Home » Thoughts and Musings » Thomas M. Tuerke on Model Railroading »
Table of Contents [show/hide]

Modeling Japan

Okay, as should be obvious, I’ve taken quite a liking to Japanese rolling stock. Here’s a bit of an explanation why, and—more importantly—some useful information for others who are “similarly afflicted.” ;-]

Love Affair with Japanese Trains
When I say that the trains look cool, I mean sci-fi spaceship cool. Sure, there are some utilitarian boxy coaches on some suburban lines. But you do not have to look hard to find stuff like the Hayabusa and Super Komachi shinkansen, shown below, or assorted Super Express trains.
(above: Hayabusa and Super Komachi nose to nose; below: KiHa 261 series limited express trains in Sapporo station.)
Even airporter lines, like N’EX (Narita to Tokyo) and Rap:t Limited Express (Kansai Airport to Namba Station Osaka) are beautifully liveried works of art, not merely tired stock pressed into service in their waning years.
Most trains’ coaches themselves are spacious and comfortable, rivaling business class airline seats. These are not lean “hard class” benches, nor are they the rail equivalent of capsule hotels.
So of course, railroads are popular. Every toy store has train-themed toys (not just Thomas, but shinkansen, suburbans, and a variety of named trains) and the more serious hobbyist can, with only a modicum of effort, find highly detailed scale replicas.
Even the less particular can get in the act. Book stores have aisles dedicated to books on specific named trains, or travel by rail in general, and even large DVD sections devoted to the rails.
Yes, you can even buy shinkansen chopsticks, for young and old alike.
The devotion runs deep. And it’s easily acquired.

To be honest, I didn’t set out with the intent to model Japanese trains. My “dream layout” was—and still is—something a bit closer to home: 19th-20th century American railroads: the colorful and sometimes quirky early efforts in this newfangled form of transportation. But a confluence of circumstances took me to Japan, and one thing led to another. Now, I’m hooked.

I mean, it’s so easy to like—to outright love—the trains there. And to be honest, nearly everybody does. You will find all manner of rail-fans haunting the stations and edges of right-of-way there: men, women, and a fair number of us foreigners.

The love affair is not superficial, either. Travel by train is an integral part of the Japanese lifestyle because it is so good—ubiquitous, dependable, fast, clean, easy, affordable—and because so many of the trains look so cool. In comparison, much of the US rolling stock these days is utilitarian and frequently looks like an ad-hoc mishmash of whatever is available and in a condition good enough to roll. Not so with Japanese trains: there, trains win design awards. The pride in the nation’s trains shows.

Anyway, that being the case, I’ll try to share my observations of both the trains themselves (both model and twelve-inch-to-the-foot varieties) and the landscape through which they run, with the hope that more folks catch the bug and decide to model Japan. Like taking the trains themselves, modeling Japan is really quite addicting.

Sections: 4

Building Sizes
 — Thomas M. Tuerke

If you look at a typical model Japanese building, say one of the many offerings by Tomytec, you could be forgiven if you came to the conclusion that the models were deliberately "compressed" or foreshortened.

Turns out that's not necessarily so. There are many precedents—many buildings that really are that compact—to be found in Japan. It stands to reason, given that property prices are quite high. Not every building has as petite a footprint as the models', but neither is such a small building a rarity.

Here are just a handful of examples...

Here is an excellent specimen found just north of the JR station in Sendai: five floors tall, and about a dozen feet wide. The ground floor is occupied by a small restaurant (a yakitori place if memory serves.) At first I thought this was the Hotel JAL City, but it turns out that's just a billboard; that hotel is actually off to the right somewhere; the rest of the building seems to be occupied by the Miyagino Kanko Bus Travel Center.
Just in case there's any doubt, this is the rear of the same establishment.

This part of Sendai—being stone's throw from the JR station—is fairly metropolitan, and many of the buildings are actually quite "conventionally sized." However, in nearby Shiogama (a coastal community, though not without its own little industrial district) there are many buildings that one might categorize as small.

