Japan’s oldest working steam train
In 1868 Japan underwent a massive political transformation. The era of the Tokugawa Shogunate ended and power was consolidated under the Emperor Meiji.
This change, known as the Meiji Restoration, led to massive economic and social upheaval in Japan. The country began to industrialise and militarise quickly as it set itself on the path to becoming one of the world’s leading economic powers.
The Tokugawa Shogunate had practiced an isolated foreign policy of Sakoku or “closed country”; for a period of over 220 years (from 1630) foreigners had been barred from entering Japan and Japanese people had been forbidden from leaving the country.
After the Meiji Restoration the process went into sharp reverse and Japan opened itself up completely. From the 1860s western experts flocked to the country to use their techniques and help the process of rapid economic development. This was an early form of what is now known as “technology transfer”. As well as making money for themselves, the foreigners were supposed to educate the Japanese so that the country could eventually become self sufficient.
The creation of a railway network was one of the key priorities and the government of Japan decided that the first railway should be built between Tokyo and the nearby port of Yokohama. It was largely financed and built by the British and Europeans and in the early days it employed mostly British locomotive drivers. It was opened just 4 years after the Meiji Restoration in 1872. The Emperor Meiji himself was on board the first train.
Most of the 18-mile route of the railway between Shinbashi in Tokyo and Sakuragicho in Yokohama is still in use today, but it has been so heavily modernised that its original form is now unrecognisable.
Nevertheless, there is one pointer to the past in Shiodome and on a recent trip to Tokyo I went to have a closer look at it.
Tokyo’s first railway terminus “Shinbashi” was actually located to the east of the current Shinbashi station in an area known as Shiodome.
In 1914 the current Tokyo Station opened and the line from Yokohama was diverted to the west via the current Shinbashi station (Shown in white above). The original station (Shown in Red) was then renamed Shiodome. The station building was demolished but the tracks leading up to it were used as a freight terminal until 1986.
When the land was finally being redeveloped in the late 1990s construction workers excavated the remains of the original station and in 2003 a replica building was constructed on the exact site of the original.
The new building sits at the centre of the modern development, but it is externally a pretty faithful replica of the original. The interior houses a small railway museum which includes some information on the original line. It is all very well done.
At the “country-end” of the station there is a platform replica and a small section of track.
The point is marked by a “0” mile marker to demonstrate the start point of not just the railway to Yokohama but Japanese railways in general. The country’s network grew to over 2,000 miles by 1895, 4000 by 1905 and 7,100 by 1915. Today it stretches 16,000 miles.
Today’s Shinbashi station is a major railway interchange and is located about 10 minutes south of the famous Ginza shopping district.
The station square features a steam locomotive (SL) as a nod to the area’s role in Japanese railway history.
In 1872 a trip to Yokohama took 53 minutes and the service offered 9 trains a day. Today modern electric trains on the Tokaido Line take 40 minutes and there can be as many as 9 every hour.
Yokohama is actually Japan’s second largest city by population. Yet, on the train journey from Tokyo today there is no real feeling that you have left one city and arrived in the other. There is no break in the urban sprawl.
After the Meiji Restoration Yokohama was developed into a port and became prominent in the silk trade with the UK. Its role as a port enhanced contact with the outside world and the city was a pioneer in the “technology transfer” of the early Meiji period.
Among other innovations, it featured Japan’s first modern street lamps and its first daily newspaper. Plenty of evidence remains of this time; Yokohama still has a vibrant Chinatown, there are numerous old western-style buildings dotted around and it has one of the largest cemeteries for foreigners in Japan.
Yokohama also has a pleasing waterfront area centred around Yamashita Park. An old ocean liner is berthed just opposite the park. The Hikawa Maru was launched in 1929 and saw service on routes from Japan to Seattle and Vancouver.
The ship, one of the few remaining ocean liners in the world, is now a museum and a visit is highly recommended.
MINATO MIRAI 21
Although Yokohama has many links to the past, it is essentially a modern city. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the Minato Mirai 21 (Port Future 21) area. This major urban development project has the landmark tower (1993), Japan’s second tallest building, at its centre and a trip to the top floor observatory to take in the night view is not to be missed.
