If you take out a map of the Japanese railway network and follow the Jōetsu conventional mainline out from the capital towards Niigata you will find two loops in the line. The flat map cannot do justice to what is taking place here as the mainline struggles to overcome the mountain range that separates the Japan Sea coast from the Kantō plain. For, rather than merely completing two 360˚ loops, the line is also changing significantly in altitude. But there is another aspect which the map overlooks – that part of the Jōetsu line is not drawn and is separated from the other line – and the consequence of this plays itself out most notably at one of the stations sandwiched between the loops – Doai.
Ever since the Jōetsu mainline opened, trains battled along this looped, single-track route between Ueno and Niigata. However, many, most notably LDP politician Kakuei Tanaka, were keen to have the line double-tracked. But the new investment also presented an opportunity for further improvements to the line. Time could be saved by having a single tunnel bore through the mountains requiring no significant gradient. However, this would mean that the platforms serving the two directions would end up at very different altitudes. This is what happened at Doai. When the 13,490m Shin-Shimizu Tunnel opened on 27 September 1967, Doai’s platform for trains bound for Niigata was now well below ground. Whereas the original platform is at ground level and around 653m above sea level, the new platform is 70m lower at 583m above sea level.
Clearly a means was needed to connect the new subterranean platform to the main station. The result is 486 steps. But this is not a single flight of steps for there are further challenge to be overcome – a river and a road. So the initial flight of 462 steps takes you to the surface, but above ground level. These steps take 338m in total and numbers on each 10 steps inform you of your progress. Other than one bench about half-way up, the only other support are the barriers on either side of the staircase which are there as much to stop you from slipping into the water chutes that take rain water down to the lower levels where it disappears into the rocks. Even on a dry day the sound of the water is one of the notable features as you climb, whereas it is almost deafening on a rainy day. Dampness is everywhere and around the strip lights, moss grows on the tunnel walls.
At the top of the main staircase, the path levels out and you continue along a flat, windowed walkway. Here the route from the platform comes out of the mountain and becomes a bridge which first traverses the river and then the local road. This walkway continues 143m, and includes the final 24 steps in small clusters, until you reach the main, unstaffed, station building. Upon exiting the building, one can see the unusually designed station building. You can then walk down to the river and see where the walkway disappears into the mountainside. You may even find monkeys frolicking around the rocks and trees by the river. Today it is hard to imagine the express trains in the old JNR livery thundering through Doai station for of course, the route has become much quieter since the opening of the Jōetsu Shinkansen. Indeed many trains from Takasaki terminate at the previous station, Minakami, and often the more time-efficient means to get to Doai is to approach from the north via Echigo-Yuzawa. But with only around 6 trains a day in either direction, serving an average of 17 passengers that use the station a day, you need to be sure of your timings.
Although seeing the station with the longest staircase in Japan may of interest for some, what brings most to Doai is its surroundings. Indeed this is the reason why I went. For many of the years since I completed by book on the shinkansen, I have been working on a book about the Japan Air Lines flight JL123 crash in 1985. Amongst the literature on this crash is a novel, Kuraimāzu Hai (‘Climber’s High’), which has been subsequently turned into an NHK drama (2005) and a feature film (2008). Doai station features at the start of these stories as the main character goes there in order to then go to take on one of the most daunting climbs in Japan – Ichinokurasawa on Mount Tanigawa, the mountain which gives its name to one of the shinkansen which serves the Jōetsu Shinkansen. The walk from the station to this point is around 6km and takes you across the Jōetsu conventional line, past the memorials for those who did not return alive from Tanigawa and past the Tanigawa Ropeway (which takes you to close to the top of the multi-peaked mountain and from where chairlifts take you higher or from where you can hike along its peaks). Ichinokura itself is an impressive sight, a towering wall of rock over 1km high. Snow and ice are visible throughout the summer and can be found close to the path which takes you to Ichinokura.
Should you return via Doai station and Echigo-Yuzawa, you will need to remember to allow the 10 minutes it takes to get from the station entrance back down to the lower platform. Upon your return you are likely to be aware of the relief of the relative coolness of the underground platform, a coolness that produces a noticeable mist. This mist hangs almost motionless in the air until a train enters the tunnel (on the left-hand side as you look from the stairs), when it begins to move around due the air being pushed ahead by the train which will finally reach the platform some two minutes or so later.
A train preparing to depart Doai station
The main staircase from the subterranean platform at Doai station.
The final step
The walkway appears from the mountainside to traverse a river.
Doai station nestles in amongst the mountains. On the left hand side you can see the ground level platform and main station building. Just right of centre you can see the walkway as it crosses over the local road and further right the roof of the walkway is just visible before it disappears into the mountainside at the top of the staircase.
Ichinokura at Mount Tanigawa
Published as ‘486 Steps and A Double Loop’, Japanese Railway Society Bullet-In, Issue 75 (Summer 2012) 30-1.