This page is an English-language virtual field trip to Yubari City in Hokkaido, Japan. Yubari is a town in south-central Hokkaido, with a population of just over 7,000 people as of early 2022. Yubari is perhaps best known in the English-speaking world as a former coal-mining city, which has suffered notable population decline and financial challenges before and since the closure of the last coal mines in the early 1990s. What is maybe less well-known, though, is that Yubari’s city government and a number of civil society organisations locally have been working to create a vibrant modern community in Yubari, and to preserve and celebrate their cultural heritage.
The purpose of this virtual field trip, therefore, is to show a bit about how coal mining has left a legacy on the built and lived-in environment of Yubari, and also to show some of the ways in which various actors locally are working to create a sustainable and livable environment today. In this way, the aim is to get you to think about what a just transition means not only for jobs and local economies, but also for the places that have been host to carbon-intensive activities in the past.
Let’s start the tour with a map to orient ourselves as to the location of Yubari, and the key locations within it:
- Shimizusawa Project
We start our tour at the Shimizusawa Project, in Shimuzusawa in the centre of Yubari.
Shimizusawa Project is a non-governmental organisation which was set up to introduce Yubari’s rich cultural heritage to visitors, and to support sustainable living for residents. Operating under the ‘ecomuseum’ concept – treating the community itself as the museum venue – Shimizusawa Project organises events, walking tours, and actions to support cultural heritage in Yubari.
To see what Shimizusawa Project have been up to recently, have a look at their website:
Here are some of the community engagement activities, such as walking tours and talk events, that Shimizusawa Project has organised:
2. Coal worker’s house
Shimizusawa Project looks after a row of houses which formerly belonged to the Hokkaido Colliery and Railway Company – effectively Hokkaido’s main coal mining company. These houses reflect the environment that coal workers lived in in the last days of the industry in the 1970s and 80s. Have a look round the one room upstairs, one room downstairs house. Note there is no bathroom – families bathed at a communal bathhouse nearby.
3. Shimizusawa Slag Heap
A short walk away from Shimizusawa Community Gate is the Shimizusawa slag heap, a mound formed out of tailings and debris from the coal-mining process. Formed as a spoil tip from Hokkaido Coal’s mining activities, the slag heap in Shimizusawa has become something of a biodiversity hotspot and also a prime location for viewing the town of Yubari. At a height of 60m, the slag heap has become an important location for social interaction within Yubari. Over the years, many residents have planted their own flowers and trees on the slopes, giving the slag heap a unique biodiversity!
Check out the view from the top of the slag heap on Yubari 360:
4. Lake Shuparo
Heading east from Shimizusawa takes us to another valley, and Lake Shuparo. Lake Shuparo was created with the construction of the Shuparo Dam, under which the former district of Kashima lies. A monument to the Oyubari area – and several important monuments which previously stood in Kashima – have been relocated to higher ground at the side of the lake. On our next stop, we will see one of the sites where there was formerly a township within Yubari, but which now lies beneath the lake.
5. The former town of Kashima and the Oyubari area
At the peak of coal mining in Yubari, around 10,000 people lived in the area in the east of Yubari called Oyubari, specifically Kashima District. However, following the closure of the Mitsubishi mine in the area, the population shrank. In 1998, the last 300 or so residents were relocated, and the area was emptied in preparation for building the Shuparo Dam. In 2014, most of Kashima sank underwater as Lake Shuparo filled up behind the dam.
