HC85 in Winter

The HC85 travelling through snow. © Central Japan Railway Company

How rail transformed Takayama: a stationmaster’s view

HC85 in Winter

The HC85 travelling through snow. © Central Japan Railway Company

Surrounded by mountains on all sides, the densely forested Hida region in Gifu Prefecture, central Japan, is popular with both domestic and international tourists for its old towns, including the World Heritage Site Shirakawa-gō, and for its hot springs – but until the development of rail was difficult to access. 

Such was the isolation of the area that during the Edo period (1603-1868 CE) basket ferries – consisting of a ropeway with baskets large enough to carry a single person – were used to provide transport over rivers and gorges at several locations. 

As a result, the introduction of rail to Japan’s ‘Northern Alps’ had a significant impact, enabling the transport of goods, the tourism that the area sees today, and even transforming the diets of local people. 

Detail from the basket ferry between Hida and Etchu 1

The basket ferry between Hida and Etchū, depicted by woodblock artist Hiroshige Utagawa (1797–1858 CE). Credit: William S. and John T. Spaulding Collection

Japan House London spoke to Hatanaka Tōru, the stationmaster for Takayama, the area’s biggest city, who has worked in Japanese rail for over 40 years, about his life in rail and its impact on the area. 

He explained, ‘As the Hida region doesn’t face the sea, when it comes to fish, the local people ate only salted yellowtail and salted salmon. 

‘It took many days to transport salted yellowtail from Toyama Prefecture and the road was known as the yellowtail road, because fish was difficult to obtain and was a valuable food. 

‘However, in 1934, when the Takayama Line was fully completed and connected to Toyama Prefecture by rail, seafood could be transported on the same day, enriching people's lives.’ 

These freight trains also transported wood from Hida, which helped further develop the region’s forest industry, for which it has been known for centuries. 

Woodworking techniques have developed in the Hida region since ancient times and in the Nara period (710-794 CE), craftspeople with expert building skills, known as Hida no takumi, were gathered in the capital and involved in the construction of many shrines and Buddhist temples. 

Like many in the region, Hatanaka is proud of his local heritage, remarking, ‘These skills were not achieved overnight, but are an irreplaceable culture that the Hida people have assiduously built up.’ 

He went on to highlight the festival floats for which Takayama City is also famous. ‘The yatai, which represent the Takayama Festival, are the culmination of their skills and traditional crafts such as ichii ittōbori and Shunkei nuri, which are still in existence.’ 

Hatanaka Toru in Takayama

Hatanaka Tōru outside Takayama Station. © Central Japan Railway Company

The Takayama Station building, the gateway to the city of Takayama, is largely made of beautiful hinoki (Japanese cypress) wood as a symbol of the area’s heritage, and is designed to be a building that reminds visitors and local people alike of the area’s traditions. 

In Hatanaka’s lifetime, he has seen the area’s trains transform from steam locomotives with wooden carriages, to steel trains such as the Hida Limited Express, and the most recent introduction the hybrid HC85 series. These days, via its rail line to the city of Nagoya, Hida is also connected to the Tōkaidō Shinkansen line, which connects the Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka metropolitan areas as Japan’s main rail artery. Unveiled just days before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Shinkansen programme (commonly known as the ‘bullet train’ in English) has transformed the Japanese economy, rail technology and travel and made areas such as Hida far more accessible. 

Asked what the future might hold, Hatanaka replied, ‘I believe that, in the near future, the opening of the Chūō Shinkansen [using superconducting magnetic levitation technology] will bring benefits such as dramatically faster trains, which will lead to greater interaction between people.’ 

HC85 in Spring

The HC85 travelling through cherry blossom. © Central Japan Railway Company

Hatanaka Tōru

Born in 1961, Hatanaka Tōru was raised in Takayama City and has worked in the Japanese rail system since leaving high school in many roles including those of conductor, driver and supervisor. Since 2010 he has been a stationmaster and is currently leading his fifth station in that position. 

He recalled as a career highlight an incident when he was stationmaster at Kariya Station, Aichi Prefecture, which sees 64,000 passengers pass through every day. When a man began to fall from the crowded station platform, Hatanaka, who was performing his routine safety checks, was able to stop the train to prevent it colliding with the passenger. 

When asked about his role, he said, ‘Our aim is to provide a safe and comfortable service to our passengers, to attract more passengers, to contribute to the revitalisation of the region and to grow together with the region. I believe that it is important for us to make sure the railway is loved by everyone.’