Saturday, 26 April 2014

Walking the Fukuchiyama Line

One of the things that Jules and I have always enjoyed while living here in Japan is getting away from the usual tourist spots and discovering some of its lesser known attractions. We recently experienced one such place when looking for an interesting local walking trail on a beautiful spring day. Jules had read about an abandoned stretch of railway line between Namaze and Takedao that had once run through mountains between Kobe and Kyoto. The former Fukuchiyama line had began its service in 1899 but had ceased to operate during the 1960’s, leaving behind the remnants of what must have been one of the most scenic short railway journeys in Japan.

After arriving by local train to Namaze station, we made our way past timber houses, lined vegetable gardens and then eventually under a series of massive cement pylons that holds the giant multi-laned freeway high overhead. While this is quite ugly, you can’t help but marvel at the engineering involved in creating such a monolithic structure that allows a perfectly straight road to pierce its way through the picturesque mountains. Shortly past this point the remnants of the old railway track began to emerge and we soon found ourselves entering a valley of lush green trees clinging to sheer cliffs, while a boulder filled river flowed below. Although the iron railway tracks had been pulled up years ago, the old sleepers that had once held them still remained and as we were to discover, so too was much of the stone and rusting metal infrastructure of the old line.

As we continued, we came across quite a few signs reminding hikers not to walk the line. However, this seemed more like of a notice of discouragement and a means of denying legal responsibility rather than an enforceable demand. After all, this trail had become increasingly popular with both locals and visitors over the years, so it was unlikely that access was going to be denied in the foreseeable future. There was evidence that the welfare of ‘line walkers’ had also been considered, with plenty of safety barriers erected since the closure. We guessed that the major concern was the six long tunnels that hikers would pass through during the trek. Being well aware of these, we came armed with our torch, as we had read that some tunnels are often pitch black in the middle and they were! Probably the most spectacular of the tunnels led directly onto a large riveted iron bridge that spanned the valley. Looking like something straight out of ‘Bridge Over the River Kwai’, it provided some spectacular views both upstream and down, particularly with added water from the melted winter snow now dramatically increasing the flow of the rocky rapids below.

As we walked the track we would occasionally pass other hikers heading along in the other direction. In long dark tunnels our paths would cross in torch light with polite greetings of “Konichiwa”. Not being able to be seen, we wondered whether our accent would give us away as being foreigners … probably! As we got closer toward Takedeo, we increasingly spotted family groups sitting by the banks of the river, admiring the views and being at one with nature, as is the Japanese way. The demise of the track had now provided a very convenient inroad into some of the most spectacular countryside this region has to offer, as well as providing a permanent reminder of simpler days of rail travel that have now long since passed.I imagine that if this stretch of railway line had closed today, it is unlikely that it would ever become a walking trail. No doubt a candy coloured steam train or something similar would be running tourists back and forth between the two towns. It would indeed be a spectacular short journey for those onboard, but nowhere near as peaceful as it is today. Instead the Fukuchiyama line remains a beautiful hidden gem, known by the locals and just a few visitors who make the effort to seek it out. Its attraction is not just as a gateway to the spectacularly scenic mountains, but in providing a reminiscent insight to this amazing stretch of railway that was, for a time, the everyday commute for the locals who once live here.

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