Gently looming over both Osaka and Nara prefectures, Mount Ikoma has provided both Japanese and foreign residents with a great deal of peace and tranquility. Ancient texts state that the grand shrine at the eastern base of the mountain had existed since the mid 5th century. Buddhist monks, including the famous Kukai, had been training near the summit since the mid 7th century. A buddhist temple, Hozan-ji, was established in the 17th century. Now, nearly 300 religious institutions call Mount Ikoma home, including 30 Korean religious institutions catering to ancient Korean practices and modern Korean Buddhism.
After World War II, many of Japan’s Korean laborers stayed to form what is now Japan’s second largest ethnic minority. These Zainichi (在日) Koreans, many of whom settled in Osaka’s Ikuno ward, wanted a secluded place in which to freely practice their own religion. The nearby Mount Ikoma was the perfect spot.
Had it not been for Kintetsu, Mount Ikoma may not have been so convenient for worshipers and pilgrims. The number of religious institutions is directly related to the number of people that can support them, and without the ease of public transportation, Mount Ikoma’s sacred sites would not be easily frequented or supported. Kintetsu not only constructed a train line to the mountain, but through it as well, connecting the large cities of Osaka and Nara. Tourism and the religious institutions prospered. There is even an amusement park on the mountain side with fantastic views of both Nara and Osaka.
Constructing the First Tunnel
While Kintetsu brought prosperity to the region, it did so not without tragedy and hardship. The first of several tunnels for the Nara line, completed in 1914, was one of the longest tunnels ever constructed at that time. At over 3,000 meters, it took a considerable amount of manpower and time to complete. Construction started in 1911 with a large workforce, including many Korean laborers. On January 26th, 1913, 152 people were buried alive when part of the tunnel collapsed. This was the first of several major incidents to haunt the mountain.
A Series of Train Accidents
Modern Japanese trains are immensely safe, though it took many accidents and problems to get them that way. Most fatal train accidents occurred prior to 1964. The most serious crash since 1963 was the tragic derailment at Amagasaki in 2005, which claimed the lives of 107 people. While that crash was due to human error, many of the early rail incidents were technical failures and fires.
The early incidents at Mount Ikoma were no exception. In April of 1946, there was a massive train car fire in the tunnel that left 23 people dead and another 75 people wounded. In August of the following year, another fire broke out after a motor overheated. This time, only 40 people were injured. The worst was yet to come the following year.
A Tunnel Tragedy
On the morning of March 31st, 1948, an express train left Uehonmachi station in Osaka, heading toward Nara. The train picked up speed as it raced down an incline in the Ikoma tunnel. The 21 year old train driver tried to slow the speeding train down, but the brakes failed. One can only imagine how helpless he felt.
In spite of his lack of experience and young age, veteran drivers conceded that the young driver was put in an impossible situation. He needed to slow down the runaway train before it collided with the local train ahead of them. Without brakes, a rear-end collision was inevitable. Adding to the tragedy, wartime material shortages prompted most companies to use wood to construct train cars, though not all cars were wood. At 7:52am, wood and steel collided. The effects were devastating. 49 people lost their lives and 282 people were wounded.
In the decades following the infamous Kintetsu Nara Line Runaway Train Rear-End Accident (近鉄奈良線列車暴走追突事故), many safety improvements were made and fail-safes were added. All the changes helped shape the current train system with it’s outstanding safety record.
In 1964, a new train tunnel for the Nara line was built and the old tunnel, with all its tragedies, was closed off and repurposed. Long closed to the public, the mysterious old tunnel with its prison-like gates looks creepy and ominous without factoring in its tragic history. It’s not surprising that many Japanese websites devoted to haunted places list the old tunnel as a place of interest.
Another Tunnel for Another Line
In the late 1980s, Kintetsu created another line between Osaka and Nara, called the Keihanna line (けいはんな線), not to be confused with the Keihan line (京阪線) for the Keihan Electric Railway. The Keihanna line takes its name from the first kanji in Kyoto (京), the second kanji in Osaka (阪), and the first kanji in Nara (奈), but officially uses only hiragana for its name.
The new tunnel for the Keihanna line also had its fair share of problems, including construction accidents and an electrical fire that claimed the life of one person. As a result, new techniques and procedures for firefighting in tunnels were developed.
With each rail line through the mountain, prosperity was accompanied by tragedy. However, with each tragedy came knowledge. With that knowledge, progress was made to make the new technology safer. Now we can take advantage of this progress, free from fears of fires and collisions.