Railroad to Potalaka

“Which sounds better, rot here or flame out in battle?” A surreal work of fiction that tells the tale of a peculiar friendship between a locomotive and a yamabushi…

By: Juan Takai (Translated by Toshiya Kamei)

In the dead of the night, under the rotting tin roof that barely covered what lay underneath, the decrepit steam locomotive had fallen into a slumber behind the gleaming rails snaking along the switchyard.

The locomotive wasn’t going anywhere — he remained idle both day and night. If per chance railroad engineers cast their gazes toward him, he would be disassembled and turned into a scrap heap.

However, a full-scale war had erupted a few months earlier. Ironically, the armed conflict with a neighboring country was what kept him alive. For one thing, he was too slow to transport soldiers and he would get in the way of others if they decided to dispose of him. Thus, the steam locomotive was cast aside for the time being.

No wind stirred the night someone pushed open his creaky wooden door. The locomotive awoke at the sound of footsteps approaching.

“Tell me your name,” a gentle male voice boomed.

Although the locomotive was awake, he didn’t open his eyes, forgetting how. 

“Cat’s got your tongue, old boy?”

“I was built by Sharp Stewart & Company,” the locomotive mumbled. “What was my serial number again? I remember people called me 160.”

“Open your eyes!”

“I can’t. For years, I had no reason to—”

“Open them!”

When 160 opened his eyes, he saw a white figure in front of him. As 160 blinked and stared harder at the figure, an elderly man in a mountain priest’s attire — a knee-length tunic, a conical cap on his forehead, and a large conch shell around his neck — emerged from the darkness. “A yamabushi?” the locomotive wondered aloud. “Why did you come down from the mountain?” He gave the yamabushi another glance, he looked vaguely familiar.

“I thought you were—”

“Still alive and kicking,” the yamabushi said with a wry smile.

Beneath the moonbeams, he touched the locomotive’s sooted body. The yamabushi’s hand became sullied, but he didn’t mind.

“Did you really think I was dead?”

Years past, when he was still a round-faced boy, the yamabushi set off on his pilgrimage. Fed up with the rapid social changes propelled by the so-called Meiji Restoration and irrational policies aimed at suppressing indigenous religious beliefs and practices, he joined a spiritual movement advocating for the preservation of the ancient customs.

Because he was the youngest member of his sect, however, the leader took pity on him and sent him home shortly before they made a direct appeal to the Emperor. As a consequence of this act, the others were arrested on the spot and hastily executed at the Ote-mon Gate, on the charge of dishonoring the living god.

“I sure do miss the good ole days, old boy. Oh, those were glorious times. Me and my comrades plotted an attack against the Tokaido road.”

“You hurled a rock at me. How could I forget that?”

“Do you still hold a grudge against me?” the yamabushi asked.

“You’re more courageous than those who peed on me,” the locomotive replied. “I like courageous people.”

“Is that so?”

“I remember our first chat, too.”

The yamabushi stepped toward the locomotive.

“I tried to talk to your locomotive friends but in vain. How come only you can understand me?”

“Who knows? But I don’t feel lonely. My fellow locomotives have been nice to me.”

They remained silent for a while, recalling their shared past.

“I’ll never forget the scenery I saw from the second floor of a Shinagawa inn. Can you imagine how I felt? I’d known only the magnificent mountains of Kiso and Mt. Ontake.”

The locomotive remained silent.

“A huge black foreign ship was anchored among small Japanese boats. On an embankment built along the sea, a steam locomotive ran faster than a horse!”

“That was me, was it?”

In 1872, trains ran between Shimbashi and Yokohama for the first time in the Land of the Rising Sun. The 160, which hadn’t developed his consciousness yet, was shipped across the ocean from England. He continued to run in this Far Eastern country that had recently awoken to the rest of the world. Now, he didn’t look as sharp as the other locomotives. However, back then, he ran so fast that he stunned spectators. He once symbolized advanced technology and the prosperity it promised. The Emperor himself came on board as a passenger.

“But I wouldn’t mind rotting here,” the locomotive mumbled. “I’d prefer to carry people’s smiles and harmless things. Weapons and soldiers? No thanks, count me out.”

