Saturday, August 18, 2012

Give Me Steam!

Beloved constantly complains that the boys are American. She claims that in terms of being argumentative, infatuated with sweets, and their inability to stay silent for any appreciable length of time is a product of them being half American (No, I don't know what other Japanese mothers use as an excuse). However, I can point to one thing as proof positive that my sons are indeed Japanese and like every other Japanese boy who lives in Japan.

They are in love with trains.

Now THIS is an engine!
Now don't get me wrong, I too like trains. As a child, I went through the period of being fascinated by these machines and I would beg for repeated trips to the Nevada State Railroad Museum in order to see my favorite steam engines of the Virginia and Truckee RR, the Queen of the Shortlines. For the longest time my bedroom door was decorated with stickers from the Union Pacific and I made a number of plans to ride Amtrak around America, or at least to Sacramento (It never happened) just to be on the rails so I can't really throw rocks here, but the Japanese...

Lord do they take things to extreme.

And it's every Japanese boy. I have yet to met a Japanese male of any age who either currently is, or at one time was, a train fanatic. I mean, in a way, it's easy to see why, trains are everywhere in Japan. In terms of public transportation, Japan has a very highly developed, very efficient rail system of both public, semi-public, and private networks. While the bullet trains are probably the most well known outside Japan, the reality is that local trains are everywhere and transport millions of people everyday. It's hard NOT to be a little boy and be impressed with these machines and dream of one day being that alpha male, a train driver on a JR (Japan Rail) Shinkansen.

Who wouldn't want to use these?
To that end though, there's train everything. One can eat with bullet train chopsticks, wear train socks, walk to school carrying a train lunch kit, play with train toys (From model trains to stuffed ones), and it doesn't stop! Some Japanese men never outgrow their love affair with the rail, many Japanese men have their cells set to go off with the station calls (When Japanese trains come to a station, a musical melody is played), one can find salarymen in their standard gray suits sporting neckties with various trains, some men wake up to an alarm that reproduces station calls on the famous Yamanote line in Tokyo (Think those pictures one sees of people being shoved into the train).

And those are the relatively normal ones. It gets even worse with hordes of Japanese men who spend their weekends camped out next to various train tracks to capture a perfect image of one train or another running down the rails. There are those who collect train memorabilia, as in there is a thriving trade for various JR uniforms and even ticket stubs. Even worse are those who will pay quite a bit of money to train in the same simulators that JR drivers use to learn how to drive a train (Why, I have no idea. No one is going to let them actually drive a real one), and then there are the true Train Geeks who make it their life's mission to ride every mile of rail on every line in Japan, all 16,944 miles of them.

And let's not get started on the various theme rooms in love hotels that are mocked up to look like the insides of various trains with uniforms to match.

Some Americans might be train fans, but I have yet to meet any who take it to the extremes of the Japanese.

But getting back to the boys, both Makoto and Hikaru fell in love with trains fairly early. We do have one running through our city and it's a common sight for us as we go about living in the countryside (Mainly because the track parallels the main road). Add in Thomas the Tank Engine and we have two budding train otaku. They have the toys, the have the clothing, they even have an American train whistle (I must have been out of my mind when I bought it). But like all young boys (and some men), trains are ranked in terms of interest.

Sure, the local line is fun and interesting, but it doesn't hold a candle to the limited express train. Those are worth lots of comments, but compared to a bullet train? Yeah, right. But there is a kind of train that stands at the peak of all train'dom, a train whose name inspires something close to religious awe in little Japanese boys, a styile of train whose whistle still echos from the past, whom deep in their souls they know even though these have long since stopped running regularly.

I talking of course about steam engines. SL in Japanese. Those glorious, vast, machines that hiss, squeak, and chug through a boy's dreams even though the last steam engine retired in 1975. Still, as in America where there are steam-ups, there are a number of SLs that make runs at various places in Japan, some quite long. And these, my friends, are what both boys are currently in love with, big time.

The train of the future...
A few days back, Jiji, Beloved's father, took all of us to the prefectural museum where they were celebrating railroading in the prefecture. The boys of course loved it, they liked seeing the model trains, they enjoyed the simulator, Makoto got to ride on a mock-up of the maglev train currently under construction, but the best part was... the SL. There's an engine outside of the museum and the boys flocked to it screaming "SL! SL! SL!" at the top of their respective lungs. This started the wheels in Jiji's head a-turning as Yamaguchi, where he lives, has a SL line that runs at various times of the year, summer being one of them. When Makoto was small, we took a ride from one end of the line to the other (Makoto spent the whole time pointing at the engine screaming "Percy! Percy! Percy!"), this time we would drive to the terminal station to take pictures of the train.

Or so I thought. Jiji's plans grew as we went along and we ended up with the boys, Jiji, and myself ridding the train (Hikaru spent the whole time pointing at the engine and screaming "Hiro! Hiro! Hiro!") back a few stations while Beloved and her mother drove the car back to meet us.

Admittedly, it's fun being on a steam train. The cars attached are not the modern coaches of the current JR fleet, but the old cars that ran before and after WWII, with some improvements like A/C. and of course the boys adored it. The sights, the sounds, the smells. Every tunnel we entered was first announced by a long blast on the whistle, much to the giggling approval of the boys.

But indeed they are Japanese boys because right now both boys are decked out in identical t-shirts with the stream engine they road on printed on it along with identical baseball caps with SL patches. They've gotten steamed.

Heck, even Daddy went back a bit into his boyhood and got a t-shirt of his own. Of course, this means Hikaru is currently following me around pointing at my chest and screaming "Hiro! Hiro! Hiro!"

1 comment:

  1. It's always fun to indulge kid's curiosities and interests! Trains don't seem to have the same charm here in Korea, for us it's construction equipment, firetrucks and army trucks.

    Good read and pics!

    Mark L.