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Escaping the Gravity of the City, by Train
in Japan, the city has a pull on us, but at times so does the countryside
Today as we continue the Reasonable Urbanism series, we leave the city entirely, in search of the ingredients that it is missing.
We often say that the city has everything. Certainly, it has entertainment, and modern jobs. It has a plethora of tastes and smells and tactile experiences. They city, too can have places of nature, places for rest, places to get away for a moment. Yet even with these and all its other merits, the city at times, can still be stifling. It can be hot. Loud. Dirty. Stressful. Most certainly it can also be a barrier, between humans and the full experience of this natural world that we are part of. It is so that we are pulled away from the city at times. We escape, perhaps to leave some of these elements behind, but more often to find those other indispensable ingredients, the ones that are missing from city life.
What are these ingredients in nature, whose gravity pulls us to them? Is it the crisp air, or the sense of space, or the dragonflies? Is it possible to bring all the missing ingredients, whatever they are, to big cities? Is it necessary? To fix this, does the city need a new center of gravity that can pull nature’s ingredients inward rather than repelling them? If so, how?
These are some questions I would like to explore, and to do that, I feel that we must start first with the travel itself — the process of escaping the gravity of the city. We will go from Nagasaki to Chikugo-Yoshii, in the small town of Ukiha, traveling by train.
Travel by train in Japan is of course commonplace. My strategy for how to do it however, is slightly unusual. Rather than take the quickest routs — bullet trains or limited express trains — I prefer to patch together the local and regional trains. This requires focus, timing, maps, timetables, and in this case, a lot of time. We will be changing trains six times on the way. The prize here is the experience. My intention, over the course of the day as I travel to Chikugo-Yoshii, is to slow down, to experience the sensation of movement, away from city gravity and towards countryside gravity, joining the lives and commutes of local people along the way.
I leave Nagasaki, and my first stop is a transfer to the Sasebo Line. Already more rural than urban, the train stations in this area feature hot spring towns, convenient and quick escapes where one can bathe in clean, mineral-rich, hot waters. Few such places exist in the city, and when they do, we have a habit of not fully trusing them. I remember a friend looking at the explanation of how a cityside hot spring got its water. There was a drawing of a pipe going sideways, under the ocean, several dozen kilometers to an island. “Is it possible?” she asked, rhetorically. Needless to say, hot spings out here are built on top of the source.
Beyond the hot springs, bicycles seem a popular feature. With the exception of a taxi stand and small drop off area, not much room is made for cars. Most people seem to leave the station on foot or bicycle, already disappearing into the alleys as the train pulls away.
The next transfer brings me to the Nagaski Main Line. Beside the towns the view on this line is mostly deep green rice fields, richly forested mountain ranges, and a few dragonflies.
There is a vastness in these valleys. It is something that, even inside a little local train, clanking along, windows pulled down, invites me to breathe. You know those breaths where you suddenly find extra lung space, where you can take a super deep breath, and as you exhale, something that was painful or stressful just seems to exit along with that breath? That is the feeling here.
Enjoying these breaths, the train approaches Tosu Station. By now I have traveled all morning. This is the fourth of six transfers. I am hungry, but have just 15 minutes to catch my next train. Rats. That is definitely not enough time to sit down for lunch, and probably not even enough time to run to a convenience store.
Then, as the train doors open at Tosu Station, an oasis appears. In the middle of the train platform, an old man stands in a narrow shop between tracks, making udon.
My stomach growls. I search my pockets for change.
The udon lunch is truly everything that a hungry person with 15 minutes to spare could want. If I had taken the bullet train, sure, I would have the luxury of time, and maybe a bento box lunch. But I would not have had this magic bowl of steamy dashi broth and thick noodles. The experience of station platform udon, only comes with the grind of taking local trains. That grind seems to be less appealing these days. I am the only passenger form my train who stops for udon.
Next is my last transfer of the day, and it is to a very local line. Walking to the outskirts of the station platform in Kurume, away from the udon shop and the main train lines, I eventually find a small terminus where the local Kyudai line begins. A small diesel unit arrives. It has just one car, and one engineer who is in charge both of driving and collecting the fare. I check the fare table for my destination. It is 570 yen. About the same as my udon lunch. I have no ticket, but my IC card should do the trick.
If one were to drive from Kurume to Ukiha, it would take about 50 minutes to an hour. This old diesel train however takes just 39 minutes to do the same, stopping at 8 stations along the way. A faster express train does a nonstop run in about 20 minutes. With service like that, even to the countryside, its no wonder that people choose to hop on the train.
The scenery is wonderful as the little DMU hums along, and my breaths continue to get deeper. Yet as we approach the destination, there is a problem. Chikugo-Yoshii station does not accpet IC cards for payment. Most people on this train would have bought their ticket at Kurume. I search the train for an answer and it seems there is an option to pay cash directly to the train conductor. As the train stops, I walk up, a bit embarrassed, and apologize to the conductor and hold out 570 yen in coins. He tells me it’s fine, and I drop it into the fare box.
I still feel like an idiot, but exiting the train, I hear the jingle of change behind me. Glancing back, I see another passenger feverishly checking her pockets for change. Glad I am not alone.
On the train platform, a breeze gently hits me with the faint scent of mosquito incense and moist earth. Already, this is a wildly different place from the city I departed this morning.
Atop the pedestrian bridge that allows one to cross the train tracks, I stop for a moment. The scene of the train and the sunset and the colors are too gorgeous. They are the vivid and crisp kind of colors that one sees after a good rain shower when the sky has just cleared. Another three or five dragonflies flutter past me, and that’s when I notice them. Something a bit like a cloud, but more light and fluttering. Thousands of dragonflies above, all swooping and rising and falling back and swooping again.
Their dance is mesmerizing. Maybe this is normal in this season here, but I have never witnessed such a thing, at least not at this scale.
Clearly I have just stepped into the dragonfly kingdom.
What happens in the dragonfly kingdom? Join us next time as we continue our journey into the town of Ukiha to find out.
Thanks for coming along, for sharing this with others, for supporting as paid subscribers, and really in the end, just for being here to explore The Possible City with me.
If you are new here, you might want to read the previous post in this series:
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