Japan’s Love Affair With Trains

In the United States, the train is kind of in the minority. Compared to a lot of other places, relatively very few people in the US commute or travel via train. In the land of Henry Ford, the train is stuck playing second fiddle to cars.

It’s a much different story in Japan. Trains are, and have been part of the Japanese psyche for a little over a century now. In that time, trains have gone from a faster, novel form of transportation to an essential part of Japanese culture.

But it’s not just that a huge number of Japanese people ride the trains every day, but there’s also been a whole culture built around them.

Train Music

It might seem strange to associate trains with music, but in Japan that’s just the case. Nearly every train station has its own departure melody, music that plays before the imminent departure of the train, encouraging riders to board before the train leaves. (It’s something you can see at the very beginning of Koichi’s latest episode of TofuguTV.)

This is partially Japan’s ongoing effort to brand everything everywhere. Japan seems to strive to give every train station, every town, everything its own unique identity; you can see this from Japan’s many town mascots, and even branded manhole covers.

A sampling of some of Japan’s departure melodies:

But aside from the branding aspect of departure melodies, they also make riding the train really pleasant. They’re little better than elevator music or Muzak, but the melodies are very gentle and give you a definite sense of place. Each unique melody lets you know that you’re at that particular station, and not any other.

Just a few days ago, I was happy to stumble upon an online discussion about people’s favorite train melody. It’s really nice to see people taking such pride in their train stations.

It’s worlds better than what I’m used to. The train station I go to every day is just a place for me to board the train, not really anything else. And the only warning for departure is a quick recording of “the doors are closing” moments before the train leaves and I’m left to futilely sprint after it.

Train Otaku

It seems like there are otaku for everything nowadays, and trains are no exception. Train otaku, not to be confused with the famous train-riding otaku depicted in Train Man, live and breathe trains. They study up on all of the different train models, collect train-related merchandise, and go out to take pictures of trains in their natural environment.

In the new book Otaku Spaces, Patrick Galbraith interviews one such train otaku who was happy to brag about his collection of conductor uniforms and model trains.

Train otaku

What I found most interesting is that he reveals that there are subsets of train otaku, including “funeral otaku,” people who go to see a train before it’s retired. They ride on it, take pictures, and say their farewells before the train is made completely obsolete.

It seems like kind of a gloomy pastime, but it’s a little touching, too. These otaku come out to show appreciation for all the work that was put into designing, building, and running these trains, the culmination of effort put forth by hundreds of people.

Japan ♥ Trains

Even if you don’t take the word of train nerds or people who love train-related ditties, you don’t have to look far to find other ways Japan adores its rail system. Just take a look at last year’s award-winning commercial for a new rail line (which I wrote about last year) to see what an emotional catalyst trains can be.

Maybe one day Americans will warm up to trains as much as the Japanese have. In the meantime, I’ll just have to bear with this country’s veritable Greyhound on rails.

Header photo by ykanazawa1999

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    I L.O.V.E. Japanese trains!
    No, I’m definitely not a train otaku, but I do take photos if I really like the train or if it’s one of the new Shinkansen models or whatever.
    Traveling by train in Japan is such a pleasure (most of the time)!!!
    I’ve travelled so much in Japan and thus I’ve used so many different trains already!
    I love the “special” touristy trains (e.g. the “Tama Densha”) – and of course I love traveling by Shinkansen!

    Furthermore it’s so great to just sit, relax, listen to music and stare out of the window to see all the awesome landscape outside! It’s beautiful no matter where you are.
    However, there are a few areas where you have a lot of tunnels, so it gets a bit annoying (e.g. from Hiroshima to Hakata when takein the Shinkansen).

    I love how easy the train system is.
    It’s almost impossible to get lost.
    And all the trains are on time (few exceptions).

    If I compare the service to my home country’s (Germany’s Deutsche Bahn) – it’s a HUGE difference!

    Japan’s railway system is one of the things I love the most about Japan!