The yamabushi cast his gaze down and turned toward the yard.

“It was a night like this when we talked for the first time. The switchyard in Shimbashi wasn’t shabby like this, remember? I tried to kill you there. It took me a long time to find you again.”

The yamabushi stopped there. For a moment, a bright light flashed against the tin. Railroad employees made their rounds in the yard, but they usually stayed out.

The peculiar friendship between the yamabushi and the 160 came to an end when he gave up fighting and returned to the mountains to mourn his brothers in arms. But now he came down with a new plan.

“We’re running out of time,” he blurted out. “A couple of old farts — that’s who we are,” the yamabushi continued. “We haven’t got much time left on this earth.”

“You can say that again,” the locomotive agreed. “I can feel it in my gears.”

“We can communicate perhaps because you’re on a mission. You must be a Tsukumogami.” The man referred to an animated tool that had acquired a spirit.

He adjusted his conical cap and stepped into the engine room. As he came onboard, the locomotive felt an extraordinary weight gradually being added.

As the yamabushi placed his hand on the boiler, the locomotive felt ticklish.

“Have you thought about crossing the sea to Potalaka?” the yamabushi brought up the Buddhist ritual involving self-sacrifice for human salvation. “Which sounds better, rot here or flame out in battle?”

“You told me about that once. But I’m not a boat. Besides, I’ve got nothing. No coals or water.”

“Things have changed. Hey, how come you can talk without coals or water?”

The 160 moved his body — cylinders, pistons, heads, and valves.

“Seems like old times,” the yamabushi said.

“Yes.”

“What was the phrase again? Oh, all aboard!’”

The 160 began rolling forward. The wooden door came off. Through the darkness, he traveled on the sullied rail. The brick station building and countless tiled roofs slowly moved away. The junction welcomed the 160, leading him to the main line without a hitch.

“Long time no see!”

“You’re now carrying a lot of old souls who are ready to depart for another world. No matter what happens from now on, there’s nothing to worry about. Go on!”

As he passed the other locomotives, they cheered for the 160. The railroad employees flashed their lanterns toward him, but he left them behind in no time.

The cityscape of Tokyo spread out before them. The two-story wooden Shimbashi Station stood nearby. While the building was inanimate, it looked delighted as a light flickered. The signal waved its arm and sent off the 160.

“Choo-choo!”

The yamabushi blew his conch shell to imitate a locomotive whistle. The 160 heard the familiar bellowing sound for the first time in a long time. He gained momentum. As he dashed along the Tokaido Main Line, the water of Shinagawa Wan came into view. The yamabushi was mumbling a mantra. When they approached Omori, the 160 smiled, recalling the past.

“Professor Morse discovered a shell mound while he was on board!”

“Foreigners can have all the shell mounds!”

The cheers of the ancients seemed to resonate in the 160’s boiler. However, as he headed toward the Rokugo River Bridge, he saw many obstacles placed on the rail ahead. Soldiers were aiming their guns.

“Oh, I hate it when they do this to me!”

“Keep going! You can beat this! Give’em all you’ve got, old boy!”

The 160 let out a primordial cry as he scattered the lumbers. The soldiers scurried around madly like panicked ants. As bullets ricocheted off his steel body, he crossed the river, his head bent against the cutting wind.

At the end of the bridge, however, the engineer corps had severed the rail. He was fast approaching the end of the line.

“The city folks have this uncanny knack of getting in your way, don’t they?” The yamabushi clicked his tongue in frustration. “Hmm, nasty bastards! They call themselves civilized and call us barbaric, eh? Talk about the misuse of technology—”

“Don’t worry. Let me handle this.” Instead of slowing down, the locomotive accelerated his speed. “Hang on tight!”

“Good luck, old boy!” The yamabushi pressed his warm palm to one of the locomotive’s walls and grabbed onto the handrail to steady himself.

The 160 floated in the air and sped across the dark sky toward the moon. On the ground below, lantern lights flickered like floating fireflies. Some soldiers heard a roar of laughter coming from above. Soon the locomotive became a small dot before dissolving into moonbeams.

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