There isn’t much to see, but if we go onto Google Street View, we can find imagery from 2008 of a road that is now at least partially underwater, and can see the final preparations being made to clear buildings and prepare the area for being flooded once dam construction was complete:
Some video footage of life in the Oyubari area in 1991 remains and has been uploaded online:
And here is a news report from the mid-1990s, of the last milk delivery in Oyubari before the final residents were moved out:
6. Nanbu and Minami-Oyubari
As we head back towards central Yubari from Oyubari, we pass through Mianmi-Shuparo and the Nanbu District. This is an area of Yubari where the population has decreased significantly, and where residents are now gradually being encouraged to move to newer housing in the core of the city. Although there are of course still people who live in this part of Yubari, if we look at the time-lapse function of Google Street View, we can see more and more buildings being cleared
7. New Yubari City hub: Resta and Shimizusawa
Our trip now takes us back to Shimizusawa in central Yubari. An important part of Yubari’s plan for the future is to build a new core for the community in the Shimizusawa area of the city. One of the biggest actions in the last few years has been to build a new community hub building – called Resta – and also to construct new housing with the aim of making older residents comfortable and also attracting young families. If you look at the timelapse on Google Street View, you can see the older mining housing being removed, new houses going up, and the Resta hub being constructed after the old Yubari railway line was removed (we will talk more about the old railway later):
You can read the underpinning vision for Yubari City’s plan to consolidate the population in a new hub here (in Japanese). You can also read more about the consultation process for Yubari’s consolidation vision, again in Japanese, here (following the links will take you to files showing images of the process!)
8. Former Yubari Station, and trains in Yubari
We now head north to the top of Yubari. As we head up the road north from Shimizusawa, you might notice the remains of some old railway infrastructure – gravel where tracks used to be, abandoned crossing points, closed stations. The Yubari branch of the Sekisho Line ran up the main valley in which Yubari is located, from Shin-Yubari station (Yubari’s stop on the main Sekisho Line) up to Yubari station. In the face of a declining population and budgetary challenges being faced by JR Hokkaido, an agreement was reached for the Yubari branch line to be closed, and the last service ran in March 2019. Buses are now the main way to get around the town for those that don’t have cars or wish to rely on public transport.
The trains that used to run up the Yubari branch line prior to its closure were single-carriage Kiha40 diesel-powered trains.
Incidentally, over to the east at Minami-Oyubari (where we stopped on point 6), there’s an old steam locomotive which used to serve the Mitsubishi coal mines. The rails and mines have long gone, but the train and the Minami-Oyubari station platform have been preserved and are looked after by a team of volunteers. Note the Mitsubishi logo on the door!
9. Small-scale coal mining
This stop takes us up to the far north of Yubari, near the coal mine museum. It’s well known that the coal mines in Yubari closed by the early 1990s. Did you know, though, that there is still coal-related business in the city? The spoil that was disposed of during large-scale mining operations many decades ago still contains a not inconsiderable amount of coal. Up in the north of Yubari, small businesses are still working to extract this coal out of the old slag heaps, by mining on the surrface.
This drone footage, shot by one of the small enterprises involved in extracting coal from the slag heaps, shows the extent and nature of their work.
There have also been attempts recently to explore the possibility of producing gas via coal bed methane (CBM) in Yubari, however these have been put on hold for the time being. Yubari City Government’s information materials on CBM, in Japanese, are here.
10. Okashi no Fuji
Hokkaido is famed for its delicious dairy produce – which means great desserts. One such dessert shop is Okashi no Fuji on the main street of Shimizusawa, near the former railway station.
Among their most famous ‘delicacies’ is the tanuki cake (similar to a raccoon cake):
11. Mt. Yubari
Mt. Yubari is a significant biodiversity hotspot within the bounds of Yubari City. Despite its coal mining history, it is important to remember that the vast majority of Yubari City is forest and mountains – such as Mt. Yubari. There were plans to turn the mountain into a ski resort during the Japanese economic bubble of the 1980s, which were stopped due to the discovery of the yuparikozakura plant and citizen action against the development. Today, the mountain is a biodiversity hotspot and popular climbing destination for Hokkaido residents. The NPO Yupari-Kozakura-No-Kai offer stewardship to the mountain and its flora and fauna on a voluntary basis. Have a look at their website to see scenes of Mt. Yubari and details on the mountain’s biodiversity.
This virtual field trip was developed as part of the British Academy-funded project Just transitions to a net-zero sustainable society in Japan