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

     omg how had I not heard about Tama Densha before

  • 電車男

    I love trains and subways. However apparently subways are too expensive to build in my city (Sweden) and trams, even though we have a pretty good public transportation system, just don’t give the same feel. And with trains well, I just rarely have a reason to leave town. =/

    The times I do ride a train at home it’s not the same feel as a japanese train ride either. It’s better than the trams, but the trains are slow and poorly managed. I just wish we would put the same love and care into our train system as the Japanese have.

    You would NEVER hear a swede say they take the train instead of the car because it’s faster or more convenient, but despite only being a year in Japan I’ve heard it a number of times from different people.

  • simplyshiny

    lol and I thought my elementary school best friend’s dad was bad…he had about 3/4 of their basement dedicated to the model trains…had a huge train set, on risers, extra trains all over the walls, even the railing to the basement was a train.  Sometimes I wish riding trains was more popular here.  I took a train from Pittsburgh to D.C. once and a normally 5 hour trip by car took almost twice that long…and was twice as expensive. But it was kind of a fun, relaxing way to travel, except the fact that I had to get up VERY early.  Actually, my brother in law’s friend left from Pittsburgh too, about 3 hours after me and only showed up in D.C. an hour after me…also, bus travel seems more efficient…at least in the NorthEast they have mega buses which are super cheap (start at $1) fairly fast (got to D.C. in 4 1/2 hours) and have wifi and power jacks…

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

     *LOL* Reading your user name made me wanna watch the old, but good drama again!
    I have the book somewhere, but have yet to read it!

    And I totally understand that, too!
    I have a car, too, but I always prefer to go by train. It’s so easy, cheap and convenient.
    I don’t have to worry about finding a parking lot etc.
    (and Japanese don’t care about traffic rules at all, so I don’t really enjoy driving …)

  • triple_tremelo

    I’ve just come back from the most amazing holiday in Tokyo, and as soon as I heard those train station melodies it took me right back. 

  • cg

    I got on my first ever train in Tokyo and I became obsessed with the trains and subways. I would of lived there if they let me, I loved the rushing around and running for the train and freaking out if I thought I lost my card, and the music! 

    I wish my city had trains like in Japan but we wouldn’t even need them because the city is so small, I’ve never even been on a train where I live and people only use them if they had to I would say.

  • http://niyoels.tumblr.com/ niyoels

    The train in my city has 5 stops and takes 15 mins from one end to the other. No that doesn’t mean it’s fast. We don’t even have a subway and street cars were taken out long ago. 

    I really appreciate the transit systems in other cities since mine is less than stellar but Japan is a whole different story. Efficient and reliable, especially in Tokyo where they come constantly (where I was staying it was usually 10-15 min wait for trains but Tokyo pretty much every few minutes). I feel they also make intercity transit more accessible. Here, one barely goes to a different city because its such a pain but with the train system in Japan, I feel its not uncommon to commute in from somewhere else for work or school or just to hang out.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/JJH7TWJZCRTCGTJUBIV2OWI3LI Juan

    Oh how I miss JR trains, especially Ocha No Mizu station, Nishi-Tachikawa. Used the Yamanote line several times when I was in Tokyo, and took the Shinkansen from Nagoya to Tokyo, and from Odawara to Shizuoka, and then the Tokkaido Express line From Hamamatsu to Yaizu. I wanna go again!!! I wish Los Angele’s Public transportation were to take a hint from Japan and Europes transportation systems as far as timeliness, cleanliness, etc. go.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Having visited LA just a few weeks ago, I think that unfortunately LA public transit has a long way to go :(

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Yeah, the Japanese public transit systems are really good. My only complaint is that they stop running a little early, but otherwise they’re great!

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    The music definitely has a way of taking you back!

  • Marcos1386

    Ha that sounds just like the train system here in Albuquerque…. It takes way to long to make trip that would only take 45min by car. I do with we has the train system of Japan here. I think more people would travel if we did.

