“Yukarigaoka, city where you can see the future,” read the inscription on the 40-year-old people mover (often called monorail, but it’s not the same) making its rounds through the town. Yukarigaoka, or Eucalyptus Heights, was built as a feat of urban development that Walt Disney dreamed about in his EPCOT days. High-rise buildings with lots of greenery, large malls with facilities and, to keep it all car-free, a largely elevated people mover that runs circles to and from the main train station.
When François* and I were planning an outing, I spotted the crazy little line on the map. I looked at the pictures and knew, “This is where I want to go!” So last Sunday, while the sun was blazing, we headed for the little town in Chiba prefecture.
Official announcement: from now on, Jean-Jacques will have his own name again: François, which is just as French and just as difficult to type. He simply leaves out that little thing under the c, especially in Japan, but I don’t think that’s right.
Why this change? First of all, François has become such a constant factor in my life that we no longer have to be mysterious about it. Secondly, and perhaps secretly the most pressing reason: François’ uncle’s name is Jean-Jacques. I didn’t know that when I came up with it, and unlike all the other people I’ve come up with a nickname for, I hadn’t checked with him either. Now that alone is a bit awkward, but it gets even worse when you know that this uncle lives in Japan. One stop past Yukarigaoka, even. So when we were out for our train ride on Sunday, we also went by his uncle for coffee. As you can probably imagine, Jean-Jacques really can’t be used anymore. So François it is.
“Hmpf, the future,” scoffed François, when he saw the people mover pull up. “This thing is forty years old, just like me!” The little train was decorated with playful koalas, but underneath were bulging patches of rust. The curtains were not the epitome of modernity, and the rest of the interior also looked dated. The air conditioning didn’t work, so it was a bit of a sauna in there. To compensate, they had put up a cooler with wet wipes, which you could use for free. Meanwhile, a bus also runs through Yukarigaoka: the elderly who are less agile had problems with the not always accessible stations. The future is here. Or well, was here. Forty years ago.
Almost the shortest line of Japan
It was a weekend full of adventure. We started on Saturday by getting our Starbucks medal for Ibaraki Prefecture at Toride Station, a place just across the border from Chiba. We looked on Google Maps to see if there was anything interesting in the area, and a small railroad line just a few stops away caught my eye. We decided to take a look at the Ryugasaki Line, a 4.5-kilometer, non-electrified railroad line with a one-car train on it dating back to 1981. “This must be the shortest railroad line in Japan?”, I joked. I was wrong. We googled Japan’s shortest railroad line and came across the Shibayama Railway, a 2.2-kilometer line in… Narita, Chiba? And the starting station was… under Narita Airport? How could this be? And how did I not know this? We resolved to visit it the next day.
Christmas in summer
That night we slept at love hotel Chapel Christmas in Narita City. Here it is Christmas 365 days a year, and that seemed hilarious to me, especially in the heart of summer. The hotel was decorated with gold and kitsch and glitter, which is why it reminded me of my mother. Gold and kitsch and glitter (and tiger print) are her thing. I tried to explain this to François, who of course never met my mother. I grabbed my phone and logged on to my server, which contained backups of years-old photos.
Before we knew it, we had landed in 2005. It was crazy to see those photos. I was quite insecure back then, about my body, about everything. While I was objectively younger, prettier and slimmer then, I feel better now. Although sometimes I would like to teleport myself back to that time, to relive things with the mindset that I have now.
François showed me pictures from his old blog. He, while no longer as skinny as he was then, had not changed that much. He still wears the same band shirts (these bands are now on their 90’s revival tours), has had his glasses forever and his backpack has also been around for years. François sometimes reminds me of my exes because of this, but perhaps that is also simply because we are getting older, and have more and more conscious memories of the past. When a twenty-year-old looks back ten years, they will end up in their childhood. When I look back ten years from now, it sometimes feels like yesterday. I was exactly the same person – but also completely different.
That station that still is
The next day we were supposed to go to Yukarigaoka for their people mover, but since we had discovered the day before that there was this obscure little railroad line under Narita Airport, we did that first. We were in the area anyway.
After breakfast at the airport, we caught the free shuttle bus between the terminals. This bus also stops at Higashi Narita station, starting point of the Shibayama Railway. Higashi Narita used to be called Narita Airport Station, and was (or is) served by Keisei Electric Railway. Occasionally a train arrives from Narita city, and very occasionally even from Ueno, Tokyo. But when new stations opened in the early 1990s right below Terminals 1 and 2/3, from where you can catch both the Skyliner and Narita Express, this station became virtually obsolete. The one stop after this station, Shibayama-Chiyoda, lies between the hangars and is mostly used by airport staff. Therefore, the Shibayama Railway is also partly funded by Narita Airport and Japan Airlines.
So then what do you get? A station that feels so eerie, so abandoned and dilapidated, it’s as if you’re urbexing – or have stepped into a horror movie. A security guard stands in front of the entrance, but not to stop visitors. Behind the ticket counter, a railroad official is sitting there doing nothing all day. Half of the lobby is cordoned off, stores are all closed and two of the four platforms are inaccessible. If you look closely, you can still see the old station name on the wall there. Our train took us to the terminus in minutes; first through a tunnel, then past the airplanes. What an attraction.
Three days later, I was back at Narita. By the Narita Express this time, so no trace of this past glory. I caught the plane to Holland, because in a week and a half my new book will be released. It is about Japan, but also about love, and about changes. About wanting to know where things end, about new adventures and about finding yourself. Perhaps that is where my fascination with trains, city planning and abandoned places originates. What is engineerable? What happens when a station loses its purpose? What lies beneath the surface in a place I’ve been to more than twenty times? What does a new love do to old loves? How many different lives have I had, and how is that all still me? What am I actually looking for? The future? The forty-year-old future?