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Live Steam, Coal Smoke and Sushi

Text by Hans Huwyler. Pictures courtesy Michio Shinbori and Hans Huwyler 

During my annual visits to the Aster Factory in Yokohama, Japan I had the good fortune to be invited to visit different live steam clubs and experience first hand how this hobby is being played on the other side of the planet. Being illiterate in the Japanese language warrants an interpreter and tour guide at all times to find your way through the densely populated Metropolitan area of Tokyo and Yokohama, no matter if traveling by train, car or on foot. My escorts to all of these club activities where either by Toyoki Inoue, Satoshi Tamada and Yasuko Yamamoto, all of them great hosts and employees of Aster Hobby Co. Inc.  

Many of us live steamers here in the US have our private backyard, sizeable enough to build an elevated track or on the ground garden railroad. In the surrounding area of Tokyo this situation can be very rare indeed and only a few live steamers can boast having their own railroad. Some live steamers residing in high rise apartments or condominiums may even resort to laying a circle of track on their balcony or rooftop to fire a small locomotive when the urge strikes. Nevertheless, running trains in such confinement is not necessarily much fun and deprives one of the social aspects. Luckily, owners of larger layouts form private clubs where one can become a member by invitation and run steam locomotives with other likeminded friends. Some live steamers join more than one club to increase their chances of steaming activities. A membership fee is charged by the track owner to help cover operating expenses. Most clubs have a gathering once every month.

One of my most memorable experiences has been my 3rd visit to the Kichijoji Kitaura Railroad Club. Here, the social aspect is as important as running trains.  Everything is well orchestrated and as a member you arrive at a precisely arranged time. All members assist with setting up tables, tents, chairs and getting the track ready. Wooden planking is temporarily laid on the infield to protect the lawn from being trampled. Nobody runs anything until the setup is completed. The operating hours are rather limited (from 10 AM until 3 PM) and strictly adhered to, respecting the owners private family life.


  Mr. Kanda (rear left), Mr. Iwaoka (baseball cap), Mr. Tamada (center left) , Mr. Hosono (front left), and Mr. Shinbori (front right)

The owner Mr.Takahashi has constructed his elevated layout consisting of 4 mainline tracks with a walk over bridge to the inside where most of the activities take place. Servicing and steaming up of smaller locomotives is performed on folding tables. The engines are then carried to the mainline for running. One would expect mostly JNR prototype locomotives in operation. However, the Japanese live steamer seems to like diversification and to my amazement many Railroad nations were represented including an array of locomotives, from small Ruby’s to big Alleghenies. Mr.Suzuki, a real talent and innovator many of us have read about, is a regular at these meetings. Popular creations by Mr. Wada such as a Union Pacific GP9 diesel and “Burlington Zephyr” are covering the surroundings with a haze of blue smoke. Another great model engineering talent Mr. Kazuo Yano is a member of this club operating several of his fantastic scratch built engines.


Hans Huwyler looks on as Mr. H. Harada and Mr. K. Itashi doublehead their Aster H8 Alleghenies. 

The separate track on the inside of the layout is for electrically powered locomotives.

To increase the pulling load of your Allegheny, Big Boy or Berkshire, it seems customary to couple up and deadhead “your other locomotive” (or that of your friend). Long freight trains with 40 plus cars are not very common in these suburb settings and “inertia cars” may not be a popular substitute.


Master builder Mr. Kazuio Yano with his beautiful scratch build alcohol fired Chinese Railroad class QJ 2-10-2,

modeled in 1/30 scale. 

When visiting Japanese railroad clubs one should be sufficiently equipped with business cards since the traditional “Meshi” or exchange of cards is an important part of your introduction and also must be conducted in a proper and respectable way. Of course it helps identifying names of the many club members, who are very friendly and eager to find out more about your visit and involvement in live steam. Many Japanese speak sufficient English to carry on  “a hands involved “conversation. Of course the accompanying interpreter should always be present to help out in these situations. When visiting Japan, “cultural mistakes” are almost inevitable. However, the people I have met are very gracious hosts and appreciative to foreigners making an effort to sample the Japanese way of live and traditions.


The happy members of the Kichijoji Kitaura Railroad Club represent an age span of 25 to 85 years

making one believe that live steaming keeps you at least young at heart.

In “commemoration” of my third visit, which took place in September 2005, the host Mr.Takahashi and the club members arranged a surprise party, which was a most memorable experience for me. The food presentation was outstanding, covering everything from traditional Ramen dishes to Sushi delicacies and fine desserts. Thanks to everyone of the Kichijoji RR Club and also to Mrs.Takahashi for the fantastic hospitality.


Members (and visitors) of the CHIBA live steam club pose for a group picture.

In the case of the CHIBA live steamers (pictured above), the members meet inside the factory building of the owner Mr.Saeki. The large track O-Val is mounted on plywood installed on a steel sub structure, which when not in use is stored vertically against the factory wall. On operating days, this structure is simply lifted from its resting-place with the overhead gantry crane and lowered onto plastic containers to form an elevated railway. The Chiba live steamers operate one Saturday every month.  My visit to Chiba took place on a cold and rainy December day. Kerosene heaters where in use to cut the chill and yes, they served hot coffee and donuts. The weather is definitely not an issue for this indoor operation.

As can be seen from all 3 Railroad clubs visited, the elevated tracks are much lower to the ground than most of us are accustomed to. This makes bending over, crouching or kneeling necessary to do whatever needs to be done to get your locomotive going. The reason for this low to the ground operation has remained unexplained to me. But then why do you sit on the floor on very low tables in many Japanese Restaurants? The great physical shape most of these “elderly” live steamers are in may not necessitate a comfortable waist high layout?

The oldest and most talked about Gauge One Railroad in that area of Japan must be the Yokohama Live Steam Club. Situated fairly close to the Aster factory it is located in a residential section of the outskirts of Yokohama and owned and operated by Mr. & Mrs.Masahito Itoh. I had the opportunity to see this layout on a private visit and test run the BR52 together with Tama-San from Aster. The track is partially elevated and partially on ground level. The elevated main section, situated in the front yard of the house features multiple tracks and sidings for steaming up. A single track circles around the entire house on ground level and emerges into the front yard section, through a patio covered with Persimmon trees. A very unusual situation that deserves mention is the visibility of this track to public traffic. Bordering the sidewalk of a public street without a significant fence or protection for privacy, no theft or vandalism has ever been experienced by the owner. During my visit, pedestrians on the sidewalk respected the privacy of the owner and reluctantly glimpsed at the live steam activities, minding your own business seems to be a strong virtue among the Japanese population.  

Test running the Aster BR 52.

Left to right: Mr. S. Tamada, Aster Hobby Co. Inc., Mr. M. Itoh, owner of YSLC and Hans Huwyler, Aster Hobby USA, LLC

Small scale live steam in Japan seems to be a fairly popular hobby. Maybe the exposure to real trains on a daily basis by a huge percentage of the population coupled with  lots of nostalgia, tradition and a strong economy is driving  the hobby?  Whatever it may be, the Japanese live steamers I have met are a most friendly and enthusiastic group to associate with. Language barrier aside, the locomotives and steam action speak for themselves and I hope I will be able to savor more of it very soon. 

This article originally appeared in Issue No. 90 (Vol. 16. No. 6) of Steam in the Garden. Appreciation for permission to reproduce it on SouthernSteamTrains.com is expressed to Hans Huwyler, author; and to Ron Brown, Publisher / Editor of Steam in the Garden.




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