  • kitsuki

    i absolutely love the trains in japan.
    before visiting there i’d never had the opportunity to really interact with trains or even that kind of daily commute and i just fell in love.
    im not quite a train otaku, i would  call myself … a newborn in terms of the stages because i’m only learning and studying trains.

    and i also agree that US should be more attracted to train systems.

    actually i find dubai to be very interesting because it has so much potential and literally the prime minister is trying to create i kind of ideal city, by looking at different things that different countries have and trying to implement them into dubai.
    one of these is the train system. they only have 2 lines right now, and the majority who ride them are laborers. but it’s not as popular among upper class because ofc gas is cheap, but anyway, it’s still interesting.
    i mean if you had the ability to take the good from different countries and put it into your own!

    ANYWAY
    love trains, and love the culture around it as well.

    very happy there was finally a post about it as well

  • kitsuki

     ya but i really like the design of the new train they just put in recently.
    and they have so many plans to create many new lines.
    but it takes a long time.
    compared with other cities in the US, i think LA is at the head in terms of actually doing something to improve their lines.

    i guess i’ve heard that nyc system is also changing to paris/tokyo style with lines crossing each other so that it’s easier to get where you want to quickly by just changing lines.
    although i dont live in the city so idk if that’s actually true or not

  • http://www.facebook.com/guian.debastos Guian de Bastos

    I don’t agree, but it’s interesting to remember Soseki’s opinion: “Nothing can be more quintessentially representative of twentieth-century civilization than the steam train. It roars along, packed tight with hundreds of people in the one box, merciless in its progress, and all those hundreds crammed in there must travel at the same speed, stop at the same places, and submit to a baptismal submersion in the same swirling steam. Some say that people “ride” in a train, but I would say they are thrust into it; some speak of “going” by train, but it seems to me they are transported by it. Nothing is more disdainful of individuality. Having expended all its means to develop the individual, civilization then proceeds to crush it by all possible means.”, [Soseki, Natsume, Kusamakura]

  • http://www.facebook.com/guian.debastos Guian de Bastos

    I love trains. 

  • kuyaChristian

    I really don’t like the US for not having a good railroad system. Metrolink doesn’t even cut it because it only has so many stops and they’re miles from home. Trains give me another reason to be excited for Japan. I’m saving up and planning to go next year. This should be fun :]

  • http://twitter.com/Mashimaro77 Dejiko

    While I was in Osaka there was some sort of… transit matsuri going on,mainly trains! They love trains that much…

  • Mescale

    I still want a Shinkansen body pillow.

  • Jesse

    The only thing we have in Houton, TX, are”light rails” that run North and South of the City and are only located in downtown. You need a car too get around the city.

  • Hinoema

    “Maybe one day Americans will warm up to trains as much as the Japanese have.”

    We came close, once. The auto industry has a history of deliberately sabotaging rail shipping to promote truck shipping while lobbying against rail transport and public transportation.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

     That would explain all the cars abandoned on the railway tracks.

  • Istyle

    a movie about the topic train is about to be released soon: “I wish”
    It´s about a child who thinks a dream comes true, when two trains pass each other in different directions for the first time… See the trailer for what dream he has ;-) *rcmd*

  • Toranosukev

     超懐かしい。

  • http://chrissyridesabike.tumblr.com/ Chrissy

    This makes me miss japan so incredibly much. i live in Las Vegas, NV. all we have is the world’s worst bus system. If i want to go 10 miles to school by bus, it’ll take me two busses and over 2 hours. ridiculous!

  • henderson101

    There’s a direct English translation of “train otaku” – “train spotter”, Google it,

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000335569028 Czime Litwińczuk

    So cute! Goddamn it, I love them! They are lovely! I <3 them!  

  • hikaru1412

     Yeah, Houston traffic is a pain too. Driving sucks, even if it does have it’s perks.

  • Stuuuuu

    Astro Boy theme for Takanobaba station FTW.

  • bernician

    Some people love trains in Japan.
    By and large however Japan is very much a car driven country. People are car crazy here, much more so than with trains, they drive absolutely everywhere. Even just down the street to buy some milk.

  • http://autisticmetalhead.blogspot.com/ BreadGod

    Japan is full of autistics. It’s no wonder they love trains so much.

  • Kristen

    This makes so much sense because one of my villagers in Animal Crossing: New Leaf talks about trains constantly. Now I finally know why!