October 14th is a very special day in Japan for railway aficionados (or, less glamorously known, densha (train) otaku (nerds)). This is when, in 1911, the first stretch of railway connecting Yokohama to Tokyo officially opened. I figured this was a good opportunity to talk about all things trains and let everyone out there know that Japanese trains are amazing!
The First Trains in Japan
The train rollout in Japan had some pretty rad fanfare: The Emperor rode from Shimbashi Station down to Yokohama and back, for a total of a 58-km round-trip. It’s pretty incredible to know that the first train stations in Japan were Shimbashi, Shinagawa, Kawasaki, Kanagawa, and Yokohama. Most of the original stations have been demolished, remade, or moved locations since then, as one would hope. Ironically, back in the day, train travel was cost-prohibitive and not necessarily the most convenient for travel. Contrast that with today, when it is incredibly affordable and one of the most convenient ways to travel not just short distances between cities, but also long distances across the country. Thus, with that first official 58 kilometers, the seeds of obsession were planed in the country.
Train Fandom in Japan
When Japanese people choose a hobby, they go all-in. Special gear? Check. Dedicated time? Check. Being the best they can be at their given hobby? Results may vary, but they aspire for the check here as well. The same is true for trains here in Japan. There is such a comprehensive list of different types of train-obsessed people that there are at least 36 different types of micro-obsessions you can have in declaring yourself a train nerd. Let’s just take a couple of these to look at, shall we?
Station Sound Fans: Onkyo-Tetsu
First up is Onkyo-tetsu. These are people obsessed with the various sounds of the train world. This can mean the sound of the trains themselves: They can make recordings of trains rolling through, the sound of the wheels on the tracks, as well as the sound of the engine. The ability to identify a train by its sound is pretty extraordinary, to say the least. A few years ago on Japanese Twitter, a story caught fire with a female train fan catching her cheating boyfriend by hearing the sound of the train engines over the phone and knowing he wasn’t where he said he was. Now that is some insane skill!
Onkyo-tetsu can also be obsessed with the various jingles (hassha merodi) from each station. Almost every station has its own unique jingle or chime that is played when trains are getting ready to depart. Its an audio cue to let you know to clear away from the doors and to stop your sprint to the platform (you’re not making it, buddy). They are varied and a source of comfort for some who ride the rails. Here’s a handy collection of jingles along Tokyo’s main loop, the JR Yamanote line:
Honestly, I wish I could write an entire book about the jingles, but sadly, I don’t have the time and resources, so this snippet for this post will have to do for now.
Stamp Collectors: Oshi-tetsu
Confession: I am a bit of an Oshi-tetsu, or stamp collector. These aren’t postal stamps, but rather, actual rubber stamps with an ink pad that most stations have just inside the turnstiles for you to place on memorabilia (most tourist destinations will actually have a space on their guide maps where you can place the stamp) or in your own stamp book. This can usually be just a small notebook you buy from a stationary shop with blank pages inside. Before Covid, I was trying to get as many of these stamps as I could in my own little book so I could retrace my travels around Japan and relive those memories. I added the date and a little note so I could better remember the context around the stamp when I revisited it later. I stopped for a while (mainly because I forgot the book was in my bag) but I’m trying my best to pick it back up and fill it up. It’s a fun free activity that can get really addicting, seeing as the stamp designs can be really intricate and appealing.
With that, I bring my reflections on Japanese trains to a close for today. Maybe in the future I’ll write more about train culture and cool train things. What do you think? Would you like to see some more J-Train content? Let me know in the comments and I’ll see what I can do!