My friends in Beppu will never forgive me for telling you this, but I my favourite Japanese train station is an easily missed stop in Oita Prefecture. Actually, I think I can get away with saying that much. As for its name, well, that's what will get me in some serious hot water.
For the love of slow trains
Like many people I love trains, and most especially Japanese trains, which I would opine are the best in the world. Nor am I speaking of the 350kph land missiles that blast through the trunk line stations, buffeting eardrums and terrifying toddlers; nor of those ghastly big-city commuter crammers; nor of those equally claustrophobic coaches of the urban underground. I'm talking about the slow-rolling, local clickity-clackers with mixed forward, reversed and sidelong benches, plenty of windows, preferably with a view of the coastline or mountains; one of those humble chuggers that stops here, there, and everywhere in between.
A wink to the past
When I flash my JR pass at Beppu or Oita station I often inquire of the wicket lady: “Pardon me, but at what time might the next train depart for Hamawaki Station?” This trick question usually produces a quizzical “eh?” which is my cue to add: “Oh, excuse me! I mean Higashi Beppu Station!” Somewhat incredulously, no doubt slightly creeped out by the avuncular foreigner, the lady will then consult her timetable and apprise me of the next local train, and its departure platform. Later, maybe she’ll get a history lesson from her smirking boss.
Once a fine destination
Formerly called Hamawaki Station, the Nippo line’s Higashi (East) Beppu Station used to serve a thriving entertainment and onsen district on the fringe of the city of ten thousand boiling springs. Today, it’s just a quiet residential stop, somewhat cut off from town, where older homes and a few reputable inns produce a trickle of riders. What makes the station noteworthy is its well-preserved and painstakingly restored condition, which is nearly original, a throwback to another time.
A reputation earned in Edo days
Built in 1911 as a stop on the newly constructed Bungo Railway, Hamawaki Station was where Japanese out-of-towners alighted to enjoy the very best of the local hot springs. At the time, the location of present-day Beppu was mostly a soggy volcanic slope of terraced rice paddies interspersed with boiling mud ponds and steaming fumaroles. The town of Hamawaki, situated adjacent to the harbour, and just beneath beautiful Takazakiyama peak, had a reputation dating back to the Edo days for its superb thermal baths.
A landmark lost
In 1928, the Hamawaki 'First Class' Hot Spring spa was built just a few minutes' walk from the station, predating downtown Beppu's famous Takegawara Onsen by ten years. Today, the venerable brick bathhouse exists only in the memories of old-timers; the building was demolished in 1988. (Thankfully, the ultra-classic Takegawara Onsen, with its Tang-style gable, is still alive and well a quick ten minute walk away.)
A breezy spot by the sea
But Hamawaki Station - woops, I should say Higashi Beppu Station, as it was renamed over eighty years ago - remains very nearly just as it looked in 1911. There's no steam locomotive chugging up the tracks (can't complain about that) but also no electric wicket, just the uniformed stationmaster who will often wave you by without glancing at your ticket. On a hot summer's day you can sit beneath the paneled ceiling, with no AC, and not suffer at all, as the building was intelligently designed to capture the cool sea breezes off Beppu Bay. This place is easy on the eyes, with an amber patina everywhere you look. It is original in both timber frame and roofwork, authentic down to the latticed windows, the wooden benches, the wrought iron sliding door handles, and pretty much everything else. The old fashioned insulated wiring must be a modern re-creation but, gosh, it looks vintage to me!
A plea to fellow Japan travellersl
Do me a favour, dear reader. If you have a favourite train station in Japan, spread the love, and mention it in a comment below. Or better yet do a story on it. I want to know about it, and so do others who fancy Japanese trains and train stops. (Also, my friends in Beppu will appreciate your sending some of the sightseeing traffic to other parts of the country.) Thank you, and happy travels!
Take a fast train to Beppu Station, and then get on a local train and head one stop toward Oita. Conversely, take a local train from Oita toward Beppu. Get off at the second stop.
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