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Getting Started with Japanese Model Trains

If you’re reading this site, and aren’t already modeling some kind of Japanese railway, you probably have an interest in, or at least some curiosity about, some aspect of Japan or Japanese railroading. And maybe you want to get into Japanese Model Railroading, but the sheer scope of it is a bit intimidating, or you just don’t know where to start.

Japanese passenger trains cover a broad range, from 16-car “bullet” trains running at speeds up to 200 mph (320 kph) on electrified standard-gauge double-track routes through some of the most densely populated land on earth, to sleepy single-car diesel passenger cars wandering through empty rural landscapes along twisting narrow-gauge tracks that cling to hillsides. And while passenger trains are probably the most interesting aspect, Japan still has freight trains although fewer than many industrial nations since most of the country is seacoast, with ready access to shipping.

Whether you are interested in high-speed rail (bullet trains), short rural passenger trains rumbling through the woods, action-packed multi-track commuter trains, small trams slipping behind buildings or running down a busy street, or semi-rural passenger/freight railroading, there’s a prototype there to draw inspiration from. And thanks to the Internet, you can get photos (on flickr, search on “Japan Railway”, with over 13,000 images to start), maps (maps.google.com or Google Earth), video (on YouTube, search for “Japan Train” or similar phrases), and a fair amount of data (wikipedia), without ever leaving your chair.

And it’s often all mixed together, with stations serving Shinkansen (“bullet train”) lines, regular commuter/express lines, and local streetcar and subway lines, often with freight sharing the commuter/express lines and running right through the passenger stations. There is a rich diversity of train types to model, and a ready excuse to put them all together on one layout. If you want to model modern trains, Japan is a rich source of ideas, and models of many of the trains are available at reasonable (for high-quality models) prices. In fact there are so many, the hard part is picking which ones to buy.

Buying Models

If you aren’t too picky, you can get started with Japanese model railroading with a loop of track from your local hobby store, and a train from an online dealer in your country (or nearby), stores like Model Train Stuff, M.G. Sharp, or another online dealer. It’s easy, whether you’re new to model railroading, or an experienced modeler who wants to try something new and different. As noted below, ordering from stores in Japan isn’t too hard either.

Normally these trains are sold as sets, but often with only three or four cars in each set so you can make a smaller than prototype train and save some money. Even in N-scale a 16-car train is huge, and will look out of place on any reasonable-size layout. A good size for a table-top layout is probably 3-6 cars, although a 3-car commuter or bullet train would look a bit odd (a 3-car rural DMU or EMU on the other hand, would be larger than many, and even in urban areas 2-3 car commuter trains do exist).

Note: most Japanese passenger trains are EMU’s (Electric Multiple Unit trains) or DMUs (Diesel Multiple Unit trains). And the term is often applied even when a single car runs alone. There are some locomotive-hauled passenger trains, but they’re less common and slowly fading away.

One thing to watch out for is that while most sets that include the cab cars (the cars at the end of the train with a seat for the engineer/driver/motorman) are motorized, there are add-on sets for some trains that are not motorized but which include cab cars. This is because some trains operate with two sets connected together, which split apart once away from major urban areas to follow separate routes. Usually a motorized set will say so clearly with in the description, or by putting “(M)” somewhere (often in the list of cars, so you’ll know which one has the motor; it’s rarely one of the cab cars).

Another thing to be aware of is that Japan has a massive number of prototype train designs, far more than anyone could keep in production. Kato and Tomix have a few popular models that they keep in production, but most of the rest are done as limited edition models. Some of those really are one-time runs, but more typically the models with be re-issued after a few years. What you see in an online store may already be out of production and limited to stock on hand. The other aspect is that popular models sell out quickly, sometimes with the entire production run absorbed by preorders. And usually when that happens, more aren’t produced for at least a year as production runs are planned well in advance.

If the thought of ordering specialized trains from overseas is a bit daunting, there are alternatives. In addition to the online stores noted at the top of the page, some local hobby stores may have a train or two on-hand; Kato USA periodically releases Japanese-prototype models, and I’ve seen others that were obviously imports. They may even have current or recent Kato and Tomix catalogs (they’re in Japanese, but they have great pictures, and model numbers for ordering). Those may list things presently out of stock, so it’s a bad idea to set your heart on one special model, but there’s stuff out there.

Some domestic Internet hobby stores carry a selection of at least some models. For example, Model Train Stuff carries a number of Kato’s Shinkansen (bullet train), tram, and commuter/express trains, although they recently reorganized their site and eliminated the section that kept them all together, so you have to page through the whole “N Scale Locomotive” section now to find them. Many stores are also carrying Kato’s Unitram urban light railway sets and trams (streetcars).

And it really isn’t that hard to order from Japan, which is what you’ll need to do if you want to pre-order something. Hobby Search takes Paypal which can be used with any credit card via the Paypal payment page, you don’t need to even have a Paypal account (HS also takes credit cards directly, but that’s a bit more of a pain, and some banks like to charge extra for international handling). There’s also the Plaza Japan E-bay store, which is quite simple to use, although not as nicely indexed as Hobby Search.

