Keibin: Remembering Okinawa’s Light Railway at Yonabaru

Photos by David Krigbaum
Photos by David Krigbaum

Keibin: Remembering Okinawa’s Light Railway at Yonabaru

by David Krigbaum

One of Okinawa’s distinct features that sets it apart from mainland Japan is its lack of a railway system, not counting the tourist-centric monorail between the airport and Kokusai-dori. But that wasn’t always the case.

Beginning in 1914 and for the following three decades, railways, tramways and rail-running horsecarts were an integral part of the island’s transportation system for everything from hauling cargo to getting children to school on time.

The Okinawan train service used toy-like German steam engines on narrow gauge 2’6” wide tracks. Locally called “Keibin,” the dialect word for “light rail,”  the roughly cruciform railway system would ultimately be composed of 51.3 kilometers of track linking Kadena in the north, Itoman in the south, Naha in the west and Yonabaru in the east.

Yonabaru, at the time an important shipping port, was the terminus of the east-west 9-km route to Naha, the capital and major port on Okinawa’s west coast. Yonabaru Station was a modern grey structure in a sea of traditional red tile roofed buildings, surrounded by small metal steam trains and wooden horse carts piled high with goods.

The last train ran on Mar. 28, 1945. Both the shipping port and train station were destroyed during the Battle of Okinawa shortly thereafter, never being rebuilt to resume service. For its 100th anniversary, a replica of old Yonabaru Station was built on the site of the original and is now the Yonabaru Railway Museum, Okinawa's only museum dedicated to rail transportation.

It’s a small museum but appropriately sized for the story it tells of the role rail transportation played in Okinawan life for a short while. No Keibin trains survive and even of the old station; only the stumps of pillars remain behind the museum. Inside there are a few small artifacts and lots of pictures, including railway highlights such as Crown Prince Hirohito’s 1921 visit (Hirohito became emperor five years later).

What interested me most were the video and written stories of people who used the train in their everyday lives. As a rail enthusiast, I find the small stories color the black and white of history books with human details, like how the train didn’t stop but merely slowed enough people could board as it passed through some stations. That story came from women who rode it like a school bus when they were kids. I also liked how it touched on not just the trains but also the roles of trams and rail-riding horse carts.

We spent about an hour inside though really you can breeze through in about 15 minutes. Admission is 100 yen and you’re given a replica train ticket which you can then punch and stamp with original equipment just like at a real old train station.

Some signage is in English, but it’s mostly Japanese-only. There is a no photo policy, but if you ask, the staff may be fine with using a phone translation app to read displays. The museum is open every day except Tuesday.

If you want to experience a tiny train for yourself, Neo Park in Nago has a diesel-powered miniature train masquerading as a one of the old Keibin trains. (And another mocked up as a miniature D51, because, why not?)

Yonabaru Railway Station Museum
901-1303 Okinawa, Shimajiri District, Yonabaru 3148-1

Neo Park
4607-41 Nago, Nago City, Okinawa 905-0012

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