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.
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.
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.
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.