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Focus features two in-depth reviews each month of fine art, architecture and design exhibitions and events at art museums, galleries and alternative spaces around Japan. The contributors are non-Japanese art critics living in Japan.

Training Passion: The Hara Model Railway Museum
Lucy Birmingham
A boy tries his hand at driving a train from a life-size engineer's control panel next to the Ichiban Tetsuo Park diorama, a gauge-one model railway considered one of the world's largest. Photo by Lucy Birmingham

What do rock star Rod Stewart, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, and Walt Disney all have in common? No, not music, pontificating, or cartoons, but a lifelong passion for trains, and their miniature versions. Train mania, it's said, crosses all borders, leans toward boys of all ages, and is often powered by a love of mechanics and travel. Japan's best-known aficionado -- 95-year-old model train creator and collector Nobutaro Hara -- fits the profile to a "T." His world-famous Hara Model Railway Museum in Yokohama is a must-see for train buffs and families alike. Not only fun, it is an inspiration for many.

On display are about 1,000 finely crafted model trains from Hara's 6,000-piece collection. Among the highlights are two dioramas. One is a past-to-present cityscape of Yokohama, where Japanese rail transport began in 1872.

 
 
Various views of the Ichiban Tetsuo Park diorama. Photos courtesy of Hara Model Railway Museum

The other diorama, called "Ichiban Tetsuo Park," is one of the largest of its kind in the world. Here, faithfully recreated foreign and Japanese trains run clickety-clack atop real iron rails. Unlike most model railways, these are powered from electrified overhead lines using pantographs. One can see the pantographs elongate and contract in tandem with the height of the wires. The landscape is dotted with a mini-mountain, a train shed, tunnels, bridges, and a 19th-century European-style village with a railway station fashioned after the Paris-Gare de Lyon. Visitors can even try their hand at driving one of the trains.

Permanent exhibitions include "The Essence of Hara Models," explaining how the models were created; "Storytelling Models," highlighting the history of the original trains; and Hara's "Vintage Collection" of antique trains and train tickets he has collected since childhood.

 
Close-up of a model locomotive with real iron wheels and rails. Photo courtesy of Hara Model Railway Museum   A boy taking a photo of the Yokohama Diorama. Photo by Lucy Birmingham

Equally fascinating is the nonagenarian's personal story, revealed through the displays. Visitors discover that Hara made his first train model at age 13 using tin plates for the locomotive and wire for the pantograph, which he copied from a German model. Even today, over 80 years later, the "No.1 Locomotive" still runs smoothly. He learned German and French at a young age to be able to read books on railway technology, and studied engineering and railways at university. During his many years working at office supplies maker Kokuyo Co., he received more than 300 patents for automated machinery and other engineered technologies. Throughout his long life he has traveled by train to the far corners of the earth.

 
A display of model trains from Nobutaro Hara's 6,000-piece collection. Photo courtesy of Hara Model Railway Museum   A display of model trains showing different rail gauges. Photo courtesy of Hara Model Railway Museum

In one video greeting, Hara expresses his gratitude to his wife, two sons and daughter, who have supported his "railroad-driven" life all these years. Far from a private obsession, Hara's love of trains became a family affair. When his oldest son George was small he taught him to read the Thomas Cook Continental Timetable, which was needed for travel in Europe. The family often traveled together by train. One photo taken in 1977 shows them standing on a station platform in Budapest next to the Orient Express.

"No.1 Locomotive" is the first model train Hara created during his childhood, and a symbol of the museum. Photo courtesy of Hara Model Railway Museum

George, 61, credits his interest in technology and world affairs to growing up with his father's love for trains and travel. Among his many accolades, George Hara is considered a visionary leader in information technology in Japan and the Asia-Pacific region. He is an economic advisor to the United Nations, and now promotes Japanese investments in Africa that include railways. He hopes to launch a ten-year project to train African railway workers in Japan on rail technology and management. "It started with my railway training [at a young age]," he says, adding that he was the one who built the museum for his father. "His passion has been an inspiration."

 
Hara's photo of his family ready to board the Oriental Express in Budapest. Photo by Lucy Birmingham   Hara and his wife in 1962; the text tells of his gratitude for her support. Photo by Lucy Birmingham

All photographs are by permission of Hara Model Railway Museum.

Hara Model Railway Museum
image
Lucy Birmingham
Lucy Birmingham is a long-time, Tokyo-based journalist, scriptwriter, author, and former photojournalist. Her articles have appeared in many publications and websites, including TIME, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Bloomberg News, and Architectural Digest. As an arts and culture writer her articles have appeared in publications including Artinfo.com, Artforum.com, and ARTnews. She is also a scriptwriter and narrator for NHK (Japan's public broadcaster) and has published several books including Strong in the Rain: Surviving Japan's Earthquake, Tsunami, and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster.
lucybirmingham.com
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