Field Report: A day at the JR East Railway Museum, Saitama, Japan (04 July 2015)

04Jul15 004 Japan Honshu Tokyo Saitama JR East Railway Museum

Diego travels to a major transportation museum just north of Tōkyō, where the exhibits are bound to leave train enthusiasts feeling as giddy as kids in a toy store.

Since its opening in 2007 – just a few months after JR East‘s 20th anniversary – the Railway Museum (鉄道博物館, Tetsudō Hakubutsukan) has been welcoming railfans of all ages through its doors, treating them to a massive range of displays and interactive exhibits tracing the long history of trains in Japan. As a self-confessed trainspotter with a particular interest in Japanese rolling stock, I couldn’t very well ignore the museum’s presence so tantalisingly close to Tōkyō, so I made sure to allocate a good few hours to enjoy this one-of-a-kind transport paradise.

Well, perhaps not so one-of-a-kind. Nagoya has its massive SCMAGLEV and Railway Park (run by JR Central), and Kyōto very recently celebrated the opening of its own Railway Museum (maintained by JR West). Then again, since these facilities are run by different members of the Japan Railways group – the constituents of which have been managed independently since 1987 – certain elements of the narrative employed by each museum will naturally emphasise the equipment and operations of its own parent company.

Bottom line: if you’re a railfan, simply go to all three and enjoy each for its own merits. This is something I fully intend to do, with the brand new Kyōto museum being the only one I’ve yet to visit (pencilled in for my next trip to Japan in autumn 2016).

A half-hour train ride from downtown Tōkyō to Ōmiya Station in the city of Saitama, followed by a two-minute hop on the New Shuttle to Tetsudō-Hakubutsukan Station, brought me to the museum’s main entrance.

04Jul15 001 Japan Honshu Tokyo Saitama JR East Railway Museum

04Jul15 002 Japan Honshu Tokyo Saitama JR East Railway Museum

04Jul15 003 Japan Honshu Tokyo Saitama JR East Railway Museum

The central hall is a cavernous space filled with trains from different eras of Japan’s railway history, ranging from early steam locomotives to high-speed shinkansen units. Several of the carriages can be entered by visitors, and even those that aren’t can be admired from up close.

04Jul15 004 Japan Honshu Tokyo Saitama JR East Railway Museum

04Jul15 009 Japan Honshu Tokyo Saitama JR East Railway Museum

04Jul15 013 Japan Honshu Tokyo Saitama JR East Railway Museum

04Jul15 015 Japan Honshu Tokyo Saitama JR East Railway Museum

As with JR Central’s Nagoya museum, this JR East facility has the usual range of supplementary exhibits, including simulators…

04Jul15 021 Japan Honshu Tokyo Saitama JR East Railway Museum

… and a sprawling diorama featuring model trains chugging along an intricate network of rails spread across a miniature urban landscape.

04Jul15 005 Japan Honshu Tokyo Saitama JR East Railway Museum

04Jul15 006 Japan Honshu Tokyo Saitama JR East Railway Museum

04Jul15 007 Japan Honshu Tokyo Saitama JR East Railway Museum

One can well imagine train modelling hobbyists gazing into the diorama’s maintenance room with eyes agog, staring at the chap whose role probably best fits their idea of the ultimate dream job.

04Jul15 008 Japan Honshu Tokyo Saitama JR East Railway Museum

I won’t dwell much upon individual exhibits here, but there were a couple of things that caught my attention in a special way. One of them is a Class Maite 39 passenger carriage from 1930, decked out in lavish traditional style to serve as an observation car for first-class passengers on the Fuji service.

04Jul15 012 Japan Honshu Tokyo Saitama JR East Railway Museum

04Jul15 010 Japan Honshu Tokyo Saitama JR East Railway Museum

04Jul15 011 Japan Honshu Tokyo Saitama JR East Railway Museum

I say, they really don’t build ’em like this anymore.

Along one side of the main hall, carefully preserved in their own glass-sealed room, are six very lavishly appointed carriages from the Meiji and Taishō eras, all designed for use by the Imperial Family. With gilded fittings, delicate traditional artwork, and walls hung in rich damask – not to mention their illustrious former occupants – these train cars are perhaps the very definition of a “palace on wheels”.

04Jul15 014 Japan Honshu Tokyo Saitama JR East Railway Museum

Visitors can’t enter these particular carriages, of course – their age and historic value make them obvious candidates for hermetic, hands-off preservation – but one can peer into them from the outside, although the reflective glass walls made taking good pictures of the interiors next to impossible. (Fortunately, the gift shop had a richly illustrated book about the Imperial trains that thoroughly documents their stately insides.)

I began to feel quite hungry in the midst of all this exhibit hopping, so I headed for an outside food stand on the museum grounds to buy lunch. There are restaurants inside the main hall itself, but I found the dining arrangements outside far more appealing…

…mainly because one gets to eat inside an actual train. In this case, a parked 183 series EMU sporting an Azusa service sign.

04Jul15 020 Japan Honshu Tokyo Saitama JR East Railway Museum

04Jul15 019 Japan Honshu Tokyo Saitama JR East Railway Museum

04Jul15 018 Japan Honshu Tokyo Saitama JR East Railway Museum

I took an empty window seat, unlatched the tray table, unpacked the ekiben I’d purchased earlier, and enjoyed a simple meal in a rather special setting.

04Jul15 016 Japan Honshu Tokyo Saitama JR East Railway Museum

04Jul15 017 Japan Honshu Tokyo Saitama JR East Railway Museum

Note that the museum is undergoing major renovation and expansion work from this year until around 2018, so some of the facilities I’ve described above might not be fully available at this time. That said, I’m eagerly looking forward to the results of those renewal efforts, and will no doubt be paying a return visit sometime in the next few years.

Cheerio.

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One response to “Field Report: A day at the JR East Railway Museum, Saitama, Japan (04 July 2015)

  1. Pingback: Field Report: Kyōto Railway Museum, Japan (12 November 2016) | Within striking distance·

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