One of the many things that makes living in Japan so enjoyable is Japan’s nationwide railway network. From local commuter lines to regional express routes to the Shinkansen long-distance network of high-speed railway lines to themed sightseeing trains plying extremely scenic local routes, the network is a marvel of design and construction providing safe, reliable and economical transportation well known for its punctuality. The annual average delay of trains is less than one minute.
I confess to a lifetime love affair with trains that aligns me with many Japanese, young and old, who are among the most avid train enthusiasts in the world! There is actually a subculture of train fanatics in Japan known as densha otaku, or train nerds. They engage in a wide range of activities focused on trains –– riding trains; taking photos of trains; collecting train timetables, stamps, merchandise and memorabilia; collecting and building miniature models of trains; creating amazingly detailed and functioning railway dioramas; developing expert knowledge about train stations, equipment, operations, technology and construction.
Living just one block from a four-track segment of the Japan railway network makes it convenient for me to observe a variety of daily local and regional express trains. (Unfortunately the Shinkansen does not run on this route.) Whether just watching the trains speed along or riding on one I often find myself reflecting on my attraction to trains.
Among the happiest memories of my early childhood are those associated with trains. My family photography collection includes a photo of me in kindergarten as the “engineer” of a steam locomotive made from cardboard boxes.
The first house I can recall we lived in was a rented duplex in Elizabeth, New Jersey that backed up to the north-south main line tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad with large steam engines and electric locomotives pulling long freight or passenger trains to and from New York City. The scene and sound of the trains left a lasting impression.
I also recollect an early Christmas when I awoke to find my first train set. I was filled with joy as I watched a Lionel steam engine pulling a freight train around the decorated tree. From that time forward, I knew there was a Santa Claus!
As I grew older and my collection of trains began to grow, my parents decided that we would build a permanent layout in the basement. My father handled the benchwork, laid the track and wired the layout while my mother used her creative talents to construct the scenery, adding people, structures and scenarios with lights and sound that she would change with the seasons. It was my personal railroad empire and fantasy-world that produced hours of enjoyment.
I have since built and operated a number of model train layouts and have introduced each of my five grandsons to trains with gift train sets.
My love of trains was also enhanced by the children’s book, The Little Engine that Could. The book was designed to teach children the value of optimism and hard work and I credit it with helping me develop a positive outlook to overcome real and/or imaginary barriers as well as strong work ethic.
And I still love to travel by train. With no car (or driver’s license) walking, bicycle, bus or train are my primary means of transportation.
A ride on a Tokyo local train during prime morning or evening commuting hours is an extraordinary experience. I still remember my first encounter. As I documented at the time: “The train stopped at the station; people surged out and surged in. You find yourself squeezed into sardine-like proximity with your fellow passengers. Hemmed in by strangers, you sense the pressure of hands, arms, bodies, shoulders as you gently sway along together in silence with the rhythm of the train’s clickety-clack. The next station was mine; it was also the station of what seemed to be about two hundred other passengers who, like a great tsunami wave, flowed out on to the platform with me and crowded onto an escalator ascending to street level!”
Fortunately, with no longer needing to commute to work, I am rarely confronted with the above scenario. Since I also have no need or desire to fly anywhere, the efficient high-speed Shinkansen is my favorite distance travel mode. Rushing across the Japanese countryside at astonishing speeds is an awesome almost dream-like experience. I hope to be here when Japan begins to operate its Maglev bullet trains, the fastest train in the world that use a magnetic levitation system that enables the train to literally “float” over the track.
There are other ways I have enjoyed Japan’s trains:
• One of my favorite television shows is broadcaster NHK World TV’s Japan Railway Journal, a behind the scenes look at Japan’s amazing railways.
• The Japan Railway Museum in Kyoto houses 2 floors of trains, dioramas and interactive displays along with 53 retired railway vehicles from a steam locomotive built in 1880 to a 500 series Shinkansen built in 1996.
• The Tokyo Subway Museum has displays that cover the 90-year history of the Tokyo Subway system covering construction, maintenance, engineering, and traffic control.
• The Hara Model Railway Museum in Yokohama, said to be the largest collection of model trains in the world, features some 6000 models of all types of locomotives and railway cars from Japan as well as some from around the globe. The centerpiece of the museum is an elaborate diorama that has approximately 450 meters of track.
• Hobby Center Kato in Tokyo is a mecca for model train enthusiasts. Kato has been producing high quality model railroad trains and accessories for 50 years. A spacious showroom displays their latest products and includes a variety of dioramas and demonstration layouts that allows visitors to enjoy the model railroad experience.