When ordering from abroad, keep in mind that postage isn’t cheap, and can easily amount to 10 - 20% of the cost of the models (more for bulky items). The two options usually offered are EMS (Express Mail Service) and SAL (I think that stands for “Standby Air something”). EMS usually takes less than a week to arrive in the U.S., and offers a tracking number (not updated quickly enough, but helpful if the package goes astray) and is delivered by the postal service (in the U.S. signature is required and can’t be waived, and packages are returned to the sender after several failed delivery attempts, which can be a problem; usually I pick mine up at the post office they day after they tried to deliver it). EMS is also insured to the stated value (and most shippers mark the actual price paid for that to avoid problems with customs agencies).

SAL is much less predictable, and can take a month to arrive (by report; I haven’t used it myself) and there’s no tracking number, so whether an order is lost or just slow is a guessing game. It’s also not insured, which makes it a poor choice for expensive models. SAL is great for buildings, detail parts, and magazines as the postage is much lower than EMS and such things aren’t usually urgently needed, although I’m too impatient for that.

In some countries import duties (which have to be paid on receipt, not when ordering) can also significantly increase the final cost. Fortunately the U.S. does not tax this kind of import.

Finding Information

Information is easy to come by in English. Not, perhaps, as much information as you would have if you were modeling a local railroad, but there’s a surprising amount of info on the web, or perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising. The obvious place to look is wikipedia, but once you know names and numbers Google will find all sorts of other things, from railroad home pages, to manufacturer descriptions, to research papers.

With a bit of experience you may find yourself reading Japanese fan blogs thanks to the magic of Google Translate’s one-click translation menubar add-on. Mind you, Google’s idea of translation leaves more than a bit to the imagination, “Of the DCC and DCC-friendly design is a standard method of KATO new products in recent years.” is one of the more legible sentences I’ve seen, probably better phrased as “In recent years, the ‘DCC-friendly’ design has been a standard method of KATO’s for new products.”. But it’s still something magical to be able to read a complex and very foreign language, however badly, at the click of a mouse. And the tools will only get better with time.

For additional information, I’ll recommend the Japanese Modeling & Japan Rail Enthusiast’s Forum (JNS Forum), and in particular their Prototype board, which is a great source of information and inspiration. They’re a warm and friendly group, and always willing to answer a new member’s questions.

A Note on Scale

Japanese trains are “N Scale”, but where that means 1:160 in the U.S. and Europe, and 1:148 in the U.K., in Japan it means either 1:160 for Shinkansen (bullet train) models, or 1:150 for all others. There isn’t really a good reason for this. The difference is slight enough that unless you place two models immediately next to each other you can’t really tell, and most N-Scale buildings are often much less accurately to scale. Modelers of Japanese N-Scale need to either carefully arrange things to avoid obvious conflict, or just ignore it as one of the compromises you make in modeling anything on a table-top. But if you find that kind of inconsistency irritating, then this probably isn’t the right slice of the hobby for you.

What Track to Use

For track, any old N-Scale track will do, although generally Japanese models have large wheels that don’t work well with track using “Code 55” rail (Code 80 rail will work fine and is typical of Japanese-made track). Trains can often operate over very sharp radius turns (down to about 12”). Although even shaper curves are available, these are limited to use by light-rail cars (“trams”), and the sharpest are not usable by two-car articulated trams.

Kato’s Unitrack (which is readily available in most U.S. hobby stores stocking N-scale trains) is very robust and reliable, and easy to use for temporary table-top layouts if you’re short on space, and some people have used it for more permanent installations. If you’re interested in light rail their Unitram products offer a limited selection of street track (Japanese page). Unitram today (summer 2011) is obviously Japanese, with roads marked for left-side use, although it is available from a number of U.S. stores. There are rumors of a “right side drive” marked version for the Christmas 2011 season, but nothing confirmed.

If you’re willing to order from a bit further afield, Tomix makes a line of sectional track called “fine track” that isn’t quite as easy to work with as Kato’s, or as robust for temporary layout use, but which has much more variety. They also have a “Wide Tram” series of street-running tracks, which isn’t as nice at Kato’s in some ways, but which doesn’t lock you into a limited set of street arrangements either. You may need to order from one of the Japan-based stores however, although Walthers may carry this in the future (some was reportedly on display by them in August 2012 at the NMRA National show). For more info on Tomix track (particular for light rail use) see the EasyTrolley website.

About the Videos Mentioned

The videos I linked above included the JR West Series 500 Shinkansen, the EIDEN 900, a JR East E231 Suburban commuter train (often available in the U.S., but presently only from Japan). Others are probably only available from Japan, and include an Enoshima Railway train, and the freight locomotive, which is is an EF65-1000, similar to this EF65-500 model. And the photo at the top is a JR West Series 125. The links above were all in stock (except the 125, which was a pre-order) when this was written, although that’s subject to fairly rapid change.

Note: this page is an update of an earlier musing on the subject.