Train fans' passion something that can't be explained to a non-enthusiast

By Michael Hoffman

There’s something about trains. There always has been. In February 1854 seven U.S. Navy “black ships” were in Edo (now Tokyo) Bay to open a closed country, by force if necessary, hopefully not. An exhibition on the beach, designed to show the Japanese the  wonders that would be theirs if they would but cast off their seclusion, included a model railway.

The official “Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan: performed in the years 1852, 1853 and 1854, Under the command of Commodore (Matthew) C Perry” tells the story. The railway, “with its Lilliputian locomotive, car and tender… (was) so small it could hardly carry a child of six years of age. The Japanese, however, were not to be cheated out of a ride, and… betook themselves to the roof. It was a spectacle not a little ludicrous to behold a dignified mandarin whirling around the circular road at the rate of twenty miles per hour, with his loose robes flying in the wind. As he clung with a desperate hold to the edge of the roof, grinning with intense interest, his huddled up body shook convulsively with a kind of laughing timidity…”  

That “dignified mandarin” is the unsung ancestor of railway fandom that persists to this day. A remote descendant is a 16-year-old boy introduced by Spa (Oct 4) – a well-spoken, “refined-looking” youth who admits he may have gone too far when, at a level crossing near Tokyo, he pressed the emergency switch, forcing the train to a screeching halt for the sake of a photo.  

There’s nothing harder to explain than an enthusiasm to a non-enthusiast. If you don’t share the enthusiasm, you won’t understand; you’ll scorn the youth as a public nuisance and wish there were fewer of them. In fact there are many, and their sympathizers are many too. Leave them alone, seems to be the prevailing attitude – extending, surprisingly enough, to station staff and train drivers, some of whom will wink at violations of space one would think elementary safety concerns demand be kept clear.  

Country trains pass through marvelous scenery – photo ops galore; but they’ve already been shot to death over the past century and a half; to post them on a social network is to invite not “likes” but yawns. To draw followers you must be different, do what few others dare do. Thus the violations of common sense, if not of rules or laws. Clashes are inevitable. Sometimes it’s passengers who get annoyed at having to thread their way through throngs of smartphone photographers; push can turn to shove. 

Sometimes it’s officialdom. Spa records an incident that took place at a station somewhere in Kansai. The protagonist is a boy of 15 – strange how even very young hearts are stirred by this very old but evidently not antiquated conveyance. Perhaps the station chief was in a bad mood that day. The boy was clambering up a stepladder he had with him. “Down!” cried the station chief. “Why?” demanded the boy; “it was okay last time.” Not this time. “How about a chair then?” asked the boy. 

For reasons not at all clear to this reader, the stationmaster’s manner suddenly softened. “All right, go ahead,” he said. But then as the train approached he got excited again. “Down!” he cried again, seizing the lad by the shirt. “It’s dangerous!” 

It ended in a most gratifying conciliation, the boy returning to the station the next day to apologize, the stationmaster, quite won over, admitting he’d been unnecessarily severe. They parted friends. 

Tomoyuki Hishizume, a railway photographer based in Prague, admires Japan’s railway culture, with its comparatively easygoing interaction between railway officials and railway lovers. No doubt the former are flattered by the latter, asking only a little respect, usually forthcoming, in return for tolerance and even, sometimes, encouragement. In Europe and the U.S., he tells Spa, it’s different: railways are run almost like military installations, and fans get little scope for their enthusiasm. 

The enthusiasm remains inexplicable to the non-enthusiast. Why trains, of all vehicles? The excitement of novelty that won over the “dignified mandarins” of old is long gone. In the faces of daily railway commuters, the casual observer seeks some faint afterglow – in vain.  

 Michael Hoffman is the author of “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu.” 

© Japan Today

©2022 GPlusMedia Inc.

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There is something about a string of four big SD70MAC locomotives and their 4400 horsepower diesels powering up from a standstill, feeling each individual cylinder pulse in your chest that is just thrilling for a horsepower / junkie gear head.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Love trains and take them whenever practical. I am not, though, an otaku - I don't photograph them. I utilize them.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

I didn't read most of this article but going all geeky over trains is plain strange and scares away 99.9999% of good-looking women and over 99 percent of women in general so there's that element. It screams that you are a L to them.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

My son loves trains too. Has memorized most of the train lines and recognizes many trains.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I didn't read most of this article but going all geeky over trains is plain strange and scares away 99.9999% of good-looking women and over 99 percent of women in general so there's that element. It screams that you are a L to them.

Do a Google search of train enthusiast celebrities. You’ll find names like Rod Stewart, Michael Jordan, Tom Hanks, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, etc…

Not exactly a list of Loser-female-repellent dudes.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Rod Steward has a huge model railway in his UK home.

Rod has spent 23 years building the 124ft long x 23ft wide structure, which depicts an American city in the 1940s inspired by Manhattan, and it contains hundreds of tiny buildings including factories, a power station and 5ft skyscrapers. 

He pay £70,000 to move it from the US to the UK.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

"In Europe and the U.S., he tells Spa, it’s different: railways are run almost like military installations,"

In their desperation to show how Japan is different it seems like many commentators are prepared to lump dozens of countries together in a monolithic block and even lie. Don't they get tired of this. There are plenty of stations around Europe, even around Prague, where, if that were your thrill, you could get a picture of a train. These "military installations" don't seem to stop those intent on spraying graffiti.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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