Local to Local

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Yufuin Station: Barrier-free station greets young vacationers

Daily Yomiuri:
http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/columns/0004/station007.htm

Barrier-free station greets young vacationers

By Keiko Nakamura
Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

"The next stop is Yufuin," announced the train conductor. Hearing this, I made my way along the shiny wooden floor of the Yufuin-no-Mori Go, an express train from JR Hakata Station in Fukuoka, before stepping onto the station platform.

My body was bathed in the cool, damp mountain air. Looking around, I saw the fog-cloaked mountains towering over me.

Taking in the milky white of the fog, the dark green carriages and the black station building, it struck me that I was inside a living sumi-e Indian ink painting.

A wide road leads away from the front of the station. Beyond it rise the graceful lines of Mt. Yufudake.

Town residents say the railway lines here were intentionally curved so that the station was ideally placed for a view of the mountain — the symbol of the town.

Since renovation in 1990, the station has had no ticket gates. Though common in Europe, this is rare for a station in one of Japan's most popular tourist spots.

Kentaro Nakaya, 70, owner of an inn with a long history in the town, said the absence of barriers resulted from discussions among local residents over the ideal form of the new station.

"We concluded that we should not appear to distrust visitors from out of town. That kind of attitude is a century out of date," he said.

Yufuin is known for the discreet hospitality it extends to visitors with its abundant hot spring baths and highly popular film and music festivals.

The barrier-free station somehow seems appropriate to the town, which is sometimes called the "land of healing." The then newly established JR Kyushu was struggling with many loss-making routes at the time, but was happy to comply with the wishes of the locals.

Yoshitaka Ishii, 71, then the president of the railway company, was looking for a centerpiece for his new company. "We needed a new way of thinking that would mark a total break from our years with Japanese National Railways," Ishii said.

The townsfolk's idea was to convert their station into a place where people would want to stop and savor their surroundings, rather than just getting on and off the train. Other towns had similar ideas, but Ishii chose Yufuin for the project. "We chose Yufuin in part because it was so popular with young men and women, which makes it a bit different from other traditional tourist spots. But the most important reason was local residents' enthusiasm," he said.

Construction of the new station was unprecedented not only because the railway company and the town government evenly shouldered the cost, but also because it was designed by world famous architect Arata Isozaki, now 72, a native of Oita Prefecture.

"I had a real passion for the job. When I spoke to my acquaintances and architects from other countries, they echoed my view that the hot springs and natural splendor of Yufuin — things I have enjoyed since my childhood — are things to cherish," Isozaki said.

Another tourist attraction in the town are the horse-drawn cabs known as gharries. From spring to autumn, the cabs carry visitors to tourist spots around the town. On holidays, the gharries are so popular that long lines of people can be seen waiting for a ride.

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