Notice these two specimens. The width of the building on the left is that of a one-car garage plus a door, or roughly 15 feet. Though it's not clear from this picture, it's only about 30 feet deep, too.
Next to it is another building, roughly trapezoid in shape. The narrow facing side is roughly six feet wide, while the other (far) end is approximately 18-20 feet. Not very big at all.
This pocket-sized restaurant is also on the order of a dozen feet wide. Note, too, that the lot is oblique (you can see some of the building off to the left side.) Consequently, the frontage we see is actually a bit wider than the building is.
A lone building next to the JR tracks. Remember that this area was inundated by the tsunami back in 2011, and according to one shop-keeper, the water came up about 4-5 feet. There were numerous empty lots in the area—fairly uncharacteristic—presumably where buildings once stood before the water rose.
The following two pictures are a threesome of buildings from different angles. The orange brick building on the left has a fairly wide frontage, but note that it is not very deep with the JR elevated right-of-way behind it. The smoked-glass building on the right is not very wide but considerably deeper, owing to the angle of the street in relationship to the JR track.

Cars and Parking
 — Thomas M. Tuerke

As mentioned, space is at a premium in Japan, so it stands to reason the Japanese have figured out how to save space when it comes to their motor vehicles.

I'm not just talking about small cars, either. True, in Japan, the Prius is actually a fairly large car (think in terms of Smart and Mini Cooper for more typical size range) and even the delivery vehicles are more diminuative (I saw a small box-truck restocking a local 7-Eleven store where the box was roughly a six-foot cube )... you will not find bigger American vehicles like SUV's driving around. For one thing, they don't have the turn radius necessary for most places.

Instead, the whole notion of parking is frequently quite different. Parking lots are only about 50% efficient, if you consider the need for lanes, and ramps to adjacent floors, and widened places for turning, etc. Nope, that won't do in Japan. A simple affordance (one actually seen recently here in the states, too) is double-deck parking. Think of it as bunk-beds for cars. Hydraulics raise and lower the upper deck.

When truly necessary, efficient parking reaches new levels of compactness, like "parking carousels". Imagine driving into such a parking garage. You're on a metal turntable, and either in front of you, or to one side, is a car-sized opening onto what looks like a mechanic's car lift. Your passengers get out, and you drive onto the two rails before getting out yourself. Lock the door, and the attendant rotates the carousel to open up another space. Upon your return, the carousel brings your car to the landing spot, and you drive it out onto the turntable, enabling you to face the street again.

This is not to say that western-style parking structures don't exist—they do—but this manner of parking is quite common... and more to the point, is a great modeling detail that says "This is Japan" ... in a very small space. Such structures are attached to (or frequently between) some of the smaller high-rises.

Oh, and here's a humorous little aside. Given that most cars are quite small, it seems silly to have disproportionately large garage doors. In the structure shown in this photo, the garage door is five-feet-something in height (I would bang my head if I were to walk through.) The door to the left is more conventionally sized.

Sections: 1

The Cars of Japan
 — Thomas M. Tuerke

As might be expected, the cars in Japan are much smaller than those on the roads of the US. You will not find monsters vehicles (I’m thinking SUVs) both because fuel is expensive, so most vehicles are much more fuel efficient, and because they couldn’t get around much of the country, owing to tight turns and minimal clearances. There are trucks (of the 18-wheeler variety) but they’re limited mostly to larger city streets and the open highways. For those “last-mile” deliveries, there are far more space-efficient trucks. They’re called keitora, and they are built to very specific dimensionsPer a 1998 regulation, no larger than 3.4 meters in length, 1.48 meters in width, 2.0 meters in height, and 660 cc; they’re part of a class of vehicles called keijidosha (light vehicle). These smaller work-horses are also the main-stay of much of rural Japan, being a favorite amongst farmers and sometimes doing dual duty as a market stand or food truck. Recently popular are camper shells placed on the beds of keitora for travel and recreational uses... and even garden art exhibits.

Above: A fairly typical delivery truck, scarcely 2 meters high
Below: a similarly sized mini-van... something that actually lives up to the “mini” designation.

Some photographs here show the traffic in Sapporo, the largest city on the northern island of Hokkaido. It has the comparative benefit of being relatively new as far as Japanese cities go, being laid out on a grid plan (as opposed to evolving over the centuries like most other towns and cities have) and even here, the city does not make accommodations for plus-sized vehicles.

