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Edition #41, November 1, 2006

Where the Dandelions Grow

Photographer: Scott Lothes

                                                        Photo by Scott Lothes

Where the Dandelions Grow

Muroran is an old city. Not by European, or even eastern American standards, but old, nevertheless.

Situated on an ox-bowed peninsula that makes a fabulous natural harbor, Muroran grew up as an industrial city. One of the first railroads in Hokkaido was completed in 1892 to link it with several interior coalmines, and two sprawling steel mill complexes later rose along the waterfront.

By 1970, the population had surpassed 160,000 as the mills hummed and the coal trains rolled, fueling a nation rebuilding in the wake of the Second World War. The decade that followed, however, brought a global oil crisis and a worldwide depression in the steel industry. Muroran’s boom had busted. As the mills reduced production and workforces in the 1980s, the population began a steady fall that has yet to hit bottom, recently dropping below six figures.

Change was afoot elsewhere, as energy policy decisions at the national level did nothing to stop the regional bleeding. Cheaper coal sources were located in Australia and China, Hokkaido’s mines gradually went offline, and the once-bustling freight yards in Muroran fell silent.

With the new millennium came an urge to revitalize. Up came the rusting rails, and up went a modern, new station building a few hundred meters from the old one. The original station was preserved and now houses a tourism office and small museum. Outside, all traces of the yard are gone; not even a rotting crosstie remains. A sign advertises the empty lot as real estate, but the proliferation of shuttered shops across the street indicates no buyers will be forthcoming. Where 2-8-2s once steamed into town with long strings of loaded coal wagons and 4-6-4s chuffed out with limited expresses for Sapporo, now only the dandelions grow.

Scott Lothes

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