Shimonada Station in Iyo, Ehime Prefecture, is an unmanned, single-track railway establishment that appears to be off the beaten track.
However, on a recent evening, a total of 50 people in couples and families showed up at the little station.
Right in front of the platform is a vast expanse of the Seto Inland Sea. Looking at the ocean from a bench, one has the impression that time is passing slowly.
What visitors were looking for the most is “the magic hour” when the sky and the sea light up in a beautiful gradient of blue and red colors.
A pair of visitors who described themselves as college students gazed at the landscape with dazzled eyes. They said they were stunned by “such a beautiful sunset that you can admire from this site very close to the ocean”.
It takes about an hour by train to get to Shimonada Station from Matsuyama, the capital of the prefecture, and only one train stops there every hour.
Despite the difficult-to-reach location, the students quickly took pictures to record “the most scenic landscape to visit”.
Shimonada Station is one of a growing number of unmanned stations nationwide that rail operators and residents are rediscovering as tourist spots and regional bases.
Unmanned all day, these train stops offer various attractions such as magnificent views and a campsite directly connected to a train station.
Yet many challenges remain given the current situation of unmanned stations in which it is difficult to ensure safety and secure means for people with disabilities to move freely.
SHIMONADA IS UNSTAFFED 35 YEARS AGO
According to Shikoku Railway Co. (JR Shikoku), Shimonada Station was completed in 1935.
Although it once flourished with passenger traffic and also as a shipping hub for Mikan fruit, the station became unmanned in 1986 amid the decline in passenger numbers resulting from the increasing use of automobiles. .
The turning point came some ten years later, when his image was adopted for the Seishun 18 flat-rate ticket poster for three consecutive years starting in 1998. A TV series and commercial were also shot at the train station. Shimonada, which has earned the train stop the nickname “the station with the most fascinating view of the setting sun in Japan”.
Photos taken from Shimonada station have recently gone viral on Instagram and other social media sites, spreading fame for the station across Japan and abroad.
Hidekiyo Toda, 47, owner of Shimonada Coffee, which opened outside the station building four years ago, said he was born near the facility and grew up being submerged in the beauty of oceanic landscapes.
“There is nothing special around the station,” Toda said. “But people started showing up there to take in the changing view every day.”
Toda, who also runs a wedding business, has turned a caravan into a cafe to welcome guests so they can “bathe in the beautiful ocean landscape over a cup of coffee.”
Although unmanned, Shimonada Station continues to serve as a central regional facility where a local group of seniors keep the site clean and exchange greetings with visitors.
“We have come to realize that the Shimonada station is our treasure,” Toda said. “I want to revitalize the local community by working with many other people. “
INCREASING UNPILOT STATIONS
Data from the Ministry of Transportation shows that there were 4,564 unmanned stations across Japan as of March 2020, accounting for 48% of all 9,465 stations. This figure has grown to over 400 in the past 18 years since the first official records were kept in 2002.
With the number of passengers declining due to the shrinking population, rail companies are striving to optimize the operation of rail lines, which means that some stations are left unmanned at certain times, even in the regions. urban.
East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) is trying to take advantage of the trend by taking advantage of stations without assigned employees to promote local communities.
Using unmanned stations is an urgent challenge for JR East, as 40 percent of its 1,655 train stops have no staff, increasing maintenance costs. To solve this problem, JR East started a project to rent out unmanned station buildings to companies and other organizations.
In November, Doai Station in Minakami, Gunma Prefecture, began offering a glamping or glamorous camping site, where accommodation tents and an outdoor sauna are available for visitors to camp without stains. troublesome usually associated with activity.
Kamiyonai Station in Morioka, along the Yamada Line, was upgraded in April last year under the theme of Japanese lacquer – a local specialty – which residents can enjoy when they get together.
“Ordinary unmanned stations without features offer special value to residents,” said Shinichi Kumamoto, senior executive at JR East Start Up Co., a subsidiary of JR East responsible for the program. “We will use them as local clearinghouses.
Problems remain regarding the safety of unmanned stations and passenger friendliness. The people most vulnerable to difficulties are people with disabilities who need help getting on and off trains.
Rail operators have taken steps, such as introducing intercoms in specialized remote-controlled devices to extend a helping hand to these passengers and dispatch personnel to them.
But disabled citizens blame the growing number of “unmanned stations for being a stumbling block to freedom of mobility because we cannot get on and off trains at stations as we wish.”
For this reason, Kyushu Railway Co. (JR Kyushu) last year began to allow city officials who have completed a training course to assist wheelchair passengers traveling on trains at Kawaminami Station of the Nippo Line. in Kawaminami Town, Miyazaki Prefecture. Only JR employees were previously eligible to provide the service.
Members of the city’s tourism association serve as ticket controllers at the unmanned station, so JR Kyushu has included the care of wheelchair passengers in his outsourcing agreement with the municipality to allow officials to assist them. wheelchair users.
The Ministry of Transport is seeking to develop guidelines specifying what rail operators should do for disabled passengers at unmanned stations by setting up a panel made up of rail companies and groups of disabled citizens.