The Meiji Emperor ruled until 1912 and so, just as British people use the words “Victorian” or “Edwardian”, the Japanese refer to the period from 1868 to 1912 as the “Meiji-era”. In a similar way 1912 to 1926 is Taisho, 1926 to 1989 is Showa and from 1989 onwards as Heisei.
Many of the western-style buildings that were constructed in Japan in the early part of the Meiji era were lost to earthquakes, bombing and post-war redevelopment, but several have been preserved in a remarkable project located outside Nagoya.
The Meiji Mura (literally Meiji village) museum is an open air museum started in the 1960s. It preserves about 60 historic buildings from the Meiji, Taisho and early Showa eras. The buildings are from all over Japan and are reconstructed in part or whole. The museum covers about a square kilometre and is located in a beautiful hillside setting next to Lake Iruka.
Having a day spare in Tokyo, I took the Shinkansen bullet train to Nagoya, (100 minutes) and made my way to the museum by local train and bus connection (another 90 minutes) to spend a fascinating afternoon walking around the park.
The place is extremely well thought out and the buildings are shown off really well. The collection reflects a multitude of different building styles and construction techniques that Meiji-era Japan utilised as it began to incorporate ideas from the west. All of the buildings are provided with very informative explanation panels and the interiors of most of them can also be visited.
I took my time and went inside almost all of the buildings.
Here are just some of the 60…..
The original Japan Railway machine hall (built by the British at Shinbashi in 1868 using all imported materials) has also been recreated and now houses a collection of pumps, looms, drills and other machinery from the period 1870 to 1920.
I AM A CAT
Although almost all of the buildings in the park are western-style buildings, there are a few exceptions.
The reconstructed Japanese-style Tokyo home of novelist Natsume Soseki is also featured. Soseki’s most famous book was “Wagahai wa Neko de aru” (I am a Cat) and is a satirical piece written in 1905 about Japanese society in the Meiji period.
There are a few foreign buildings too. Japanese emigration started in the Meiji era and saw many poorer Japanese move overseas. Examples of houses that Japanese settlers in Hawaii and Brazil inhabited have been donated and reconstructed.
The most famous building in the park is the reconstructed main entrance and lobby of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel (Tokyo 1923). It stood in Tokyo until it was replaced by the current structure in 1967.
The building was opened in Tokyo two days before a devastating earthquake hit the city. The myth (not quite true it seems) was that the building was so well constructed it was unscathed.
The preserved part at Meiji Mura is simply stunning. I love visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings and to spend a while walking around one of his most famous was a real treat.
MEIJI TRAMS & TRAINS
Whilst the park is quite easily navigated on foot, there are also two working rail lines in operation too. They enable visitors to travel around the park but add to the historical atmosphere as well.
One features preserved operating electric trams (UK and US built) and also includes a static display of trams that once saw service in Hokkaido.
The other line is a recreation of one of the early Japanese stream railways. It uses the oldest steam locomotive still in working order in Japan, the 1874 British-built “No. 12” , and provides visitors with a journey of about 10 minutes between two authentically re-created stations.
There are also other rail exhibits elsewhere in the park and they include a collection of the old imperial carriages from the royal train.
It is incredible to think that whilst the first Japanese-built steam locomotive only emerged in 1893, just 71 years later with the opening of Shinkansen in 1964 the country had already became a world leader in rail. Technology Transfer obviously works !
I left the park just before it closed for the day and made my way by bus to Nagoya station.
I bought a Shinkansen ticket back to Tokyo and got myself a lunch box to have for dinner on the train. I was expecting a smooth 100 minute journey back to the capital in my reserved seat. It was not to be. For once (and the first time I had ever experienced it) the Shinkansen did not deliver.
There had been a power outage on the line and all trains had been stopped for almost 2 hours. The platforms at Nagoya were complete chaos. When I arrived they were still investigating the cause of the power problem but nobody was hopeful the situation would be rectified any time soon.
Eventually the power was switched back on and, having given up hope of my original reserved seat on the express, I managed to get a free seat on one of the Kodama stopping trains.
I arrived back in Tokyo more than 2 hours late.
I wonder what “No 12” would have made of it all.
I bet there were no two-hour delays in his day !