So modeling Japan means modeling smaller vehicles and smaller streets. This means you can get more Japan into a smaller modelling space, and do so realistically. In fact, “tightly packed” is the norm, so it really sets the mood. A monster SUV would be as out of placeI can’t speak to other parts of Japan, such as Okinawa, which have a US military presence. I suspect some American soldiers may have brought their vehicle, though I’d imagine they may have come to regret that choice, or likely deal with lots of frustration driving. as, well, a monster like Godzilla. (I could see a scene, though, of a hummer being stuck trying to make a tight turn in a tiny hillside village, driver scratching his noggin trying to figure out how to extricate himself, while the other vehicles patiently wait.)

The down side, though, is that you might not be able to get away with the cheapo bulk scale cars you can get on eBay, as you’ll need to buy the more diminutive models much more in keeping with Japan (and much of Asia, really). But doing so really helps distinguish the model as Japan and not just Generica.

Normal traffic on the streets of Sapporo. Not a single SUV to be seen

Modeling Japan vs Other Places
 — Thomas M. Tuerke

It's been a while, so I thought I'd revisit this page.

Ultimately, what you choose to model will be influenced by more than expense—the region of the world you model has to stir something inside of you—but I've come to realize that modeling Japan is, comparatively speaking, much easier and cost-effective than... well, a few other places.

Okay, some back story. In the intervening years, I've had the opportunity to travel to Europe for business. In particular, the UK and Germany. Both have quite well-established rail networks, and I've been able to get around in large part thanks to an integrated rail system.

Take, for example, the UK, where you can book a ticket online, print it up, and show up at a railway station with that in hand. Comfortable, and reasonably reliable. I stress the word reasonably because I did hear a number of delay announcements, and in one case, I was delayed for nearly an hour owing to an accident up-stream whence my train was to come from.

But getting a model of the Class 390 Pendolino sets is nigh on impossible. I did find a fellow who was crowd-sourcing the funding of one of these, but fell short. He did say that Rapido had come through with a commitment, but it's a special pre-order. The price of a DC system 9-car set is in the neighborhood of $450. The 11-car set, closer to $500. MSRP.

The short take-away: a limited market, to the point that limit run special orders are necessary... for the backbone of the UK fleet.

In contrast to, say, a series 500 8 car set runs you below $200, and a Hokuriku W7 6-car basic set in the $140 range... probably less if you shop around.

In other words, the volume of sales is high enough to have prices reasonably low, but there's an insane diversity of models available.

Traveling to Germany, I found something similar to the UK. (And as a German, I find this hard to say...) the DB was—again—reasonably reliable, but falling far short of that clockwork precision I was expecting from DB (but could count on from JR.) A fair bit more diversity in rolling stock.

But it was still hard to find models available.

What I did find was insanely expensive: $250 for a single N scale locomotive (the comparison would be a $60 JR-prototype locomotive) ... although I have to admit that comparison is a bit unfair: the former had a DCC controller in it ... but if you're not doing DCC, this is a silly-ridiculous premium to pay for something unwanted. Why, though, should a little card triple the price of the loco? Moreover, apparently it's a semi-proprietary board. Fun, DCC has flavors, and they don't always play nice together.

I did, later, find a stateside vendor with a pretty nice selection, and a thriving community forum behind it, too... which is goodness. The prices there are a bit more reasonable... so... nice.

At least for Europe, you have some options.

But (to me, anyway) there's something missing. Travel by rail is not nearly as core to either national identity as it is with Japan, so travel by rail doesn't have quite the same chic, and as a result, the numbers of modeling railfans aren't quite as high, either.

Which is too bad.

Anyway, I enjoyed my travel, but I'm quite sure I'll stick with modeling Japan. Though—shhh—I'm contemplating at least one module with a European theme, thanks to some Kibri models picked up in Rothenburg (that's right: the only hobby shop I found on the trip, I found in that Town that Time forgot) The thing is, this would be easy to explain, even on a Japanese layout, given the fact that Japan has a Dutch Town theme park... and a dedicated train to take you there.

Yeah... Japan. Always fun to model.

A great Summarization
 — Thomas M. Tuerke

Youtuber Thoughty2 sums up the Shinkansen thusly. Though his animations depict the modern Series 700 even as he describes the original (retro-named) Series 0, he still catches the spirit of Japanese rail...