A trip to Kiyosato on “the train line closest to the heavens.”

Having grown up in a coastal town on Japan’s southwestern island of Kyushu, our reporter Mariko Ohanabatake has always felt there’s a special allure to the mountains. So she recently found herself in Yamanashi, one of Japan’s landlocked prefectures, she decided to take a day trip to the Kiyosato Highlands, or Kiyosato Kogen, as they’re called in Japanese.

Why Kiyosato? Well, back in the ‘80s, during the height of Japan’s Bubble Economy, there was sort of a Kiyosato boom, with travel show features and celebrity leisure travelers creating a glamorously laid-back image for the place.

The last leg of the train trip out to Kiyosato involves a ride on the Koumi Line. This line has the distinction of being the highest-altitude section of track managed by Japan Railway, which calls it “the track closest to the heavens.” Before heading to the platform, though, you’ll want to check the timetable, though, because trains only come about once an hour, and sometime the wait can be as long as two hours and 40 minutes!

Now, when we said Mariko has long been drawn to the mountains, it’s because of her mental pictures of running along grassy plateaus under clear blue alpine skies. On this day though…

…the weather was unseasonably cold and cloudy. As the train chugged higher and higher, Mariko didn’t feel like she was approaching the heavens so much as a mysterious world of fog.

By the time she got off the train at Kiyosato Station, the mist had gotten so thick that she couldn’t see much farther than the end of the platform.

Stepping into the station building itself didn’t do much to alleviate that feeling of isolation.

Aside from a single station attendant, there was no one else there.

But the inside of the station felt like a hive of activity compared to what was waiting outside.

Mariko wasn’t just the only person in the town, she felt like the only living thing there.

She’d had heard that the town around Kiyosato Station isn’t as lively as it had been back in the Bubble Era anymore, but she hadn’t expected a full-on ghost town.

Store after store was closed, and looked like it has been for years. Making the atmosphere especially surreal is that since this was a vacation destination, a lot of the architecture is fanciful and brightly colored. Walking around town felt like being inside a forgotten fairy tale kingdom.

▼ Time seems to have stopped, in more ways than one, at this soba restaurant with a clock tower.

▼ Kiyosato is famous for its soft serve ice cream, but this place has served its last cone.

The one place Mariko found that is still in business? A solitary branch of convenience store chain Family Mart.

Sadly, like a lot of other overly optimistic places in Japan, Kiyosato overdeveloped during the heady days of the Bubble Economy, assuming that the crowds would keep coming forever and ever. Things didn’t pan out that way, though, but the buildings were built sturdily enough that they haven’t crumbled, even after extended periods of disuse.

However, while the area around Kiyosato Station has become a ghost town, the Kiyosato Highlands still offer a lot of sightseeing and leisure activities, such as hiking, skiing, cycling, and hot springs. You just have to get a farther away from the station. For example, the Kiyosato Terrace offers refreshments and reclining seating with jaw-droppingly beautiful views.

And even on a rainy day, a quick five-minute taxi ride had Mariko at the entrance to the Seisen-ryo resort lodge.

She wasn’t staying the night, but she could still enjoy a delicious lunch…

…and more importantly, in their attached shop they sell…

Kiyosato soft serve ice cream, made with milk sourced from local dairies.

▼ Other local-ingredient treats include cheesecake, milk pastries, cookies, sausages, and ham.

So in contrast to the eerie emptiness around the station, there’s still plenty to do that makes a trip out to Kiyosato worthwhile. You’ll probably want to pick a day when the weather is sunny, though, and if you go between late spring and early fall, there’s also a sightseeing bus that departs from in front of the station, since most of the area’s attractions aren’t within easy walking distance.

Or, if you’re after some unique photos, head there on a spookily foggy day like Mariko did, and pair the chill in your spine with some nice cold ice cream.

Related: Kiyosato Kogen Tourism Association official website, Kiyosato Terrace, Seisen-ryo
Photos ©SoraNews24
● Want to hear about SoraNews24’s latest articles as soon as they’re published? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
[ Read in Japanese ]