Goodbye Orange Chairs, Homage to a Sign, and Hello New Oita Station
Joanne G. Yoshida
July 1, 2012
As of March 17, 2012 the first stage of construction was completed and the new Oita Station is open to passengers.
The former tracks have been dismantled, and what remains now of the old station will soon be only a memory for the many Oitans and travelers to Oita who have entered through its comforting and perfectly suited "Oita" sign.
It was the impending removal and probable destruction of the orange chairs that were a fixture on the Track 2 platform for the thirteen years that I've lived in Oita that made me feel a certain urgency to write about the station.
Not that my writing will do anything to affect the fate of those orange seats, but at least they will be remembered and I can now see their likeness here in the photos and share it with you, along with some of my connections with the old station that still remains shuttered on the north side.
Train stations inevitably become places of nostalgia. They are stops for our memories to visit, places to keep track of partings and connections on our travels through life.
You can probably imagine this scene from films and in songs, a traveller with a suitcase standing on a platform about to get on or off a train. As far as metaphors go, train stations can pack a trunk of poetic associations. My association with Oita's station will forever be those orange chairs.
The first time I arrived in Japan after two planes and several buses, I took a train from Oita to Tsukumi where I would then take a boat to meet my husband's family for the first time. I remember standing on Platform 1 (Ichiban Noriba) at Oita Station to get the express train for Tsukumi. As my husband tried to figure out from the announcements which car we should go in for the unreserved seats, I looked across to Platform 2 at the playful chairs that were shaped like mikan - oranges famous in Oita and Tsukumi.
The orange chairs were always there as a bright spot of color on a drab gray day, a symbol of Oita sweetly announcing that here is a city of a particular flavor, with it's own special size and characteristics. A city you can sit comfortably in and know where you are.
If you sliced a larger than life-sized formica orange in two, the one half of the orange would serve as a back rest and the other the seat. The orange chairs were a friendly visual landmark from the platform; they squeezed out a sense of play and a little whimsy that made me know this is a place I could live. Some people call Oita a small city but I called it just right.
I watched the crane the other day from a barricade too far away to get a photo of the orange chairs' last segment. Not knowing what fate awaits them, I stood there watching the rain turn the old track beds to mud.
The tracks have already been removed on the ground level to make room for new elevated tracks. Now we need to take escalators like the ones in a shopping mall to new platforms enclosed under glass roofs that shield the rain and say here could be anywhere.
If there was even a nod to this being Oita I would feel so much more at home. The numbers that once hung from the shed-like platform roofs and marked which car was which that we lined up in front of were torn down and strewn on the original platforms, lying in small scattered piles of twisted metal remains.
The idea of the station's development is to bring new economic life to what had been the 'back' of the station, it's south side. Oita's main street and shopping district has been the area north of Oita Station. The idea of turning the station around with a new south side entrance coincided with a development plan for the once 'back side' of the tracks.
Now the south side has it's health club, paved roads, supermarket with plenty of parking, medium-high rise buildings under construction, and more parking. Plans are underway for a multiplex movie theater and shopping mall in the expansion.
What was the front main entrance to the station is now the back and where we entered to perfectly comfortable sized coffee shops and baitens (souvenir shops),has become a passage way lined with coin lockers, shuttered souvenir stands and closed down udon shops. Signs in what was the station now point the way to the station.
I may once have idealistically thought I could "stop" the development but I continued to be frustrated in my abilities as I found that all I could do was stand back and watch the pavings and construction.
But what I have noticed is that my sense of urgency seems to have gone inward. An inner stopping, to take my time, to delve into my self, to follow tracks to my soul and to my sense of who I am and how I want to live.
Even writing this I feel an understanding coming into words - I can't stop the development. I can't get angry at Japan for not being the old timeless world of wood and paper houses I once imagined it to be.
I wrote the draft of this article at Oita's Starbucks which opened several years ago in Forus Department Store in Galeria Takemachi (north side of the tracks). When I packed up my pages, I stopped to say Hello to Dave, a regular here and at some of the other coffee spots in town, who was reading a book about the Universe.
He had an affectionate way of handling it's smooth high quality and well preserved pages and showed me some of the wonderful illustrations. When I saw photos of Mars in orange cross sections on a black universal ground, I thought of the Orange Chairs I'd just written about.
Their roundness and planetary feeling. Orange nostalgia in orbit. I told Dave about the connection and then our conversation turned to the station. He too had fond recollections of when he first came to Oita 16 years ago, before there were any Starbucks here.
"For us it was mostly Mr Donuts", he recollected, referring to the time before Starbucks and to the Mr Donuts storefront that is now shuttered down on the old 'front' of the station.
"(The Station) feels small now," he said. He described the way it was always something in the ever-changing landscape of Oita that you could recognize, and how it was: "nice to have something that doesn't change".
His sister Nicole also lived in Oita and Dave told me that when she returned to visit, she took the bus from the airport. When the bus pulled into the city she saw the sign in front of the Oita Station with the two kanji (大分）in red that spell Oita just as she remembered it.
"She saw the sign, that it hadn't changed, and she started to cry." It gave her the sense of "coming home".
About the new station, Dave took a realistic approach. He is still not so comfortable, but realizes that we have no choice but to welcome it and in time it too will begin to have a history for us and those who are living in Oita as we get to know it and use it. After all, we still "don't know the staff" he said.
Physical reality is changing in front of our eyes as I suppose the rest of the world is. This article is like a letter to the orange chairs on the platform and to the Oita Station sign which gives a first impression to visitors to Oita with it's two clear and simple kanji in just the right size and primary red. To the orange chairs, Thank You!
All these years of family visits to Tsukumi, New Year to Obon,I watched you across the platform and you spoke of your roundness, your fullness and your connection to the ground. On the platforms you offered your half circle segmented seats to travelers. You made an impression with your color, your form, your daring to be you in a world of flatter one dimensional benches.
And to your fellow orange benches that still remain in Tsukumi, these photos were taken in play and in tribute, an homage to your fruitful being, and in this moment of writing you really are - here. The Oita sign too still remains as of this writing. Never mind what those two kanji 'mean', to us they will always say "OITA".
Thank you to Dave Bellefleur for the impromptu interview at Starbucks and for sharing your appreciation for the tactile pages from your Life series book of the Universe.
Nagori Yuki (なごり雪) here sung by Kaguya Hime (かぐや姫 - a 1970's folk group founded by Oita-born Minami Kosetsu) can be heard piped into the speakers on the platform of Tsukumi Station (muzak version) where you can sit on the orange chairs and take the train to the new Oita Station.
Trains from Oita Station
Joanne G. Yoshida