Modeling Japan - Frequently Asked Questions

Here are a few of the Frequently Asked Questions we get all the time about modeling Japanese railroads.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Japan all about bullet trains?
And a whole lot more! Japan’s Shinkansen (bullet) trains have just celebrated their 40th anniversary and are still going strong. The busiest route has 300 train runs a day at speeds up to 270 kms/hour. Each day 360,000 passengers ride this line - one that has never had a derailment or serious accident.

While known for inventing high speed rail, Japan also has the world’s most dense collection of more conventional rail services. From circle lines, which ring several major cities, to modern long distance overnight services, Japan has it all. Monorails, street cars and suburban LRVs are also there, as well as regional, airport-to-city and long distance services. Big cities are full of multi-track mainlines, with 90-second spacing between trains and often right-of-ways of competing rail companies only a few feet apart (just like the U.S. had in days gone by). Single track rural and mountain lines also cover the country, some closely hugging Japan’s long scenic coastline.

Many of these routes have their own very distinctive-looking equipment. Look over our exhibition layout and spot the dark blue futuristic nose of the Rapi:t which takes passengers from downtown Osaka to its international airport. Check out the brightly-painted “Doromon” train set running in the north of Japan or the Dr. Yellow duck-bill front train used to monitor the mechanical condition of the Shinkansen. Ride the trains in Japan and you’ll know exactly what the Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy meant when she said “Toto, We’re not in Kansas anymore.”

What does the geography of Japan have to do with how the Japanese build layouts?
A lot, actually. Much of Japan is mountain covered. So the country’s large population is packed into cities on the relatively few pieces of flat land along the coasts. Crowded cities mean real estate is expensive and most Japanese homes are much smaller than those of comparable families in the US. So space for trains is limited, which is why most modelers use N-gauge track. Space for a dedicated train room is rare, so most modelers use track they can snap together, and take apart quickly when it’s time to turn the train room into the bedroom. That’s why Kato invented unitrack and its plug-and-play wiring, and why many Japanese trains come in book shelf-style carry cases.

Does Japan’s terrain affect the prototype operations also?
Sure does. Densely populated cities create great demand for commuter services; multiple railroads fight with each other for this business. Interstate-style highways are crowded and have high tolls, driving more customers to the speedier trains.

Because most factories are along Japan’s coast, ships are favored over freight trains for hauling goods around the country. As a result, most Japanese freight trains are shorter than those in America. Frequent passenger services also force many freights to run only at night, making them less convenient for industries. And Japan’s narrow gauge lines, many with tunnels with tight clearances, make it difficult to transport standard ocean-going containers by rail. Most of these travel by truck. Compare the container trains on our layout with what may be running on yours: shorter trains, smaller containers.

Limited land availability also forced the builders of Japan’s bullet train network to put many of these grade-crossing free straight arrow-like routes in tunnels and on viaducts - sometimes built directly over pre-existing rail lines.

Is Japanese “N-gauge” the same as “N-scale”?
Well the track size is the same - 9 mm between the rails. But some Japanese models are made to 1/150 scale, others to 1/160 (what we usually think of as N-scale). Why? Japan’s bullet train prototypes run on standard gauge, but most other Japanese trains run on narrow gauge track. Japanese model makers wanted their customers to be able to use the same size track for both, thus the slight shift of scale depending on the type of equipment. Look closely at our layout and see if you notice a difference between the bullet trains running on the viaduct level and the conventional ones below.

Do I have to like sushi and sake to enjoy Japanese trains?
Not at all. Remember the old ads for Hebrew National hot dogs - you don’t have to be Jewish to love ‘em. Same thing applies. Sure some American modelers are also fans of Japanese comics and movies, or food and art. A few have even studied a little Japanese (all the better to read Japan’s many train magazines). But these are extras. And the train magazines are usually full of great photos that don’t need translation.

How can I get information - in English - about Japanese trains and advice from other modelers?
There are two e-mail lists at yahoo groups open to all comers. To learn more about Japanese prototypes, take a look at: jtrains. For discussion and questions-answered about modeling:

This forum is for discussion of topics on modeling Japanese trains. Check their archives and files and join them. They are chock full of useful background information

Japanese Modelling & Japan Rail Enthusiasts Forum
This is a new forum for topics of prototypical Japanese rail or modeling Japanese rail.

Tomix/EasyTrolly Modelers' Group
Rich Kerr has been promoting the use of Tomix track for use in trolly modeling.

This forum is for discussion of japanese prototype trains (not modeling). There are many members that are very knowledgeable about Japanese trains.

There are many more links for more information on Japanese trains and modeling on our link list.

Are there other clubs that do Japanese trains outside of Japan?
Yes there are several other Japanese model railroad clubs that have popped up all over the world!

Asian Train Enthusiasts (ATE)
A group based in the greater SF bay/Sacrmento California area that has a modular layout thye display at shows

Australian Japanese Model Railroad Group (AJMRG)
A group based in Melbourne (Formerly known as the Suzuran) that has a modulear layout they display at train shows and japanese festivals.

IG nippoN
A group based in germany that gathers at various locations in Germany to create japanese laouts at meetings and train shows.

Yamanouchi Oshika - A British Club Layout Goes Japanese
A UK club changes one of its layouts from British to Japanese!

The JProject
Here is a group in the greater Dallas/Fort Worth area working on a grand Japanese rail modeling project based on Tokyo.

If you’d like more information or want to join us, just contact us.

What’s the best way to buy Japanese model trains?
Ask any of us for a list where we get ours. There are plenty of options that don’t require you flying to Tokyo and shipping can be reasonable from Japan. There are several Japanese hobby shops that have online stores in english and several that have Ebay store fronts.

How do Japanese trains and models compare to what I’m used to in the states?
To the extent the words in the left column typify what’s in the U.S., the right column describes Japan:

US Railroads
Japanese Railroads
Freight Passenger
Diesel Electric
Locomotive-pulled trains EMUs or DMUs
Run on right Run on left
Standard gauge Narrow gauge (except for bullet trains)
Slow Fast
Infrequent service Very frequent
Long freight trains Short freight trains
Most trains are extras Tightly scheduled operations
Functional-looking equipment Eye-catching designs
Freight RRs own the tracks Passenger RRs own the tracks

US Layouts
Japanese Layouts
HO majority Mostly N-gauge (1:150 scale)
Hand-laid/Code 55 Snap-track
Permanent layouts Temporary
Digital Analog
Highly detailed scenes Suggestive scenery
Transition era-focus Today’s latest trains
Scratch built buildings Prefab buildings


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