Japan's subculture of train fanatics: What being a train geek really means in Japan

Just as Japan's trains are in a league of their own, so too are its trainspotters.

This country, where a 20-second delay leads to profuse apologies on the platforms and conductors bow to passengers as they enter the train car, has taken train nerd-dom to a new level.

Sure, there are the vanilla trainspotters who take photos of various trains around the country. They're called tori-tetsu (tori means to take, and tetsu means train).

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Travel to Tokyo's metropolitan skyline, Kyoto's shrines and temples, Fuji's iconic cliffs, and the elegant pagodas and toris of the Japanese countryside.

But there are also nori-tetsu, people who enjoy travelling on trains; yomi-tetsu, those who love to read about trains, especially train schedules; oto-tetsu, the people who record the sound of trains; sharyo-tetsu, fans of train design; eki-tetsu, people who study stations; and even ekiben-tetsu, aficionados of the exquisite bento lunch boxes sold at stations.

And that's not even getting into the subcultures of experts on train wiring, the geeks who intercept train radio signals, or the would-be conductors.

"It's really hard to find people here who hate taking trains," said Junichi Sugiyama, a journalist who writes about trains and the author of train-related books, including How to Enjoy Railroads From Train Schedules.

"Our railway systems are very well developed despite the small land size and trains are familiar to people. The amount of contact that Japanese people have with trains is very high," Sugiyama said.

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Take Tetsuya Suzuki, a 48-year-old yomi-tetsu who has more than 660 volumes of train timetable books dating back to April 1980. He uses the latest edition - yes, Japan still prints phone-book sized schedules - to map out imaginary journeys just for fun.


He began reading timetables in first grade, and started going out on trips by himself to test his itineraries when he was in second grade.

"I can do my hobby anywhere," Suzuki said in his apartment, where the living room featured a large train set - he said it was for his young son, who was wearing a sweater with trains on it - and the balcony offered a view of the tracks. "Whether I'm travelling or at home, I can always have my timetable book with me."

His skill is somewhat in demand. A television program trying to get to seven famous ramen stores around the country in 10 days asked him for advice on the most efficient way to do it - and while the stores were open. Suzuki went through 20-odd different routes before coming up with the perfect itinerary - which he made just for kicks, not for money.

"It's a good way to relieve stress from work because it's so completely different from what I do during the day," said Suzuki, who runs health screening programs for a hospital.

Then there are tori-tetsu like Muneki Watanabe and Katsuhiko Orido, aged 43 and 49 respectively, who spend many of their weekends taking photos of various trains.

In Japan, there are the famous bullet trains that whiz the length of the country in about the same time it takes Amtrak to get from Washington to New York, and the slightly slower but perfectly punctual commuter trains. But there are the special trains: the retro, 1950s-style cars, the cars festooned with leaves in fall or cartoon characters like Hello Kitty and Pokemon, the trains with indoor playrooms or foot spas.

"I can't explain why, but ever since I was little I've been attracted to trains," said Watanabe, who does sales for a hotel, as the duo headed out on the Tokyo monorail on a recent Sunday. "My parents' theory is that it was because my grandfather's house was close to the tracks."

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Orido even chose his current house specifically because it's close to the tracks - he likes to open the windows and watch the trains. "When I started doing this, I was still using film," he said. "I have the photos stored in the closet at my parents' house. The shelves are groaning under the weight."

The friends like to go places where there are no other tori-tetsu, partly because they like to take different photos, but also because they don't like the bun fight at the most sought-after spots.

"When a rare train comes along, hundreds of people camp out overnight to secure the best spots," Watanabe said.

Watanabe recalls a trainspotting melee when he was in junior high school: Hustling for the best spot to see a special train, he saw two classmates get into a fight and fall onto the train tracks. (They got up before the train came through.)

The Japanese train system is a microcosm of Japan itself, says Takashi Noda, the author of books including The Way of Tetsu: Riding, Photographing and Making Carefree Stopovers, and a nori-tetsu of 60 years.

"Trains and train systems appeal to Japanese people as trains are operated on time and accurately," Noda said. "Train fans find joy and get excited when they can make a tightly scheduled transfer. For them trains are not just means of transportation, but their purpose."

For Takafumi Mochizuki, a 40-year-old radio scriptwriter, it's the precision of the lunch boxes, not the trains themselves, that is alluring. He always loved eating "ekiben" - a combination of the Japanese words for "station" and "lunch box" - but now it's a serious pastime.

"There's so much effort put into an ekiben. They use local ingredients so they're different all over Japan, and they have to figure out how to keep the ingredients good for some hours," Mochizuki said at the gargantuan Tokyo Station after a day riding the rails.

He'd been out for more than 12 hours and had eaten four ekiben in that time: There was the box containing clams he ate for breakfast; the fisherman's meal box containing fish and squid that he ate at his first stop; the sea urchin and clam bento from his second; and finally a whale meat bento.

Mochizuki returned from his journey with four other ekiben, which he planned to take home for dinner with his wife, who wasn't particularly wild about his hobby, he said.

"I think my wife and my friends think it's strange," Mochizuki said, admitting that there weren't many ekiben connoisseurs as fanatical as he is - he even keeps the wrappers of every ekiben he eats.

Another reason for Japan's train obsession? It's something that everyone can do, said Hirohiko Yokomi, a well-known train expert who has alighted at every station in Japan.

"This is an easy subject to follow," he said. "It doesn't require much effort to ride or take photos, and anyone can get into it easily - even schoolchildren - because Japanese trains arrive on time."

The Washington Post

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