However, the gradual waning of Hokkaido’s economic prosperity and population rendered most of the rail systems obsolete. Many routes were permanently closed during the 1980s in order to reduce costs. Much of the infrastructure was removed or reclaimed and the tracks and track beds were allowed to return to nature.
I wouldn’t know any of this if it wasn’t for the following compelling series of videos. Cycling Japan’s Abandoned Rail is a short film in which an American couple explore the abandoned railways of Hokkaido, looking into what’s still out there. Here’s the trailer:
It’s fascinating insight into something that I’d never have heard about otherwise, but reminds me of something very similar that took place in my own country. During the 1960s the UK also underwent a severe programme of rail closures – known as the Beeching Cuts (after their architect Dr Beeching). This scheme reduced what had previously been a comprehensive rail system with a station in nearly every village to a much smaller – albeit more financially sustainable – model that favoured private travel (ie travel by car) to public travel by rail.
To this day, the UK is crisscrossed with abandoned railways, just like Hokkaido, and many have been reclaimed as “rail trail” bicycle routes, just as Adam and Beth (the couple behind Cycling Japan’s Abandoned Rail) are using the Japanese routes in these videos.
The really heartwarming thing about YouTube, and about the Internet in general, is that it allows you to discover these sorts of coincidences for yourself. And, of course, it allows you to experience the adventure of exploring rural Japan on a bike, something that not many of us will be able to do.
If you’ve got the time, the whole series is great and well worth watching. We’ve linked all four parts below: