A Surreal Stopover Along the “Milky Way Railway”
I'm tickled by the idea that I might have traveled from Kagoshima to Yoron by train. Of course, this is geologically impossible. Yoron is a tiny island situated in the Pacific Ocean, roughly 22 ferry hours or four island-hops away from Kagoshima port, or a 95-minute flight from Kagoshima airport. It also has ferry and flight connections to nearby Okinawa. But it has neither an underground tunnel nor an overseas bridge to support any form of a railway.
And yet, Yoron has a train station. Or at least, it has giant rusting train wheels and tracks firmly planted on its coral reef coast, in front of a sign that squarely marks Yoron island as the standalone station between Kagoshima and Okinawa. A wooden shelter confirms the location: "Milky Way Galaxy Railway Main Line: Yoron Station."
As inhabitants of the southernmost resort of the Amami Islands, the people of Yoron have long imagined a sort of marine/celestial railway extending from mainland Kyushu all the way to Naha City in Okinawa. In 1979, the Kagoshima Railway Administration gifted the island with these symbolic rails and wheels. Since then, the fantasy has become surreal.
I follow the Bidou promenade along Yoron's coastal coral reef, on a red paved path that includes dramatic curves and stairs disappearing over the cliffside. Peering down over the edge, I spot more coral reefs under the clear blue seawater.
There are no other people around me as far as my eyes can see, so I take my time in the fresh air to explore the many nooks and crannies of this coralline coast. I catch fleeting glimpses of tiny fish darting away into a muddy crevice, under plants and moss growing on the porous surface. With my panoramic view of the west side of the island, I see a propeller plane taking off from the airport, hear the clink of glass bottles inside the recycle center, then gaze at the Jurassic silhouettes of subtropical cycads. This is my favorite place on Yoron island so far.
Continuing along the promenade, I marvel at the many colorful containers lining the industrial harbor, then look into the distance to spot the towering Southern Cross Center near Yoron's fifteenth-century stone dragon castle ruins on the hill. I pass many more coral reef formations in and out of the water along the sandy path down to the port.
The thing about coral is that it looks different from various angles; its figurative shapes shift according to your approach and your imagination. The island's most popular example is the Welkame, a coral rock in the shape of a sea turtle that welcomes visitors to Yoron harbor, as long as you look at it straight on from the shoreline.
Other famous coral formations and the negative spaces they create include a reef opening in the shape of Yoron island itself. Approaching the Touishi alcove beach where sea turtles are known to lay their eggs, I can't help imagining a mini Godzilla rising out of the shallow seawater.
As I won't have time to reach my next destination on the other side of the island by foot, I decide to call a taxi. The dispatcher connects me directly to a driver. I vaguely tell him that I'm near the airport.
"Are you at Yoron Station?" he asks. Even the taxi driver refers to the fantasy train platform as if it were an actual functioning transportation hub.
"Not exactly…" I realize that I am at a loss as to how to describe my precise location to him, so I start walking back toward the industrial harbor and the coral reef. I want to say that I'm now between the turtle and Godzilla, but that might be going too far.
Finally, a black taxi emerges on the horizon and flashes its lights at me, the only pedestrian in sight in any direction. I hop in, state my destination, and we're off.
The driver, Yamada-san, lets me know that the taxi is chartered by the hour, so we might as well take the scenic route. We make our way through many farmlands before reaching the main road, following the route used for the annual Yoron Marathon in March. At one point, I open the car door to liberate a frantically jumping locust, as if to remind me that Yoron is an island with agriculture at its core.
Meanwhile, we head for the beach. Yurigahama isn't on my original itinerary, but Yoron's huge sandbank is so famous that I feel I can't leave the island without seeing it once. The excitement builds as we pull over by the shore, and I brace myself for the spectacle. I find myself scrutinizing the seascape for the glamorous oasis, squinting to see the mirage.
For Yamada-san, who grew up on the island, lives in the neighborhood, and passes the beach every day, Yurigahama is not a sight but a place—a living, breathing geological entity with its own continually changing topography according to the tides and the seasons.
As it turns out, Yurigahama is only visible at low tide on particular dates of the year between March and October—and even then, visibility is not guaranteed. Someday, I will have the privilege of seeing Yurigahama, also known as Maboroshi no Hama ('phantasmal' beach), when the stars and the tides align. Standing before the invisible sandbank now, I am grateful for the peaceful view of clear, calm, turquoise water, all the way to the horizon.
A bit further up the coast, I enjoy watching a couple stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) at Minata beach, where the water is just as turquoise and clear, sheltered from the waves by the northern coral reef atoll. I wish I could jump in and join them, but I have a plane to catch.
As we head back westward across the island, Yamada-san points out the large vacation homes of Yoron's seasonal residents. "From Kagoshima?" I ask. "From Tokyo, Osaka!" he replies, asserting that Yoron is famous across Japan as a desirable holiday retreat. I think they really should extend that galactic train line.
We continue toward the main town of Chabana, past small guesthouses and cafés, as well as the island's only high school, government office, police station, hospital, and retirement home. aYamada-san drops me off at Aoi Sangoshou ("blue coral reef"), a restaurant with a sea view that specializes in mozuku soba noodles made from the local seaweed, which you can enjoy while sitting on traditional tatami mats by the large windows. Their fresh tankan citrus juice is also delicious.
While everyone on the island dutifully wears masks and uses hand sanitizer when interacting with others, Yoron occasionally closes off access to visitors altogether, as health safety measures for Covid-19 prevention remain the island's top priorities. Upon arrival, I was immediately handed a piece of paper detailing the various symptoms and prevention measures, followed by a list of contact numbers for all the prefectural health centers, including Tokunoshima, which covers Yoron town.
Making my way back to the airport just a few steps away, I feel lucky to have caught this brief and surreal glimpse of Yoron island, from its coral reefs and sandy beaches to its fertile farmlands and clear, open skies. Next time, I'm taking the train!